The Chemistry of Value: Materials, Tools, and Recompense
By Jeffery Sparks
Adam Smith wrote in 1776, "In order to put [your] industry into motion, three things are requisite: materials to work upon, tools to work with, and the wages or recompence for the sake of the work to be done." [Wealth of Nations]
One marvelous misstep an artist can not long endure is being ignorant ("ig-nomos" or "without knowledges") about how one's body of work valued. To many artists, easy paradigms have been established that have serviced our peculiar industry well. For instance, one paradigm states that the artist should price her paintings at so-and-so dollars per square inch, and then incrementally raise that year after year. Or, a gallery owner, to whom artists owe an incredible debt, may find that indebtedness becoming ever more incredible as galleries scramble to cut costs, leverage a more equitable percentage split, and do insane things to secure more revenue. Paradigms are everywhere! We know that a noteworthy win at a national salon or juried exhibition can help any prize-winning painter increase the value of his work. These are some of the ways that help an artist increase value and, consequently, increase income. Paradigms like these, and others beside, are so fickle and dependant too often on judgments that are not our own, establishing value has long since been something we believe others do for us--or to us!
There is another way. The power of a paradigm rests in your belief of the model, but a paradigm howIf this is what herds of artists are believing, (and I don't think I'm far off the mark in saying it probably is), then we are wise to relinquish this paradigm and find another way, or ways, to secure value for our work.
How we can do this will be unique to each of us. This article is not going to set up yet another paradigm that we adhere to and yet likewise adhered to by the masses is a paradigm in trouble. Though I have only hinted at the nature of the most common paradigm offered to an artist, for this reason that herds of artists are taking these roads to potential revenue.
One element to fine art success is a basic understanding of simple economic theory. for the artist to learn the fine art of painting currency! Not literally painting money, of course, but changing the way we perceive, quite literally, the canvas on our easel. Each painting is currency. How well you can paint this currency is important, how originally creative yet within the accepted norms is vital, but make no mistake, at some point, we must see our paintings as currency.
To effect this transformation, (from Painting to Currency) we need respected people, galleries, or esteemed fine art organizations to validate our currency. All currency, whatever form it takes, must be valid and accepted, and this validity requires some respected person, gallery, organization, or event to validate our currency. This can be typed in a couple of sentences, but take a lifetime to achieve. It is an unfair process; entirely and completely a human process (for in truth we have experience seeing blatantly ridiculous work valued at ridiculous prices, and only human artifice and incongruety can be so counter-intuitive. Validators are a tricky lot, and yet, you are in more control of this than are they, (read on).
Validators Validate other Validators
How these respected people, galleries, or esteemed fine art organizations determine what they should validate originates when, between them, one begins the validation process. What is that process? Faith I would imagine. The sad truth is, quality of work is often not the main point a "validator" looks at to "validate". It's rapport, it's the cool-factor, it's profit and money-making, it's . . . well, in a word, human. Validators do not care one whit if work is Amateurish, but can they sell it. Nothing wrong with that, in fact, if validators only validated master works, there would be no master artists because no artist would survive financially during the lean years of growth. That said, more common is the "Cult of the Amateur", wherein Validators Validate amateur work and that amateur ceases to grow, but can make a temporary killing, financially--of course this ruins almost always that artist, that is, they have traded valuable growing years for the fun of being important . . . so long as the validators continue to validate them. Woe to the amateur artist when they move on to the next whim. After all, we need validation, we need our work to be validated and thus assessed at some value; which is why, I am convinced, that the artist who carefully bypasses early validation, will present the higher quality work down the road and will be more "valued" for a longer period of "valuation" then the flash in the pan artist. Individuals apply the words "sold out" when speaking of any artist working in tandem with a validator, but this ridiculous and sentimental, people don't sell out because they form strategic partnerships. The only time I think in my own mind an artist has "sold out" (but I keep this privately to myself) is when it is clear that an artist has frenetically pursued sales and galleries and attention-getting validators years before his/her work has matured and will wonder why, years later, he/she falls completely into obscurity with little growth in those span of years.
Yes, this is a cautionary warning: Validators Validate, and other Validators catch on and add their own Validation, it can add up, multiply, and become exponential. This is the amateur's worst nightmare, should the chief Validator move on to the next sale, the next artist, with it goes all of the others. Better always to establish excellent work with not a chain-link of Validators, but separate validators independent of all others, at least to a degree. The only way this can occur, I am convinced, is if one's work is excellent, memorable, and useful.
Back to the point. Whatever is that value assigned to the currency of the paintings, (dollars, hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars), it is then put forward by the validating group in some manner. This might be an award, representation, ads in prestigious collector magazines, and is done so ONLY with the firm expectation to be transferred into a more permanent (infinitely more usable) currency. This infinitely more useable currency is the US Dollar, (or whatever is the respective Government currency). Thus, does it not seem more valuable to the artist to spend time developing a base of support that can be directed to that Validator? I think so.
Translation of Paintings-as-Currency to Monetary Currency
Logically, painting-as-currency (just like it’s counterpart the Dollar, Euro, Deutsch Mark, Franc, or Peso), the monetary value assigned to your painting-as-currency will rise and fall. Why? How is this determined? I mean, if your painting-as-currency is “strong” then it benefits the holder of that currency to see it as strong, to hold it (if not physically) in view of its strong value. But where is this sense of value coming from?
This dovetails with the point above on Validators Validating. Our goal is to be excellent artists--not to believe we are excellent because of Facebook likes or even because the Validation we are receiving from Validators, (as we know this is fickle and never quite an honest or truthful thing). Here I've discovered a principle: the stronger and more masterful your work, the less your work's value will rise and fall, and if so, the better the work, the more this rising and falling proceeds in an upward direction. The weaker our work, the more it will rise and fall (the gap-swings are larger) and often on the downward direction.
So, how do we know HONESTLY if our work is excellent? Where do go for the truth? Easy: you already know what is a great painting, go to those great professional artists whom influence you the most and take a photo of your work and put it next to a photo of their work. How do you stand? There's your answer. If in your heart of hearts you know you are still struggling, please amend this! The future valuation of your work (and thus life-long pursuit of what you love to do) depends on excellent paintings. Excellent paintings is THE currency to trade for, always. Trade long nights, trade missing frivolous outings, trade mediocrity, trade pride, trade all things keeping you from the hard work of growing stronger. True, if you trade in amateur currency and love it, you have plent of it--it takes many more $1 bills to trade for a $100 bill. This is a wise consideration. Trade a hundred $1 activities for $100 worth of growth and your work, I am convinced, will stand the ebb and flow much better of Valuation and Validation swings.
Here it seems obvious to me the answer. Validators “lend” the one thing they can—the only thing they can lend—validation. We know it is rather shim-sham affair this validation; but that people, en masse, can be more easily lead to believe a validator’s authority simply because these validators have earned validity. This, too, cannot often or easily be changed—but can another or added source of validation be found? History universal (political, organizational, or corporate) acknowledges that other sources of validation can be found.
But what is this and where do I create this? Here I believe we search for the seedlings of validity.
Paintings-as-currency must be validated and must perform bullish and strongly! Sales, my man, sale! And no pauper’s purse either—they need to sell well to eleviate you from your current situation and the rest of the dominoes can begin falling in place. Like markets in general, anything and all things have strong value so long as the demand for it exceeds the supply. This, quite apart from any one thing, determines the strength of that value. So how does one keep demand?
Getting Sales and Trending Values Upward
I recognize that individuals buy paintings because of a variety of reasons. Sometimes these have nothing to do with Validators assigning Value based on time-worn and suggested patterns. A person often buys a painting because it purchases for them something of equal or greater value—peace, a memory, an element of beauty, a fitting item of décor, to make a spouse happy, to revel in added esteem (this last one in the list may well be one of the strongest motives). This, however important, is secondary because there is no control of this part of the process, in fact, there is no “this part of the process” until validation of value occurs.
Thus, Role of Validators is Lending Space and Time
In this analogy, the one holding the painting-as-currency is really and only lending as endorsement—this is their primary trade to you, the artist. What are the endorser’s actually lending? Space and Time. Space as in space in a gallery; space as in a place of honor, such as with an award; space as in a write-up in a journal, an article; length of time of lending space is vitally important and indicates, without question, perceived strength of value by the holders, or lenders. A David Leffel painting in a gallery selling at $30,000 will remain on the wall—a painting of $1,000 may be removed quite quickly.
I’m not sure who exactly the holder of the painting-as-value is watching to keep abreast of the value, but there are well-worn paths that, at least, are not ignored—even if new ideas about value are present, it is too easy to fix one’s eyes on what always seems to show if a painting is indeed a good investment or is over-valued.
If over-valued, a new (lower) value is assigned and symbolized by reduced monetary currency (reduced price).
But what do those who hold the well-worn path of Value Validation that holders of paintings-as-currency consult and look to? Is there more than one thing? Are some things more apt to cause value than others?
After all, a signed autobiography by President Eisenhower is far in excess of value than a signed autobiography of President Jimmy Carter (which can be bought on any given day at any given used bookstore). Pitting this uncertainty of one validating party against another, (auction), it should increase in value as uncertainty escalates. Auctions seem a way to go.
Thus, the artist is responsible for hiring someone to assist or configuring himself (or both) the elements of this strategy to make his currency (his paintings) be put forward to pit one validating party against another. This is scarcity.
According to the social and psychological communities we are all a part, scarcity is the only way to achieve a greater value.
Is the auction the only way to do this? Obviously not. The purpose of the auction would be to establish scarcity outright.
Scarcity is a statement about supply (limited availability), and demand (desire in excess of demand).
Scarcity is or can be controlled. Demand, however, must be created.
The question is, what ignites demand?
Great work? Yes, but a lot of great fine art is not assigned value commensurate with skill. Worse, blatantly unskillful fine art can be in high demand. Seen from such a broad sweep, the pool (the mathematical set) is too diverse to calculate a strategy. No, we need to redefine “demand” to indicate a desire in a smaller group (a smaller set of validators) to acquire from you what is in limited supply, (namely, paintings this group will desire).
So the question becomes, who is this smaller group or set of validators?
It is not difficult finding: go where the paintings are most congested.
Can, therefore, we find a way that cuts through the congestion of competition?
This is entirely the question!