I woke up this morning to messages from several friends directing me to this tweet, asking my thoughts. Unsurprising, as anyone who knows me probably knows I’d have more than a few thoughts on something like this. I started thinking of snarky replies or gotchas that I could cleverly post and trust me dear reader, there were many that came to mind. But the more I thought about it, and read the replies from artists who seem to be bending over backwards to agree in hopes that the tweets author might check out and buy their work, I thought it would be better served with a more thoughtful response to illustrate why this is so problematic. Also, I would like credit for my display of maturity and restraint in not just posting a snarky reply. Sean from 20 years ago is wondering who the hell has hijacked his blog right now.
As an art dealer, I would refuse to sell art to someone who came in to my gallery and made a statement like this. I don’t say that hyperbolically – when I had a gallery this was a topic that came up from time to time and we were unapologetic about refusing to sell work to anyone who asked questions like “how soon will I be able to sell this and double my money?” or “do you have anything that will match my couch?” Additionally I’d actively and vocally advise artists to avoid selling work to someone with this approach because while a sale might be nice today, in the long run buyers like this will most likely make decisions later that will negatively impact the artist. And if you think of art as a long term thing, as I do, selling to a buyer like this is basically failing the marshmallow test. This is investing in the art and not in the artist. To me, the artist is always more important than the art. As an art dealer, I wanted to develop long term relationships with artists and watch them grow, and help out where I could. I wanted to look back on my life and the careers of artists I worked with and be proud of what we did together. This artist-first approach wasn’t always the best decision for the profit margin of the business but it allowed me to sleep well at night, and that 15 years after the gallery closed I still count many of the artists I worked with as close friends tells me I made the right decisions. As a dealer, I worked for the artists not the collectors. I wanted the value of the art to go up just as much as anyone else (and it has) but I deeply believe that this happens much more reliably by making decisions that are in the best interest of the artist, and selling to someone who only sees art as an investment simply isn’t.
As an artist, I would be disappointed to know that someone bought my work and didn’t want to be thanked for it. I would be sad to learn that they didn’t have any interest in supporting me or my efforts. This statement is both hurtful and dehumanizing. It says that this person sees artists as nothing but a factory to crank out things which will make them money. Amusingly this is one of the reasons I eventually got out of the technology start up world, which I wrote more about in The Interest Driven Life, but I couldn’t stomach having meetings with venture capitalists who didn’t give a shit about me or my dreams or my goals and only wanted to know how much money I was going to make them, and how fast. Now, I’m not knocking this kind of investing approach – I just think there are ways to do it which don’t hurt people. Invest in shitcoins or flip some Bored Apes. That doesn’t hurt anyones feelings, or make anyone second guess their life choices. I guarantee you no one at LavaLabs is going to be suicidal because someone is rage tweeting that their Meebit hasn’t doubled in value yet. Pure investors don’t understand (or care about) the difference between artwork and a collectable, between individual artist and for profit company.
For most artists I know, just admitting you are an artist is unspeakably hard. It’s a position filled with self doubt, insecurity and questioning choices, but deep down we do believe in our work and our vision and have to trust that somewhere out in the world someone recognizes and connects with that. I make art to tell stories, and find connections, and find communities, and build relationships. Not to make some investor money. I do recognize that I’m in a position of privilege to be able to turn down sales that I don’t think are a good fit, to people who I don’t like. Not everyone can do that, but that’s also why I try to forge the path so that it’s easier for the next group of artists. And I’m pretty sure I can confidently say that standing here at 46 years old, everyone who has bought my work in the last 20 years has done so because they either wanted to support me personally or because my work meant something to them personally – and I’m deeply thankful for that. I would sell my work to someone who loved it and planned to keep it forever over someone who was hoping to sell it at a profit any day.
As an art collector, I despised buyers with this kind of an attitude. Selfishly, because they usually had more money than me and would buy things I loved and it pained me knowing they didn’t actually care about them. I much prefer the Vincent Price / Dennis Hopper approach which comes from recognizing the value that the artists bring to the world, to culture, to society and trying to support that. I forget where but I saw Hopper speaking once and he said something like “If you do it right, being an art collector means you are just a care taker” going on to say that he saw his job as protecting the art he bought until the “real art” world recognized it and made space in museums for it. He says something similar at the end of this short video. He viewed collecting art as documenting a culture and a community. I visited his house in Venice Beach once and and stepped over carefully rolled up Basquiats in order to get a better look at framed photographs by artists I’d never heard of hanging on the walls. His love for the art and for his friends was unquestionable, and it made me feel so much better about my own collection which is almost entirely work by friends. Some of whom I knew before I bought the work, some of whom I became friends with after buying the work. To me, those relationships are so much more valuable than any individual piece of art, but often the art is a physical representation of that relationship. The context is different but I’m reminded of the lyrics to Softcore by Jawbreaker which accuses “They just want the wrapping, They throw away the prize.” As a collector who values and appreciates the culture and the community, it pains me to know that work is sold to people who don’t care about any of that. I understand why it happens, but I don’t have to like it.
To be clear, I don’t think this is a zero sum topic. You don’t have to care about the artist, or your investment. Someone can care about both the value of their investment and in the artist that created the art, and I’d wager to say most people buying art fit into that category. But a comment like the one above represents a hard far end of a spectrum which I can only sum up as “bad.”
When we’re talking about NFTs, which we often are these days, there is a tendency for investors to lump everything together. They see no difference between something created by hand or something created by an algorithm. This illustrates their deep misunderstanding of both art and NFTs. I think this is actually a dangerous mindset which can actually harm artists and communities, and would recommend steering clear of buyers with this approach. This is a brand new world and the collectors who love the art and want to build the community are still showing up every day. Let’s embrace the people who want to build something together with us. We don’t need to make sacrifices to make people who don’t care about us rich.