Hey, Picasso! How much for your soul?

Abstract Landscape, acrylic paint, pastel and graphite
I found a California artist while surfing, John Robertson, who has raised some uneasy questions about what it means to be an artist today. I really like his assemblages and Van Gogh-type pieces, and he does some nice, large portraits. He went on television recently promoting his willingness to sell his bohemian or artistic lifestyle for $250,000. I realize it's probably a stunt, or a performance piece, to get publicity for his art, but it brings up questions about what exactly an artist will do in order to make a buck. Can the soul, the artistic soul, be sold for so much cash? If it can be sold, then doesn't that make the artist soulless and, therefore, not an artist. Isn't art a measure of soul? I suppose each painting contains the artist's soul and each time we offer something up for sale, the question becomes "how much will we sell that piece of soul for?" It's something I've been vaguely wondering about as I labor over blogs, websites, Etsy sites, all kinds of sites in order to make a name, make a buck, no matter how small, no matter how elusive. And I can see it's a very competitive, dog eat dog, web world out there which doesn't seem particularly conducive to someone trying to develop their art. It's hard to focus with so many questions and fruitless mind exercises. And along with that, another fruitless painting (something about that shape in the middle is bugging me and I have to do something about it--but what?) I've got a number of semi-completed paintings which are going nowhere fast. I guess they must be a true reflection of this artist!


John Robertson said...

Hi Gayle

Sorry you missed the point of me selling my artist’s life. First- in reading your different blog entries I think what you have done is projected onto me your conflicts between making art and making a living as an artist –

It is not stunt or performance piece. It is very simple. I want to sell my mobile home and move closer to my two daughters living on opposite coasts. In making that move it would be very difficult to take all my art supplies and contents of the studio. Thinking that there may be someone who may be interested in making art, I could facilitate it by providing not only the studio space but also some guidance. There is no other motive.

My impression (by reading your blog) is that you are over thinking the whole “art” thing - that somehow, someone should want your work because you made it or that anyone should care about what you do. I learned a long time ago that “they don’t”. Nobody cares. Quit worrying about whether it is good or bad or incomplete. Just paint the thing and get on to the next thing. You don’t like it – then paint over it.

Maybe my story will help you. For the first forty-seven years of my life I was never interested in art – did not go to museums, art shows, galleries – had absolutely no interest in art or artists. I was a businessman. The Getty Museum bought the Van Gogh “Irises”. I couldn’t understand why any idiot would pay over 50 million for a painting. So, as businessman, I went to see the painting – and had a strong emotional response to the work. Immediately I knew why it was worth the money – because of the connection between me and the art and the artist.

In order to recreate that same emotional response I picked up some paint brushes, paint and canvas and found that by painting I could get that same feeling. The process made me feel connected to the world.

I painted for a few years as a hobby and through a variety of circumstances, lost my job, divorced and ended up in a small single apartment. And I was broke. Through all of this I continued to paint as it gave me great satisfaction and council. As my place was small I painted outside and occasionally someone would walk by and would want to buy one of my paintings. So I’d sell it for fifty or seventy-five dollars. More people came by, more sales. I painted the paintings that made me feel connected. People bought the paintings because they connected with the work. But there are others, if I left a painting in the alley, would not pick it up.

There was no art school to tell me how to communicate with others. There was no gallery owner or critic or art scene telling me what I should be doing or not doing or what they thought about the work. I barely knew they even existed. They have nothing, let me repeat, they have nothing to do with you creating art. I just painted and people bought them off the street. And that is pretty much how I continue to sell my work. I paint what I want – and how I want and people come along and buy them. Occasionally I will get a company who may want to commission me to do commercial work. I do the same with them. They can give me the subject matter but after that – I paint it the way I want.

When I have stray from that way of working the art does lose it’s soul. That does not mean it doesn’t sell – it just means the work has no soul. The object is to not be influenced by the dollar. Don’t paint for “the court” It really is about the process.

But what about money? That is a totally different issue that should have nothing to do with you creating art. If that is why you are painting then you better go do something else. Because you are wasting your time.

As I say in the CBS interview and on the blog – it’s not an easy and it’s not a prosperous way to make a living but if someone wants to give it a try – I am there to help. I have been fortunate to be able to paint what I want – when I want – and how I want and then to be able to switch hats and find a way to sell it.

So, the bottom line and advice from an old man is – turn the music up – block out any thoughts about anything and just paint – and then after you finished the painting, say to yourself, “ Now, what in the hell am I going to do with this?” And don’t let the two concepts cross paths.

All my best to you – John Robertson

Gayle said...

Hi John,
Sorry it took me so long to get back to you--my life seems to revolve around chaos now. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to write such a long, insightful letter about my post and your background and giving me so much to think about. I'm sorry if I misconstrued your intention regarding selling your artist's life. I didn't mean any harm and I realize now that maybe I should just quit yammering and paint. After hearing the same thing from a number of people, I believe you're absolutely right. I am over analyzing and conflicted about what exactly I'm doing. I'm trying to take your advice and overcome some of my fears (about everything it seems) and get on with just painting--wherever it leads and no matter how bad it turns out. Thanks again for your time and counsel. I look forward to seeing your next creation (I really liked your soldier crucifix).