Sunday, October 18, 2009

Can Writers Learn from the Art World?

I have an interesting topic I'd like to discuss, and would love to know what others think. First, a few words on what I am reading right now. A great blog called Writers Read asked me this a few weeks ago and they have just posted my answer today - and you might be surprised that it's not all short stories, or even fiction!

And, to shock you even more, dear blog readers, sometimes.... I just don't want to read short stories. (I know!) Sometimes... I want to have that delicious experience of immersing myself in one story for several hours. I did this yesterday, and in one day read two  novels, straight through: Dear Everybody, by Michael Kimball (thanks, Nik, for the recommendation) and the Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. Both were excellently written, devastating and moving. Both, oddly, dealt with characters who were deeply wounded in some way, and with the themes of disconnection from one's family, but in very different ways. I highly recommend them both.

 Now, to the other topic I wanted to discuss. I read an article in the New Yorker the other day about a 36-year-old artist who is now the latest Wunderkind (well, slightly older) in the art world for his odd installations (wax sculptures of women that melt as the exhibition progresses; a large pit dug in the floor of the gallery) and sculptures. His works fetch enormous sums of money, in the hundreds of thousands of pounds, and this is mentioned in the Arts articles as if it is simply accepted, a matter of course. So I say this: what is it about "art" of this kind that such sums are demanded and are received but that when it comes to the written word, the situation is so different? Even talking about artists who are not the latest Hot Item, a painting in a small local gallery has a price tag of several thousand pounds. And yet... if I get £10 for a short story, I am thrilled.

Here's my question: are we not asking enough for our work? Is it something to do with a sculpture, installation or painting being a "one-off", in some way unreproducable (even though this is not always the case)? Is it that the collector or buyer wants to own the art in a way that you couldn't own a piece of writing? And... is there any way we writers could somehow emulate these artists, by putting our work up for sale instead of submitting it to a journal? Any other ideas, thinking outside the box on this one? Is there a way we might write one-off pieces too, something we can guarantee is unique and unreproducable or  - and this is a big question - do people view an object that is made up of words, which are the currency everyone trades in, as far far less valuable, as something they could "probably do themselves if they tried"?

I would love to start a proper discussion about this. What do you think? While it is quite common to hear that someone is a poet, novelist and playwright, for example, I rarely hear of someone who is a painter and short story writer. Why the gulf? Is there "art" and then "art"??


SueG said...

Fascinating question, Tania. My 1st reaction is that it has something to do with celebrity or at least notoriety -- people want what others say is good. Or owning a piece of something like that makes the owner feel "special" in some way. Or maybe the difference with a piece of art is that it is more something you can own, touch, hang or display. A signed copy of a famous piece of literature could command huge sums. But as long as literature is seen as a "consumable" (and now even more so with ebooks) I don't see it earning big money. But here's something else...a musician (especially a c;assical musician) would never perform without pay. Never. Yet we do readings all the time for free because we assume no one would let us do it otgerwise. That's no good, either....

Cathie said...

Oh! As a classical musician, let me say that the vast majority of classical music performed in this country is done for the love of it. Yes, there is an elite at the top, just like there is in the book or art world. Making the transition from one to the other is a huge problem.
Being involved in more than one discipline comes with another issue, that of being a Jack of all trades, merely someone that tinkers and shouldn't be taken seriously. It drives me crazy!

martin heavisides said...

I've thought more than once about doing something conceptual and entering the fray of the art world (I have no appreciable draughtsman's skills, but then neither do most conceptual artists--what worries me a little is that if I tried to do text-based conceptual art, I DO have verbal skills, and that might handicap me there).
I've learned a great deal from artists about how to write, or been nudged in unusual directions as a result of steeping myself in their work, but that's another question. My novel UNDERMIND (not that I realized this as I was writing it) mimics the narrative method of Bosch--rapid movement from vignette to vignette, the whole tied together not by a conventional continuous story line but by thematic, imagistic echoes back and forth. This doesn't make it easier to market.

Susannah Rickards said...

It is an interesting question but I agree that the price lies in the uniqueness of the work. When books were hand written they were priceless objects. Such books still are. JK Rowling proved that with her limited edition.

The practical response is: Artists have a different financial remit. Most of them need outlay in materials, to hire studio space or rent a flat big enough to work in. We can get going for under a £1 - cheap notebook and biro, sit in a library and write. We can store our vast works for free on our computers. They need storage space. It's such a different set up.

I went to an art fair in London recently and noticed the prices were right down on prints, and that there were more prints for sale. Even an Anish Kapoor artists' proof was only a few hundred. (I was sorely tempted!) And limited edition prints by unknowns were around £200.

But I also agree that there is a different attitude at play. I have many friends and immediate family who are fine artists. The subtle expectation is that if I go to a private view I will buy a work for hundred even if I can't afford it. But they also give as presents one off pieces of sculpture, pottery, prints and paintings. All I can give in return is a copy of a book.

When I wrote poetry I wrote poems to several of the people closest to me and the response was overwhelming. For once the printed word seemed unique to them; for them - something I suppose they could compare with the art they make for others. (Never thought of it like that before.)

I was once taken by an artist friend to a handmade books fair. I thought at the time it meant small presses but these were works of art - a sheaf of poems written on hand stitched autumn leaves; hand made paper, hand painted illuminated manuscripts telling new and old tales. these had similar price to art works. I couldn't afford them.

I like how ubiquitous, how accessible our art form is. Something that never ceases to amaze and humble me is that the finest minds ever are ours for a fiver or less. the same isn't true of art. A postcard of a Michaelangelo doesn't have the same impact as the real thing but a book of Baudelaire or Shakespeare is like possessing the original. Priceless.

Rachel Fenton said...

I feel rather torn here. On the one hand, I do think writers are woefully under appreciated financially, however, there is a part of me (possibly a wee socialist yapper dog) that revels in books being art affordable for all, as opposed to the show piece of the elite.

Maybe writers being paid so little is an abuse of the term :free speech"...what value do words have, how do they acquire value for being written versus spoken?

I paint and prefer to call myself a painter rather than an artist, and I write short stories, and novels, and poems...perhaps I am a lesser artist...or maybe, just a different kind of artist.

Tania Hershman said...

Sue, yes, good point. I think perhaps in my post I focused too much on the money, it wasn't that I was saying we should be paid more, I was/am just trying to understand what makes it Us and Them, why there is such a gulf between the art world and the writing world.

Cathie, nice to meet you, thanks for taking the time to comment. Also an interesting point, if you do more than one "art" you risk accusations of tinkering. What a shame - who is it that judges us??!

Martin, great point about how we can take inspiration from art, but this doesn't place what we do in the "Art World", it still stays firmly in the writing world. Your book sounds very interesting!

Susannah, I find so many things wonderful in your comment, from the poems you gave to your artist friends to your comment about how it is actually a good thing that writing is available so cheaply. I like looking at it that way. My question was less about money (although I think I expressed it badly) than about the existential idea of the uniqueness of art versus the non-uniquness of what we write. Could "limited edition prints by unknowns" in some way be compared to short stories by emerging writers? I am wondering whether there is a point of comparison. Perhaps it is those handmade books. Much to still think about.

Rachel, I am delighted that I was wrong about there being painters who write, or painter-poet-novelist-shortstory-writers! And, as I said above, I didn't mean to make this all about the money, but yes, what value do words have? Hmmm...

Paul Lamb said...

Still, we should be paid more.

Lauri Kubuitsile said...

Very interesting post Tania. I love the idea of unique hand written books or a short story or a poem. I think too like Sue said the value, as for an artist, is linked to how well known you are.

Though as writers we might complain a bit that our book sells for P100 instead P10,000 but remember, artists don't get royalties- and those are very nice.

Laura said...

writer's pay is rubbish you just have to do it for the love...I get lots of inspiration from the art world and films...everything feeds into it, everythign you experience, see, etc, it's all just grist to the mill to me....the mill grinds on, day after day...

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Many writers are being advised to give away their words in the hope of getting readers. So they're willing to write for free. What a great topic. So many avenues to explore!

swiss said...

i'm a painter and a short story writer. and i do work around sound installations based on the writing (the limit being my own technological stupidity!).

i don't view it as 'of value' more a mode of being. it allows for a bit of a lark, to collaborate with
interesting people with different ideas and means of expression than me.

Kate said...

Interesting post. I am still not sure what my opinion is on this but I enjoyed reading!


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Price in art has to do with uniqueness, originality, and hype. If your work as a student gets snapped up by Saachi, you are instantly 'worth' multiple thousands, whereas the day before you were worth what your Mum might give you for a take away.
However. interestingly there are other parallele; see this exhibition at Tate britain, in whihc Turner is revealed as an uber-competitive and rather nasty individual. Viewers are invited to decide whtether the owrks he copied remain 'better' than his, or whether he triumphed via wholesale stealing. (which is legitimate in the visual art world (!)
The upshot seemed to be that his painting that were about landscape, sans narrative, work far better, wherever he got his inspiration. But when he tried to outdo contemporaries who were great at portraying people, interactions, scenes - he fell behind. That made me laugh. After all, what do we remember Turner for most today? me, I think of formless blurs of colour. Entirely beautiful of course, but ...

Mark Reep said...

Great post, great conversation. Like Rachel and Swiss, I'm an artist and writer- not particularly accomplished as either, but continuing to plug away at both.

One thing I'd like to add: In my (admittedly limited) gallery experience, selling originals at 'fine art' prices only works effectively for a very small percentage of artists/galleries.

Most viable galleries' commissions are at least 50% of retail. Break down their costs and ours, what we both need to make, and it's clear that despite prices that make even my drawings unaffordable to most viewers, the artist/gallery model doesn't work for many of us, either. And that's when we're selling.

All this by way of saying I'm looking at ways to move on from all that. I want my work to be available to all those people who could never buy an original, or even a limited edition print. And Rachel's point about books being much more widely affordable art is one that's always resonated. I've hung text with artwork, some has helped sell it. And I want to continue to combine them.

At risk of seeming a shameless selfplugger (hmmn, a bit suggestive, that) :) here's a recent example, in Ink Sweat & Tears:

To SueG's point, too: People do want and buy art that others say is good. Never quite gotten that. Books, music, sure, a recommend is always good. But a painting, a drawing, sculpture- Seems like you'd look at it, decide yes, no, done. More to it than I get, I guess. Nothing new, that :)

Lots to say on this subject and related, but I'll stop rambling here. Your post on getting paid for writing was great and instructive too. Thanks, and all best!

Tania Hershman said...

Mark, thanks so much for taking the time to comment here, nice to meet you! It's great to hear about your art&text collaborations, the one in Ink Sweat and Tears is excellent, I love the idea of fictional history, with illustrations. Brilliant! Good luck with it all, keep us posted.