Sunday, June 24, 2012

Changing Art, Changing Times: Part Two: Facing the Obstacles

For the last six years I have focused on shifting my life to making a living through a creative career.  I have built this career from the ground up, with no prior experience or formal education.  It required a lot of trial and error.  I read books and magazines, I talked to other artists, I checked out websites, galleries, and just tried things.  Some things worked, others didn't.  In the process I learned a lot about myself as an artist.  Six years later, however, I find myself asking:

How does one make art and sustain a living from art in a consumer market? 

Hare: Fear, Creativity & Rebirth (detail)
For many independent artists making a living means getting their art noticed as much as possible and having it made available anywhere possible.  In addition to shows and having prints made, calendars, greeting cards, coffee mugs, electronic product skins, promotional materials, tote bags, T-shirts, are some of the other ways to get artwork visible.  I tried having some of the products made featuring my art, but not for long.  I couldn't help feeling it cheapened my art.  I see my art as more than a decorative detail, I am not a designer or decorator.  Additionally, I didn't like how it contributed to more "stuff" in the world.  I felt bad enough that in order to create my paintings I have to purchase and utilize many materials, many of which are not renewable or environmentally sustainable  I have worked hard to minimize the environmental footprint of my two dimensional art, but in order to produce high quality work, choices are limited.   For the prints of my work, I chose a Print-On-Demand (POD) service, which allows only the art that people select to be printed. I found this a much better option. Rather than print several hundred copies of an image and store them until the quantity is gone.  I have a hard time determining which of my paintings might sell over another. POD saves in overhead, while diminishing waste of materials.

I have tried selling my work in galleries.

At the start, it seemed to help in getting my work visible and widen my audience, but it never satisfied me.  For many artists, the Gallery-Artist partnership works very well.  Often the gallery will determine, based on the art the artist presents, what art they will sell.  That usually requires a consistent body of work, or work that can be created based on a kind of demand.  My paintings emerge in such a way that it is difficult to present a cohesive looking body of work that most galleries want. Galleries take a large portion out of the sale usually 30-75%, which means I had to artificially inflate the price to make enough to cover my expenses.  Selling through a gallery means I have little or no contact with the people who buy my art.  I like knowing the people who buy my work.  So, shifting away from gallery sales, meant I had to rely on myself.  Having a public studio was the next best solution, but the cost of rent and utilities was another burden on making a living.  Selling my paintings online seemed the best way for me to get my work noticed and sold.  And for much of the last six years it has been.

The caveat in promoting work in an online venue is dealing with image piracy.

Today's online culture has an issue with entitlement, copyrights and fair use laws.  Currently, as an artist, I own any image I make.  But, more recently, it has become common practice for people to take and use images found on the internet for their own use without ever asking the artist.  Most of this use is done without ill intent, or any sense of profit on the violator's part.  It is a byproduct of a rising trend of entitlement which allows an individual to take what is seen without consideration of the maker of the image.  In addition to the lack of initial financial remuneration, there is a snowball effect when one image is taken without consent or compensation. These images, posted on other websites-- almost always without credit to the artist--get lifted by other people, and so on.  Eventually, this image may be picked up by someone with more selfish, self-serving intentions.  I know of artists who learned that their images were used to make prints, products, even promotional materials for a whole conference without credit or compensation to the original artist.

One argument posed to me is that this disregard for copyright is actually a complement.

It is suggested that using my artwork on other websites or products can be a way for people to find my website and purchase the original work.  This argument doesn't work for me.  When images of my art are used without permission, they rarely give my name, website or any way of an individual to find my website.  If I were a hobby artist, perhaps I would find this use of my work a complement.  I am not, however, a hobby artist.  This is a life pursuit and a way of making living.  Sales of my work goes directly toward surviving in this world.  It pays for my supplies, my groceries, my health care, etc.  For every image used without my permission, goes potential loss of income and an added strain on my ability to make a living.

Occasionally I am asked for permission to use my artwork for publications and promotional materials.

I am grateful for being asked, even though it is the legal thing to do.  However, I rarely allow my work to be used this way. One reason is because about 98% of the time there is no compensation offered for use of my work.  And often, in addition to no compensation, the inquiry is paired with requests for altering the image to suit the individual's needs.  Again the argument of free advertising and increasing my visibility is posed. This may be true, but often I have never heard of these publications or organizations.  I have no idea of the extent of their reach.  It doesn't seem worth giving my work away on the chance that one or two new people may visit my site.  With the entitlement culture we are in, how could I be certain that my image isn't taken and used by another?  I like to maintain some integrity in regard to the use of my image. While I appreciate being able to support myself through my art, I am not okay with my images being used for just anything or in a disrespectful way.  To me, much of my art possesses a spirit, and anything with spirit deserves respect and proper care, that respect should carry over to the image representing the original artwork.

As a result of this disrespect and unlawful use of my artwork, I found myself working harder and harder.

Each year I sell more work, yet I had to double and triple my efforts each year to maintain the same level of sustainability.  Part of the added effort went into searching the internet for uncredited use of my images and contacting the violators, often repeatedly to get the image removed from the site. This often took several days out of month, going through images, contacting the owner of the site, quoting copyright laws, asking for the image to be removed, often these steps are repeated several times before the image is taken off the site. And that would be just for the images I found.  Not only was it time consuming. It was disheartening and disempowering. Many people removed the image immediately, some apologized, while others grew nasty and responded with hurtful comments.  All this meant less time working on my art, which added to the pressure of producing work.  With the exception of small percentage of people who appreciate and respect the arts, the majority see the work of artists on the internet as a free-for-all, ripe for the grabbing and uninterested or ignorant in the amount of time and effort went into creating the artwork.  It makes the solitary work of an artist, like me, feel all the more lonely and difficult. 

This brings me to the unease that began affecting me last summer. 

I didn't want to continue to participate in a culture that continues to promote the disempowerment of the artist. Especially when that disempowerment is by turning the artist into a mass-producer for a consumer culture.  I knew it was time to step out of this environment and find a new way of being an artist that can make a living in the world, but how do I do this?

Is it possible to be a new voice in the din of the present culture, and still be heard?  I think so. Afterall, I have met other people, artists and otherwise, who feel the same as I do.  There is a need for a different way of doing business, of providing services and artwork, and making a living in this world.

The problem is knowing how to tread a path for this new way.  How is this done?

I'll continue with my observations of this exploration in the next post...

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