Debating the Darkside: Business vs. Art

Art and business have coexisted since at least the time of the Renaissance. Newly rich merchants, families with old money, and the ultimate business — the Catholic church — have long financed the lives of artists thus providing the means that allowed them to keep creating. 

Well known artists like Michelangelo definitely ran businesses, complete with accounts payable and receivable; professional facilities in the form of a studio/factory; and students and apprentices acting as employees. These early professional artists even marketed themselves by becoming members of royal courts, and cultivating relationships likely to bring them lucrative commissions — an early form of social marketing!

But artists have long hated being labeled. So the debate about being called an artist or a business person; as well as deciding what is art and what is not, continues to rage.

I think about these issues a lot. But an article written by an acquaintance of mine is spurring me to respond with my two cents on the difference between art and business. Josh’s original article can be found on his blog.

First, I think I can clarify the debate by starting with some definitions from Merriam-Webster online:

  1. Business: a usually commercial or mercantile activity engaged in as a means of livelihood: dealings or transactions especially of an economic nature.

  2. Hobby: a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.

  3. Art: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also works so produced. 

One concern of Josh’s article is the importance of deciding whether your pursuit of art is a business or a hobby. M-W’s definition of hobby says it is an activity pursued mainly for relaxation, while a business is an activity engaged in as a means of livelihood. What I think Josh misses, is that not every artistic pursuit falls into these two categories. In fact, the word hobby can have truly negative connotations — often being used as a put-down by those who consider themselves serious about art when describing other less serious artists.

In the art world, who doesn’t fall into one of these two categories? How about artists who use their creativity to deal with evils and injustices they see in the world — and sometimes to thrust this work into the public eye to shine a spotlight on these issues? These artists may not be interested in turning their creations into a business, but their work can not be considered a hobby. Or how about that little-known artist Vincent van Gogh? He passionately devoted his life to painting, but never sold a single work while he lived. Was painting a hobby for him?

So what happens when the art of a so-called outsider (like van Gogh) is discovered? There are modern cases of shut-ins, or secretive graffiti artists whose work is suddenly discovered and embraced as true art. Their work can end up in public and private collections, and the work can be represented by professional art dealers who make sure the artist is well compensated. Consider the very secretive street artist Banksy who is likely getting rich while few even know his true identity. Just because an artist begins making money from their work does not mean they automatically become a business person in the traditional sense.

In Josh’s article, he goes on to say that as an artist, if you sell your work you have a responsibly to “consider what the customer thinks is valuable and change your work accordingly.” This statement is completely wrong, and I think it’s important to make the distinction about what separates an artist from a business person in other industries.

In most industries, a product is created to meet a need. If that product meets the needs of enough people, and the business can reach enough potential customers, that company has a good chance of being successful. Then if the business stays tuned into the needs of the public, they can tweak an existing product or invent entirely new products to sell. Speaking from personal experience though, as an artist-first/business-person-second, it’s critical that I begin by creating a work of art that is unique to me. It first needs to communicate what I want to say, and look how I want it to look. If I’m going to put my name on this “product” it has to be completely true to my vision.

Only after I’ve created MY work of art can I think about how to sell it to others. The moment I start taking the pulse of the market first and creating second, I have reversed my emphasis and become less of an artist. If I were to start creating art and tweaking my output because I thought it would sell better, I would have to reverse my formula and become a business person/artist. It’s a small but important distinction!

To wrap up today’s discussion of this issue (I’m sure the debate will continue for a long, long time) I want to make a point about how this discussion relates to another even BIGGER issue — the ongoing debate to answer “what is art?” While I can only answer that question for myself, the longer I’m around the easier it gets to say what is NOT art (think Thomas Kinkade). This art-as-a-product is any work that is created because it is likely to sell, and not because the artist felt a deep need to express themself. 

As an artist, I am not merely creating products. I create because I have a deep need to express something that is unique to me. I hope that others appreciate what I create, and that my creations make a lasting impact. But if that doesn’t work out… I’ll just keep doing what I want. Satisfied that I am doing what is right for me.

2 thoughts on “Debating the Darkside: Business vs. Art

  1. Josh Kilen

    Megan told me not to use the word “hobby” because it has such a negative meaning to most artists. Maybe I should listen to her more 🙂

    Your points are completely valid. Artists should create the art that is meaningful to them, and they shouldn’t cow to the vision (or lack thereof) of the masses. You have to create from that place inside of you, to paint or write or photograph the world as YOU see it.

    But, once you begin to sell your work, you are stepping into a new dynamic. Now you are trying to give more value to others. My point was that instead of engaging in the iconoclastic mentality of “my work is my work, take it or leave it” you have to take customers into consideration IF YOU WANT TO SELL.

    For example: Michelangelo was a sculptor (at least that’s what he thought) but he brought his work into other venues because of customer desires. Van Gogh didn’t do this and therefore didn’t sell much in his lifetime. That’s not a critique on their art, only on their business sense.

    This came about because I see quite a few vendors at art shows trying to sell their art and barely getting by. Is that because the art is no good? In some cases, but often it’s the mentality of creating art for the artist and then HOPING that people will enjoy it. Hope is not a good strategy in business.

    Yes, an artist may get lucky and find an audience that appreciates exactly what they do, but often, to sell effectively, they will need to step out and see what the customer wants. I know, this is not “artistic” but I think it’s the truth.

    The tricky part in all this is to keep your vision as an artist and still be able to give people what they want, or what they didn’t know that they wanted.

  2. Scott Nelson, Photographer

    Josh, I do enjoy a good debate. You make some very valid points that explain why many artists fit into that “starving artist” mold. We typically have trouble balancing our pure creativity with sound business practice. Clearly those who are most successful in both endeavors find that balance. I just hate to see those with real talent waste it by letting the business side take over. Thanks for your comments!


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