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How To Price a Painting

“Steve Reich Ensemble ‘Music for 18 Musicians’” 2023. Oil on canvas, 64 x 64″

How to Price a Painting

My granddaughter paints. She is not an artist but she makes darn good art. She always finishes a piece she begins, usually before a half hour is up. She doesn’t care if you like her painting because she knows that you will. If she ever expected to get paid for her portrait of Grandpa, we would deem her a business savant or insane. She is neither. Just another wonderful child making art for joy and love. They’re everywhere.
Adult artists go to work, not to jobs or careers. They reside in economic limbo. For too many of these poor souls, recognition via income is a never-ending purgatory teasing up or down. This is a crying shame for so many folks who make art, and a waste of time for the artist who wakes each morning “…to be the first to adore—Christmas on Earth”.
Recently I wrote about class and the shelters made affordable according to our place in society. Class determines station. We have jobs and careers to rent or buy our lifestyles. They provide an overall picture of socioeconomic status. Paid labor has names like “Assistant to the Secretary, Chair of the Philosophy Department, Cashier, Walmart Associate, Corrections officer, Broiler cook, Manager of the Toledo Parts Division, etc. Euphemisms to let the stranger and IRS assess in a second how a person’s bread gets buttered. They define what level of social “worth” a human being can reach. All are links in a wage slavery chain, that is both the bane and salvation of modern society.
Many artists are wage slaves by proxy. Without jobs or careers, full time creators live like paupers if not supported by a mom, millionaire, wage slave partner, or some other arrangement that works in the artist’s favor (a trust fund for example). Most often it’s a wage slave partner, since millionaires couldn’t handle a determined creative mind for one more minute of conversation, and trust funds aren’t known for inspiring hard work art returns from their recipients. Artists without core support find it practically impossible to remain afloat financially. It can be done, but it takes a load of moonlighting to garner success. Not only is “the business of art” an oxymoron, but a full time job all by itself. Sorting, storing, mailing, banking, advertising, marketing, social media activity—one makes him or herself a retail company with a product “art” straight off the assembly line. In the United States, insurance companies have forced talented doctors to moonlight as business people. Practices are heavily burdened to keep up with the red tape in the health care “business”. Art academia, government, and the “high art” market control the power and influence (and money) allotted to individual artists. There is no job available for a person to “make art”, no wages are paid out for future inspiration and whimsy. The same goes for the vaguely defined “career artists” who must rely on subsidization by a higher financial power for snippets of decent pay. Whether that be a government grant, a popular art fair scam, a solo exhibition at an highly respected university gallery or art museum, a billionaire-cooked auction at Christies®, or a doting wife (my case). In assessment of art economy I rarely include career track professorships since they are bound by wage slavery as much as a dishwasher or office receptionist. They are jobs in themselves and art a free time hobby or ambitious moonlighting pressure.
To further complicate the matter at hand, there is no fixed price on art. It’s a commodity anomaly. Fred’s painting of a pig can net a million bucks at private auction while Rita tries to sell hers for $10 at a garage sale with no luck. We know roughly the price of bacon, no matter which specific pig gave up the ghost. The same for flashlights, computers, envelopes, and college educations. Prices are more or less fixed for the vast multitude of commodities. This is normal and sane for all things to be purchased. Society accepts the cost of nearly everything besides art.
Why is that?
Celebrity and ubiquity.
Celebrity is obvious. It is the main reason for the vast economic divide in the art world. Levels of celebrity will set the price for an artist’s work, whether international or local. The often heard claims of subjectivity do not apply here. A Banksy stencil of a rat is world renown. Nearly everyone agrees it’s formulaic and boring. But it’s the famous Banksy, so here’s $200,000. At the community art association in the Houston suburbs, retired rodeo star, Cowboy Joe, exhibits stencils of aggravated horses, and sells them for $500 a pop. He might have been a great cowboy, but he’s definitely a boring artist. Somewhere in between Banksy and Cowboy Joe are the artists (and non artists) who are already famous in one genre and delve into another knowing their celebrity has the Midas touch. Bob Dylan selling paintings and welded gates comes to mind. Not so poised to add anything new and interesting in the name of art, but always ready to make a buck on the scam market. Name recognition is influential. Winners are made and losers unknown. From Michelangelo to the present day, celebrity art is artificially made expensive and therefore reserved to trade by the very few.
There is a larger though poorer circle of living artists centered around the cult of the academic. Name dropping in master’s theses, write-ups in museum catalogues, and the “industry” influence of art agencies garners enough interest to raise the reputation (value) of artwork by artists and academics making art. “Worthy to write about and/or exhibit” is set by an internal “art club” in colleges and universities. Today in higher ed it is anathema to expect subjectivity that hasn’t first been vetted by another recognized and established authority. What ensues is an infinite loop of watered down expression. Resumes matter. The “CV” requested of applying artists stands for “Correctly Vetted”.
Is to be denied entry into an established power structure really such a bad thing to happen to an artist? Yes, if he or she ever wants to earn a fair wage for art, or at the very least price their work respectfully and meaningfully. Lucrative art and artist are objectively “made” by non-creative people with money. “To be made” means that the artist never wants for access to an Olympic-sized swimming pool nor a hundred dollars cash. The star-makers (non-creative people with money) take the chosen art and artist and sell it over and over again for profit. It’s a well-known and accepted scam played by anyone making over $50 a day in the art world. Without Jeff Koons, for example, there would be no more ArtNews, Artnet, or New York Times Arts (as they exit at present) disseminated by millionaires via their salaried editors to curious (bored) middle class careerists. New York galleries couldn’t afford the rent exhibiting unknown Tom’s excellent painting of a nude on a dune buggy, or unknown Sheila’s carved marble statue of a panda bear. It’s the made name that opens the door and brings down the house (and makes non-creative people with money richer).
Where were all the established art movers and shakers when van Gogh was alive and exhibiting? Any influential earthlings with subjective expertise in 1880? Of course! But van Gogh was a an ignoramus of his day. Not salon worthy at all.
Who said so?
The non-creative people with money of course!

Obviously, modern celebrity has some effect on the subjective pricing of art. However, I believe ubiquity is king influencer. Today, a billion people on earth (perhaps more) have the time and means to express themselves by practicing an art. Economies of wealthy nations support free time like never before. Whether it’s watercoloring landscapes for Christmas gifts, or siding your house with paintings of giraffes, millions of creative people are out carbonating the atmosphere like maniacs, screwing up natural processes, denying evolution.
Too many of us are making art. If the majority were actually paid for what they thought their time was worth, economies would dissolve into forever silence. Wage slavery is a godsent stabilizer for industrial and service economies like ours. The great majority of people must work for wages (salaries too) in order to preserve access to luxuries we have come to expect (e.g., smartphones, fast food and toilet paper). It’s a kind of “herd immunity” to avoid complete economic shutdown. If art paid a living salary to any maker of art, then who would take an unwanted job ever again?
This is a good thing for humanity, yet very unfortunate for the artist species.
I believe art is a useless, incredibly necessary anti-commodity, sort of. It’s its own thing and remarkably undefinable. Art is made by artists and art is made by non-artists. There is a wide stamina gulf between the two human beings, if not the actual art that gets created. For instance, my granddaughter makes art but she is not an artist. Her father, who is a salesman, cooks an excellent curry on Saturday, but would not claim to be a master chef. Any person at any time can make art, which renders art ubiquitous and therefore subjectively worthless, priceless, or, if we desire a sane marketplace, price-fixed somewhere in between, with a common standardization. No one besides family will buy the grandchild’s art, and the home kitchen curry is only worth the price of a curry anywhere. I paint and write because I am an artist. Likewise, I abide by a personal philosophy because I am an artist. I also sauté tofu and roast chicken because I am an artist. And I chant the following mantra inside my head all the far-reakin’ time, because I am an artist:

Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they breed a song that contaminates. I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond, for the god out of reach: slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals. I see that when they tear their hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable, I see that when they bellow like crazed beasts and rip and gore, I see that this is right, that there is no other path to pursue. A man who belongs to this race must stand up on the high place with gibberish in his mouth and rip out his entrails. It is right and just, because he must! And anything that falls short of this frightening spectacle, anything less shuddering, less terrifying, less mad, less intoxicated, less contaminating, is not art. The rest is counterfeit. The rest is human. The rest belongs to life and lifelessness.

—Henry Miller from Tropic of Cancer

This passage does not apply to all artists. I use it to identify my general feelings about art and artist, terms that get overused like “Kleenex” in a viral art world. Miller’s portrayal of the artist is kind of grim and painful-looking. Does Beyonce do these things to herself? Did Roy Lichtenstein?
Art and artist in the modern age will be a topic for another day. Today I am wondering about art work and how to get paid for it.
This week I dedicated 28.5 hours to painting pictures so I could come up with a “wage” for my art. I set out to fix a pricing system for my work that I felt to be fair. Always fair, with no surprises. Because there isn’t a standard pricing model, potential buyers (and artists too) have no idea how to price art.
At living purchase (art that is bought directly from a living artist, not art that is traded by speculators after the sale), work must be valued by what an artist feels his or her labor is worth (wages or “W”), plus (materials or “M”) plus an “element “X” fee (30% of wages plus materials, or .30(W + M). The “element X” is the thing other people don’t have. It’s the reason art is purchased and not made by the buyer. The wage to be set is entirely up to the artist. If I paint a willow tree and Rita paints a willow tree, and neither look like a willow tree, perhaps we’ll both be satisfied with minimum wage (to be $15/hour soon in the U.S.). Or, Rita sets her wage at $50/hour because she believes that her willow tree has a transcendent “untree” sort of genius about it, and will raise the aura of a living room to heavenly heights. The thing is, Rita, or any artist sets their own hourly wage, never lower than the legal minimum, so that everyone can see in the open what the artist expects for the piece at hand. It won’t be random. This method works especially well for commissions. There’s a landscape painter I’ve watched on Instagram® who I know could get $40/hour for her time, at least. Nobody will come to me for a sylvan scene after they’ve seen her work. 25 bucks more an hour for her painting will be worth the investment.
In the latter case, the playfulness of art can still remain. Let’s say for experiment we’re both tasked with painting the buyer’s backyard scene on a 16 x 20” studio canvas ($3). She uses fine oils ($18), and I use craft acrylics ($1.50). Her piece took 10 hours (@ $40/hr = $400)). Mine took 20 minutes (@ $15/hour = $5). Her painting is actually quite beautiful, masterly even. Mine looks like a scribble over a dead animal. The final cost for her piece: (W(wage) + M(materials) + 30% (W + M) = $547.00).
My asking price is $11.05.
Turns out the commission was to be an ironic birthday gift for an abusive father, and the buyer chose my painting. Lucky me.
This is how I believe artwork should be priced. When standard, fair, and understood by all parties involved, art is no mystery. It is what it is. The artist fixes a wage which is the first step in pricing the piece of art. What is your time worth artist, and you realize, of course, that it doesn’t matter? It’s taken 30,000+ years, but we have finally managed to put a price on all living art meant to be sold in a marketplace. For modern times this should come as great relief to the artist who feels ostracized in a society running smoothly on wage slavery. If working people want art in their lives, there is a price for it. But its a fair one, and universally figured by a standardized, market-friendly model. Like olive oil or French wine. Maybe art will have its heyday as a commodity and push grotesque valuables like gold and silver and Tesla Motors over a cliff where they belong. Who knows?
Now what happens when the artist sets his or her wage, and no one ever buys the painting, sculpture, or song that she wrote? And this will certainly be the case for the vast majority of art makers.
Well, it will separate the wheat from the chaff. The artist does not make art because there is money to be had. My granddaughter paints a picture for joy and love. She’s not yet an artist because she hasn’t been confronted with a choice not to be. All three year olds make art. Just like all 50 year olds are capable of doing, but choose not to. Those who do and expect to be paid, are definitely making art, but not artists necessarily.
I painted from 12 – 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, 8-4:30 p.m. with an hour lunch, Monday through Wednesday, and 1-3:00 p.m. on Thursday. I made time to write this and do the other things to maintain a household—mostly cook, spot clean, and fold laundry.
I painted like it was a job in order to determine a wage that has not yet been set. But now, after the 28.5 hours, I’ve come to a decision. Although I am an artist through and through, the pictures I paint are okay at best. This is fine by me. It does not harm my pride because I know I am an artist. It’s just the truth, my truth, and I hope to make a buck or two while playing out the rest of this life as an artist. It’s up to you, the buyer, to find what you like. Sometimes we want fast food hamburger and fries. Some nights we dream of a private dinner at the Plaza. My work takes you to a well-run family diner that’s been in business for 55 years. 24 dollars an hour please.
Here are a few of the paintings (and their pricing) from this week. Buy some if you’re feeling hungry. You’ll get your money’s worth (and perhaps a little indigestion).

First, the equation:

Now let’s imagine some rich industrialist steps out the back of a 1954 Rolls-Royce, and walks up to my studio door. He wants to buy the entire work week output (13 paintings).
Here is the bill I present without tax or gratuity:


If I had this success every week for a year (with two week vacation), my gross annual income for part time art-making employment would be $48,815.00. Very gross, since this number doesn’t account for any other overhead, and all the other manias of business previously mentioned. Still, I believe it to be fair overall for part-time creative work in an insane economy.
Please spread this art pricing guide far and wide. I expect all artists to begin implementing it by the first of the new year.

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