Leave to do his utmost

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Leave to do his utmost

From Virgil Elliott

Published before 2005


Graydon Parrish wrote:
[...] Supporting living artists, with money that matters, not pocket change, so that prominent works of art can be created, will really be the only thing that makes a difference. The one thing that is universal is the respect for money. Without it and its status, even Van Gogh might be a footnote in art history. In other words, if his paintings weren't so damn expensive, most of the allure would be lost. [...]

I'm happy to hear someone say what Graydon just said. I have often said myself that the future of art depends on living artists. The dead ones derive no benefit whatsoever from the sales and resales of their works, and they will not be producing any more of them no matter how popular they become or how high the prices go. Whereas the living artist who is compelled to work in another field in order to sustain himself and his family above poverty level, though he is capable of creating fine works of art, is not going to create as many of them because he will not have as much time as he would have if he could focus his attention on painting and did not have to divide his mind between art and another business that takes him away from the easel.

How many of the living realists who make a full-time living painting can say they are unaffected by the need to produce X number of pictures per year in order to survive comfortably and keep the galleries supplied, and that they can spend as much time developing the idea and executing each picture as it might take to make it the very best of which they are capable? I'm not talking about artists who had money to begin with, or those whose spouses work to support them, but those whose sole source of money is and must be their own efforts.

Unless one's paintings can bring high prices and/or one is very frugal in living, there is the likelihood that the need to produce beyond the rate at which one's highest quality can be sustained, whether one has a periodic creative slump, as creative people can sometimes have, can result in a dropping-off of quality. And in order to GET the prices up to a high enough range to insulate oneself from this predicament, it is necessary to start out selling low and producing as many paintings as fast as one can, and build up a market for the work such that gradual increases in prices do not result in a significant drop-off in sales. Early in one's career this is educational, but after a certain point, if one realizes that the utmost quality in one's art is and should be the supreme imperative, and if the market is not such that sufficiently high prices can be gotten on a consistent basis for one's work, it will become necessary to earn one's living in some other way, so that whatever paintings one still has time to paint will at least be the very best of which he is capable, because he need not slap out potboiler after potboiler to pay the bills, but can concentrate on the best ideas he might have, and spend as much time on each one as it takes to make it the best he can make it.

Each artist has a certain number of good ideas per year, and if compelled, by the need to survive, to produce more paintings than he has good ideas for, some ideas are going to be painted that are not the best ideas, and thus the results are not going to be that artist's top quality artwork, nor necessarily a sincere expression of whatever is special about that particular artist and his unique creative vision. These paintings are called potboilers, because they are done simply to keep something in the artist's soup pot. I know quite a few painters whose entire painting activities consist of the production of potboilers, and if they ever do have a thought of creating the greatest masterpiece of which they are capable, they find they can't spare the time away from the production of their potboilers to ever get around to painting it. To an artist who places Quality above all other considerations, the continual cranking-out of potboilers is not the ideal situation, and anything that might compromise the quality of the work he produces is unacceptable. When quantity is a greater imperative than Quality, quality can be expected to suffer to some degree, and that is not a good thing for art.

This predicament is the result of too few collectors being willing to spend decent money on the works of living artists, commensurate with what they would pay for works of comparable quality by dead artists, mindful, as they are, of resale values, thinking of paintings as investment commodities. A great deal of money is being spent on paintings in today's market, yet it remains very difficult for a living painter who refuses to consider anything that might compromise the quality of what he does to receive enough of it to live above poverty level. I know of many fine painters who are nearly starving, or are working in other fields in order to keep from starving, some of whom are included in ARC's Gallery of Living Masters(tm). And then there are plenty of others who prefer the idea of making their living full-time by painting many potboilers and living where land is cheap, places I consider horrible, like Utah, etc. The latter still produce good work, but whether their average work qualifies as their very best is open to question, and I know of many cases I could point to in which it is not. Whereas I know these painters could do their very best if that were the only consideration they needed to concern themselves with.

The main point here is that the situation is not conducive to the creation of the utmost Quality in paintings, and that is not a good thing for the future of art. It will take more than a sea of decently-painted potboilers to wrest the focus of the art world away from the charlatans. It will take a return to greater Quality, along with whatever else might also be required as ancillary considerations, facilitated by the willingness of collectors to pay respectable prices for high-quality paintings by living realist painters, so they are not held back from doing their very best.

Yet again, Isak Dinesen's quote from Babette's Feast comes to mind: "It is terrible and unbearable to an artist -- to be encouraged to do, to be applauded for doing, his second best. Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist. Give me leave to do my utmost!"

Virgil Elliott