≡ Menu

Art and money

Van Gogh iPhone

Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, I’ve only ever sold one painting, therefore I’m as good as van Gogh.

Stupid logic, but it seems to be quite widespread. Hell, I haven’t even sold one painting so I must be even better than Van Gogh. It’s the dangerous Myth of the Starving Artist.

There are plenty of examples. Critics thought Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was the ravings of a lunatic. They thought Anna Karenina was just a load of words and Citizen Kane was bullshit. (Okay, I made those up. Beethoven’s 9th, Anna Karenina, and Citizen Kane actually all got rave reviews when they came out, in spite of our attraction to triumph-over-Philistines narratives.) This is the related Misunderstood Artist Fallacy:

Beethoven was misunderstood in his time, I’m misunderstood in my time, therefore I’m as good as Beethoven.

Except in this case the logical fallacy is taking place a step earlier, because the problem of most starving artists is not that they’re misunderstood in their time but that they’re actually only too well understood, as the mediocre egomaniacs that they are.

Because the truth is (trigger warning) that while capitalism is not a perfect system, money is still a pretty good indicator of value. And that is why – and this is the thing that I’ve never seen written before – good artists tend to make their money back. I’m not arguing for crass commercialism here, but I don’t need to appeal to crass commercialism to prove my point.

Take Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. It took Beethoven a while to write it, and someone had to pay for his time while he did it. It took a lot of musicians to perform it and didn’t get many performances on its first run, so the whole escapade probably lost money. But Beethoven’s 9th Symphony made a shit ton of money after his death, in record sales, subsequent live performances, licensing rights, and sheet music sales.

Same with Schubert. He never made much money while he was alive (although he actually made more than people think), but his work generated a ton of revenue after his death. If only he hadn’t died at 33.

People who subscribe to the Myth of the Starving Artist or Misunderstood Artist Fallacy should instead ask themselves this:

Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, but one of his paintings sold for $100 million 100 years after his death. I’ve only sold one painting during my lifetime, but will one of my paintings sell for $100 million 100 years after my death?

Lee Alexander McQueen

Lee McQueen’s success is pretty baffling at first sight. (Note: Lee McQueen is the person, Alexander McQueen is the brand.) A self described East-London yob, he became the most successful British designer of haute couture of his generation. But he was the son of a cab driver and a teacher, and had no fashion mentors during his upbringing. So how the hell did he do it?

As I was reading his biography – Andrew Wilson’s excellent Blood Beneath the Skin – a pattern started to emerge:

According to McQueen, one afternoon in 1986 he was at home in Biggerstaff Road when he saw a programme on television about how the art of tailoring was dying out. There was, said the report, a shortage of apprentice tailors on Savile Row and his mother said to him, Why don’t you go down there, give it a go? … Lee took the tube to Bond Street and walked through the smart streets of Mayfair until he came to 30 Savile Row, the headquarters of Anderson & Sheppard. … He wasn’t a timid person, said John Hitchcock [his boss] … It was obvious when he first came that he did not know anything. (pp.46-47)

(McQueen’s lack of timidity was verified by his schoolfriend Peter Bowes, who remembered that Lee was quite a tough guy – he wasn’t scared of people. (p.39))

A couple of years later, McQueen was ready to move from tailoring into fashion:

After Lee saw a magazine article about the Tokyo-born, London-based designer Koji Tatsuno, he turned up at Tatsuno’s studio looking for a job. (p.53)

But then Tatsuno went bust:

Lee, with a spontaneity that never left him, wanted to fly to Italy … [he] went to see his sister Tracy, who then worked for a travel agency and booked him a one-way ticket to Milan. … [McQueen] arrived in Italy’s fashion capital with a plan. Although he was prepared to work for any designer, at the top of his list was one name: Romeo Gigli. … McQueen made his way from Porta Garibaldi metro stop down Corso Como to Gigli’s studio. He did not have an appointment … (p.59)

But he got a job all the same. McQueen’s disinclination to make appointments stood him in good stead when he wanted to go to Central St Martins:

Lee knew that, if he secured a place at St Martins, his life would change. … Carrying an armful of clothes, Lee made his way down the long, rather shabby corridor towards the office of Bobby Hillson. He knocked on the door and waited. Booby, described by one fashion writer as patrician and old school, opened the door to see a young man she thought must be a messenger.
     Can I help you? she asked. Who are you here to see?
     You, Lee replied.
     But I don’t have an appointment with anyone. (p.67)

Hillson said that she couldn’t give him a job because he was too young and the students wouldn’t take him seriously, but offered for him to join the Masters course, despite the fact that he didn’t have a degree.

He was relatively charmless, had nothing really going for him, but I thought if he cares this much he’s got to be given a chance. (pp.68-69)

So far from being a fashion genius straight out of the box, McQueen was actually really bad at fashion for many years, but was willing to knock on doors and work for next to nothing until he had some skills.

The result? By the time of his graduate collection he was handcrafting pieces like this:

A sceptic’s guide to Kanye West

Kanye West shutter shades

Kanye West is an idiot.

This is the most common response if I bring up the subject of Kanye West with friends. It was also my opinion of Kanye West a few years ago when all I knew him for was for producing sampled music and interrupting Taylor Swift at the Grammys, which I thought was fairly terrible. (I somehow overlooked the fact that in doing so, Kanye West gave Taylor Swift millions of dollars of free publicity, which is still paying off today, as well as giving publicity to Beyoncé, the Grammys, and their sponsors, creating value all round.)

I wasn’t the only one who thought Kanye West was an idiot, of course. Barack Obama called him a jackass. Jimmy Carter said that Kanye West’s behaviour at the 2009 Video Music Awards was completely uncalled for. George Bush wrote that Kanye West saying George Bush doesn’t care about black people was an all-time low in his presidency.

Wait a minute, Kanye West has been dissed by three US presidents? He must be doing something right.

My own Kanye West conversion occured when I accidentally listened to the lyrics of American Boy, a track I aways loved due to John Legend’s harmonies. At one point West raps:

Dressed smart like a London bloke,
Before he speak his suit be spoke.

Wha – wha – what? That’s a clever pun. Of course, Kanye West has many others, which I’ve since discovered:

Couldn’t afford a car so she called daughter Alexis.

If you fall on concrete that’s your ass fault.

And it’s not a pun, but I love:

There are leaders and there are followers,
But I’d rather be a dick than swallower.

And if you want evidence of his producing skills, listen to We Don’t Dare from The College Dropout or POWER from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Of course, Kanye West is still an idiot, as he admits on American Boy:

I always act the fool

But he’s a very interesting, talented, hard-working idiot.

Breaking the rule of rules

Banksy

A lot of people argue about rules in culture. The cliché is you need to know the rules in order to break them. The tagline for Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop stated, “in a world with no rules, one man broke them all”. Students don’t know whether to follow the rules or not.

I think the terminology is wrong. We shouldn’t be talking about rules, we should be talking about cause and effect. Ifthen.

Take storytelling. A fundamental rule of storytelling is that the protagonist should desperately want something at the beginning that they then either get (comedy) or are forced to give up trying to get (tragedy) at the end. Should you follow this rule or not? It depends. If you use that device then you have a powerful tool to maintain the audience’s interest. If you don’t then you’ll need another equally powerful tool to make up for its absence. There’s no right or wrong, just cause and effect.

Or music. A fundamental rule of composition is that you should finish a melody on the tonic. Should you follow this rule or not? If you finish on the tonic then the melody will sound comparatively resolved, if you don’t then it’ll sound comparatively unresolved. Whether you choose to follow the rule or not depends on what effect you want. Choose the right cause to achieve the desired effect.

Or photography. In photography you have the rule of thirds: the idea that you should place significant objects a third of the way into the frame. But Stanley Kubrick often framed his shots symmetrically, placing significant objects on the halfway point. He wanted a different effect, and so chose a different cause.

If we stop talking about rules then we’ll stop feeling constricted by them. If instead we talk about cause and effect then we’ll see cause and effect as the powerful tool that it is.

This has applications in real life too. Because the rule is never a compelling reason to do something. Ifthen is much more convincing. Compare:

Why can’t I play with matches?
Because the rule.

With:

If you play with matches then we’ll lock you in the box again.

Much more convincing.

If you stop talking about rules then you’ll be liberated from them.