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What is Your Work Worth: Everything or Nothing?

What is Your Work Worth: Everything or Nothing?

Foyer of The House Museum

Robyn Love

It is a perennial struggle for most artists to price their work in a way that reflects the enormous input of time, energy, materials and life experience without making it so expensive that no one can afford to purchase it. Perhaps next to writing a coherent artist statement, pricing one’s work is the source of the greatest frustration and confusion for artists. Like writing a statement, pricing our work asks us to define our work, which is a visual statement, in new terms. Whether in writing or in dollar signs, these are not the terms we envisioned so they never quite feel like the right fit.

I have known painters who price according to the square inch. I once heard a gallery owner speak about how young artists should price their work very low so people will buy it readily and easily. And as a curator, I have seen how prices listed on loan forms seemed to rise in accordance with the lack of experience of the artist. So how does an artist know what to do? Here is my advice: go and find a copy of the book The Gift: Imagination and The Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde (originally published by Random House in 1979).

Hyde’s premise is that an artist’s talents are a gift (indeed we often called a very talented artists “gifted”) and as such, the work that person creates are gifts to society. Gifts are very different from commodities—their whole economy is different. Gifts are, by definition, things of value to the giver that are given away. Further, an item ceases to be a gift if it is not given away. Thus Hyde suggests that the act of artistic creation is a manifestation of gift giving.

Art also signifies as a gift because, while it may be an object: painting or sculpture or photograph, poem or play, it is more than its mere object-ness. Art gives us an experience. A great painting reveals something about life that we never knew before that is only distantly related to its being made of canvas and paint. And of course, this is exactly where things get confusing. When artists try to sell their gifts in that other economy—the economy of commodities—they are trying to attach a monetary value to an idea or an experience that has valueless value. One might as well try to sell their thoughts as they pass through their mind or the air as it enters and leaves the body. Artists trying to fit their work—their gift—into the context of an economy meant to sell groceries, end up discovering that the fit is an irregular one, at best.

This situation leaves us back at that confusing place, trying to price our work in a way that covers expenses and doesn’t leave us feeling cheated but still allows someone other than a crowned prince the chance at owning a piece of our work.

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