“The truth is very few people really like art.”

“This is the dirty secret that makes a living for artists such as Caroline Shotton. She is a new addition to that august company of artists who have careers, it seems, solely on the back of the joy the public takes in upsetting art critics, especially at Turner prize time.”

[…]”And I sympathise, I really do, if you’re reading this and siding with her for slapping the art snobs’ faces. Critics and museums lie when they claim serious art is accessible. It is obscure and demanding.”

Great story over at the Guardian (here) that I found via JM Colberg

I think we all know that if you want to sell a ton of something to the general public you need to get down to their level of taste. This is what troubles me about the impending upending of the photography distribution system. When consumers have a choice will they pick the imagery that’s easy to digest or moves or has sound or will they sometimes choose complex hard to understand photography.

There Are 29 Comments On This Article.

  1. Ugh. If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s the seeming success of really, really bad photography and imagery (in the newsstand niche I’ve chosen to work in). OK, it’s not the only thing that keeps me up at night, but it’s right up there.

    There’s a housing development up the road from where I live that is themed around Thomas Kinkade paintings. I swear this is true.

    I see more terrible typography, design, layout, video and illustration now than I ever saw 10 years ago. Seriously, I think about 5% of what comes across my desk is worthy of a pause on the way to File 13.

    While I think it’s true that the ease of self-publishing has seriously diluted the pool of real talent across the board and it seems like good taste is becoming an increasingly rare commodity, I’d like to think that the fact that the masthead page in titles like GQ, Vanity Fair and Esquire being on, like, Page 100 because of all the ads in front of it means that great photography is still valuable.


  2. The thing I hate the most about
    advertising is that it attracts all
    the bright, creative and ambitious
    young people, leaving us mainly
    with the slow and self-obsessed to
    become our artists. Modern art is a
    disaster area. Never in the field of
    human history has so much been
    used by so many to say so little.


  3. Homogonized

    from what I’ve been seeing, creativity on the whole has been “dumbed down” to appeal to the most people in the largest demographic, and thusly can be marketed and sold to the greatest number of people.

    No new exciting movie story lines.
    Reality TV
    plenty of photos that all look the same.

    People are more concerned with “will it sell” than “is it good”.

    and, in the materialistic society that measures success with bank accounts, we’re all, to some extent, subject to creation based on cash.

    frustrating, but not reason to create crap.

  4. “The thing I hate the most about
    advertising is that it attracts all
    the bright, creative and ambitious
    young people, leaving us mainly
    with the slow and self-obsessed to
    become our artists”

    I couldn’t agree with you more Darrell. I’ve seen to many people in my area peddle mediocre crap as their “art” and its gotten worse in the field of photography. It rare I see a true artist with a consistent quality level in their work (I’m not talking about sales).

    Grant it, maybe I have no room to complain since I don’t consider my work art. I mostly work as photojournalist and the rest of the time I consider myself a professional creative. But artist, no.

  5. The key, as APE said, is “if you want to sell a ton of something”. Mass market is where everyone has their eye (even if in reality they serve only a niche). Have you read “Nobrow” by John Seabrook? It’s worth a look to see how modern marketing has devalued art (as we knew it).

    Thank goodness there are still some magazines that value unique imagery. Most have slipped into the ‘fast food’ look of high saturation, over sharpened images that provide the visual high fructose corn syrup that (we believe) appeals to the desirable readers.

    I think it is right to believe that there continues to be a solid market for quality, even though the rapidly expanding access to larger markets (sometimes, of questionable value) will tend to overshadow them. I think these quality markets can expand, rather than shrink and disappear. If photographers, writers and especially publishers look only to massive growth in service of mass market products and advertisers by adopting the values of the masses, then things do look a little more bleak.

  6. The only saving grace is that there still are niches of people who love great art. Recently I attended a presentation on the music of Eliot Carter, probably one of America’s pre-eminent ‘serous music’ composers. I waited too long and couldn’t get a ticket (had to call in a favor… arghhh). There were hundreds of people there…and lots of young people. That was truly heartening. There are some great young composers in Hollywood writing serious music… and the attraction of the pop world must be in their faces everyday. I’m glad they hang on.

    There would have been thousands more if it was a JoJo concert, but that doesn’t interest me. The fact that the niches remain for good art… whether it is music, sculpture or photography, there are places for us to make it grow. A toe-hold so to speak.

    I hope that attitudes, fear, elitism and such don’t drive away the possible devotee’s before they even get a taste. My recent run-in with two gallery owners say that there are some that don’t get it and some that do. It is definitely harder to compete with purely marketing driven drivel, but it can be done.

    At least that is my firm belief.

  7. Unfortunately at the end of the day, everyone has to make a living. and artists in my opinion are adaptive creatures, doing what they can to survive and get by. A lot of younger talent aspire to be successful in a modern commercial market rather than become fine artists.

  8. No one in this world, so far as I know … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. (H.L. Mencken)

    and all those micro-somethings (stock, art, …) are nothing but showing the least common denominator. i’ll join the crowd here – general quality is declining, high quality will always persist but will only be appreciated by a few.

    most notably when general culture is diversing in so many ways that what were former large, geographically linked groups are now small more virtually linked compounds that only share some special interest while a big part of their daily life might be not comparable at all. another factor that actually cries out for that least common denominator to have a basis to build a society on.

    so, yes, consumers of mass media will pick the easy digest and nurish their personal higher demands on thing the mass media cant deliver to them.

  9. but on the other hand, when you do find great art, it is truly enlightening and refreshing, as it is so rare.

  10. Don Giannatti –
    “I hope that attitudes, fear, elitism and such don’t drive away the possible devotee’s before they even get a taste.”

    too late.

    I hate hearing artists complain about people not understanding ‘real art’. I think they’re somewhat to blame for the general public falling back on what some would call ‘accessible art’. There would be a much greater appreciation for art in general if it wasn’t for hordes of bad artists peddling crap off as ‘art’ and then accusing people of being simpleminded when their work is questioned.

    Thankfully I was surrounded by people that were willing to explain art to me at a young age. Now if I question someones art and don’t get an intelligent response I’m confident enough to just move on to the next piece. Imagine if I didn’t know a thing about art and some artist gave some crap about why the underexposed blurry flower may just be too much for me to comprehend…I’d may go back to hangin’ some over saturated Nike poster on my wall because I understand it.

  11. I think it’s easy to underestimate the taste of the general masses.
    Many popular pieces of entertainment become classics over time
    Shakespeare was pretty lowbrow in his time.
    Maybe reality TV will be the next Shakespeare.

  12. ” There would be a much greater appreciation for art in general if it was’nt for hordes of bad artists peddling crap off as ‘art’ and then accusing people of being simpleminded when their work is questioned.”

    Agree completely. Artists are thought of as eccentric or just plain nuts by the general public. Why? £22,300 for crap. Really. Cans of crap. see…


    I do think this can be overcome. Don’t price your “blurry” prints at $1000.00 and hang them in the local café. That makes us all look stupid. Accessible to your market (what ever that market is) and affordably priced seems to work – at least as far as “fine art” goes. This is something I have tried hard to achieve. If print sales are any indication of success, I think I got pretty close.

  13. The high brow art community really has themselves to blame for any lack of “understanding.” When art became a vehicle for investing, it required a sort hierarchy in which the art buying elites, made decisions about what value certain art would have placed on it. There is no intrinsic dollar value to most art, and photography in particular can be printed over and over. The contemporary photography galleries sell images in series of ones, twos, and threes, just so that investors will have some sort of reason to believe a print is worth $35,000.

    The people buying art at this price often do not have any real idea of what they’re buying. They’re relying on the guidance of someone else to choose what they invest in. The same thing has happened in the fields of rare currency, coins, baseball cards, and comic books. Once the dealers realized what the investors wanted, i.e. and easy way to judge the value, they began to encapsulate everything in a plastic container stating what an independent “expert” deemed the value to be. In the photography world, those experts would be the gallery owners and the critics. Encapsulation is artificially limited print runs.

    I can explain, until I’m blue in the face, to my relatives and “non-art” friends, why certain images sell for so much, or why they’re in a gallery. Even if they like the image, they don’t understand why such a large value is placed on it. To them it seems completely capricious, and truthfully I can’t blame them.

    When looking at the success and popularity of certain things, such as the iPod, one can see that there is room for things that are not the lowest common denominator. It’s great design, and the design serves to enhance functionality. Looking at the housing developments around the country one might think that the lowest common denominator rules there, but magazines like Dwell have done surprisingly well, with huge growth over the last five years. Sites like PhotoEye are doing well, and photo books are incredibly hot lately. There are probably a lot more good photographs hanging in peoples houses now than ever before. Modern art museums are doing pretty well, even Detroit has one now.

    All that said, some people will never open up to anything they don’t get on the firs try. Some people will never listen to any song on an album, other than that one really good song they heard on the radio. I had a friend who, even after years of going to the bar with me (a person who tries every kind of beer made), would never drink (or even try) anything other than a Budweiser. And there will always be people who want to buy posters of rainbows and puppy dogs. And people who actually think vinyl boxes in a faux Bavarian, meets faux colonial style of house is good architecture.

    Still, there are enough people out there who are willing to try new things, learn about art, food, wine, etc. I sell several dozen prints a year, mainly through my web site, and mainly of decaying architecture. My family can’t figure out why. I even got my first large commercial shoot due to the decaying industrial buildings on my site. I’m not making any claims about my art, but people find it to be “accessible,” even though it’s not accessible in the traditional sense.

    I’m not sure if the reference to “The Long Tail” @8 is proof that appreciation of quality, good art, and design is going down or up. Personally I’ve found that “The Long Tail” has allowed me to actually find good stuff to share with others in a way that wasn’t possible before. This site would be one example.

  14. What the hell?!? Comment #9 is a dude impersonator!
    APE – check their IP address!
    This is forgery! Worse than a Matisse drawn in Crayola!
    Get your own handle, faux-dude!

  15. This is a great topic. Along with reading Dan’s estimate that the stock industry has now increased by 9900% in the last few years (pls help me with the math going from 2BB to the new 20BB), I’m pleased as punch to read from Kevin @ #14 that “photo books are incredibly hot lately…”

    How many photographers are making money from photo books? What kind of advances and production grants are they receiving? How many are self-published with POD or low print runs and used as proof of concepts and giveaways? If you know, please tell us.

    Today I received a review copy of “The Polaroids” by Andre Kertesz (W. W. Norton).

    Robert Gurbo writes in his excellent introduction:

    “By 1947 Kertesz, after years of frustraiton, accepted an offer from the renowned art designer Alexander Liberman to work as a staff photographer for Conde Nast’s House & Garden magazine, a position far below his artistic capabilities. The photogrpaher spent the next fifteen years creating refined images of interiors and architectural details of the homes of the rich and famous. Kertesz’s editors and designers at House & Garden lauded his meticulousness and published throusands of his images. However, the position afforded him little notoriety or other opportunities, and the once hopeful emigre slowly slipped into obscurity. Kertesz later spoke bitterly of this as a ‘hack job’ that offered him and his wife no more than a steady income. The proud artist languished out of the spotlight and once referred to himself as a ‘dead man’ to his friend and fellow photographer Brassai.”

    Kertesz lived an artist’s life of pain and suffering. Yet his worst image taken for H&G is likely better than 99% of the images on the “market” today.

    The acquiring editor at Norton is to be applauded for giving those who can appreciate what Kertesz endured in this industry a great little book about the master among us who was ignored in the prime of his life.

    I’ve changed my handle as I don’t mind using my first and last names for posting but it does show up in Google search and sometimes the crawler pulls other people’s comments right before or after your post making it look like it is your comment. APE warned us about this and it’s worth repeating if you care (not to mention impostors!). ~ jain

  16. In NYC to make a restaurant popular they hide it behind an unmarked door inside of a taco joint. They keep the number unlisted and have a man dressed in a tuxedo stand in front of the door to keep everyone out. One very important person in the restaurant business will tell a few of his very important friends about it and next thing you know it’s everywhere as the hottest restaurant in town.

  17. anony_mouse

    It’s an old complaint….Kostabi comes to mind, and I guess before that Warhol, with Herring thrown in there somewhere….although one could argue that genre painters going back hundreds of years faced and conquered the same problem.

    More power to her I say. Buyer beware.

  18. To defend the art world just a bit, most contemporary art museums offer their programming for free. Admission, tours, lectures, films, etc. are all offered for free; either on specific days of the week or across the board. An incredible amount of work is done to explain why the work is relevant and important to anyone who will take the time to walk in through the front door.

    In other words, you don’t have to be rich to understand good art.

  19. *I want to bring Hand Tinting back in the main stream. Since we have our computers and high tech soft ware we fail to realize that computer generated imagery or photos are not the same as in the past. The reason is, that the computer lacks Zone “A” and Zone “B”. Its merely a copy. All computer generated photos or prints will oxidize or fade. The sole purpose of making Photographs are to record and document historical events. Archiving Photos that are computer generated defeats this goal. In museums you will only find Black and White Photos, they know that any other type of print won’t last long enough to achieve their objective.
    *When we look back in the early 1800’s we see images that were produced that still exist today. What if our Great masters used pixels to record there Art. They would have never dreamed of wasting there time and effort to gain fame by employing methods other than the Classical techniques to create their Art. When history is written, those who have negatives and Hand developed Prints will have works of Arts that will be priceless.

  20. I may be lame, or from another century, but I expect art to be transcendental and transformational. Anything less is business. Art is not a commodity. We live in a society that ranks everything. It must be “great” art. It must sell for $1. M$ or more. The artist is treated like a celebrity.

    Everyone wants to make a living. Artists want to make art.

  21. I’m not sure. I rather think a lot of people like art, but hardly any are prepared to pay for it. Where there is money, it’s mostly only because it’s become an investment medium. Yes, there’s a patrician elite who lead taste with their chequebooks, but what appeals to them is inaccessible by design. It has to be exclusive to qualify their interest.

    It’s not just art. For photographers, the best possible career boost is to be dead. Or consider documentary photography, a whole genre which is famously dead allegedly c/o TV.

    Its deadness isn’t that people don’t still like viewing it or believe in creating it, nor that they see it as irrelevant or pointless nor that it has nothing to say. It’s just that there’s no available business model to sustain its creation or propagation. Eye candy photography sits better with ads, is faster and cheaper to originate, lends itself to commodity use and re-purposing, so that’s where the media money is. Getty, Flickr, are just different levels of the global market for banality. Shock sells too, but not anything challenging or too thoughtful.

    Occasionally someone comes along like Alex Soth who’s incandescently hot for finding some niche between banality and almost saying something. But really, look at (say) August Sander’s work and see how much is actually missing.

  22. Re: #27
    Exactly my point, Tony.
    “…look at (say) August Sander’s work and see how much is actually missing”

    So much of the photography we see today hailed as the hot new thing are merely snapshots.

  23. Dion Destelle

    Art, photography and increasingly this conceptual malarkey is a bit like a cheap packet of potato chips…..95% air 5% bland. The subjective world of the self indulgent artist is a far away place called home. Emphasis is always structured around what the “meaning is” which frankly no one understands. Take a picture of a pretty girl, that would seem boring, cover her in pigs blood, ART!! Why do people always photograph Barbie dolls, and people wrapped in cling film?

    The public do not buy into any of this, because like me, they are more concerned about our rising crime, overcrowded schools/hospitals, and a crumbling rail network as opposed to some silly woman sticking her bed (and fishy knickers) in a gallery. Often the artist self broadcasts their apparent “unique pain”. How difficult life must be for the starving poets who are in fact awaiting daddy’s inheritance! Just a thought…