This seems to be a simple, straightforward question. That was what I always thought – until yesterday. Good art is, of course, art that people want to buy. The type of paintings or photography that are hung around the house, proudly exhibited for all who visit to see. The kind of good book that you just cannot put down, pages torn and weathered from all of the times you have read and reread it. The song that, when it comes on the radio, you instantly break out your best shower voice and sing along as if you were a part of the band. Simply said, the kind of art or expression that brings the creator great fame and fortune.
But, is this really the case? Do artists look at their own creations in the same light as the rest of the world does? Again, I used to think so. Yet, it seems that my mindset, much like many other artists; whether they be writers, painters, photographers or playwrights, is torn between being both an artist and a consumer. A song should not have to reach the top of the Billboard charts in order to be good, so long as there is a marketplace and consumer base that hold that work in high enough regard to consider it good.
Any given weekend, on the streets of New York City, there are street fairs where artists, artisans and vendors from all walks of life descend to show off their works to the public. This kaleidoscope of merchants from all races, cultures, sexual identities and age groups pack their vehicles full of the wares they have painstakingly crafted over the course of the preceding week, months and year. They brave the unpredictable and oftentimes vindictive city weather where downpours and heavy wind guts can appear out of nowhere to destroy all of their hard work. They bake in triple digit heat in the summer, trying not to spend more money than they make on overpriced water to stay hydrated.
Why in the world would anyone do such a thing? Surely, it must be because they are hoping to sell all of this work and make lots of money, right? This is not a complete trick question, so yes, I will admit that making money has to factor into the rationale; after all, it costs money to rent those spaces to begin with. But, in having a conversation with a friend and fellow artist yesterday, it dawned on me that this is just a tiny piece of the puzzle for the true artists. Not the ones who buy and resell other people’s work, import it from China or print it off the internet devoid of emotional attachment. But the ones who have painted into the wee hours of the morning, stopping only when their hand threatened to fall off. Those who woke up before dawn to ensure they would not be late and risk any vital time of interacting with the public – and not just any public – the denizens and tourists of the greatest city on earth.
From international tourists flopping in hostels with barely the clothes on their back, to top level executives and movie stars, all blending in with the masses in such a way it would be difficult to tell the difference most of the time, the range of tastes and budgets vary as drastically as the weather. These artists have the opportunity to interact with all of them and make no attempt and differentiating who is who, rather making the most of each opportunity to talk about their work, their inspiration and process. When someone buys a piece, it is fantastic. But there are times an artist can go all day without making a single sale and go home with less money than they had at the outset. To me, this result was also viewed as a failure. Why would I want to waste an entire day, one where I could be home doing the very thing I love more than anything else, to stand in the street and serve as a free museum?
That was the exact moment my friend asked me a question. Knowing that I write, he inquired as to how long it would take to write a “good” book, and jokingly, or so I thought at the time, followed up with, “two to three years?” I will admit, his answer floored me at first. Not because of the timeframe, but more so because I never actually gave it any thought before. I have written books in less than a year, my most recent one in less than three months. But, were they “good” books? Before I could even begin to answer that question, I thought back to some of my “passion projects” that have been in the works for far longer than two to three years and are moving along painfully slow. The books that came quicker were shorter, of a different genre, and written in response to a perceived need in society – which is I guess a nice way of saying they are more marketable. This doesn’t make them “bad” books, but did I feel the same sense of pride and ownership in these as I would the incomplete ones more near and dear to my heart, even if the commercial ones exponentially outsold the personal ones?
To remove myself from the equation, I mentioned a very popular author I read about recently. Without using names, all I will say is that she is known for writing twenty hours a day and usually generates three novels a year. Just about all of these books are New York Times bestsellers. It goes without saying that she must be writing “good” books, I offered to my friend. Once I gave him the author’s name, I was blown away again by his response. “Are they really “good” books, or do people simply keep buying them because she is who she is? If Shakira comes out with a terrible song, one that even she admits was not what she was hoping it would be, would her fans not buy it?”
Stunned silence. As if I wasn’t already convinced I had it all wrong, he then explained his artwork to me. What he sells at these street fairs is still very unique by most standards. However, it all has a common New York City theme – the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, etc. He spends a good portion of his week working on these pieces to sell, but, does not consider them “good” art, and if he had the financial means, would not paint them at all. Why? Because these are not his “passion projects.” Those are the pieces that keep him going, the pieces the masses cannot appreciate, but the ones that mean enough to him to stay up well into the morning to work on, knowing full well he will not even attempt to sell them at these shows. But, does “good” art really sell in the street for $25 - $225? Do “good” books get sold online for .99?
I guess everyone’s definition of good is different, but I know one thing for sure now. My definition of “good” art has been forever changed.