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Dec 01st
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Fear Of Art

Lisa_JensenThis was the scene at the recent Capitola Art and Wine Festival. Wine was selling as briskly as ever (one of the few truly recession-proof commodities). But many artists, especially among the stalwarts who do this show every year, had to depend on smaller items—cards and prints instead of original art, earrings instead of more elaborate pieces of jewelry—whose sales added up to a show that was good, but not as sensational as in palmier days of yore.

Despite sluggish sales at outdoor shows or in galleries, however, there's a slight uptick in commissions, mostly from private collectors who know exactly what they want and aren't afraid to ask for it. By "collectors," I don't mean philanthropic billionaires cruising in stretch limos, or swanky nobles, à la the Medicis, throwing around purses of gold (not that every artist alive wouldn't love to have a patron like that, but let's try to stay on track, here). In real life, especially here in Santa Cruz, collectors are ordinary working folks with mortgages, families, and property taxes, just like the rest of us. In tough economic times, an artist's best friend can be the collector who already knows and appreciates his or her work.

But more difficult for artists these days is reaching out to new fans. Traffic is still relatively brisk at art events, but when good times go bad, one of the first things people deny themselves is permission to buy art. At the self-guided Art and Chocolate Tour last spring, many artists reported newcomers to their studios waxing effusive over the work, only to vanish like Houdini the next time they turned around. Of course, no one who visits an art exhibit is required to buy art; the prime directive of visual (or any other) artists is to have their work seen. And, sure, if you're putting your kids through college or lopping off your bimonthly pound of flesh to pay for health insurance, spending money on art may be far below the Mendoza Line on your list of priorities.

But what seems to be happening lately is not so much lack of funds (although budgets are much tighter than they were). Among art lovers and would-be supporters, it's more like a lack of confidence in their own taste.

I call it Fear of Art. And with the increasingly popular First Friday Art Tour coming up in October, followed by Open Studios for the next three weekends, I think it's time to address this phobia. If art seems like a scary, risky thing to you, I'm here to talk you down.

Many people are uncertain if something is "good" art just because they like it. But here's the thing: art is good because you like it. It's totally subjective to each and every individual viewer; it's value has nothing to do with the lowest common denominator, the highest number of call-in votes, or the size of the price tag.

When it comes to art, yours is the only opinion that counts. Don't ever let anyone else tell you what to like (or not like). If you personally respond to the work, that's all that matters. If you're haunted by one of those glowing Thomas Kincaid cottages in the snow, that's reason enough to buy it. But that's the only reason, because the first and only rule of art is: buy what you love.

I can't tell you how many times my husband, Art Boy, has gotten a phone call from a person who saw one of his paintings at an art show or Open Studios, went home, and dreamed about it. Invariably, they call back because now they have to have it. If a piece of artwork possesses you to that degree, it's obviously meant for you. But if you're thinking of buying that Thomas Kincaid cottage because you think it will accrue in value and support you in your dotage, well, don't. Life is too short (and money too tight) to buy art you don't even like in hopes it will be worth a lot of moolah at some distant future date. As an investment, art is about as reliable as the stock market, so only buy what you want to live with right now, and enjoy.

Also (as is the case with movies, books, plays, music, or any other medium) art is transformed by the viewer's gaze. Depending on what's inside you, and what you bring to the experience, you may see something unique in a piece of art that nobody else sees in quite the same way. So don't be afraid of the unusual, if that's what speaks to you. Don't worry about what "kind" of art it is, what the style is "called," or if you can find it listed (or explained) in Wikipedia. And don't even think about trying to match your home décor. Every piece of art has its own integrity; if it clashes with the living room curtains, move it around to someplace where it's happier. If you love the piece, you'll find one.

And, finally, whatever you do, don't do without. If you can't afford a piece of original art, start out with an inexpensive print, or buy a few cards and create a DIY collage. Life is way too short to live without art. Because without art, where will the rest of us find the inspiration to dream?

Wax effusive to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , check out her musings on the arts at

Comments (1)Add Comment
No, I think it's mainly the money
written by Bob Dobbs, October 01, 2010
"Fear of art" never stopped all those people who bought $29.95 "original" paintings from Asia years ago at big one-day art sales. Ms. Jensen brings that up as a reason for poor art sales and then never backs it up.

People who "wax effusive" at an artist's work and then leave surreptitiously just don't want to look the guy in the eye and say "But I'm not buying it. I can't justify it. The price is too high." Even a $25 print or a $75 giclee. Not when there's no spare cash at the end of the month and your job is iffy.

People are feeling poor, Ms. Jensen. That's because more and more of them really are.

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