Interviewer: What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?
Parker: Need of money, dear.
Dorothy Parker, that enduring literary wit, made this statement in an interview with the Paris Review in 1956. The tongue in cheek remark cuts to the heart of a thorny question – What do we pay artists for their creativity?
For someone who works with a literary arts magazine, I have very little art in my home. I grew up with vast numbers of books, and now that I’m living on my own, I’m doing my best to build a library for myself. I can’t imagine living in a home without books (my recipe for a perfect cup of tea: boil water, add tea bag, select book during the 3 to 5 minutes it steeps). People and events, made of nothing but pulp and ink, have changed the way I think and changed my perspective on those more solid events we generally call reality. Creative works are important to me. But until last year, I didn’t own a single piece of original art.
The painting that changed this and now lives with us took a year and a half to make it into our home. My husband and I were on vacation when I saw it; a 2’x2’ work by Paula Schuette Kraemer titled Outside of the Bowl. Goldfish swam, to my eyes, blissfully ignorant of the confines of the little world that had been made for them. It was simple and warm and beautiful, and I loved it. It was also $500.
$500 is nowhere near the high end of prices in the art world. In 2011 the royal family of Qatar purchased Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players for somewhere between 250 and 300 million. Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture L’homme qui marche I sold in 2010 for over 100 million dollars, and just this May, Edvard Munch’s The Scream was auctioned for nearly 120 million. In the grand scheme of the art world, $500 is nothing.
I looked at Outside of the Bowl again and thought about supporting artists and the little burst of freedom I felt while looking at the impossible goldfish. And then I thought about the $500.
$500 is rent or new tires or textbooks. Or diapers. $500 could be medical bills, or a plane ticket to visit family. No one would complain if you stopped them on the street and handed them $500. That amount of money has weighty possibility attached to it.
And so, thinking that there were better things to do with $500, I set the playful fish down and left them to explore the canvas in the privacy of the gallery’s lithography rack. We went home and back to work, started in again on the business of real life, but the painting came home with us, too. One wall, which had been perfectly happy before the vacation, suddenly looked a bit lonely. Thinking about the fish still made me smile, and lifted me a little on days when I considered leaping out of my own bowl. But I couldn’t pull the trigger – I didn’t call the gallery, and I never made the four hour drive, and I couldn’t say “Yes, this work of art is worth $500 to me.” There were so many other things to do with that money.
Fortunately, my husband saved me from my own practical intentions. For my birthday we drove back to the little ski town, and a year and a half later the fish were right there waiting for us. I was thrilled. Outside of the Bowl now hangs in our living room, where the walls have been painted to match the turquoise of the aquarium sketch.
Did my purchase keep the artist fed for a month? Probably not. In fact, in writing this article I learned that the gallery I purchased the painting from has shut down and the artist is now displaying her work at another location. But that does not mean that the purchase was not meaningful. Her work has enriched my life, and I am pleased to have been able to support her with words and finances.
The question of what creativity is worth is one I consider often. It’s hard for me to set aside the practical and spend on the beautiful, but I am beginning to learn that beautiful does not always mean frivolous. At the heart of this post is the realization that money has many uses, and one use is purchasing a work of art. Just like any other purchase, it can be planned for and enjoyed. I hope to do more of both in the future, and I’d like to encourage you to do the same.
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