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The Business of Being an Artist

He cultivated relationships and a mercurial public persona that made him appear a celebrity even before he was a celebrity. He charmed the literati, the art dealers, the wealthy buyers. He schmoozed with the best of them, or ranted and shook his fist -- whatever it took to project the image of himself that he felt necessary at that moment.

It worked. He and his art were successful beyond reason, beyond any objective measure of quality. Perhaps that personality would have been successful in any field that involved maneuvering through the public, creating an aura for itself.

For that same reason, Vincent Van Gogh failed utterly and miserably. He had no skill for self-promotion, no gift for the art of business. He had few friends, and a dark psychology that strained the few relationships he maintained.

He was devoted to his art and his vision was wonderful and radical. But Van Gogh never caught the public imagination, never was able to build an audience. Picasso sold everything. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. It's a miracle his work was preserved after his death, a miracle that he is remembered for the great artist he truly was.

Do we value Van Gogh more highly because he never considered his audience, focused on his art and died miserably? Perhaps. His misery had the unintended marketing consequence of allowing later generations to romanticize his suffering. Maybe we love him more because he fits our preconception of the tormented artist.

Do we value Picasso any less because he was a cad and deliberately successful? Clearly, no. There are price tags on Picasso's work that prove the point.

Here's my conclusion: One important part of being an artist is surviving to make art and yet another part is reaching your audience -- preferably while you're alive. Misery does not add value. Carefully considered, marketing is not the enemy of art.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.

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