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|Ask Mark Kostabi
by Mark Kostabi
|You seem like a frightened little boy. It must be exhausting, trying to hold up your haughty front to the world everyday. It seems to me your arms are getting tired.
There may be some truth to your pop psychology. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a fearful panic -- with a limp arm dangling like a noodle from lack of blood circulation, caused by sleeping in a weird position, probably to hold back the hoards of bogeymen invading my bedroom in the dark.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that this little scaredy-cat is one of the few who can actually make a comfortable living from selling fine art. I won't name the artist who shows in a major Chelsea gallery and gets great reviews but has to shower at the gym for lack of funds to install a shower at home. I won't name all the other exhibiting artists who basically still live with their parents or have a lowly day job while they hold up a "haughty front" -- sashaying down West 24th Street, acting like Mr. or Ms. Know-It-All.
Despite the bogeymen at night, during the day I am secure, thanks to the trainloads of cash being funneled into my studios daily in New York and Rome by ever-eager dealers and ebullient eBayers -- and thanks to the constant stream of art book publishers with their contracts and museum curators with their show proposals -- so I do know what I'm talking about and I'm here to share my insights.
Dear Mr. Kostabi,
I work in a major contemporary art museum and I am also a painter. I like to think that I will one day make it big with my paintings, and am merely waiting for the right moment. I have sold my work and everyone who sees it enjoys it (most importantly my eight year old son). I often meet big-time dealers, collectors and critics at work but feel that it would be improper to promote myself while at work -- I wouldn't want to upstage the director and chief curator. Should I feel conflicted about asking them to visit my studio?
Any advice is appreciated.
A reluctant registrar
Dear "Also a Painter,"
To promote your own business while working on-the-clock for someone else is generally considered inappropriate (unless your employer explicitly doesn't object), but we all "promote ourselves while at work" in some form or another. It's all a matter of style. I'm sure you'll agree that there's nothing wrong with asking someone you meet at work out for coffee or starting up a conversation about an artist you mutually admire which could lead into friendship. We all make friends at work. Don't ask them to visit your studio -- let them ask you -- after you've become friends outside of work.
You talk about "upward networking" as a way to access to the important artists and art business people in New York. How do you and other people on the receiving end of that networking activity respond, particularly when you're accosted at an inappropriate time? It's one thing to write diplomatic answers (e.g., I don't have time to offer a critique on your artwork), but do you have a good (that is, delicate but powerful) brush-off for annoying personal encounters?
Dear Thank you,
Marketing is foreplay. Closing the deal is orgasm. Many people cluelessly bounce around the art world endlessly seeking instant career orgasms. For years I've endured awkward moments with these lost, selfish souls. I didn't want to become a typical art snob and simply snub all accosters because I remember being clueless myself and it was no fun being snubbed. That's one reason why I write this column.
Now when I'm accosted, unless the accoster butts right into the middle of a private conversation, which deserves no sympathy, I cheerfully tell the wannabe that their desire, success in the art world, is one of my favorite topics and that I sometimes give three-hour lectures on the subject, I wrote a book about it, Conversations with Kostabi, and I write this column at Artnet.
I tell them that it's impossible to do their request justice in a few minutes, so they might want to attend my lectures, read my book or my Artnet column. Even if the person is twice my age I have to realize that they are the student and I must be the patient teacher.
Sometimes the accosters are profoundly insulted and express it -- like the beggar who spits in your face if you don't give him a coin -- but usually it works. I don't "brush them off" -- I recruit them into the Kostabi propaganda machine. I know it sounds cynical but my brother, Paul Kostabi, and I agree that frequently, if you help someone without getting paid, they will hate you later.
Thank you for your helpful, gut-wrenchingly honest column. My question is this: on an "emerging" artist's bio/resume how important are those juried show listings and "award winning artist" plugs? Should I keep putting in the effort and expense to enter these contests or would my energies be better spent elsewhere?
Your energies would be better spent elsewhere. In my 20 years experience in the professional art world I have never once heard a successful artist acknowledge the relevance of participating in a juried show.
Juried shows reek of provincial inconsequence. This could change however. Here's my idea for the Museum of Modern Art (you heard it here first): after you resolve your dispute with the strikers, hold a massive art contest at P.S. 1 or some vast warehouse in some other irrelevant borough, where anyone can participate with a small work. Insist that Robert Gober and Mathew Barney also participate. Have it judged in two categories: "People's Choice" (allowing all of the general public to judge by voting) and "Critics Choice." Give the winners in both categories shows at MoMA.
In an earlier column, you said to take charge of your career by going onto the Internet and marketing and selling your own work via the innumerable outlets (e.g., eBay). I agree with this and plan on doing so in the very near future. While I am an unestablished artist, you seem fairly established. Does selling your work on eBay, at low prices, in any way dilute your market for the work you sell through galleries?
Dear Mr. Red,
There seems to be some logic to the issue that you raise, and many dealers have uttered the same concern to me, as they continue to clamor for more paintings. The reality is, however, that I feel more financially secure now than ever before thanks to the vast reach of the Internet and the consistent purchases. I have no intention of stopping. Nor do I want to stop working with good dealers. Although I've felt the temptation, I've decided to take the advice of Irit Krygier, who wrote, in her brilliant article -- "The Artists' Rules" in Coagula -- "Don't malign dealers as a whole. It makes you sound like a loser!"
Maybe the reason dealers can still sell my work for high prices in galleries despite the fact that prices are sometimes lower on eBay and Artnet is the same reason people pay double or triple for something uptown at Bergdorf Goodman instead of shopping for discounts elsewhere. They want the convenience, the service -- they don't bother with garage sales, flea markets or online auctions where they are not always guaranteed to win what they bid on. We all pay more for convenience and service when we eat in a restaurant instead of preparing the same dish at home for a much lower price.
I have read your column since its inception, and eagerly await each new month's column as it appears. I have also steered several friends to it, as your advice is so down-to-earth and free of the typical artsy-fartsy pretense. I have a couple of questions I hope you could clear up for me, to wit:
What's the best path for the self-taught artist? I have the impression that this phrase, "self-taught artist," brings to mind cartoon colors, bad perspective and childish draftsmanship, none of which applies to my work…. I do not want to be lumped together with convicts, mental patients and other "outsiders."
How do I stand out from the crowd on eBay? There is an enormous quantity of artwork for sale on eBay. Listing for sale online is one thing for an artist with an established following, but quite another thing for a complete unknown. Many of the listings on eBay haven't had even one bid.
I hope you can set me straight on those matters.
P.S.: Regarding last month's Danielowich letter -- what on earth is a "Dasein"?
Don't volunteer the information that you are "self-taught" until after you are famous -- then it might be interesting. Only say that you are self-taught if someone asks you where you went to art school and don't be defensive -- steer the topic of conversation elsewhere.
Regarding standing out on eBay: 99 percent of the people I speak to say the same thing. "But you're already famous -- it won't work for an unknown artist." You are all wrong. The reason I got famous is because I didn't say "but." I jumped at every opportunity with positive enthusiasm and a strategy of elastic experimentation. EBay is now making me much more famous and the 1 percent of nondoubters are very happy, sending me scores of emails about their online success despite their lack of a brand name.
When you post, use several honest, searchable words in your initial description so that you are visible in many categories. Always include your name and always post at least 10 different things at once. You will develop a following and you will cut through the clutter.
Can anyone tell us what a "Dasein" is?
About three years ago when I first arrived in New York as an aspiring artist, I showed my work to a big gallery in SoHo that is known more for its ability to sell than their discourse with art history. They loved my work and offered me a show "in two years" because their schedule was full until then. I agreed -- but over the next two years I became acquainted with the younger, hipper, cutting-edge art scene in Chelsea and I didn't bother staying in touch with the big SoHo gallery. I am now friendly with many artists who show at important Chelsea galleries. When the big SoHo gallery didn't call me after two years to follow up on the promised show, I was kind of relieved because my new artist friends and dealers in Chelsea would probably not respect me for showing in a pretty commercial gallery that doesn't get reviewed.
Then suddenly, after three years (one year late), the big SoHo gallery called me with great enthusiasm wanting to schedule the show immediately. Although torn, I said "yes" -- impulsively -- but now I have second thoughts because I'm worried it might be the kiss of death to my serious art career.
What should I do?
If you didn't want to show at the big SoHo gallery you had an easy out when they failed to call you after two years as promised. But your impulsive "yes" locked you into a verbal agreement which, should you back out now, would make you even more flaky than the gallery. They could claim that their intentions were good but were only late -- but you would be indisputably breaking a commitment.
At this point, if you want out, you should politely ask if they would cancel and offer to compensate them for any expenses they may have incurred preparing for the show.
If they say, "No, you have to do the show," then take the high road. Do your best and go back to Chelsea as soon as your commitment is fulfilled.
Although it's harder to establish serious art credentials after showing in "commercial" galleries, it's not impossible. I know at least two respected artists that show in prominent, serious galleries who both started by showing at "schlock" galleries.
Frank Stella once said, "What you see is where you see it." I don't entirely agree. Although packaging is important, especially in the beginning, ultimately, if you took Caravaggio's Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and stuck it in SoHo's tackiest tourist trap art shop, it would still look awesome, in fact probably even more powerful, considering the weaker surrounding works.
By showing in "very commercial" galleries I've probably lost a few "serious" opportunities, but at the same time Axl Rose, David Robinson and many other celebrities have bought my work. Ironically, I've been written about in art history books and appeared on the cover of Flash Art three times partially because I've embraced these scorned avenues of art distribution. But I started by showing primarily in serious galleries and my exhibitions everywhere else are considered part of my "conceptual art project." So for now, consider Irit Krygier's advice: "You want to be in shows where you are seen in the context of artists that you think are significant. You want to be in a gallery showing work that you identify with and are proud to show next to."
I am a photographer who has been living and practicing art in New York for the last five years. I have been having much success lately with a number of important group shows and sales have been steady, most often directly out of my studio. Anyway, I had a very nice gallerist, Daniel Silverstein, to my studio last week to look at my work. He seemed to really like what I was doing and had some very intelligent and inspiring observations about the art. Here's the thing -- he wanted to buy five pieces from me -- which is quite an honor, but he wanted to buy them for half of what I ordinarily get for the work.
After costs, etc., this would leave me with very little money for each work.
How can I survive in New York City if my profits are so low? At the same time, I don't want to not sell to such an important dealer.
Artist not sure what to do
Dear Artist not sure what to do,
First of all I want my readers to know that this email came from the address of Daniel Silverstein -- so Danny Boy himself probably wrote or commissioned this letter -- a cute promotional tactic that publicists sometimes use on the behalf of their clients: they send stacks of "letters to editor" to magazines and newspapers, from fake readers, which cleverly include the name of their client.
In any case, the issue that Danny Boy raises is real. Let me just say that it was a positive turning point in my financial status when I started selling large quantities of works to dealers at greater than 50 percent discounts instead of dealing with the nightmare of consignment. If you can get dealers to pay up-front for large quantities of work, even if you only get 25 percent of retail at first, like I did, it can really make life easier. Later, after you're no longer desperate to sell, you can insist on a higher percentage.
Getting dealers to pay in advance gives them an incentive to work harder because then they have a real investment in the work -- instead of some tentative, non-committal, risk-free (for them) consignment agreement.
Now that we know that Daniel Silverstein likes to work this way, all of his artists should ask for payment up front. And the other Chelsea dealers should follow Danny's lead or else all the good artists will rush to be in Danny's stable.
A great thing for American and other non-Italian artists who show in Italy is that almost all Italian dealers are accustomed to paying up front for the whole show.
Dear Mark Kostabi:
I'm a young, talented video artist (MFA from Ohio State University) that makes funny conceptual stuff like William Wegman or Bruce Nauman's work from the early '70s. My video equipment is old, and even my clothes look like something Nauman wore in '72. It just comes naturally to me, but could this be a problem? Is the timing right? How would this go over in New York? I'm from Columbus, Ohio -- people seem to like it here.
I love Columbus, Ohio. I love the Peter Eisenmann architecture of the Wexner Center and the Convention Center. Ann Hamilton lives in Columbus. Did you ever take a marketing class from Roger Blackwell at Ohio State? He's a great speaker.
I am sure that because of your deadpan, quirky sense of humor you will be a great success in New York. The timing is right.
Your art is so bad. Do you realize this? There is no getting around it. It's awful.
Although I enjoy your pungent prose, with its perplexed exasperation, I must disagree, as I imagine so would the Ramones, who commissioned me to design their final album cover, Adios Amigos, and Brooke Shields, Donald Kuspit and L.L. Cool J, all of who, agreed to let their bodies be my canvas for a photo book I created with Linda Mason and Seiichi Tanaka. Also, Bill Clinton proudly owns the portrait I painted of him.
Send me a list of those whom you admire and I'll bet many of them are in my court.
Glad to see you don't censor your column. It is unfortunate that contra-Kostabis don't seem to get it. Contemporary art is a packaged commodity. You can impress a two-year-old with confectionery, a 20-year-old with color and a few lines in a frame, and a 55-year-old dealer with dollar signs. What sells is what sells, and it sells because of the package. If someone calls you a fraud, and someone else calls you a "product of the East Village," and there are scores of fake Kostabis being sold in West Palm Beach, then there are thousands of wealthy idiots out there who would love to collect your art, knowing this recognition alone can help on the resale price. Art is a con -- as much of a con as stock shuffling on Wall Street. It is image brokering and pawning. I feel this way every time I read the artist statement of every newly minted MFA. We all know it is a con, only the brave and successful admit it.
As far as collectors go, I think the ratio of idiots with money to genuinely intelligent people with money is 8:1 (about the same ratio as frauds to talented artists). These are good odds for contemporary artists and wannabes. Shooting fish in a barrel is a good analogy. As long as you package your art and buy some expensive clothes / haircut / lower Manhattan club scene jargon -- and are not entirely ugly -- you will find rich idiots to buy your art at social events. I am thinking of course of the rich idiots like Bill Gates who can't pronounce Leo's Codex in its entirety, yet can certainly own it -- they will be pleased to give you a negligible part of their fortune. Same with those who tolerate Balthus, or those who tolerate Schnabel, or those who live in Miami and consume new Britto's as if color and design theory is the next big thing -- well, I think Britto sucks. I'm tired of Haring too, and soon to be tired of Essenhigh, and Rae, as much as I am now tired of all YBA's. 100 years from now, we will only be concerned with well-packaged philosophy cons and elegant street cons like Clemente, Cucchi, Basquiat, Twombly, Beuys, even Kostabi (just kidding). All the young artists out there should become Theosophists, and learn to be extremely jaded while developing either candy-coated personae and couture exterior mixed with Soho sidewalk / salon attitude. Those are the essential ingredients of making a canvas a totally packaged commodity, and making you rich.
Back to the analogy, most people who write to your column are confused as to: 1) where to buy the gun to shoot the fish, or 2) where to find the fish, or 3) the moral and ethical problems of shooting helpless fish.
Art as a commodity is a fraud. Selling it to people as "fine" is a fraud. Being taken "seriously" in the art world is as much a fraud as expecting Derrida or Sartre to solve philosophical questions surrounding esthetics, modernity and culture to help build a better collection. Well, maybe Derrida can help deconstruct the fraud that is modern art into little frauds.
My point / question is: art is a fraud, the sale of art for large sums is a con, and artists must first grasp this in order to benefit from the prospects of running in the game. So what do you think?
What do I think? -- I think you remind me of Donald Trump when he said: "Modern art is a con." But I couldn't disagree with you and Mr. Trump more. Some years ago, in the provocative spirit of Dada and media-performance-art, I expanded on Trump's quip and said on national TV, "Modern art is a con and I am the world's greatest con artist."
I was consequently invited to perform on numerous news shows and talk shows on as the quintessential specimen that proved your simplistic, crowd-pleasing thesis. I said, "Only a fool would buy a Kostabi," repeatedly, which shocked the general public but made me more famous in the process and gave me the platform on which I can now say, "Only a fool believed me then."
In truth, I agree with Cézanne, who said art is "a priesthood demanding pure beings who belong to it completely." Art is no more a con than is science or mathematics. Although the general public would never be so presumptuous to critique a complex scientific theory, it has no compunctions about dismissing Balthus, Essenhigh and Rae without knowing the first thing about color theory, composition, negative space, glazing, scumbling, One Shot enamel or how to traverse the wonderful avenues and alleys of the human imagination.
Thank you for your letter, Mark Farkinwar -- you have articulated a widely held misconception about art. Although the art world has its share of fools and frauds, as does any profession, we in the priesthood will eschew your boisterous yet bitter rant and continue pondering whether in fact Guercino, with his extreme and sudden shifts of focus, anticipated photography before Vermeer.
See you next month. By the way, for those of you who complain that my column is always late, coming out somewhere in the middle of the month -- have you ever paused to consider that it might actually be early -- for the upcoming month? Perhaps the glass is half full!
MARK KOSTABI is a New York artist. Readers are invited to email questions to: