In a recent New York Times profile of KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly), the famed visual artist talks about the industry’s implicit prejudice against so-called commercial art, which seems to be a kind of code for art that actually generates substantial income for its creator. As KAWS puts it, “There’s a sense that you can be a commercial artist or a fine artist, but you cannot do both.”
When we here at CHF read this piece, we felt compelled to respond to it. Although the newspaper did not publish our letter, we share it with you here.
To the Editor:
Should commercial success taint an artist’s work? Your profile of the artist KAWS (“XX Marks the Spot,” May 15, 2019) reveals the destructive bias that persists among a large swath of the art world. If the answer to the question is yes, then the only logical conclusion is that visual artists must starve for legitimacy. And starve they do; a recent survey found that a majority earn less than $30,000 per year, despite contributing hundreds of billions of dollars to our nation’s economy—nearly five times more than the agricultural sector.
Does The Starry Night’s high price tag diminish Vincent van Gogh’s standing as an artist? Or is his success acceptable to the industry’s gatekeepers because he never reaped the financial benefits? Do the rules apply only to the work of living artists? And who gets to set these rules, anyway?
The organization I work for provides artists with business training, something they rarely receive in art school. The biggest hurdle we face is not in teaching artists how to market their art, manage their finances, or negotiate a contract—they do fine on all counts when given the chance—but rather it’s in helping them to overcome the archaic belief that they don’t deserve to make a sustainable living from their work, even as the rest of the industry makes a fine living off of them.
Editorial Director, The Clark Hulings Foundation for Visual Artists