Have you ever looked at a popular piece of art, and puzzled over why people are willing to spend money on it? Or wondered why certain pieces of your own art attract buyers more than others?
The answer may actually lie in the purpose of art itself, because ultimately, art is a form of expression. When you create a work of art, you’re starting a conversation. You invite others to join the conversation as soon as you share that work, even if it’s just hanging in your home or sitting on an easel where someone else can see it.
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And like any form of communication, some people understand and express art with ease, while others find it confusing or intimidating.
Think of it this way. . . the world is full of languages, and among those languages are dialects and cultural influences that affect all levels of communication. Even when people are speaking their own native language, misunderstandings happen every day.
Now picture all of the different artists in the world, with different backgrounds, using an incredible variety of subjects, mediums, and techniques. When artists from these different art cultures interact with each other, they have the common ground of “artspeak” which is, in a sense, a similar language. And even then, there are bound to be some issues as they try to understand each other.
But as these artists bring their unique languages to the viewing public, the gap in understanding widens even more. Sometimes, the meaning is completely lost.
When I began painting regularly and posting work online, I originally took the view that if people didn’t “get” my art, it must be a failure on their part. I quickly realized that this would be the equivalent of moving to a foreign country and refusing to pick up any of the language, and subsequently getting angry because no one understood what I was trying to say.
By viewing the whole process as a conversation, I discovered that if I was willing to learn from others, they would be more willing to learn from me. Not every conversation I have throughout the day is going to be clear and successful, and neither is every art interaction I have with a viewer. Different backgrounds and “languages” are going to always be a factor when I share my art, so it’s up to me to either learn from the experience or try to find someone who speaks my own language.
If you agree, then this brings us to the big question: what steps can an artist take when faced with the frustration of not being understood or appreciated?
In my opinion, artists who want to resonate more with the buying public should learn the buyers’ “language” and adjust their artwork accordingly. If your goal is simply to sell your art, this might be the best route for you. Look around. What is selling? Can you make art like that? Or take your most popular pieces and create a lot more work that is similar so your fans will get more of what they want.
This is what I see a lot of big name artists doing, and if it works for them, who am I to judge? Everyone’s goals are different.
If your goal is to be understood as an artist without changing the art that you make, you may have a little more work ahead of you (and it’s going to be up to you to teach the public your unique “language.”)
Start with some basic communication skills. Look at your artwork, and find some things that a viewer who doesn’t speak your language might still be able to identify with and enjoy. Does your art have bright color? What is the subject, or the emotion that inspired the piece?
Then look at your title. Can you change your title so that it lets the viewer in on the meaning of the work? This way you don’t have to change how you make your art, you’re just adjusting how you present it to others.
At most art events, I like to display a few straightforward pieces to start conversations. Many people like boats, flowers, and animals, so I’ll bring some works featuring those recognizable subjects to catch the eyes of patrons.
In the same way that greeting people in their native languages makes them feel at ease, finding something recognizable in your art makes viewers feel more comfortable and welcome. Even if your work is abstract, you can hang pieces with dominant colors and clear titles that share your intentions with the viewers, which invites them to join the conversation.
If you’re thinking, “I shouldn’t have to explain my work or try to make it understandable to others,” you’re not alone. You may be perfectly fine with having only a select few people deeply know your work, and that’s great if it meets your needs as an artist.
If you enjoy having a larger group of people connect with your work, however, the labor that you put into teaching someone to speak your language will certainly pay off.
Just taking the time to share a little bit of your language and learn the art language of others will be a great reward by itself—the appreciate that comes, and any sales that may follow, are just icing on the cake.