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Understanding Commissions (Or, How To Upset A Salesperson)

WHY SOME ARTISTS CAN’T SEEM TO WRAP THEIR HEAD AROUND COMMISSIONS

Now go home and get your f**kin’ shine box.  Ok, ok, we don’t mean “you’s” no disrespect, and sure, a lot can happen or be said by accident.  As we have said throughout The Gallerist: never take anything personally.  We don’t; but snide cheap shots, delusions of grandeur, and wasting people’s time with outrageous pricing is well… a waste of time.  Much of what we write about in our blog is based on real experience, and we feel compelled in an honest way to share that experience with the rest of the world in order to foster a better understanding for how it all works.   

The Gallery is a Casino (Sort Of)

 

Maybe instead of a Goodfellas meme, we should have used a Casino meme?  In the world of the non-finite/non-guaranteed, dealing with artwork is a gamble for both the Artist and the Gallery.  Why? 

For The Artist:  most galleries require you to spend money to ship product, and perhaps charge a small (or large) fee to participate.  The further away, the higher the shipping, the higher the gamble, especially if you factor is something like size and weight. If you price too low, you risk losing money, but, if you price too high, you risk not selling anything at all, and subsequently paying to get your art sent back.  Most of the time you might not know the experience level of the gallery, or whether anybody staffed there actually does anything at all to sell.  Or–you’re not “in it” for sales or do the “NFS” thing (with a for-profit business), in which case, you are wasting someone’s time; unless, you’re showing in an exhibition with a school or a non-for profit and you understand there are no stakes or very little sales incentive.  If you live in the same city as a gallery, you’re not needing to recoup anything for shipping, so don’t expect to price things higher.  

For The Gallery:  Although art is their business, untested art is a huge gamble, especially when there is overhead involved.  As we have said in the past, unless you operate at the highest echelons, most artists (and mid-level galleries that host them) generally fall into the category of “untested”.  The word means exactly that.  Nobody knows who you are and whether you will sell.  However, even “tested” work can be a gamble if their is no market or demand for it.   If the curator selects work that is terrible, nothing sells. If the work is priced astronomically high for your market range, you risk that nothing sells. Most of the time, a gallery is exhibiting in order to test the untested in the mere hopes that they can make some money by selecting quality works of art and building repeat clientele that trust their vision and/or expertise.  Likewise, an artist tests different markets for who might be interested in their product, and that’s normal.  

What Are Commissions?  

 

As you may or may not know, commissions are typically an amount of money paid to a salesperson in order to sell something for you.  For some people, they fixate on the idea that this is somehow a scam or that the salesperson is ripping them off.  Worse, fixating on the idea “Why do they deserve the money for something that is mine?”   (Remember–if you could sell it yourself, you would).  The majority of the time (to the benefit of a gallery) it is artists looking for galleries, and not necessarily the other way around.  However, that’s not always the case. High-end galleries typically select artists that they want to work with, and in turn, it is a higher stakes gamble, usually involving a larger “bet” (i.e. overhead, rent, etc.) Prices of works in these types of galleries are, as you can imagine, considerably higher. In many instances, the gallery is taking 50% commission and feels confident that the higher price tag is normal for their level of clientele.  The other 50% is in theory what the artist is comfortable accepting for their work.  The downside is that high-end galleries may only show one artist at a time and likely have a “no solicitations policy” for everyone else.  Regardless, all galleries that don’t rely on a trust fund are essentially competing for the same thing: selling art.  

Should you opt to listen to social media, and all of the “do-it-yourself” type ads decrying art galleries as some sort of scam, just remember that the gallery is one of the fewest (and shrinking) ways to display physical art in a setting conducive to selling art.  For most consumers, seeing is believing. All of those “do it yourself” online art markets, are also, by the way, charging you fees and commissions.  Guess what?  Membership based organizations are charging you dues with the trade-off that their member shows have a larger marketing range.  They may only host 1-4 larger shows per year.   There’s also nobody there selling anything.  One recent member show we attended in Pittsburgh was staffed only by elderly volunteers and had inconsistent hours of operation.

With online marketplaces, it’s you versus the entire world (and you’ll probably still lose out on the shipping). 

#1 Assumption

 

As we said, commissions are an amount paid to a salesperson to do work for you, assuming they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Assumption #1 however, is that the gallery or salesperson is just sitting there doing nothing and customers and art buyers/collectors are just magically lining up at the door.  Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. With any sale of something expensive (say, over $80), there is a lot more involved. This usually means “courting” and/or gathering leads and retaining the proper clients. Courting can be anything from texts, emails, and phone calls, targeted marketing and advertising, to driving art to peoples houses, hosting receptions, and dropping money at restaurants and bars. Additionally, it also means having to open the gallery and be there for long periods of time and during off-hours for special appointments, and, curating pieces that you think a client will like. Hint: all of this work is unpaid. On average, VCG is open about 23-30 hours a week, but the work never stops. Those hours include every Friday and Saturday night, and both Saturday and Sunday mornings (peak hours). This doesn’t include “off the clock” time for home appointments, attending other gallery receptions, artist studio visits, shipping and handling, and managing up to three or more shows at a time (the one in the gallery, and the next two that haven’t even happened yet).  

So, if you have ever wondered why a salesperson should get paid “for doing nothing”, remember, that while you’re out having fun with your friends and family, eating brunch, going on vacations, playing with your kids, and enjoying your weekends, there is somebody else working their ass off to sell your stuff That’s also not to mention the time that the artist gets to spend working on the art, and not having to deal with marketing and sales. Conversely, the Gallery is in business by choice, but money is made through hustle, sacrifice, and having the motivation and sheer energy to do it. 

How To Upset A Salesperson (And Not Be Invited Again)

 

Most artists might think they go unnoticed when it comes to pricing (and that’s fine, please do the homework and the math), but the reality is, salespeople check. The guaranteed way to upset a salesperson is a situation where you feel that you need to raise your price in order for the salesperson to “earn” their money.  In a sense, making it that much more challenging to sell your stuff.  We’re not saying that your time and art are not valuable, but at the very least, try to meet in the middle somewhere and for God’s sake- don’t even say the words “for you to earn your money” out loud.

Passively, you may mark up the commission on top of your price on a loan contract and think that no one will notice. How can you tell?  Initially you stated “A”, and then you wrote “B”.   Beyond that is the fact that the art just isn’t worth that much money (BTW–it is also still showing on the Artist’s website listed for a much lower price).  

Depending on time and any potential interest from a Buyer, the Gallery will pick up the phone or write an email to ask an Artist what is the case with the markup, and start the process of negotiating.  As part of the gamble, if you remain firm, you risk losing it all.  With group shows, most prices come in ranges, and unless there is something egregious, there just isn’t enough time to email and call everyone who pulls an increase. If that’s the price you want, sure, that’s the price that we’ll list.  It’s funny though, when the price sheet has that glaring $6,000 price tag for something that may be worth $900 (minus commission of course) and everything else on the price list is $2,000 or below.  Overpricing (especially when done at the last minute) makes both the Artist and the Gallery look bad.  A good Gallery will however select works within price ranges that are compatible to everything on display (but that’s not to say that sometimes there is a Wild Card or two).   

Bottom line, don’t think it goes unnoticed and when in doubt, ask the Gallery or Salesperson.  If they don’t respond or give you a rude response, than they probably aren’t somebody that you want to work with.   It’s not that the skills of the salesperson are bad and they don’t dream of making thousands of dollars, it’s simply that the object is overpriced for what it is, skill level aside.  Every sellable object has a limit and most salespeople are not Donald Draper.  

Sheer Cluelessness

Unfortunately, a Gallery cannot fix plain dumb.   As a Gallery, we reach out to people on social media, etc., from time to time and ask them for a price.  Here’s a great example (and the art wasn’t that good):  

 

We are assuming the Artist thought we wanted to buy the piece off of them directly.    Either way, a gallery is not buying a piece of unknown art into Inventory for $4900 and then trying to resell it.  Nor are they going to waste their time taking it on loan and marking it up to earn their commission.  Maybe in some far-off world of the global cabal of elite galleries and collectors. We should venture to say that if you’re making that much money, you’re not probably not answering random Instagram messages. If you have 50K+ followers, why is it still unsold?  Because BOTS don’t buy art.  Even if this Artist assumed a 50% split, that means the piece is worth half as much, and then another 50% of that.  Therefore, the piece’s actual worth is $1,225 on the high end, which should be the real List Price, and get split another 30%-50% on commission if sold.  So, the artist’s take-home price of the piece is $612.50, which is about what the piece was it is worth at a glance.

(P.S. The hilarious part is that the artist then offers a 10% discount and free shipping, as though this is some kind of concession. Think that’s rude to them?  An equally sized piece from this Artist was listed elsewhere online for half as much, and the piece in question was made 3 years ago (i.e. sitting around in your Inventory).  Three words: “Adios, good luck“.  

 

Standing Firm

While we respect that Artist’s have a certain sense of pride, being (or acting) firm can sometimes be another chump move.  Standard practice dictates that whatever you say your price is, the Gallery or salesperson can go 5-10% discount without permission, if it means making a deal (and especially if it is an Art Collector).  Sure, Art Collectors have money–but they don’t need more art.  What Artists may not realize, is that a Buyer might be interested in 4 different things, with the intention of only buying one of them. This is where in all fairness, price matching sometimes come into play, especially if that means all 4 things fall into relatively the same price range.  Something is getting sold, and by this point in time, the salesperson is not taking into account your personal feelings on the matter.  

Therefore, if yours is the art that sells, don’t cry about the 10% discount. Remember above, the amount of work it took to even get to that point, and that out of a room full of art changing constantly, yours was even considered up to that point in time, whether as a goal of the salesperson, or from the interest of a Buyer. 

Worse yet, don’t tell the salesperson that they somehow fucked up or say something to the effect of “well that should come out of your commission.”  Grossly underselling something is one thing. Discounting for a Collector is another, especially when it means more business–and more potential business and/or exposure for the artist.   When dealing with extreme amounts of money by all means be upset (or maybe go to court).  But in the realm of the mid-range, haggling over $25-$40.  If it went from $2,500 to $2,250. Just don’t. The businessman is going to do what the businessman is going to do.  If you don’t like it, don’t loan the art in the first place.

Not many people wake up in the morning and think “I’m going to go buy a wall hanging today.” As you might imagine, selling art and getting people interested in art (outside of certain major destination art cities), can be a challenge.  This is also not to mention competing with the Internet, and home decor places like Ikea, West Elm, and the like.  Mass produced aside, a Gallery is looking for the most unique objects possible, and inviting people who buy those types of things to come and hang out at their place.  All art is unique, but in the larger world of art, many styles and motifs are not.  Abstract art may be in high fashion, but that doesn’t mean that yours is going to sell. 

Space For Lease

Take a 30% commission for example.  On a $500 painting, the Gallery takes $150 and the artist takes $350.   If the gallery costs $2,000 per month to operate, they would have to sell nearly fourteen $500 paintings just to break even- and they aren’t even keeping their commission, let alone a livable salary. 

Maybe they sell one $3,000 painting–that’s still only $900 for the gallery.  You can see where this is going.  Look at things from a  different perspective:  instead of paying a commission, you are paying for the a sublease of a section of wall within a building.  What?  We’ll explain:  if the piece sells in the opening night, you may wonder what skill was involved in selling it and why pay the commission for not a whole lot of work?  Well: a.) the lead-up to the Reception in and of itself is a lot of work, and b.) your artwork is still going to hang there for a month or two with a red dot on it, thereby occupying a piece of real estate that could otherwise be used to sell something else.  If your art is large you pay large, and if small, you pay small.  

This is not to say that money can’t be had if all of the cards are played correctly. Either way, commission is price that artists have to pay, sometimes not scratching the surface of the salesperson’s overhead (in a brick and mortar setting).  Low price items may be there to attract walk-ins, who in turn, may spend more on mid-higher priced items. Not all commissions are equal to the relative size of the space they occupy.  They are reflective primarily to the expertise and market position of the salesperson.   Whatever your bet may be low or high, it’s all part of rolling the dice to get work shown and hopefully, some money in your pocket. 

DEALING WITH IT

COPING WITH THE WORD “NO” AND UNDERSTANDING IT’S BUSINESS

There comes a point in all aspects of life, where we all must come to grips with the word “no”.   “No” comes in many different forms, and call it whatever you want to: rejected, not accepted, un-liked, [no response], sorry no, fuck off,  unfortunately no, not interested, (door closing sound), and the latest in fashion: ghosting.  In German, the word “nein“, was famously told to a struggling artist, who as we all know, didn’t end well.  The human mind is so varying in complexity, emotions, and different responses and interactions that with any individual, will elicit different responses.  How we each choose to interpret and cope with these responses and emotions is solely the responsibility of the self.  Lately, the media trend (and downfall of society) would like us all to believe that the latter is not the case, but let’s stick to art or go 50/50 on bad parenting.  Coming to stability with the reality of art and business, and managing emotions such as anger, can be challenging, especially when dealing with something as personal as your own art.  If you read no further, remember the golden rule: take nothing personally.  Second, remember that nobody will book an asshole.

(Disclaimer: the purpose of this article is not to shame or belittle anyone, it’s a free column of advice designed to help you).  

So You’re An Artist?  Who Cares?  (Ok- We Do, It’s Our Job)

You’ve at whatever point practiced something (or had a stroke of genius) and perhaps created a work of art or a series of artwork.  Great?  So what’s next?  If you live in a “yes” bubble and have decent self esteem, your family, close friends, and you yourself are all your immediate champions.  Their role is to support you because they have to, which is unfortunately not the case of the rest of the 99.9% of the world.  Sad fact: The world owes you nothing and if your friends are lying to you, you need new friends.  With most artists (and musicians, etc.), there comes a time where you begin to feel the desire to show your work in a public space.  Stepping into this space, you need to be equipped with extremely thick skin, some degree of determination and/or motivation, a sense of business, and most importantly, knowledge.  However, don’t confuse any of these things with the greatest evil of all, and the common thread of aspiring mass shooters: entitlement.  Creating a work of art doesn’t mean that you are entitled to something or that anyone should automatically pay attention.

Ego, Entitlement, and Empathy

Having some Ego is perfectly normal and we all need a healthy Ego to survive.  It gives us purpose, and when used in the right ways, motivation. Having too much ego means by psychological definition that you are a Narcissist and in more extreme circumstances, this often leads to manipulative behavior and Machiavellianism (e.g. win by any means necessary).  Entitlement on the other hand, is used broadly across the spectrum.  As opposed to the “I think therefore I am” in the classic philosophical sense, entitlement is a complete blunderfuck whereas “I am, therefore I deserve“.  In the art world (and in particular, galleries),  this would mean that John/Jane Doe Gallery Owner worked his/her whole life to start a business just waiting for the magical day for you to walk through the door.  Ironically enough, John/Jane Doe were just minding their own business when you suddenly came in unannounced.  That’s not to say that there are a wide variety of nice or mean John’s and Jane’s in galleries and shops across the world.

Any time anyone or anything enters the public sphere, you are subject to the cutthroat rules of the street.  Being cutthroat does not mean being a dick though.  Some higher end galleries may not ever let you in their door without an appointment, and may even have a security guard.  Humble John and Jane Doe Main Street USA however, seem to be nice folks and their doors are open with a cute little sign, because they like to be there, and they enjoy the business.  However, don’t get the wrong impression that simply because they are nice to you, this means that you are entitled to something from them.  News flash: They have to be nice to potential customers, or they go out of business.  Everyone is a potential customer, until they’re not.  Now, unless John or Jane has the stone-cold personality like the Great Wall of China, this means, that like any wandering homeless person, they’ll probably listen to your story and have some slight modicum of empathy for who you are, and why you are there.  If you’re not buying something, the longer you carry on, the longer it is you are probably wasting their time (But hey, maybe it’s a slow day?)   In short, empathy is cheap and wears off quickly when you turn into an entitled ass.  Using empathy to one’s advantage is nothing new, so if you’ve read this far, let’s talk business.

The Meanings of Unsolicited and Untested

In it’s most basic sense, the word unsolicited means that nobody asked you to be there, and that you are trying to either sell or scam your way into something, for financial gain, a handout, exposure, or otherwise.  As a physical shop, the shopkeeper is more or less bound to being there, as described in the previous paragraph.  In the world of Email and Social Media, this notion of unsolicited is amplified to the millionth degree.   That’s not to say you shouldn’t try!  Plenty of salespeople, inventors, politicians, and artist-types have gone down the dark and dusty unsolicited road since the dawn of time.  The point of this article is to say that you need to be strong enough mentally not to shoot up a daycare center when somebody tells you the word “no”.   

In email and digital forms, the gross assumption is that the recipient is sitting there waiting for your message at all hours of the day and night, and that you are entitled to access them and entitled to an immediate response. 

In it’s purest and most simplest form, answers to unsolicited (and solicited) people and materials boil down to a simple yes, or no.  If the person receiving it (who by the way, always has the advantage), has a “maybe” policy- tread lightly, and don’t lose your mind following up every single second of the day.   Remember, a “no” can also be “no response at all” (including ghosted), and that “maybe” has no specific meaning at all.  Too many maybes means that you’re being strung along, and yes, you should deserve an answer,  or just stop wasting your energy and move on.

Unless you are at the top of your art game, making a salary from that alone, and/or have some sort of notoriety outside of your neighborhood, this means one description: untested.  Untested means exactly what it looks like: nobody, including myself, knows who you are, how you perform, or if you will sell.  The majority of artists, musicians, writers, etc., are untested no matter if you want to call yourself “emerging”, “student”, early/mid career, or otherwise.  You may be mid-career in California, but not in Vermont.  Also, just because you paid for a booth at a fancy arts convention doesn’t mean anything.  What compelling reason should somebody take a chance on you?  

Calls For Artists

Let’s face it, with millions of untested artists in the world, it’s no big secret that many arts (including music and writing) related organizations use open calls as a way to discover new talent.  Moreover, that these same organizations (including Vestige) charge a nominal fee to apply.  Why is the fee a good way to go?   If you really wanted to dig that deep into consumer laws, the fact that you paid for something means that in theory (or the USA at least) you should receive something in return.  It’s a two-way, voluntary solicitation, and nobody is forced into anything that they don’t want to participate in.  While we can only speak for our gallery and track record, this means that you should ideally receive a yes, no, or maybe.  That small fee also goes towards all of the other services that you receive in the contract, and the time, effort, costs, and everything else that John and Jane Doe need to go through to give you the treatment that you signed up for.  If no or maybe, that’s unfortunately all that you might get, albeit you might get onto somebody’s radar and potentially a critique if you have the stomach for it.  Point being, before you go tell the Gallery to go fuck themselves, maybe stop for a second because from time to time, unexpected things might happen.  If you think this all sucks, you’re still free to find out some sort of other alternative.

 Sigh, we could go round and round forever….

 

Surprise, Surprise  

The simple reason that you never go spouting off to someone who says “no” to you, is that you really have no idea what is going on on the other side.  Call it reverse empathy.  From time to time, unknown things happen where people drop out, more art may be needed, etc. and maybe something might happen.  As it stands, with opening a business and an application to show art, the Gallery receives shitty messages and emails.  Without saying much, this most certainly will get you nowhere.  What you don’t know when you send off an unsolicited email is whether the person on the other end may suddenly have had an emergency, or just isn’t on the computer 24/7 waiting anxiously for your message, especially if it involves a show that is months in the future.  Great that you have the idea that you are going to do XYZ at some gallery, but the same can’t be said in the opposite (after all, they own the gallery and get to decide).  The strangest part is, that some people write “fuck you”, “you’re unprofessional”, or “eat shit”, before the Gallery even has a chance to reply!  That’s a bit self-defeatist now isn’t it?  It proves without a doubt that you’re too unstable to work with.  Game over.  

The similar “surprise surprise” situation is the entitled line-jumper.  This is the person that walked, drove (or emailed) to the shop or gallery, and as such, their entitlement level has gone up like inlflation under Joe Biden.  This person now expects to show you on their phone all of their artwork and get you commit on the spot to having them in a show- and better yet, a full feature or solo.  They don’t want to be bothered by the application process, and are either way too amazing (in their mind) for that, or claim they don’t have a computer, or the money (or both).  But how they found out about you on a computer, and paid for the nice clothes they are wearing, and car they showed up in, remains a total mystery.  Admittingly, this is a ballsy move, and sure, bravo for trying (maybe in some universe, it has worked before).  “I don’t have the money” doesn’t cut muster either, because if you are that broke, you should honestly be more worried about something other than an art show.  Student? Ask.

REAL LIFE SCENARIOS

ARTIST A: (aka: Lesson In What Not To Do) 

Gallery gets a call on a random weekday from another shop nearby saying that “there is a guy who knows you” pacing around his shop asking why the gallery isn’t open at 4 PM.  (Unforeseen life circumstance:  Gallery worker is picking up car from the mechanic and says kindly that they will be there at 4:30).  Gallery worker arrives at 4:15 to get the place opened up, wondering who this person is that says that he knows them?  Could be an old friend?  Stranger shows up at 4:20 instead of 4:30 and proceeds to question why the 4 PM advertised time was not adhered to.  Gallery worker has no idea who this guy is (it’s not an old friend).  They proceed to talk and immediately guy comes out asking for a solo art show while telling a sad story and shit talking every other art gallery around town.  Gallery worker explains that this is not possible, but offers a link to a group show opportunity as a way to get tested out.  Guy proceeds to pull out phone and starts showing the now uncomfortable gallery worker pictures of his artwork.  Nodding their head, the Gallery worker tries to remain nice and talk about art, and the guy continues to question why he cannot have a solo show. Says he has the perfect vision for the space.   Explanations ensue, and Gallery worker again suggests nicely that he leave his information and get on the mailing list.  After Artist leaves, he immediately follows the Gallery on IG and the Gallery worker’s personal IG page.  

A week or two later, Artist DM’s the Gallery asking again for specific wall space in an upcoming show, and says that he will only apply if given a certain space.  Gallery is too busy to respond for whatever the reason, and after no response, Gallery gets a shitty message at 5:56 AM:

 

(Luck has nothing to do with it)
 
ARTIST B: (aka: The Respectful Professional) 

Gallery’s latest show opens up and the day after the Opening Reception, a visitor enters the Gallery and is taking his time, looking at the exhibit.  Gallery worker begins talking with the guy, who as it turns out is also an Artist.  Artist admits with some humility that he applied for this particular art show, but was not selected.  He says that he wanted to see the show anyway, for personal enjoyment, and to see where to make future improvements.  After some professional conversation, Gallery says that his work was a “maybe” consideration (there were different curators), and the Artist asks for feedback, which the Gallery worker provides.  After more conversation about art and other local galleries in the area, Gallery asks if it is ok to see more things on the Artist’s website.  Artist says “sure” and they sit down together at the desk to look at the computer.  As it turns out, the Artist’s other work was a strong fit for another opportunity coming up later.   Gallery and Artist agree to continue the conversation at a later time. (Fist bump)  

In Summary

As you may have guessed by these two different examples, one has acted more professionally and will be on the radar for upcoming opportunities.  This isn’t to say that every person is perfect, and neither are we, and that all results of being a nice person are guaranteed.  Fortunately in the USA, we all have the freedom to choose who we work with.  While nobody books an asshole, you don’t have to work with an asshole booker either.  Entitlement on the other hand, will get you nowhere although it may falsely look like it gets some people somewhere.  If some Master’s Art Student seems entitled because they have access to fancy university galleries or museums, just remember that somebody is paying a lot of money for them to be there.  For the $28 odd bucks you can spend to enter a show, it sure seems like a lot less.  Just make sure that you have the sense to both win and lose gracefully.  The rest falls under tact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AI ART: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE GREY AREA

RISE OF THE ART MACHINES AND WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WORRY (YET)

12/23/2022 at 4:15:43 PM.  This is the time and date that survivors will look back in history and know that Vestige Concept Gallery sold two pieces of AI Art.  The Artpocalypse then ensued.  VCG will hereby be remembered as the Wuhan Wet Market of AI Art.  Does this spell the end of art and creativity as we know it as the mainstream media has sounded an alarm?  No, it’s not (quite) doomsday (yet?)  Worst case scenario, just blame Steve Huth.  (Steve Who-th?)    

Meet Human Steve 

We first started working with Steve Huth in July of 2022.  Soft spoken and fairly unassuming, Steve is a photographer and retired Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA.  His prior work with the University also took him to Qatar, where he worked a nearly half-decade residency as the Director of Q-CERT, a collaborative program bringing information and cyber security to that country.  His interests in technology and human collaboration would eventually lead him into the end-user pilot phases of DALL-E.  For those unfamiliar with DALL-E (and DALL-E-2), they are deep learning models (machine learning based on artificial neural networks) developed by OpenAI to generate digital images from natural language descriptions, called “prompts”.  In other words, AI Art.

Prior to Steve, we had no idea about OpenAI, nor had anyone tried to show it at the gallery.  In November 2022, we curiously invited Steve to show his AI Art in our holiday show, and had conversation with him about what all of this means.  Little did we know that less than a week later, OpenAI and ChatGPT became somewhat of a craze in the media, prompting many to say the world was about to end.  So we stuck Steve’s AI Art (very nicely made into quartz- paperweight-esque sculptures) on our display unit to see what people’s reactions would be.  As time rolled on, our swirling questions would become:  “is this total BS?”, or, is this the real-deal?  Let’s find out (and we’ll leave Steve out of the latter half).  

Steve Huth with camera
Huth, rarely seen without a camera. Note: the nefarious world-takeover smile.
Guilty as charged.

The Hall To My Oates?

One of the primary mechanisms (tech-talk aside), of AI “Art” , is that it relies on the inputs from their human masters, or, as Steve describes it: “collaborating”.  Throughout history, collaborations have formed an integral part of the world of art and in music and cinema, collaboration is near-inevitable.  Whether one-on-one collaborations between artists, or studios full of artists, the rubbing together of minds and talents has invariably produced unique works, as well as furthered a greater culture of thought and creativity often leading to movements: a larger shift in both artist and public perspective. Part of the current fear is that AI Art is forming a new movement that will leave traditional artists in the dust and audiences deceived and confused.  For others, AI Art has been here in some degree, and is here to stay (just be careful how you feed the machine).  In a basic summary, Art Fervour says:

“Artistic collaborations are not just based on mutual benefit, but also trust and respect.” 

For better or for worse,  two or more artists cannot be forced to collaborate with one another.  Sure, there may be a mutual benefit (multi-million dollar payout for two artists who hate each other but will reunite to go tour again), but there must be agreement by at least both parties to engage in the process. This is where AI (and their so-called “collaborators”) are disconnected from the outset.  Were it “true” AI (with thought and freedom of choice), we would first ask it (or vice-versa) “would you like to work on a new painting today?”  It is not to say in the one-sided arrangement that some AI “artists” are innocuously well-intentioned, casual users, or a jockey like Steve who puts the limits of AI to the test, but it is that on a fundamental level AI Art is transactional, and there is not a “who”, but a “what” that you are transacting with, and “why”?  The “what” (the technology) has no real say in the matter as much as an ATM, and appears as another tool that serves a means to an end: whether for the human that wants to pat itself on the back (i.e. “I’m an artist now!”), have a little fun (akin to pulling the lever on a slot machine), or to potentially make money.  However, this assertion also leads us to deeper questioning: i.e. are you collaborating with it, or is it collaborating with you?  How much do we know about it?  Will “it” outlearn you, and you no longer serve any purpose?  For now, things appear harmless enough, and we came to learn that there are some known limits to OpenAI, to which Steve must fill in the gaps. 

Assessing AI Art and Transactional Collaboration: The Grey Area

After assessing Steve’s work and by his own admission, DALL-E has its limitations. From the ground level, sites like OpenAI do not permit users to input malicious or harmful prompts, and there are certain safeguards regarding things such as realistic Deepfakes, sexploitation, and creating material for the purposes of defamation or blackmail.  This is not to say that this could change, another reason opponents of AI Art are arguing that we are standing on a dangerous precipice. However, in its current state, digital 2D non-video art is also limitless in these areas (i.e. Photoshopping).  Real-world damage can already occur if manipulated digital art is used in an improper context.  Other limitations as evidenced, are that the AI has a limited (but growing) pool of resources to pull from, as we see in his (now sold) work Christmas Eve: Golden Memories“.  

4″ x 4″ AI/Digital Hybrid Courtesy of Steve Huth
 
Being that our Gallery and Steve are both in/from Pittsburgh, this work is a relatable case study into the limitations of AI.  The initial strangeness of this image lies in its “quasi-Mandela Effect” (e.g. false memories).  If you were born or spent any amount of substantial amount of time in the Steel City, you are without a doubt familiar with the angle of this image.  At first (and at multiple) glace, it is that stereotypical image of the city and your brain immediately tells you that it is Pittsburgh.   However at closer inspection, many of the buildings are misplaced or are combinations of two or more other landmark buildings, or are missing altogether.  
 
Hell with the lid off

 

To give the work his own personal touch, Steve also added the yellow/gold Christmas tree to the image.  This is where we enter further into the grey area between artist/collaborator and what we can define as art and credit for the final product.  Where, or to whom should we give credit?  For some who are extreme-egalitarian: does credit even matter?  In art history, when we don’t know the artist, this becomes known as “unattributed”.  Yet, we live in the modern era where ideas and money do matter to some, if not most people. Can Steve attempt to copyright this image with parts known to be “drawn” from other sources?  How far will Steve go to pursue his creative passions with AI, and, can he profit from it?  

In fact, Steve was so moved that he created an entire series that pays homage to Pittsburgh, with many of the missing/AI-limited pieces being added either through Photoshop, and/or through the use of his photography.  Here, we can conclude that Steve is an artist with a process, and assistance provided by AI, but not a collaboration by the standard definition.  Furthermore, without knowing which parts are which in Steve’s work, we argue that it should be listed as “Steve Huth/Unattributed AI”.  We go further to say that all purely AI Art should be listed as Unattributed.  Case closed?  As far as copyrights are concerned (and returning to collaborations), so much of art and music is pulled unintentionally (or intentionally), from other sources.  The notion of “inspired by” also comes into play, which we see obvious (and admitted) elements of Maxo Vanka, Teenie Harris, et. al., in Steve’s work.  Maintaining copyrights or trademarks can become sticky legal issues, but only so in the sense that you can prove without a doubt another person or group is causing you detrimental harm financially or reputationally. 

“Celebrating Pittsburgh” 24″ x 20″ (Note: the “a” and i” are darkened by the artist for emphasis). Please Inquire for Availability.
 
In opening this article, we used a screenshot image of Arnold Schwarzenegger, from the film Terminator 2.  How fast and easy was it for us to access this image and give zero credit or money to the multitudes of artists, writers, Special FX artists, and the like who worked on that particular scene?  Like a quick Google search or a meme generator, AI Art is extremely convenient when you want something at the push of a button, and it is doubtful that those who become addicted to it’s speed and cheapness will ever let go.  Pandora’s Box cannot be closed, so to speak, and there are multitudes of accomplices and fake usernames, impossible to prove.  Much of the same could be said for the double-edge sword of technology in the Graphic Design industry.  Putting Graphic Design aside, it doesn’t take a lot to imagine how difficult it would have been for us to obtain and publish that Arnold Schwarzenegger photo without the technology.  Without it, we would not be able to get our idea across, while also providing some comic relief.  In the past, a person would have to own a VCR, rent the move, take a picture, wait to get it developed, and so on and so forth… and not many would want to go back to those methods nor can we.  Stealing has become highly ingrained (and accepted) into our arts and communication culture.  Many of the images created by AI happen so casually, so quickly, and so unnoticeably, that it would almost seem completely impossible (and expensive) to prove everything, unless done at an egregious level.  Can an audience even recognize the Terminator provided by AI Art, and would the effect have been the same?  
 
I’m looking for Claude Monet

 

Interlude: Mr. Allen’s Prize Winning Pig  

Somewhere long after Mrs. O’Leary and before Artpocalypse and Steve Huththe future will (maybe) remember the infamous “Jason Allen AI Art Prize Incident,” otherwise known as “the time that guy won an art prize with AI”.  However, this may in the future become the art equivalent to what Fort Sumpter is to the American Civil War.  Shots were fired.  Fortunately for Jason Allen, nobody died.  

For those unfamiliar with this incident, “artist” Jason Allen (of Pueblo West, CO) created a work of art that somehow fooled the bespectacled judges at the Colorado State Fair.  Gosh darnit!  How did that happen?  Furthermore, how did the art community ever let this become such a viral sensation?  While this DUNE meets Bosch work of AI certainly was enough to fool the judges and spectators, we should consider the time and venue in which this was happening.  With all due respect to the Colorado State Fair, this isn’t exactly the world’s standard-bearer for fine arts and culture when also considering the other works of art on display and other categories of competitions that were in the Fair, such as the livestock competition, and the rodeo.  (Don’t get us wrong, we love rodeo).  For others including Allen, they would argue that calling this an “incident” at all is making a bigger deal out of something that to them seems like a normal activity.

But let’s get to the point:  If the artist wasn’t so clearly ripping off Hieronymus Bosch’s “Ascent of the Blessed”, maybe it would have seemed much more apparent to the so-called “judges”, who we now can conclude know nothing about art.  Allen goes so far as to rip off Bosch, that if you look closely enough, you will see the silhouette of the little human person.  Maybe in Allen’s case,  it is a metaphor for artists getting sucked into the endless wormhole of AI Art.   If this is how fine art is judged and subsequently picked up by the mainstream media, than honestly, we (the people) deserve better.  However, this just part of the larger issue: the audiences and media don’t know any better.

Look Ma! First Prize at the State Fair and this $2 ribbon
Hieronymus Bosch “Ascent of the Blessed“ c.1505-1515

 

Fool Me Once…

Let’s face it, nobody likes to be fooled.  Let’s also face that throughout history there have always been fools and those (like the State Fair Judges) who have seemingly been made into fools.  To be more blunt: bad art and artists, and bad ideas have been around since the dawn of time and will never go away.  There’s also no substitute for bad taste, especially once it is commercialized and marketed as the real deal.  What can you do about it?  Nothing, just ignore it.  Only in this Internet driven generation are so many casually forced into caring about what another person is doing.  The more fuel that you throw onto the fire, the larger the cloud of smoke- and that’s when the crowds begin to show up.  Once the building burns down however, we discover that there was nothing really there in the first place (i.e. talent). In a world where people can seemingly call themselves whatever they want to, why should we bother to acknowledge it and to care?  Who is the lone arbitrator on who is an artist or not?  You cannot stop large masses of people from embracing and both using and purchasing AI Art, no more than you can stop a crowd of people from attending a bad concert (that they think is good).  What’s the workaround to this (and in life): style.  Secret: It’s also the workaround to AI Art.  Our answer is to create a style so impeccable, that AI cannot compute or keep up fast enough.  Or, just don’t put your stuff on the Internet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“OUR HOPE IS THAT DALL-E WILL EMPOWER PEOPLE TO EXPRESS THEMSELVES CREATIVELY”

This statement comes in part from the OpenAI Mission and note the lack of the word “art” or “artist” or “collaboration”.  Ambiguous statements such as these reek of the overly egalitarian virtue signaling that has become a vacuum for mindless Liberalism, while a rallying cry for Conservatism.  Politics aside, traditional artists (and conservationists) who shun AI by definition, fall under the realm of Conservatism.  After all, is Conservatism not merely a way of clinging to the past or past way of life?  Brick and mortar Art Galleries would seemingly fall into the same playing field (and oh, by the way- just think of the children!)  If AI Art is bad taste and classlessness, consider that “to show class”, there must be class.       

The dual fallacies of the Open AI DALL-E2 statement are that a.) “empowering” creates real or actual power among its adherents, and b.) that “creative expression” is synonymous with art, and that everyone’s creativity should be treated equally.   We would argue here that empowering does little to no good (true empowering comes from the Self) by creating a false sense of disillusion under the guise of data gathering, and that the equality/flattening of creative expression only continues to widen the rift between the “haves” and the have nots”, which ironically, seems to oppose the so-called Liberal Agenda.   Meaning, “real” art will continue to rise in value to be traded in less frequency among the rare elite, and the middle class of other real artists (the Artist-Proletariat)  will be forced to slough it out with the “creative expression” folks who are simply poor, lazy, and dumbing down the profession and art values, additionally, cheapening the experience of fine art and the perceptions of art consumers.  As an Art Gallery, our role is to serve as not only an experienced spokesperson, but as a bastion of what good taste “could” (and shouldn’t) look like.  This is also not to say that in rare instances, AI Art shown at an Elite Gallery won’t be sold for exorbitant prices.  It will – it’s inevitable, and the media will give it the hype long enough to create the same “hope” that OpenAI breathes into their mission and followers.  

Sorry kids, we all don’t get a trophy (But you could win a ribbon at the State Fair).  

 

 

 

 

 

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