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Art and Philosophy...and Anarchy

by Russ Cushman


My college Art History professor told us that for every generation, every culture, every age, art is just
an extension of the philosophy of the Age. I hated that as a precept, and I hoped it was not true. I dedicated my life to disproving it.

Until finally I gave in.   Art is the Philosophy of the Age. In fact art is a friggin' barometer of humanity; its world view, its ambitions, its self-image. Never has this been more painfully true to me than lately with all the political ugliness in our country...and never more threatening to me as we completely join in the world market and deal with foreign collectors.

The recent stunning surge in my own business came as a shock, and I had to credit it to what some call the “Trump Bump.” Inquiries, commissions, sales of originals...all took off like a rocket for me in January. It has not let up yet. This was after several years of a slow but unmistakable downhill spiral in my career. My recent employment at Classic Rock Coffee Co. here in Navasota was an indication of what I was expecting of my future. Then sales hit like a shark on a stringer full of fish.

WOW! I could not explain what was happening. I think I understand better now, and I hate to relate that my conclusions are no more inspiring than the downhill spiral from before, but the money is better. I will give you an overview of my recent jobs and sales...and you can decide what it all means.

Originals: All very personal sales. Big and little, no particular subject...in fact a wide diversity...the only common thread was the purchases were made by friendly folks in the neighborhood. I would note that most of these individuals reflected a positive outlook for the country...since the election. I have observed that elections are hell on art sales as people are nervous and worried...and my sales always get better afterwards because somebody will be happy that their guy won. But in this case...both sides seemed to be celebrating.... But I'll get back to that later.

Commissions: Lots of calls, the most number of inquiries ever, and a few that have actually come to pass. Old customers returning, some that had always planned to buy one some day, finally did it...and then many folks responding to my....

Commercial murals: Entrepreneurs seemed to come from every direction, ready to dress up their establishments, wanting outdoor murals, indoor signage, menu boards, logos, even whole marketing plans.

But here was the catch. Not everything was real. America is rife with wishful thinkers. And the world is rife with predators....

There was my largest single sale of an original. A gentleman contacted me about my work...needed a special anniversary present for his wife...he was an ocean geologist...moving to the Philippines...he picked a large piece...to be shipped to their new home there.  Oh wait! He would deliberately overpay me, and could I kindly just deposit his check and send the balance to his agent who was to crate and ship the art to its final destination? The whole scenario was sounding familiar...in fact this same guy tried to hustle me a year ago....  I looked the guy up and he has a dozen aliases, has scammed dozens of artists...so when somebody approaches you with a big sale that is complicated with urgency, multi-national residences, and little banking favors...check them out! I sent him a very nice, go-suck-an-egg email. But he had great taste and picked a great painting!

It also turns out that my actual American patrons are not much better. Everybody is in a hurry. Everybody thinks their project should take priority over others. Everybody wants their art NOW. Then when it comes time to pay...everybody is busy someplace else.

I found my Conservative leaning customers were in a great mood up until recently...when it became obvious that President Trump was going to continue to embarrass himself and guaranteed no end to his persecution. They are suddenly less optimistic, less in a prosperity mode; tax reform is less likely, and they are less likely to order a work of art in such a negative environment. They are back to looking over their shoulder...worried about investments....

The Liberal leaning clients were more complex and now even more downcast. I believe they smelled blood after the election and were sure of a Republican meltdown in a matter of weeks as (they thought) President Trump was sure to self-destruct. They were partying about his demise as if it was already happening...and celebrating through the enjoyment and patronship of the arts...until Director Comey threw everyone and everything under the bus, including their wildest fantasies. Their countenances were much different immediately upon his testimonies on June 8th. Suddenly the world was going to hell and my art stunk...and I can't find my checkbook.  I am serious.

In fact, as of this writing, I have over $7,000 in accounts receivable for the past few months' work... and cannot get satisfaction with these wonderful patrons. Everyone is raving about what I have done for them...except them...and I believe that in this case...my art, or the lack of enthusiasm, willingness to pay for it...it directly reflects the philosophy of the age.  And what would that be?

Our culture is in a freefall. Panic and desperation rule. People feed their frustration with anger and hate. Not much place for art in that kind of world. There are reasonable people and moments of sanity so take advantage of them. But I have watched the negative news cycle create panic for most of my adult life, and as cable news fills every home with news updates and chronic distress 24 hours a day, art sales have plummeted. There is no solution in sight.

They say that all politics is local...and I think so will be art. We can survive in hand-picked safe-zones as we contribute to our neighborhoods...make art they need or can respond to...and nurture our humble reputations...and as the Bible says...be wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves. But that does not mean we are to be doormats or suckers.


Always get at least 50% down (non-refundable!) on any job, no matter who they are.

Get everything in writing, especially the terms of final payment.

Don't talk politics. We are in an age of intolerance. It will only cost you 50% of your potential business.

NEVER, never sell someone something against your better judgment as you will ultimately be blamed.

Greet opportunities that are too good to be true as just that. Don't let your optimism overload your common sense.

Be true to yourself and create to please yourself... sometimes (when things go south) you have to live with your art a long time. You can't eat your art... but at least you can enjoy it!