In the worlds of art and craft context is everything

This is a follow up to my popular blog post on how to price craftwork. There I argued that context was everything and that price can not be separated from context. There is I think an idea in the craft world that things have some form of inherent value, some things unquestionably achieve higher prices or are in more demand. Often shortage of supply causes prices to shoot up just look at the difference in price between a 15 year old and 46 year old bottle of Balvenie whisky.

balvenie-46-year-old-1968-cask-7293-the-balvenie-dcs-compendium-chapter-one-whiskyIs one really worth more than 200 times the other? is it to do with any objective measure of quality? clearly the 46 yr old is very special but most of that price differential comes down to context and very limited supply. There are people out there disposable income who love to own something of quality or have amazing experiences that they know few other folk can afford.

Here are two experiments from the worlds of art and music that show just how important context is. If ever I begin to feel overly proud of my work I try to imagine it sat in a cardboard box in a car boot fair and wonder whether anyone would pick it out as being anything special. No people are buying my work because they like what I do, how I present it and they want to support me and I am very grateful for that.

So the music experiment, would a great concert violinist playing a £3.5million Stradivarius be recognised if they played in a subway?

more details here  

And the art experiment, here is street artist Bansky who’s pieces sell for tens of thousands of dollars selling original paintings on a stall in Central park. Devoid of the usual art world context they are suddenly worth $60 but even at that most folk don’t buy.

I have friends that think that it is somehow dirty to try to add value to their craftwork by marketing, that it’s somehow more worthy if the customer discovers the craftsperson, fights their way to the door then begs them to sell them something. Well if you want to play a £3.5 Million Strad to nobody or fail to sell Banksy’s for $60 go right ahead. The truth is everybody is doing some form of marketing, we are none of us selling at the cardboard box at a car boot fair price, like it or not marketing is part of the job of being a craftsperson in the 21st century, do you want to do your job well or badly?

5 Responses to In the worlds of art and craft context is everything

  1. Derek Long January 18, 2017 at 4:31 pm #

    DeBeers marketing of diamonds exploited the scarcity and desirability perception phenomenon to great success. Marketing matters, particularly in craft which is a niche market competing with cheap (quantitatively and qualitatively) mass produced items of similar function. You can’t just sit there and snear snobbishly at people for not buying your wares. You have to convince people – marketing – that your work has value to the buyer, whether that is some economic value (this will last a lifetime, or this has value as a sustainable good), or social (you’ll be one of the cool kids for buying this, or look at my virtue signaling). I think there is a problem in crafts and arts that people feel marketing is “icky.” You don’t have to be Don Draper, here. But don’t sell yourself short by not selling yourself and your work as valuable and worth valuing. Because it is.

  2. jarrod January 18, 2017 at 6:42 pm #

    Right on! This is very important to come to terms with if your going to make a living selling your work. I know I’ve had my struggle with it in the past and still do in many ways. Thanks for posting this Robin I’m sure many aspiring crafts folk will get a lot out of it.

  3. Emmet Van Driesche January 21, 2017 at 12:08 am #

    I’m not sure if I agree. I think that then price of something is in your head. You know what is a fair price to you, and if it is a fair price to others they will buy. But coming from a rural, self reliant culture, people have a lower perception of the value of what I do than a city person would, as do I. Now I could sell to city folks, and I do, but ultimately the price has to feel right to me. This goes hand in hand with only making things that I genuinely think are useful. I don’t care if somebody thinks they need a special scoop to measure their coffee: I think a spoon would work just fine. Pricing too high can lead people to thinking your work is too precious to use, and worse can make you embarrassed looking back at what you charged for work that isn’t as good as what you can do now. There is a lean principle pioneered by Toyota that price is just a number agreed upon by two people. You can figure out your time and materials cost, determine a profit margin you want to hit, but ultimately this means nothing unless someone wants to buy. It seems like one of the best ways to improve at a skill is to sell work at a humble enough price that you always have demand and therefore a reason to produce more.
    Thanks, by the way Robin, for all the inspiration. I really like reading your thoughts on this stuff

    • Robin Wood January 30, 2017 at 7:39 pm #

      True enough points and certainly true that you must be comfortable with the price you ask. But I know many people that run themselves down for years and do not earn enough to live even when they are making good work quickly. I covered many of those points in the earlier post I linked to about how to price craft work.

  4. Mike January 22, 2017 at 1:45 pm #

    Fascinating post Robin. I just read on another site that three days after the announcement of that Banksy sale, three artists sold replicas of those same prints on a stall marked ‘fake Banksy art sale’ and sold out of stock.
    Advertising and marketing are subjects that have haunted me ever since I watched Adam Curtis’s documentary The Century Of The Self. I think the use of advertising in mass production and politics has been so ghoulish in my lifetime that it’s been hard for me to view it without some sense of revulsion, but I’m definitely coming to terms with it, to borrow Jarrod’s words. I think Gransfors Bruks was the first company whose marketing gave me real food for thought. .