How the Artist Views the Consumer


Henrietta Michelson-Bagley (1981) ,"How the Artist Views the Consumer", in SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Morris B. Holbrook, New York, NY : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 69-70.

Symbolic Consumer Behavior, 1981     Pages 69-70


Henrietta Michelson-Bagley

I am a sculptor and a painter and in the theatre I do set designing, performing and directing. Sometimes I do all of these things at once.

Last year, the beginning of 1979, 1 decided to market my work. Until that time, I had not paid much attention to marketing. I have been in some art shows; I have done a lot of stage sets. But with inflation I have to speed up the process of earning money. So I started.

I have a friend who peddles things. There are many pedlars in New York City and she peddles a lot of things. She told me to come out on the street and bring my things. She was sure I could sell something. So, I thought OK; I got a few things ready. I put acetate over them; simple frames and so forth. I went down to Fifth Avenue near the Museum of Modern Art. Well, there was this stream of people going by me. If you want to see a herd of cattle with blinders, just try standing out there and selling a piece of art. Except if you're selling prints of New York City!

So here is this stream of people going by, and I notice that the pieces they would primarily look at were the abstract pieces, or they would like very realistic scenes of the city. Now my stuff is somewhere in the middle; it would be called "symbolic distortion," and it sometimes takes a little more effort to understand. I could see that people really had a hard time taking it in. I stayed two days on Fifth Avenue - didn't sell anything. I saw a few friends. Got a suntan.

Then I decided I would try standing in front of the Metropolitan Museum, because I thought the people coming out of the Metropolitan Museum are prepared for me. They are going in there and they are getting wound up. So there might be some possibility of interest. If you know the Metropolitan Museum, you know there is a fountain on either side. I set my things up on the right hand side next to the curb. I set up 13 drawings. Then I sat down. Suddenly I had a terrible feeling. At this time in my life, after working for years as an artist, here I am bringing my stuff into the street. The wind is blowing it down; the fountain every once in a while is coming over on it. What am I doing here! I felt a tremendous sense of failure.

Just then, as Providence would have it, a man comes by and says, "Do you know that Van Gogh did not sell one piece of work during his life time?" That was just what I needed, because I remembered then what the artist is. If you choose to be an artist, you are choosing this kind of life. And if you sit in the street, in middle age, trying to sell things, that is the life of the artist. So you should not be depressed about it.

Look around at every place you go in the Midwest, where I am from, and you will see Van Gogh's prints on the walls in every doctor's office. So he is doing OK now, right? Anyway that thought cheered me up and I went to the Metropolitan Museum quite often. I met a lot of interesting people; I had a really good time. I had good experiences meeting with people directly. One day I took a drawing along that was just for me. Usually I take things that I will not feel too bad about selling cheaply. But one day I took a drawing for myself to look at. Someone came by and asked if it was for sale. We had quite a friendship for a number of months.

My next step was to clean out my studio and frame a few things. I have a very nice studio in a brownstone. I painted it, put up a few lights, and soon I had an open studio. I sent out announcements which a friend did for me in exchange for doing his portrait. It came out very well. I tried to make it a pleasant atmosphere, had some wine, and people came. A lot of people came; many, many friends. People began to buy things.

One person called me after she'd been there. She had seen a little clay figure and said: "I wonder how much you want for it." I had to think about it. I called her back and told her the price. She said fine and asked me over for dinner. I took the little clay figure, wrapped it up and took it over that night.

When I got there she said of the little clay figure, "I haven't been able to get it out of ray mind. Reminds me of my youth in Honduras, and of my mother." She was very wound up in her head about it. She took it, unwrapped it She had great enthusiasm. Then she took it and put it an the desk. Then she said no, no that won't do. It might get knocked over by the cleaning woman. Then she took it and put it on a table, but she felt it still was not right. Then she thought, oh the mantle piece. She took it over to the mantle piece. She felt satisfaction and said, "Look at it from here!" Then she said, "no." She removed some things from around it. Well she continued, removing things and turning the figure. "Look at it from here," she would say. "It looks like a dancer and from this angle it looks like a woman who is with child, and then from here..."

She goes on and I am accompanying her. This woman is consuming! Really, this is a consumer' She was consuming this clay sculpture, and I was consuming it with her because, after all, my hand had done it and I had not thought very much about it. I had this really good feeling of having consumed a piece with a person, and I had a feeling of her passion. Finally everything was off the mantle piece. She put a light on it; and the Little clay figure was enormous in this big living room.

My next experience with a consumer, a real consumer, was with a woman who teaches an acting workshop. She came and bought a drawing. She had just separated from her husband and had a new apartment. This was her first purchase. She put it on her wall, and she would tell her friends when they came, "Look at this. What do you think about that?" Mostly people did not respond too much, but she didn't care. She liked it. The last time I saw her she told me that the next thing she had bought for her apartment was a chair. This chair was in front of the painting.

So I went to her house, and there was the painting and there was the chair in front of it. I sat down and in what I called at that time the "consumer's chair." I consumed my own painting. I saw things in it I had no idea existed. It was wonderful to consume it.

My idea of a consumer has changed. At one time I thought consumers were cold and uninterested in art. But now something in me believes that everyone really understands art, and everyone cares for it. Everyone needs art and, in a sense, is hungry for it. And if the artist is hungry to do it, then we are not really different from the consumer.

A couple of years ago my young son, who was in high school, needed to interview someone for an English class. So he decided to interview me. I was very complimented, so we set up the interview. I thought he would ask me where I was born, about my family and so forth. He said, "Mom, what I want to talk to you about in this interview is when you came home recently and said, 'I just had a break-through!'" (I had just come back from an acting workshop). He wanted to know "what is a break-through? What does it do?" So immediately I thought, "what an interviewer."' To me a break-through is the heart of my life. A break-through... in your work, in your comprehension, in your sense of love, in your sense of emotion.

A friend once told me he had seen Rodan's "Gates of Hell',' and that this was the first experience in which he could really comprehend a work of art. I asked him did everything change after that? He said, "yes," that since then he has always been able to "be there" for a work of art. So I assume that what everyone wants in life is a break-through. That is my basic assumption. No matter how they present themselves, or how they feel about themselves. I think that the greatest joy is when you function as you never functioned before; it is as if something new opens up for you. And I think that artistic things can do this for you. So I hope that the consumer learns to consume more and more, and much more passionately. It is so important for the artist to be in constant contact with people. If you know any artists, you should be in constant contact with them, because they are a very depressed group, because their work is not justified to themselves or because it does not sell. Mostly people I know in theatre--fine actors and actresses--are waiters. They are fine, though. That is the way they live. To remind artists that someone is there--living, breathing, waiting, perceiving, and gathering up their fruits is so good.



Henrietta Michelson-Bagley


SV - Symbolic Consumer Behavior | 1981

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