Friday, June 12, 2009

(Not) Cheap Art

The story goes that, years ago, a marketing hotshot created an ad campaign for Subaru with the following tag-line: "Cheap, and built to stay that way!"

Sales of Subarus promptly nose-dived, the campaign was ditched, the hotshot fired.

Subaru was, of course, trying to position itself as the inexpensive but reliable alternative to a host of competitors in the class of vehicles designed to attract the attention of the cost-conscious suburban/rural soccer mom.

Anyone who has or knows a real soccer mom also knows that that particular cohort is not into "cheap." Inexpensive, sure. Cheap, no.

I confess, I feel the way the Subaru soccer mom does when I hear or see the term "cheap art for sale." I cringe.

Lately, I've been seeing more and more notices for Cheap Art; often they are poorly magic-markered onto cardboard signs at local Farmers' Markets. But in a recent notice about the Northeast Kingdom being featured in the July/August issue of National Geographic Explorer Magazine, the Kingdom is described, in part, as "home to the pioneering Cheap Art Movement."

Hmmm. Is this "on brand?" as our Tourism Commissioner likes to intone?

Our "pioneering heritage" as the first to outlaw slavery, the first to recognize civil unions, the first to use a postage stamp, laughing gas, sandpaper, and a host of other firsts, is something that all of us in Vermont may be proud of.

But cheap art?

I can't imagine anything more likely to quash a desire to visit the Kingdom than the prospect of being exposed to bale after bale of Cheap Art. [Note to self: whales come in pods, crows come in murders; check the internet to see of Cheap Art comes in bales. It sounds like it should.]

There's a guy in town who, when he completes them, shellacs jigsaw puzzles, frames them, and hangs them on his wall. He has several dozen creations and, he tells me, he only hangs a small portion of his collection at a time and he changes it whenever the mood suits him. He's got a farm in Peacham, Main Street in Moscow, Ascutney Mountain in the fall, and a bunch of other Vermont land- and village-scapes about which he regularly boasts.

There was a barber down in Savannah, GA in the 1980s who took up whittling. Over the course of his lifetime, he recreated pretty much every person he came in contact with as a small wooden doll, crafted with his two hands and a two-dollar pen-knife. Sometimes he'd give one of his pieces to a family member as a holiday gift, but most often he'd give them away to clients who liked them. Then he'd whittle another likeness. At his death he had a collection of nearly a thousand dolls he'd created over the years.

So here's a trick question: which of these makes cheap art, and which does not?

Here's my take on it.

If an artist values his/her own creations so low as to allow them to be labeled "Cheap," it creates an oxymoron. Art is not cheap. Art is never cheap, not when it is the result of a guy putting a jigsaw puzzle together, framing it and hanging it on his wall, or whiling away the hours with a pen-knife and a block of scrap wood.

Cheap is a state of mind. It starts with "inexpensive" and takes a disrespectful turn into self-loathing. Cheap is not Vermont. Cheap is not Art.

Let's do something about this; can we call it "Inexpensive Art" "Affordable Art" "Art Anyone Can Own" "Art for People for Whom Money is the Only Object" or something else? Please?


Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with this. Peter Schumann and Bread & Puppet, an extremely "Vermont" outfit, have been making and distributing wonderful, self-consciously "cheap art" for decades.

Excellence in the arts does not necessarily mean expensive art, and great art can be humble, self-deprecating, modest, and accessible to the masses.

Anonymous said...

I think "anonymous" above is missing the point. Alex is not saying "excellence" has anything to do with price and certainly acknowledges the greatness of Bread & Puppet at the Council.He in effect is saying the misnomer "cheap art" is a bad thing/term.
My take is that one must value the work for what it is and what you might put into it. Only the artist (sometimes the market) can do that. In my craft, the profusion of automatic POS digital images produced on default home printers are just that "cheap". And they should be. Or call them "affordabel art" as ALex suggests. Just don't call them "professional".

Ric Kadour said...


Cheap Art specifically refers to a 1984 Manifesto by Bread & Puppet that was a response to the materialism of the 1980's, much the way it's antecedent, Arte Provera was a response to increating post-war materialism in 1950's Italy.

Vermont's Cheap Art connection is an important part of Vermont's place in art history. In this case, "cheap" means neither inexpensive nor low quality, it is a statement about the politics and economics of art made by the artist.

Perhaps if the Vermont Arts Council did a better job of promoting art history (the state's own art history), there would not be so much confusion about the term.

You accuse people who use the term "Cheap Art" of being self-loathing. I suggest that this commentary highlights something much more dangerous: Ignorance.

The Cheap Art Manifesto

A Good Article on Arte Provera

Ric Kadour

Susan said...

Alex, Ric is right.
Do a little more homework, please, before you go after this one.
It is an honorable thing. You should have some on your wall, or refrigerator. I'm an artist, and I can't afford art unless I made it myself or it's cheap. That doesn't mean it's bad; it just means it's small, uses humble materials, and the person who made it is finding a way to make it available, by living on little or earning money some other way.

This isn't about Subarus, or the art market, which God knows is often a perverse, unfair, hype-filled, and idiotic part of our world. I refuse to worship.

Schubart said...

Ironic indeed that Alex is inveighing against cheap art and promoting pallets and "puzzle paloozas."
Bill Schubart

Anonymous said...

OH, Alex--stuffy, stuffy, stuffy!

Linda Paul said...

How about cheap prices for great art? garage sales can produce some amazing discoveris, and its cheap!Recycled original art can be fabulous. See some original oil paintings at cheap prices at


Alex, you are so profoundly clueless.....