Do we value the artist's process or product?
Years ago, while visiting a sculptor's studio, I noticed a single sculpture propped against the wall, far away from the others. The piece was smaller and more minimal than her other work, but it struck me as incredibly distilled—a fully expressed idea—and I was immediately drawn to it.
"What's the story with this one?" I asked, pointing to it.
"Oh, it's not done."
"It's not? It looks pretty done to me."
"It came together in, like, an hour, so it needs more work. It's been sitting there for over two years while I try to figure out what else to do with it."
The reason she couldn't figure out what else to do with it was because there was nothing else to do with it.
She worked with textiles and steel. Most of her pieces were large, heavy, time-consuming, and required enormous physical effort to construct. In her mind, something that she had created quickly and easily couldn't possibly be finished because she hadn't labored over it long enough. It didn't contain the sweat of months. No brow had been furrowed during its creation. Not a single muscle pulled.
Recently, another artist admitted to me that one of my favorite pieces from her show was actually a mistake. It was just "rejects" from other pieces she'd made, which when put together by accident in her studio made something transcendent. She was delighted with the piece, but struggled when it came time to price it. How does one charge for serendipity? "I had to remind myself," she told me, "I price by size." She repeated it once more, "I price by size," reassuring herself aloud.
It's easier for artists to assign value to their work when it's linked to time because time is a quantitative metric that capitalism recognizes. If a plumber fixes your sink in three hours, she earns more money than she would if it took her an hour to fix. Same problem, same result. But the value is placed on her time, not the outcome.
Art is nothing but outcome. It either moves you or it doesn't. It changes your perspective or it doesn't. It accomplishes what it set out to do or it doesn't. The viewer has no idea, and in most cases doesn't care, how long it took. The market certainly doesn't care how long it took—or even if the artist made it herself—as long as it sells. So, the struggle for artists to value their work apart from the constraints of time is an internal and complicated one.
Artists and arts workers value time and labor perhaps more than any other group of people I know. They do so, in part, because society places almost no value on their time or labor. Apart from perhaps the top 5% of artists, every other arts workers' time falls somewhere on the spectrum between unpaid and underpaid. When you work within a culture that tells you that your time holds precious little value, there is an unconscious instinct to offer more of it in order to provide greater value to the world. In this way, artists are accustomed to having to prove their worth with time.
Also, artists have a singular appreciation for what goes into creating a piece of art. Whenever the subject comes up, I have an artist friend who always says, "If people only knew..." By that they mean: if people only knew about the weeks of research and the twelve phone calls it took to locate the adhesive needed for a single sculpture. If they only knew about the bad backs and the strained eyes. If they only knew about the hundreds of hours spent on things the viewer will never see but without which the pieces wouldn't work. Artists know. Their bodies know. So when they make something that doesn't require dozens of phone calls or weeks of detail work—the literal or metaphorical pains in the neck—it can sometimes feel like cheating. It can feel too easy, like they haven't earned it. Or, in the case of the sculptor I mentioned earlier, it can feel like the work shouldn't even be considered art until more is done to it. Because artists truly understand how much effort goes into creating work, they believe (and rightfully so) that those efforts should be remunerated.
On the other hand—and here's where it gets complicated—artists also recognize the value of a finished piece outside the bounds of time. Basquiat worked very quickly, for example, often on many pieces at once. Conversely, it sometimes takes Amy Sherald months to complete a single painting. No one is holding time up against these works as a measure of their meaning, impact, or worth, because we understand that time has no bearing on any of those things. Artists recognize this truth about other artists' work, but have difficulty offering themselves the same recognition when it comes to their own work.
I know a painter who used to take a few weeks to complete a canvas. A decade or so into her practice, she started working much larger and on multiple canvases at a time. She can now complete four paintings in a weekend, easily. These compositions are more assured, more mature, and command much higher prices than her earlier work. No one who sees the finished pieces would doubt the skill that went into creating them or question the fact that she is continuing to come more fully into her practice. But she had to work hard to quiet the voices in her head that told her she was working "too quickly."
An argument can be made that it was the time she put into the first ten years of her practice that allowed her to be more prolific later on. And that is absolutely true. Just as it's true that an artist is only able to create something incredible “by accident" as a result of the time they devoted to their craft leading up to that moment. But this amortization effect is not always the case. Some artists, like Basquiat, work remarkably quickly as an inherent part of their process, which never changes. Others work painstakingly slowly for the entirety of their careers because that is what is required to make manifest the work that their souls call on them to create.
Ultimately, artists deserve to have their time and their outcomes valued. In some cases those things are interdependent and in others they are divorced from one another. The marketplace takes care of valuing outcomes, so it is incumbent upon us as a society to better value artists' time. If we recognized artists as workers, just as we do with plumbers, lawyers, and construction workers, we could create systems that compensate them for their time as it is tied to their labor. And if the arts were supported in the U.S. as they are in other developed countries, we could revel equally in the final work as much as in the process that brought it into existence.
Inevitably, when a potential customer asked me how long I had spent on a piece, I would have to answer the cliché “20 years, and two weeks”. 20 years figuring out how to do it, and two weeks doing it. You are so right that the emphasis is in the wrong place.