The Work of Art
Value in Creative Careers
Alison Gerber



Art Work?

When I first met the artist William Schaff I paid $80 to do it. Will wears homemade masks in photographs, and for years I had no idea what he looked like. I just knew his work: a papercut and a few lithographs framed on my walls, the cover of a favorite album. But in 2014, Will went to the internet with a plea for help. As a self-employed artist, his income wasn’t steady, and he had fallen behind. He was losing his home, a small building that houses his studio and a few other artists’ apartments and serves as an ad hoc community center. He made a short video and set up a fundraiser on a crowdfunding website, dubbing it “Hold Down the Fort!” The crowdfunding model encourages offering rewards to funders, and Will’s rewards were a mix of existing artworks, new works, services, tokens, and promises. A $9 donation got you a deck of playing cards designed by Will, $30 a small print. For $50, he would paint a small banner with your name on the wall of the Fort. For $200, he would spend an hour speaking to you on a webcam, without a mask. For $360, he would send you handmade, unique mail art each month for a year. And, of course, for $80: “spend a day at the Fort. I can give you art lessons, or we can just create things together but the point is, it is your day. From 9 am to 4 pm.” It was such a strange offer—with such a strange “price”—that I had to take him up on it. I put the money on a credit card and signed up for a day in Will’s studio; over the course of the fundraiser, nineteen others did the same. In a month, the online campaign raised $47,812 to save Fort Foreclosure.

A few months later I made it to Rhode Island to spend that day in the studio with Will. I tiptoed around a broken screen door into a room full of drawings, paintings, toys, taxidermy, tools, everything. A huge desk stood in the corner of that front room, covered with papers, cups filled with pens, small boxes, files, computers. A bearded man with close-cropped hair stood behind it, smoking. He called out, Hello! Miss Alison?

We pulled out some chairs and drinks and we talked. Will had always been good at drawing, he said; it was a way to be with people, to get attention. He pulled out a picture he had made as a small child: a pen drawing of a baseball player, his dad’s favorite baseball player, getting hit on the head with a ball. His father had put it in a little acrylic document frame. The paper had stuck out a bit on three edges and now it was a little frayed and dirty. When his father died a few years ago, Will brought it home.

When Will went to art school, he thought he was going to be an illustrator. He had been really good, had won awards. But partway through his degree he hit the wall with an illustration for an article about pop-country star Garth Brooks. His teachers had really liked it, and they were holding it up and talking about it to the other students, and he realized: I don’t want my name to be associated with that. Will switched to the fine arts track, but he brought design and illustration skills along with him. For a while, for work, he used to design figurines for a Chinese company that made Christmas village scenes. For years. He would draw an idea, a front view, and if the company liked it he would draw the back view, and sometimes they would buy the design. He pulled out a binder and paged through it, showing me those old designs. Children throwing snowballs; you always just put a wreath or a puppy in there, and they’ll buy it, that’s what he learned. He told me that his mom had all of the figurines he had designed, that she was really proud of him. Over the years it got to be tough, though, and he would put all these little jokes in there. The last one he did was supposed to be a Christmas bazaar scene. And he did it, but all the shopkeepers’ tables were set up like the Last Supper. And he spelled bazaar “bizarre.” And the company said, thanks, but no thanks. One time he was delivering pizzas, back when the standard tip was fifty cents. And when one woman opened the door, he saw she had the entire village set up, all the stuff he had designed. All of it. And she was giving him the fifty-cent tip, and he was thinking, should I tell her, I designed all of that? But he didn’t.

People wandered in and out of the Fort all day. Will was friendly but didn’t make conversation. One man popped his head in and asked if any of the sculptures in the window were for sale. Will said no, they’re part of my private collection. The man left without another word. Later, Will told me that if the guy had said, I’ve got $500 in my pocket, then he would have maybe said, yeah, you can have whichever one you want. He needs $500. There were only, like, two he wouldn’t have let go of. But the guy led with, how much? And you know he’s going to haggle. I didn’t say anything about that the guy hadn’t asked how much.

Will hates it when people haggle; he doesn’t haggle, ever. He told me about a documentary he watched once about some artist. In it, the guy was finishing up a painting, and someone had made a deal to buy it, and they were going to pay $2000. And they came in right at the end, and said, you know, how about $1500? And the painter said, whatever, OK. And then later he had delivered the painting and the buyer called him and was, like, what the hell, man, where’s the corner of the painting? And the artist was like, well, you got $1500 worth of that painting.

Late in the day, I noticed something in a huge glass case. I asked about it and Will said to feel it, pick it up. Really. Slide that glass over. He got up when I hesitated, helped me to open the case. It was a small paw and forearm, perfectly preserved. Mounted on a small, roughly hewn square of wood, a tiny pedestal. The little hand was perfect, supple, like it was alive. Will didn’t know what it was: a possum? A raccoon? He told me it was made by a guy in Georgia. He was in this shop and the guy came in with a bunch of them. The shop sells them for $13 so that guy’s getting $6.50 each. I said something like, that’s not enough; these are amazing. Will said, well, it works out, if you use that meat for a big stew. Then it can work out.

Will doesn’t have a gallerist anymore, but he has some collectors. He wouldn’t be able to afford his own work now. It’s tough, that. He still does some illustration work. He showed me his contract; he wrote it years ago and has used it ever since. Whenever he receives a request, he sends the contract right away so that everyone understands: there isn’t going to be any back and forth. He’ll talk to the client about themes and suggest a price. And you pay half up front, and half when he’s done. If you don’t like it, then you don’t pay that second half, and both you and Will are out of luck. But in all these years there haven’t been that many who weren’t happy. Two, maybe. And because there’s no back and forth, he still has the piece in the end, even if the client isn’t happy. It’s less risky. Because he’s happy with what he did. He only ever really gets commissions from strangers. Album covers, tattoo designs, stationery, wedding invitations, things like that. Not for his friends—it’s really hard to talk money with friends. He’d rather give it away.

We talked for a few hours, and then Will started to fidget, said he had to get to work. We talked and drew. He’s got a mail art club he’s had for a few years; he draws and paints on envelopes, stuffs them with ephemera, sends them to subscribers. He’s had to really get efficient. He showed me images of pieces from a few years back wistfully, said look at the coloring there, look at that. That took forever. Now, he said, he tries to get them down to an hour apiece; he said he has a system. That’s $30 an hour, not great, but, you know. He says he’s got a system but each one I watched him make took a good bit more than an hour.

Later, we went across the street to a bar. He knew everyone there. One of his friends went back to the Fort to grab something and found a young couple wandering around inside. They’d come down from Boston to see Will’s studio, were fans of his work. His friend brought them back to the bar and I felt like I should head out, leave Will to his unexpected visitors, his maybe collectors. He walked me out, and we lingered outside for a while. After a couple of minutes he said, suddenly sheepish, you know, and I tell all the folks who do this, you don’t have to pay for it. I laughed and said, I know.

During my $80 trip to Will’s studio, I watched him easily reject sales to the wrong people, listened to him talk about an efficiency that would have made perfect sense if he’d evidenced it in practice. His studio was a complex and enchanting world of his own making, and it was one where he had to make a living and live with himself both. Why did William offer a day at his studio for $80 when an hour with him on Skype was on offer for $200? Did he discount the day in the studio, or inflate the hour on Skype? Why $80, a sum that looked to me as though he gauged his value at $10 per hour? And why did I and so many others agree with Will about the value of the things he does—why did we offer money in exchange for physical and immaterial rewards, or (as many did) simply send gifts, when our funds are limited and so many others deserving?

Social studies of value have proliferated in recent years, most notably with the rise of economic sociology as a field.1 It’s not only economists who think about value; sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, political scientists, and others see questions of value as central to understanding social life. Still, economics remains dominant.2 In that field, value most often translates to price, and models of pricing formalize valuation processes. The underlying assumptions of neoclassical economics—that individuals are rational and that they hope to maximize utility—are so powerful and intuitive that they are, today, “common knowledge.” In recent decades, behavioral economics has begun to incorporate outside perspectives on price, with early work focused on explaining observed deviations from the expectations of neoclassical economics. Today, economists look to the importance of biases and systematic errors, stereotypes and heuristic reasoning, and market inefficiencies and bad information, but don’t question the basic assumptions of their discipline as thoroughly as economic sociologists have.3

Perspectives from economics are important to this study insofar as they guide a good deal of lay theorizing about value. They drive state policy, orient tax law, tell us how to think about the value of a dollar. They almost always privilege price as the best marker of value. This study, though—which aims to make sense of both those who do and those who do not draw incomes from their work, and of a field where value is complex, ambiguous, and contentious—looks elsewhere for insight. It is situated in economic sociology, a field of inquiry where we need not assume that economic value (money) is different from, more important than, polluting of, or fatal to other forms of valuation, of other spheres of human life. An entire generation of researchers writing after Viviana Zelizer has shown, again and again, that economic life need not pit value against values. They have also shown that dollar value need not trump other forms of valuation. We price even what we claim is most priceless: human life, children, love.4 Money, morals, and meanings mingle in the trade in human cadavers, sperm and eggs, and (literally!) hearts. The crass, blunt, mighty dollar need not supplant love, intimacy, or integrity.5 Rather than relying on lawlike pricing models, these researchers ask what prices tell us beyond a dollar value, how emotions influence economic life, and whether market norms include reciprocity and redistribution.6 Economic sociology departs from economics by looking closely to the actual workings of economic life as social life.

Economic judgments are often stated in terms of the common currency of . . . currency, of which there can be only more and less. Social practices can layer multiple meanings onto money, of course,7 but at its heart, money is ordinal. We rarely aim for less money, or toward the flourishing of more diverse types of money.8 When it comes to money, then, the goal is clear: more of it. In economic discussions, costs and benefits can be calculated and we can think rationally; above all, an ideal outcome not only exists but can be attained. Economic logic gives us something to aspire to, whereas other lenses offer less clarity. A political lens on a question, for example, might imagine two or more parties with stakes in a finite resource; we do not presume that one goal is likely to be embraced by all relevant parties. There might not be any attainable ideal outcome, nor any rational path; outcomes here have winners and losers, and the mythical, the innumerate, the nonmonetary, the communicative, and the personal hold at least as much sway as the rational.

The ideas and arguments in this book are based primarily on in-depth interviews with visual artists based in the United States. And, as I noted in the preface and discuss in more detail in the appendix, for this book I spoke with a lot of artists in a lot of places. I have carried out formal, semistructured interviews with eighty artists; all of these were recorded and then transcribed verbatim. I have tried to be careful throughout this book to refer to the “artists I spoke with,” since my interactions with these artists produced the data I draw on directly, but in many instances I would be confident saying simply “artists.” I have avoided doing so because my diverse sample taught me that there are many art worlds I do not know well, and because I never intend to make claims about all artists. But it is equally untrue to imagine that I am speaking only of the eighty artists represented in these pages.

Since I began this project, I have carried out participant observation in varied contexts and informal interviews with artists, curators, dealers, museum directors, art professors, art historians, viewers, and others. I have participated in countless conversations of a few moments or a few hours with artists, artists’ families and friends, art world professionals, and audiences. I have been to exhibition openings, drunk bad wine, and gossiped with everyone else; I have sat in on art classes and lectures; I have hung around with museum staff and gallerists, done the things that you might expect. I don’t often draw explicitly on participant observation data here, but I mention it because presenting the data considered here as “interview” data is somewhat problematic, especially in light of the assumptions often made in current debates over the merits of interview data.9 A few of my interviews have happened in coffee shops or offices, and looked like what we might imagine when we hear the word interview—two speakers, interviewer and respondent, seated facing one another, a tape recorder between; at the end, a handshake. But many more of the interviews I’ve done have happened in people’s homes and studios, have involved something more. I have stayed with interview subjects, eaten meals with them, met their partners and their children. I have cooked food for some; others have slept on my couch. Some I have spoken with once; others I am in touch with regularly; a few are now friends. All of this has served as sources of data that have contributed to this study.

Artists might seem a strange population to use to ask big questions about value—why not look at something more solid, something we really need—calories, perhaps? But artists, artworks, and artmaking are especially useful for thinking about value and valuation, for several reasons.10 Value in the arts is openly ambiguous; there are few within or outside of art worlds who will argue that objective qualities drive pricing. Artmaking is an activity that, for something that can be a highly credentialed and well-paid profession, is also notably open to all. There are artists who paint for a living and those who spend all their money to be able to paint; artists with MFA and PhD degrees and many with no training at all. There are many other vectors of diversity in art worlds, but these two alone can be used to make a crucial point: all of these artists—the professionals and the hobbyists, the credentialed and the naïve—might be in the same exhibition, might sell their work at the same price point. Defining “quality,” like “value,” is a real problem in the arts.

While some researchers take art prices to be the first point of entry for the analyst interested in questions of value, I focus elsewhere. If we define artists as “people who make a living selling art objects,” the resulting group of artists will include only a very small minority of those who actually produce and exhibit visual art. I am interested primarily in practices, not products, and in a plurality of artists who define goals and success in divergent ways. Whether artists turn to the markets for art objects to define the value of their activities is treated, here, as an open question.11 But there has been very little exploration of the valuation of art practices, and it is on that process of valuation that I focus here. By practices I mean not only the brush-to-canvas and chisel-to-marble movements made by artists’ bodies, but also artists’ increasingly central discursive practices: the meaning-making and sensemaking work that can be observed in their speech and writings. Talk is just as much a part of artistic practice as the work of the hands; sometimes it’s the greater portion.12

Because I am interested much more in the valuation of practice than in, for example, the prices of art objects or the result of an art school education, I have defined artists for this study through a proxy for artistic practice: the exhibition of artworks in public. (Notes on sampling and other methodological issues can be found in the appendix.) I focus especially on one window into individual artists’ valuation of their own practices by looking at artists’ narratives of investment and their expectations around returns on investment. I consider artists to be speaking of investments in their practice when they refer in one narrative (a story with a discernible beginning and end, of which there were many in each interview) to finite resources (for example, time, money, space, or energy) committed to their artistic practice, and also link such resource commitments to presumed, hoped-for, or past specific outcomes (sales, visibility, employment, the development of new skills or relationships, happiness, and so forth) of such resource commitments. The decision to narrow the scope of this study to accounts of investment was central to my analytical strategy and findings.

In the pages that follow, I ask how artists account for the value of the things that they do. I look for patterns in the ways artists’ narratives of their own practices presume distinct bases of value, and I consider the ways that artists construct convincing accounts. I use my findings to engage with the literature on valuation and commensuration, and show why attention to disagreement is as valuable as a focus on agreement. I explain how and why the alliance of love and money is so central to contemporary artistic practice, and explore the dangers that await artists who fail to strike a balance between the two.

We should expect to see the kinds of diverse and divergent accounts of value that this book investigates in any field where a rationalized understanding of activity as valuable—as a job, an occupation—overlaps well enough with a particular collection of existing practices to largely supplant them, while fitting poorly enough to allow for friction between traditional and occupational bases of value. Stated differently, we would expect to see conflicts over value in those fields of human activity that we engaged in before economic life under capitalism made them into jobs. In such fields, we should look for patterns in the accounts of practitioners, and pay attention to the ways that diverse bases of value are used by practitioners to promote distinct strategies of valuation. Such an analysis will highlight the importance of multiple pathways to value within fields, will show how valuation and revaluation are negotiated by individuals and institutions, and will show how disparate valuations are associated with divergent outcomes.

Valuation matters, and we need a sociological perspective on it because valuation is something that we do together. We know that the value of things is not determined by their qualities or by an unseen, godlike hand. Even the “invisible hand” of Smith’s market moves, like the pointer on a Ouija board, not thanks to ghostly spirits but to animal ones—we move it ourselves, together.


1. Here is a simple measure of this rise: the economic sociology section of the American Sociological Association, formed in 2001, had 748 members at the end of 2015, a year when the median number of members per section was 484. In the past decade, in the United States and northern Europe at least, economic sociology has become a legitimate subdiscipline.

2. In one telling, known as “Parsons’s Pact,” sociologists left value decades ago to economics in order to justify their own authority over the study of values (Stark 2009).

3. See, for example, Tversky and Kahneman 1974, 1981.

4. For an overview, see Zelizer 2011.

5. Almeling 2007; Anteby 2010; Healy 2004.

6. Bandelj 2012; Spillman 1999; Wherry 2008.

7. Wherry 2008.

8. A few economists, though, do illuminate such processes and even argue for them; see, for example, Schor 2010 and Schor et al. 2016.

9. For example, Jerolmack and Khan 2014; Pugh 2013; Vaisey 2014.

10. In this, I follow in the path of other scholars who have worked with the intersection of art and value (e.g., Cowen and Tabarrok 2000; Graw 2010; Velthuis 2003). I look to visual artists to consider whether and how occupationalization affects valuation in a community of practice (Wenger 1998). The practice of visual art is a rich source for those interested in value and valuation. The history of social scientific analysis in the visual arts has been one in which our collective attention has shifted from a strict interest in (cultural) values to a broader view that includes (economic) value. Contemporary research displays a central interest in price (Cowen and Tabarrok 2000; Fine 2003; Menger 2001, 2014), while sustaining a sense that pricing in the arts is ill captured by neoclassical economic theory (Karpik 2010; Velthuis 2005). Such lack of fit has fuelled critiques of commodification as well as models explaining constraints on it and modifications to circulation protocols (Kopytoff 1986; Wherry 2006). However, in its focus on art objects, such research largely neglects artistic practice, and the assumption of a fundamental mismatch between market value and aesthetic value has led to a focus on problems of commodification that can just as well be understood as issues of valuation for the analyst less committed to a hostile worlds framework (Zelizer 2000). An approach that considers artistic practice as a whole—a field encompassing both wholly marketized and entirely non-commodified practices—allows for a clearer image of historical and contemporary artistic practice and at the same time refigures questions of market value as questions about the appropriate valuation of practice rather than about the appropriate status of objects.

While I use valuation in the arts as a lens for thinking about working life outside of the arts as well, I of course draw on the strong tradition in sociology that treats the arts and artists as objects of study worth our consideration; I am thinking, for example, of Crane 1989; Fine 2003; White and White 1965; and Zolberg 1990 and especially Becker 1982, from which I draw heavily in my conceptualization of “art worlds.”

11. This emphasis on practices differentiates my work from much of the literature in economic sociology on valuation; Zelizer, for example, looks at childhood with a treatment that considers not parenting practices nor the experience of childhood but the value of children as sort-of objects (Zelizer 1981). My emphasis on practice is a departure in this literature. In my own perspective on art pricing, I depend in particular on Olav Velthuis’s account; his attention to gift and honor economies strikes me as crucial for understanding fields like contemporary art as well as generative for thinking about valuation in other, less obviously creative fields (Velthuis 2005). In my perspective on the valuation of cultural objects more generally, I rely on Clayton Childress’s work on novels and the institutions that contribute to their production and reception, owing to that work’s attention to the relationships between high-culture actors, organizations, and cultural structures (Childress 2017).

12. To whatever extent talk is considered a fundamental element of our relationship to objects (e.g., Foucault 1972), modern art has long been understood to be intimately tied up with language. Harold Rosenberg wrote in the 1970s that a “contemporary painting or sculpture is a species of centaur—half art materials, half words”; many critics today would argue that the words have won (Princenthal 2013; Rosenberg 1972).