Last week I began the first installement, Part 1 of a three part “story”, and a related “glossary” of words and phrases, in an effort to make art babble a little easier to understand. This week I continue the narrative, as we follow a fictitious art lover, “Paul,” as he visits an equally fictitious art gallery. . . . and listen in to the conversation. It’s a mix of words we know, or are – at least – easy to look up in any dictionary of art terms, and words that have – or can have – special meanings to those who use them.
It took me three years to put together a biographical dictionary, “Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century” (McFarland & Co, 2009), and another couple of years to create a similar biographical dictionary devoted to classic role-playing game and collector card game artists (McFarland, 2012.) So, why not another kind of dictionary – much briefer in length 🙂 devoted to explicating some words and phrases the art world holds dear? It’s not meant to be comprehensive, and it’s certainly not exhaustive. Call it a “work in progress” and subject to revision and expansion. That’s where YOU come in! You can help by contributing suggestions! Meanwhile, I hope it will prove useful as a beginning . . . .
Paul’s Visit to an Art Gallery continues . . .
“Hmm. . one-offs,” Kathy sounds meditative, as if she’s carefully considering Paul’s comment. Kathy, the appealing young person who greeted Paul soon after he entered the gallery, is standing beside him as he persuses a small painting of a vampire. “You know,” she continues, n a somewhat conspiratorial tone, “there are many ways works of art can be “originals.” She is saying this to sound helpfully informative, and thereby enhance her credibility, as well as to confirm exactly where efforts should placed when it comes to selling Paul a work of art. She continues “I see you are particularly attracted to imaginative works. May I show you some spectacular serigraphs, repligraphs and other two dimensional multiple originals that you may like?” Paul shakes his head, and lets his eyes roam to the edge of the painting and beyond, as if looking for the price. “Well,” Kathy exclaims, “I must say, you have excellent taste!’ Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, Paul hears a confident voice near his shoulder saying “I see you have found one of the finest examples I’ve seen of this artist’s work.”
The voice belongs to the art consultant, whom one moment ago was shuffling papers at a desk nearby. Kathy proceeds to introduce Paul “who is very interested in fantasy art” to “Nancy Harris, who is “much more knowledgeable than I am about this piece and who can answer all your questiuons” a short speech which is immediately followed by Nancy asking Kathy “have you offered Paul a glass of wine or coffee? Paul, what can Kathy get for you?” Paul, put on the spot but feeling flattered to have earned this kind of respect (and also not wanting to sound rude, or inexperienced with such situations) mumbles, “coffee, black” so as not to have to fumble with spoons and sugar. No sooner is his order in than Nancy picks up the thread immediately where it was interrupted. Staring intently at the painting she declares, emphatically, and as if she’s imparting important information, “You’ll need to step back from that one just a bit, it’s really best viewed from a distance.” Then, she confides, “he’s really quite a challenging artist, don’t you think? This work really manages to exude an aura of eternal mystery and melancholy that is quite special”.
“What is the provenance of the piece?” asks Paul, trying not to be distracted by the pentimenti that are distorting the sharpness of the Vampire’s fangs. He notices that Kathy has darted off to greet another gallery-hopper, but Paul doesn’t mind. He still believes he’s just browsing. 🙂
“This is a very special painting from a private collection, which the consignor acquired at auction, with a hammer price well below comparable works. That’s why we can offer such a work, at such an attractive price.” But unlike the subject of the painting, Paul is not yet ready to bite. “I’m really more attracted to oils, especially fine examples of works by artists in a moderate price range.”
Glossary for Part 2
art consultant: New, PC, and frequently euphemistic and/or invented title for anyone who sells art in a retail environment, see also ‘assistant gallery director’, ‘sales associate’ (anything but “sales person” which is a label reserved for employees in middle class stores in shopping malls ….see also “sales clerk” – for stores like Walmarts – and “sales consultant” for Neiman Marcus…while cars are still sold by salesmen and saleswomen, as far as I know….but all this sociocult-driven nomenclature is subject to change)
attractive price: translation: I will be open to bargaining on this one even though I will tell you it’s already reduced and priced “below market”
aura of eternal mystery and melancholy: “It’s not a pretty picture, but I want you to buy it.”
best viewed at a distance: Most impressionist paintings are best viewed from a distance of at least eight feet. A good many other paintings are best viewed from the farthest side of another continent. Whenever you are invited to step back, in order to get the full measure of an artworks’ qualities, it’s best to keep that in mind.
challenging artist: “Not a lot of people want to buy his work, and I don’t know why, so don’t ask me.” Challenging works usually spend a long time hanging on an art gallery’s wall.
comparable works: It may seem illogical to suggest that unique/one of a kind works can be compared as if “similar” but it is assumed that even unique objects – if members of a class – will share certain attributes, which may include such aspects as date of creation/time period; style; method of manufacture; creator; condition. Something like real estate “comparablesl” Sometimes, referring to “comparables” is useful, and helpful in making a decision; sometimes it’s just part of the sales “patter.” When in doubt, ask “what auction was that, what paintings in that sale would you consider comparable to this one, and what did they sell for?”
consignor: person who contracts with an agent to sell a work of art under a written agreement which specifies the terms. Could be the creator/artist, or the current owner (not the artist), who could be a collector, corporation, or even another gallery or art dealer.
excellent taste: meaning: It doesn’t matter what you like, so long as you like something and I can sell it to you. This phrase is also frequently heard after the sale when payment is being made, to diminish cognitive dissonance. (as in “OMG, what have I done? There goes the rent money!) For that reason I try very hard not to use those words unless I sincerely mean it. And when I use it, it means “I like it, too – so it must be good.” 🙂
fine example: in the top 50% of the artist’s oeuvre (output)
hammer price: the last and final bid at auction; the price paid exclusive of the buyer’s premium . Same as saying “price knocked down at” . . .” or “the gavel price was. . . “.
imaginative works: the safest, least offensive way to describe a prospective buyer’s taste is often used to start off a chain of questions designed to help the art consultant in his/her quest to find that one work that the customer will fall in love with, and buy – on the spot. If Paul had been staring at a painting of a bowl of fruit, Kathy would have said “I see you like realism”. If the artist/style is welll known, she may lead off with “Are you familiar with the works of “X”? or “Are you familiar with the Barbizon School of painters?” Note how differently Paul might react, had Kathy instead said “I see you are attracted to vampires….” This kind of explicitness, too early in the conversation, can lead to disasterous results! The funnel approach – from the general to the specific – most often yields the most useful answers, as customers end up working with the salesperson to narrow their needs and wants. NOTE: this approach also works to the benefit of salespeople who don’t know anything more about what they are selling than the most superficial facts! In many cases, the prospect will happily provide all that’s needed, “proud” to show off their expertise. A person like Paul, instead of offering silence, just as frequently responds “Yes, I’m a big fan of anything having to do with vampires or werewolves, especially ones that show fangs and blood.” Some aspects of personal selling interactions are more problematic than others because the urge to resist and withhold information can be overwhelming, when you know (or suspect) that the questioner will use it to gain advantage/sell you something. BUT. As someone who has been on both ends of this kind of communication, I can say without hesitation that withholding information or “playing hard to get” brings no benefits when you are seriously interested in acquiring art. Why waste your time, and their time, when you know exactly what you like, and what you are looking for? I say “make it easy for them to offer you exactly what you want, in the shortest possible time. You are still free to walk away.” 🙂
moderate price range: in a very high end gallery, this signals “don’t get your hopes up, because I can’t afford the best.” In a low end gallery, it means “I’m slumming, but you never know – I might find something I like.” In many cases, however, you’ll just come off as trying too hard to sound educated (It’s how you refer to the pricing of big ticket items like cars, so . . . ) but poor, “so if I buy anything I will have to perceive it as being a bargain.” If you say “modest” instead of “moderate” it would have to be dirt cheap to begin with (viz. “modestly priced used car). Bear in mind, however, these are only phrases you use when you are inviting someone to sell you something, as opposed to signaling that you want to be in control of the interaction. As in “I could be interested in any early or atypical works by “X” if you have them”. or “I am looking for only the most typical, and representative works by artists working for major publishers of the 1940s” When you do this you don’t have to say a word about your budget, or what you can afford. Whatever happens next, is up to you. If they have what you want, fine and dandy. If they don’t, but you have the time and are curious (or are just being sneaky and like using misdirection as a ploy) you can always say “It’s not what I’m hunting for right now, but I could be tempted”. Bottom line: No one who loves art walks into a gallery blindly, without knowing exactly what they’re going to find there, and how much (on average) that will cost. And that starts with sizing up the decor, the way art is displayed, and the gallery personnel. And You don’t want them to show you only what you can afford. What you want is for them to offer you something better than that, and then let them talk you into buying it for less. 🙂
multiple original: relatively new label applied to reproductions (multiples) of works produced by either mechanical or hand processes which are then over-painted or re-touched by hand, to make them ‘unique’.
one of the finest examples I’ve seen: translation: I’ve only seen one other like it. Maybe.
pentimenti: the early workings (and sometimes the mistakes) an artist has made before committing to the final outline of a form. They are unattractive if too clearly visible, but can provide interesting insight into the artist’s working methods when one can see how he or she has modified the pose of a figure to achieve the final effect. They also can be a reassurance of the authenticity of a picture, since a copyist or forger usually works out the outlines well in advance, hence this evidence of the creative process is missing.
piece: generic term for anything you collect. See also “work” (artwork, piece of work, work of art, piece of art) I don’t know why, but there is a sort of cadence to the way these words are used.. The way it goes: “Do you have works by “X”. The answer “yes, we have several pieces by her”. Choices sometimes are influenced by context. If it’s sculpture you might say “I collect pieces by “X” vs. “I collect works by “X” when it’s paintings. Sooner or later, you get comfortable with the rhythm of talking “Art” even if you don’t always know why. What can I say? It’s like the “p” in pteradactyl (which is why you never hear them in the bathroom).
private collection: owned by someone other than the artist/creator. It could be a piece on consignment, or it could be part of the gallery’s permanent inventory, i.e., bought by the gallery owner for resale. Galleries and agents typically do not discuss the identity of the “seller” unless it is to their advantage/benefit.
provenance: a French term, referring to the record of ownership for a work of art, ideally from the time it left the artist’s studio to its present location.
repligraph: a patented process (1990), one of several recent methods, which produces reproductions of art on canvas versus paper (see also ‘canvas transfers’, fine-art canvas prints, ‘artagraph’, ‘acrylagraph’). The images are signed and numbered, are less vulnerable to aging and moisture than paper, and at their highest quality (via computer scanning) are able to simulate the brushstrokes and look of an original painting.
serigraph: method which prints the open areas of a stencil prepared on a tightly stretched screen, usually of silk.
very special: translation: “I don’t know where I’ll get another one like this one, nor do I want to make the effort, so I’d better get as much as I can for it right now.”