For What It’s Worth

Ceramic Pabst Beer Can on Nest of Rusty Shot up Cans


For what it’s worth, I’ve been making artstuff out of clay since 1999 or so and have been earnestly involved in selling it since 2007. You’d think by now I would have an accurate sense of what prices to ask. You would think. But I don’t. What I always suspected, and now am completely sure of, is that monetary value is squidgy and at best thinly related to the highly subjective valuation of a work of art. Throughout the art world, price is often nebulous, magically derived, and certainly very negotiable. And Ceramics carries another challenge because of the FineArt/FineCraft pricing disconnect. Let’s look at all this a little more personally.

For what it’s worth, here’s my pricing method:  I try to see the piece objectively (off-stage snickering) and pick the first instinctive amount that comes to mind. It may or may not have anything to do with time and materials, marketplace comparables, “product ecosystem price point arrays,” selling history, size, complexity, functionality, expected venue, demographics, trendiness, or Beauty. I then consider higher or lower amounts until I sense a sweet spot and notice myself take a breath. That number needs to feel healthy – neither needy nor greedy. One that delivers something extra in exchange for the collector’s card in the smartphone’s reader.  Objectivity in this matter is not truly possible and never was. I actually trade in priceless delights, which are experiences – mine and theirs -not things, and therefore cannot be absolutely quantified.

For what it’s worth, I know that any number I choose as a price will certainly be open to opinion and comment along with the qualities of the piece itself. Witness the range of valuation feedback I have gotten over the years for the same object at the same price: a $100 hand-formed and trompe l’oeil underglazed ceramic beer can similar to that Pabst can up top:

  • “That’s a lot of money for a rusty can!” (First Timer, mistaking it for an actual metal can)
  • “This is not authentic because this brand only came on paper bottle labels.” (Beer Can Collector, always correct, sigh)
  •  “Girl, you seriously need to double your prices!” (A Concerned Clay Buddy)
  • “They sold better when they were priced at $85.” (Gallery Owner with standard 50% commission)
  • “I’ll take these three. And, oh I just can’t help it, this one too!” (Beloved Avid Collector who gets automatic 10% discount)
  • “Can we trade?” (Another Clay Buddy whose work I relish. Yes, please!)
  • “Would you donate a piece to our fundraiser?” (Non-profit Director)
  • “If I order 50 of these, what’s your wholesale price?” (New Brewpub Owner)
  • “I could never ever make this; it is SO COOL.” (Appreciative Ceramics Student who did not even notice the pricetag because he was feeding his wonder)
  • “If I pay you cash, will you take $X?” [always a lower amount] (Perennial Negotiator, assuming that I don’t record cash sales and/or knowing it costs me when folks pay with credit cards)
  • “If I pay you a little more, will you make one of these in blue and add my mom’s name?” (Potential Commission, which I usually politely decline as I just don’t want to partner up)
  • “I’d buy this right now, even for a hundred dollars, if there was a dog or cat on it. Do you have anything with dogs or cats? I just love dogs and cats!” (Certifiably Bonkers Visitor)
  • “Will you be the special artist at our beer tasting event? No fees, you keep all sales proceeds, we just want great artwork there and yours fits right in.” (Me: yes!)

For what it’s worth, it’s plain that the folks who comment on my work have differing motivations, intentions and means. Their thoughts on what its market price should be stretch from basically free to double what it’s marked; its other perceived values, according to them, range from unacceptable at any price to causing a spending spree. It makes perfect sense to me that if I’m the captain of this little ship and I want to sail into the marketplace, not only must I quantify the inherently unquantifiable, but I need justify that quantification only to myself. So I just pick an amount that satisfies something in me and call it good.

For what it’s worth, I think there might be at least three other things I want more than money. I am not earning a massive living here anyway, and that has not been my intent. If I see myself concentrating unduly on the money and sales, the joy flies out the studio window. Yet, something’s working right because I do have a profitable concern which pleases me mightily. But Monetary Value comes after Aesthetic hide and seek, the Intrinsic thrill of creating, and the Recognition for my endeavors. It’s excruciatingly hard to speak Money to Art and I know I’m not alone.

For what it’s worth, I am at peace with the schizoid place Ceramics holds in the spectrum of Fine Art, especially when it comes to prices. It’s quite true that it occupies a strange niche, being more often pegged as “a fine craft”  – like quilting or sign painting – which can range from completely utilitarian to exquisitely sublime and often both. Case in point: My $100 ceramic beer can is pretty much at the top end of the range of what folks will pay for it so far, yet I’ve seen a lovely unframed 9″x 12″ watercolor of a similar beer bottle for $200. If I was just following the money, I would be making more wallpieces! Or I would return to watercolor, which I will not. So, I notice the discrepancies, but suck it up and carry on.

For what it’s worth, Brian Eno said, “Stop thinking about artworks as objects and start thinking about them as triggers for experience.” Back to my priceless delights I go! Lately I have seen a fair number of artists exchanging their art in support of causes. Potter Ehren Tool “just makes cups” and has for years. A veteran, he gives them away to help start honest conversations about war and its causes. Bo Mackison practices Sacred Activism: offering original art in exchange for honor-system donations to social justice organizations. And I first heard of Craftivism (activism + craft) from knitter/designer/teacher Donna Druchunas. Worthwhile application of one’s talents for worthy causes creates triggers for experiences which leave upfront money aside in favor of aesthetics, intrinsic meaning and highly personal, often one-on-one recognition, which is certainly worth it to me.

–Liz Crain, who also wonders a lot about Seconds Sales, Series Close-outs, Coupons, Raffles, Free Drawings, Pay What You Want Pricing, Buy-One-Get-One Offers, Random Giving and Lagniappe.

Other posts dancing around with this perennial conundrum you might enjoy:

Artist-Customer Satisfaction, Easy as ABC 123

Giving Away the Milk, The Cow, The Pasture – Or Not

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2 thoughts on “For What It’s Worth

  1. Great money musings, even better re: value. At NCECA this week so lots of $60-$100 mugs, $100 + plates, bowls, sculpture in the 100s to 1000s. And Ehren Tool is hete, making his cups and giving them awY. Wacky mud people, gotta love em.

    1. Ah Marlene, I envy your NCECA time! Worth it at nearly any price – and yeah, for the wackiness!

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