A couple of weeks ago, the wife and I hit up a huge artisan fair in Alexandria. The afternoon stroll from booth to booth looking at all the handmade arts and crafts reminded me of a realization I came to in Europe over the summer. While in Switzerland and Italy this August, we had welcomed the opportunity to meander around the numerous street markets, where scores painters and craftsmen would peddle their wares. Although we ended up purchasing a handful of choice finds, I decided that I had a what you'd call a love-hate relationship with these sorts of fairs.
On the upside, I'm a big fan of good art work, even though our collection right now is pretty meager. When we can afford it, I'd love to have my house filled with nice photography, paintings, pottery, and sculptures. But for now, outside of a few nice pieces, we rely pretty heavily on mass-produced prints and products. Here's where the artisan fairs and markets come in. Original works of art and handicraft sold by the artists themselves at prices that typically blow anything you'd find at an art store or gallery away. Unfortunately, however, that's also the downside. See, I'm pretty particular about the kinds of art I like, and artists, in their drive to be original... let's just say the quality or appeal of their work can run the gamut. In my experience, avant-garde is often code for "weird as hell." So the trip to an artisan fair can end up being... well... awkward. As I stroll, I often find myself reticent to enter a lot of booths and look closely at too many items because, as I disinterestedly set down a particular work or quickly walk past a set of paintings, I'll feel the artists eyes burning into me. I'll look over, meet their gaze, and usually manage a weak smile while rejecting their work through my indifference. Sometimes I'll mutter something about the art being "really nice" or, in particularly exigent circumstances, I'll baldly lie about coming back after I check with my wife.
So if I find it so excruciating, why do I go? Why do I willingly submit to the torture? I'm not exactly sure of all the reasons why. But I think its because a good find can usually make it all worthwhile. If you come across something that's your style and that you actually are interested in buying, it's great. You get original works at a great price while also having the opportunity to shoot the breeze with the artist. We came across this one guy in Rome whose work we loved. We probably bought six or seven paintings and sketches from him without breaking the bank and ended up talking with him for the better part of half an hour.
These good experiences, however, can be tempered somewhat if you're also bargaining over the cost. The quibble over prices, for me, opens a whole 'nother can of worms. Instead of just implicitly rejecting someone's work, I'm now telling them to their faces that they aren't worth what they're asking. I try to rationalize that they've likely hiked up their prices in anticipation of such bargaining, but I never fully convince myself of it. I end up thinking of all the time they must put into their craft and what a paltry income they probably make. While I've been known drive a hard bargain on some things, haggling over prices for art just seems different than pushing someone hawking pirated watches and handbags for a better deal.
So, you don't have to tell me. I know that I'm an oversensitive schmuck. I'm never going to see these people again, they're expecting a lot of foot traffic at these events from people who don't plan on buying anything, and, in reality, they typically only need to sell a handful of works each day to consider their outing a success. I've told myself this all before, but it doesn't seem to help. I still end up feeling bad. And, like a masochist, I still end up going back for more. Like I said, it's a rocky relationship... and I don't have much hope that it's going to improve.