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Valuing Art

Nude women hanging out by the sea
Hunas (low tide) | oil on canvas | by Marge Chavez

When ‘cheaper’ isn’t always the best deal.

“Can we get this at a lower price?”

“Oh, I didn’t know this was expensive!”

“It doesn’t fit into my budget.”

“X didn’t ask for this much!”

Let's admit it, everyone loves a bargain.

It’s the hallmark of the Filipino market culture; the bustling merkado with the cacophony of sounds as the marketers persuade you to peruse their wares all with the promise of a cheaper price. Words like ‘tawad’ in Tagalog, or ‘pa-ayo’ in Ilonggo would never exist if bargaining wasn't so prevalent. This is simply a way of living, just another method of business transaction.

But business is, in its essence, building a relationship. A negotiation of equal footing. 'X' product for 'X' price, and every fair negotiation should be precipitated by trust and good will. Local terminologies like 'suki' - a frequent buyer who built a trusted relationship with the seller - emphasize the relevance of this social dance. The suki is often given the benefit that can take many forms - a lower price, a preview of wares or additional items - that lie solely on the prerogative of the vendor. It isn’t what you are taking alone, but also what you are giving back. In this case, an assurance of a good and cordial trade, and in return the other gains a consistent patronage.

Without trust there is no relationship. Without a relationship, there is no business.

With that premise, let's backtrack a bit and shuffle the scenario.

contemplating man
Memento Viveri | oil on canvas | by Marge Chavez

Imagine you are working really hard for your career. You have been the perfect employee - never tardy, never absent. You give your 200% to your job. You sacrifice quality time with your family, or keep missing your favorite show just so you could impress your employer with how professional you are. Such dedication, you say. Surely, you deserve the raise!

Only you don’t.

Because somehow, what you offer is sub-par to their expectations - expectations that should have been dispelled the moment you passed your resume or portfolio. The very evidence of your dedication and effort to achieve your level of mastery, as well as the reason why they contacted you in the first place. Here it is, your entire life laid out in one short piece of bond paper, to be assessed and judged by others. After the hopeful premise of being noticed, still to these people and to your own befuddlement, you aren’t quite ‘it’. Do you get it?

How do you feel?

Makes you feel worthless, doesn’t it? You're probably thinking of ditching said job, if only you could. It is as if your entire value as a person has been scrapped, crumpled, torn and thrown into the nearest trash bin.

Sounds horrific, doesn’t it?

And yet, artists hear this all the time, sitting at the opposite end of the table as your potential client sap the living daylights out of you with their grandiose ideas and constant revisions all for the price of a one-piece Jollibee Chickenjoy. Sometimes, there’s no fries to go along with that.

Of course, I exaggerate.

Oh, wait, am I?

There is always the potential of walking out empty-handed along with a bonus headache.


It isn't rare to hear a horror story or two from any freelance artist you’ve met. It can be a tragically funny anecdote in hindsight, or a crippling experience that they never ventured in the art business again.

Now, you'd say I am probably biased. After all I belong to this group of bereaved freelance workers, surely I am inflating the issue.

It's true. I am biased, but being biased does not discount the truth that what I am saying here happens more frequently than people think too.

As a potential client, there are a lot of things to consider before committing for a project or a commission piece. Having certain priorities is okay. Having preference is perfectly okay. Not settling for anything less is absolutely okay. Not making a deal because you have urgent necessities you need to cover is not just okay but encouraged.

What is not okay is to belittle a person’s labor and cull their livelihood because you want the privilege of owning their work, but are unwilling to shoulder the price for it.

Indigenous woman floating in the river
Adrift | oil on canvas | by Marge Chavez

Like most things in life, haggling isn't necessarily terrible in its own sake. Haggling in itself is not the problem. Haggling is in fact an essential part of any business interaction. You can even go as far as say, life itself is a constant affair of negotiations. Our entire daily interaction can be considered an extent of such practice. Even in the confines of our mind we exercise it: Coffee or tea? Wheat or milk bread? Brown or white rice? Where to eat? Where to go? When to do this and that? A constant back-and-forth, a weighing of worth.

But there comes a point when haggling becomes flippant, turning into a malicious display of dominance - an exploitation.

Bartering is the oldest form of commerce, an exchange of one service for another, and if we diffuse the pedantics, technically all of us are bartering the same thing: time.

Expertise developed through time. Effort done through time. Learning and experiences acquired through time.

“Time is gold,” a popular saying around the business-savvy, and when you push someone to take less than they ought to receive, what you are really saying is this: “Your time isn’t worth my time.” Or, you can translate it as: “I’m gold and you’re an inconsequential rubble.”

That doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship, does it? One can even say it is toxic.

We often praise the artists as bearers of culture and yet we ogle our living artists as if they are artifacts behind a glass container - out of reality and out of life - as if passion is enough to abate an empty stomach, pay the bills, and oh, I don't know, live?

As an artist, we often hear people say that we should be satisfied that someone gave our lifetime of hard work a brief glance and a thumbs up. That payment for ‘exposure’ is enough. All the while people who claim to support you set up phony competitions and dangling project opportunities that end up nowhere after they've drained you of your mental resource and ideas, and somehow artists are expected to be content with that?

Art is suffering, as they say. Starving artist, right? That's the trope.

Are we really okay with this?

Because I'm not.

We often talk about the relevance of culture to our communal identity, and yet we treat our artists as commodities. What is a country without its culture? What is culture without its people? With our delusions of grandeur, we seem to forget this basic truth. While arts alone does not make a country, does not have sole authority to the definition of culture, it is still a significant portion of it. Is it not the remnants of artifacts that we study in our history that tells us of our ancestry, of where we came from and what were the foundations that built us?

And yet modern 'educated' people spurn this expression of human ingenuity with polls claiming it as a useless degree. Because apparently, according to their 'research', acquisition of knowledge and understanding is inherently useless - that's not the point of education, folks! #sarcasm

There is merit to criticisms to an art degree. Being in the art business is difficult, it is a high-pay, high-risk venture, and art education has its own set of problems. But the issue I see here can also be stemmed with how we see art in general. I find it rather odd to find myself writing a small post like this, defending the virtue of beauty and aesthetics when they have often been lauded as critical to the human experience. I’m sure there’s a reason why you prefer those expensive marble tiles for your living room over linoleum, ate.

It does beg the question, doesn’t it? Is this the kind of relationship our society wishes to build with its artists? A relationship of resentment? A relationship fueled by desperation and frustration?

Killing future generations of visionaries and different thinkers through lack of support? A lack of genuine appreciation?

This isn’t an elitist perspective telling you that art is an unattainable object only afforded by the few. On the contrary, it is a call to practice human decency. That laborers, artists or otherwise, are not at your beck-and-call. The value of their work doesn’t adapt to the price you are willing to pay. They are like you, people doing an honest living out of an inherent interest and acquired skill to offer services that you can’t do or can’t be bothered to do.

This is a call for fair trade. A call for mutual benefit.

Woman holding a drapery
Summer by the Sea | oil on canvas | by Marge Chavez

Money. Moolah. Pesos - these are only universal trading symbols we exchange for the value of our time.

No one wants to be cheated.

Talk to your artist, see their body of work, investigate. Know them. Know their practice. Know more about art. Understand why some things are priced as such. Decide for yourself. Search and explore. You don’t buy a car without test-driving. You don’t buy a laptop without learning its specifications. You don’t buy clothing without trying them on first. It doesn’t hurt you to be informed of a product you wished to acquire, in fact it is rather beneficial.

Be a conscious and conscientious buyer.

Let’s sit down and talk with mutual respect. Let us practice building a business like we would a healthy relationship. Let us build a community rooted in fairness.

No one wants a cheater.

Question is, why do you want to be one?

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