This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 18,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites. Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
I was reminded recently about a story involving Cleopatra VII Philopator -- the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt -- and her Roman lover, Mark Antony. The story involves the distrust that Mark Antony had for Cleopatra -- and the fear that he had for her knowledge of poisons. I can't verify if the story is based solidly on historic fact -- that said, there is a lesson to learn from the tale... a lesson that artists can learn from when partnering with art dealers.
Cleopatra was known for being an expert at mixing poisons. She had knowledge of ancient traditions involving 'magical' concoctions -- and was known to test her knowledge on slaves. As the story goes, Mark Antony -- though he had love for Cleopatra -- was wary of her knowledge (and of the fact that she would easily sentence someone to death over the slightest insult)... so much so that he would only dine with her if a taster was present. Needless to say, the ruler of Egypt was not very fond of the fact that her lover distrusted her. She decided to teach Antony a lesson.
On night, after a private feast, Mark Antony had a taster sample the wine that Cleopatra had ordered from her servants. After time passed -- and the taster lived -- Antony decided to enjoy his wine. It was at this point that Cleopatra took a flower from her headdress and tossed it into Antony's wine cup. She asked Mark Antony to take a drink as a sign of his love for her. The seductive nature of Cleopatra -- and the fact that a taster had already shown that the wine was 'safe' -- convinced Antony to comply with the demand of his lover. Cleopatra's lesson was not over yet.
Mark Antony -- wine cup in hand -- started to raise his drinking arm... eyes locked with those of his exotic lover. Cleopatra -- still gazing into Antony's eyes -- placed her fingers over her lovers lips before the cup reached its destination. She slowly took the wine cup from Antony while ordering her servants to summon a prisoner. Cleopatra had planned the scenario in advance -- thus, the prisoner arrived within moments. By this point her Roman lover was extremely confused.
Cleopatra, still looking deep into Mark Antony's concerned eyes, ordered the prisoner to drink from the wine cup. The obedient prisoner complied with the order -- and collapsed within moments of taking his first sip. Cleopatra explained everything to Antony as the life drained from the prisoner at their feet. Still looking into Antony's eyes, Cleopatra said, "The flower was poisoned. If I wanted to kill you I could accomplish it despite your taster". Mark Antony had learned a harsh lesson about trust and distrust from Cleopatra -- and he knew that the lesson went beyond just the use of poison.
From that point on Mark Antony no longer requested a taster when dining with Cleopatra. After all, if she truly wanted to destroy him she could do it with or without poison. With just one command she could order his death. She had not done that yet -- and had no plans to do so. He had dined with her nightly -- and was still alive. Perhaps he was wary due to the lethality of her reputation alone -- or the fact that he was in a foreign land in which she held great power. The point is that there was trust between them -- but he had blocked himself from fully accepting it. Because of that he had been acting like a fool in her eyes. Cleopatra's lesson was extreme -- that said, Antony had learned from it... and was more apt to trust her from that point on.
How does this story -- told from one generation to the next... passed on for centuries -- relate to artists and art dealers today? I'll explain. I've known artists who go into any artist / art dealer relationship with the idea that at any moment their art dealer may backstab them professionally or personally. Point blank -- their extreme caution gives birth to rampant paranoia... all because they fear (just as Mark Antony in his relationship with Cleopatra) the power of their partner. This extreme distrust must be widespread when one considers how often art dealers are viewed negatively among artists in general.
Business-wise one should always be cautious. That said, caution does not mean that one should automatically assume that his or her business partners can't be trusted. The artist / art dealer relationship IS a business partnership -- a business partnership that will likely fail if one or both parties goes into the relationship with the burden of extreme distrust (the same can be said of relationships in general). The business of art is difficult enough -- it is not a place for professional paranoia, if you will. I suppose my point is that artists should give art dealers the benefit of the doubt until extreme concern is warranted.
The hard truth is that once a business partnership is firmly established between artist and art dealer all the defense mechanisms in the world won't protect the artist from a deceptive art dealer (or an art dealer from a deceptive artist for that matter). Point blank -- if your art dealer plans to deceive you -- he or she will. It is what you do after the fact that matters. If you are sitting around waiting for negativity to happen -- it may happen... and you may be slightly more prepared for whatever goes wrong (not a fun way to tackle life) -- OR you will just end up stressing yourself out for no reason (which will likely strain the business relationship even if the art dealer is not aware of your fear).
With the above in mind, embracing professional/personal barriers when not warranted CAN -- and most likely WILL -- distance you from what would have otherwise been a good business relationship for all involved. Point blank -- stop expecting to be 'poisoned' unless there is a reason -- outside of fear -- to be concerned. Trust that your art dealer trusts you -- and trust that if he or she does plan to deceive... there is not much you can do to prevent it from happening (the same goes for art dealers when dealing with artists -- it goes both ways folks).
If you are going to approach all art dealers with distrust and skepticism... perhaps you should focus on marketing art alone. After all, the artist / art dealer relationship will be emotionally -- and perhaps, physically -- draining if you assume the worst at every turn. The other option is to be rational and realize that not every art dealer is 'out to get you' -- no matter how many horrible stories you have read about art dealers. Have I known 'bad' art dealers? Yes. I've also known art dealers who were treated badly for no other reason than fear.
In closing, living in constant fear of being 'backstabbed' by your art dealer won't help much when, and if, the moment arrives. Be cautious -- but don't become a servant to unnecessary fear. Don't let that fear control you. In other words, don't expect the worst when in reality you are in a good situation -- and should be enjoying yourself. That is what Cleopatra taught to Mark Antony in their relationship/situation -- and it is a lesson that we can learn from. Enjoy the wine.
Take care, Stay true,