“I Refuse to Sell”: Rejecting Money in the Name of One’s Work
One of my favorite artists, if one can have such things, hated (according to his obituary in The Guardian) the idea of his work going for money. He despised the gallery system, the world of art dealers and critics, promotional magazines, and collecting by the wealthy — who he would routinely run off when they asked to make a purchase. He likewise chased away London art dealers who offered him fortunes and preferred to store his paintings by the thousands in his house in Lancashire and in the house next door when that was full, permitting only ordinary folk to view them.
According to Geoff Shryhane, writing in Wigan Today, Theodore Major “insisted there was no connection between money and art”. Major is quoted as saying, “I hate the art world which is all about money. Rich people come wanting to buy. I just show them the door. But I love showing my works to folks — good folks who realize that I hate the money side of the business.” He therefore lived on a pension, generally refusing to sell his work to anyone who wanted too much to buy it. As a result, Major had few exhibitions, did not achieve the fame of his contemporary, L.S. Lowry, who strikes me as producing the less interesting work of those two Northern artists, and died widely regarded as a provincial artist whose art didn’t quite ‘make it’. I suppose it depends on one’s goals.
The work is brilliant. It’s often called “naive” art, but that’s to miss the point, because it’s intensely studious of human nature and there’s an incredible versatility if one surveys a wide range of his works, the disgusting and chimp-level posthumous fakes aside. I think I would have agreed deeply with Major’s attitudes about the world, if perhaps not every expression of them. I think I would have disagreed just as much with his career choices, but they are not mine to make or to judge. What I will say is that Major is the recipe for artist poverty. He provided for his family. He was not poor in that sense. But neither did his work make him wealthy or even, perhaps, middle class.
In short, Major is the career template for being an amazing artist with a complete lack of commercial success. That’s how he wanted it; he achieved his goal.
Speaking of the rest of us, if you want to know what a person really is trying to do, don’t always listen to their words and assume they’ve failed. Perhaps they’ve succeeded at what they really want. That includes some of the lonely and the jobless, if only because it’s less responsibility to be lonely or jobless, and there’s always an explanation that excuses our responsibility. Speaking again, of the rest of us, if we have not entirely rejected our wealthy collectors, or are reasonably ‘OK’ with the gallery system, perhaps we’re still simply following a watered-down version of Major’s recipe. We might still be striving against our commercial success, but just doing a poorer job of it than he, a less consistent job, a less skilled one.
If for this reason alone, I can be simultaneously a capitalist, without much respect for things that can’t stand their own on the open market, can’t achieve an exchange of value without begging, can’t persuade a sale without scolding or impugning the character of the disinterested, yet I am not utterly disgusted by Major’s choice to remain unsold. If he had said he wanted a career as a professional artist, I would be. If he had complained that no one understands the value of his work, that the economy is rigged against him, that people don’t value art anymore, that only people with the right connections make a living, or even that poverty is the inevitable state of all but a few artists, I’d think less of him as a person. But he didn’t say those things. He said he can’t bear to sell the thing he loves to people who buy it the way they buy everything else. His standard was impossibly high. And so it was ill-suited to a broad market. He chose this. He said he was choosing it. He chose it with eyes wide open. One cannot disrespect that without believing what the beggars and scolders do — that one’s art belongs to everyone (whether we want it or not) and one’s money should go to whoever thinks highly enough of their work (whether or not with agree).
So as much as I wish Theodore “Theo” Major would have filled the world instead of merely Lancashire with his work, and accepted a cosmos that GM Hopkins called “seared with trade” as much as he embraced it “bleared, smeared with toil”, I will be content to enjoy what I can find of him, which owning, he had every right to make obscure.