wasted art?

“I wish Mary hadn’t been the one to buy that piece,” she told me. “She’s wasting it.”

I was on the phone with a relative, listening to a description of a fundraiser at her church. A couple dozen volunteers had each designed a decorative mask, and all the masks were auctioned off at a dinner. The grandest, said my relative, was the one designed by the priest, and she’d been outbid by another church member.

My relative added, “She hung it up in her bedroom.”

I said, “How is that wasting it?”

She replied, “No one will see it.”

I’ve been thinking about that since our conversation, and I have a question for you guys, because I know a lot of my readers are creative-types themselves (painters, writers, graphic artists, and so on). What would make you consider a work of art “wasted”?

My thought would be, if it was limited to people who didn’t understand it. Ten years ago, if I’d attended a concert by Joshua Bell, it would have been wasted on me. But my relative thought having a work of art appreciated by only a few people meant it was wasted, so she’s clearly going for the “largest number” definition.

I do feel bad about the painting my Patient Husband hung in the basement. That one is clearly wasted. The artwork that never got unboxed after our move (due to lack of wall space) is also “wasted” until we find it a home.

I’ll go one further: in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the musical instrument collection has four Stradivarius violins in a glass case. They’re beautiful, but behind glass they no longer sing. Their beauty is in their voice, but in order to display them to thousands, the museum had to rob them of the chance to be played.

The most expensive piece of artwork in my house hangs on my bedroom wall. I don’t consider it wasted, though, because as it turns out, I spend time in my bedroom. I look at it every day, and I appreciate it. I enjoy having it where I can see it.

Ideally an artist would have both the wide exposure and the hard-core lover who studied every jot of the work. But if you had to choose? Three or four individuals who savor and love your work, or a thousand people to see your work and enjoy it briefly?


  1. whiskers

    The Stradavarii, yes totally wasted. Jewels which are not worn are wasted. Books which are not read are wasted. Artwork which is bought merely to have and not to be looked at, very much wasted. However as long as Mary is enjoying it, and it has the potential to be passed down or re-sold when Mary wants it to be, then it is not wasted at all. I am in favor of museums because they give opportunities to many more people, but it doesn’t bother me if something beautiful is in a private collection, so long as someone is appreciating it.

    The other day, I got a Smithsonian catalog. They show examples of things in their collection, and then sell items based of the idea of those examples. They showed a HUGE amethyst, flawless and beautifully cut, and my first thought was, what a waste…

  2. Kaci

    I think it depends.

    I have a friend who’s an artist who had this painting of the level of lust from Dante’s Inferno (it wasn’t gross or inappropriate; it was intertwined outlines of a man and woman, and it was slightly abstract). Anyway, for some reason I really liked it, but it bothered a few people until she put it away. To me, that was wasted.

    Eventually, she wound up giving it to an anthropology prof who helped her with a project and had fallen in love with the thing. She said, “I know you really liked it; I hope you don’t mind.” I said, “Of course not! I just didn’t like it being off in storage somewhere where no one could ever see it.” This was a gift, given to someone who would appreciate it for what it is.

  3. Normandie


    Some of my sculptures, which are way too big to adorn our walls (life-size nudes in resin that hang), lie on rafters in our boat barn. The two I remember most fondly (a pair I called John and Sue, after the models) won First Place in an art show judged by the sculpture curator of the National Gallery of Art. That was a lovely affirmation. I had a chance to have the male nude hang in a gay bar frequented by the gay model, John. I chose not to let them buy it. Are those pieces wasted? Well, it might be nice if someone other than the mice or birds flying through those rafters had a chance to see them. But they won a big prize. I had a great time creating them. I love them. Do I regret any of it? I don’t know. I didn’t go to the showing of them because the whole accolades thing in public embarrassed me.

    One of those works, which is merely a torso, hangs in an apartment in NYC. Other, smaller pieces hang in other homes. That’s nice. The portraits I did commercially belong in the houses and offices of those who commissioned them, and they’re all over the country. I’ve never seen them since, but I have heard comments. I appreciate those.

    Now, my writing? Am I going to be as content to have it clog a hard drive forever? It’s something I’ve asked myself time and again. And all I can do is tell the Lord, Your will, not mine. Your time, not mine.

    If one is an artist, the creation process itself is the most valuable thing. I disagree it can be wasted. The mask on Mary’s wall? If Mary loves it and treasures it, if she appreciates the artist who crafted it, then the work is doing what it was designed to do: bring joy to the creator and the ones who behold. Is a stream that splashes down a hillside, far from man’s view, wasted if only the birds and the deer enjoy it? I don’t think so. I think the Creator had a glorious time crafting his work, and He delights when one or more of His creatures appreciates another aspect of His artistry.


  4. Blue

    I believe if it brings even one small moment of joy to the world, it is not wasted.The flower in the forest that no one sees is a joy to those who catch it’s wonderful perfume. The person that volunteers behind the scenes is a joy to those who get help. Anything that furthers the ideal of peace and happiness in the world has served a purpose, even if it is not the one we would like.

  5. Marie

    I’m not an artist, but I do cross-stitch and needlepoint and have occasionally (exactly 6 times) given something I’ve made as a gift. The person better (and everyone has so far) appreciate that it represents 6-12 months of my time.

    I think I could understand if they moved to smaller place and didn’t display it. I don’t ask about the things I’ve made and don’t inspect the house when I visit, although I’m happy to see/hear something is still displayed. The bride who later divorced I lost touch with or I would tell her “If it’s too painful, pass it on to someone else or give it back to me” (it didn’t have names or dates).

    My mom makes baby quilts with the requirement that they be used everyday and tossed in the washer and dryer as necessary. I’ve gotten some horrified looks when I sit down on a bench and spread a hand-quilted quilt on the floor and place a baby and some toys on it. On the other hand, a woman in my quilt guild took back a prize-winning quilt from her son when he started using it as a dog blanket.

  6. diinzumo

    I have art that still needs to be framed and displayed. Someday, I hope.

    I can’t really define what “wastes” art (other than to have the piece thrown, unseen, into the garbage and never recovered), but I know that if it moves/affects one person outside the artist, it’s not wasted.

  7. Ken Rolph

    This is the view of art as a concrete product. What about performances? If you put on a dance, theatre or music event and it is not videoed, is it wasted? Is sand art waster if it gets blown away by the wind or washed away by the tide? In many parts of human history there have been rituals with body decoration and other materials and performances which did not last beyond the event. Sometimes it is the impact of the creation of the art on the creators and audience that is the main thing.

    You did remind me of two things. Jan’s mother was very good at needlework. We have many of her pieces. When I put something under a vase of flowers I place the vase on the centre. Jan always puts the vase well to a back edge. She wants the maximum visibility for the fabric. I see the vase as an integral part of a whole thing.

    Last year I made a cart for the boys over the road. It was made from leftover wheels, wood and paint. The parents said it was wonderful, they would treasure it and show all their friends. This year they moved on and gave me back the cart. It was worn, split, chipped, scuffed, weathered. That pleased me immensely. Perhaps waste of art depends on context and intention. A whopping great jewel may be intended to be kept locked up in secret so the owner can go around with the pleasure of exclusive ownership.

  8. The Sojourner

    I think it’s different with novels; if I’m ever published and somebody left a copy of my novel in the rain, it would just be their loss of $15 or whatever; not a loss to the world of a piece of artwork.

    If the 4 existing electronic copies of this novel were all deleted, having been read by only 2 people (me and my beta)? I’d be crushed, for a lot of reasons. The story is hardwired into my brain at this point, so I could definitely rewrite it, but it would be discouraging to have to rewrite all the good parts as well as all the bad parts. It would mean extra years before the friend for whom this book was written, as a sort of gift, would be able to read it. (I am not letting her read the first or even the second draft; I want her gift to be beautiful.)

    I do want, need, at least one other person who intimately understands the book and loves it. Fortunately I’ve got that in my beta; she is a gem in that she sees what the book could and should be, and loves it for that, forgiving it its many failings.