Markets are such colourful, vibrant, ‘happening’ places to hang out in; a cross between hard commerce and performing arts, they do a good job of encapsulating the essence of all that humanity thinks it has come to know about itself thus far, the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the downright smelly.
At the heart of it, they are a gathering point, an interface between so much variety of expression and a place where differences are ironed out or even capitalised upon in the least destructive way; rather, with an “I have this, you have that, lets exchange” mentality. Markets break down perceived barriers and encourage people to celebrate common factors. My birthplace grew up out of two capsule communities, the Anglo-Saxons and Normans, who set up camp a few miles apart and may never have assimilated fully had they not met in the middle for market day in the spot that is still the very centre-point of what is now a vastly expanded modern city.
Likewise, the modern marketplace is an altogether expanded thing that has been reborn as the virtual off-spring of itself – all the zillions of website buying-and-selling communities that have been spawned as the latest evolution of the barrow boys hollering and crying out their wares; only now its all done by email and in-your-face advertising. My recent venture into this territory, as I set about creating my online selling points for prints and, now, originals, brought up some of the universal themes and sticking-points of ‘marketing’ that must have arisen for market traders since time immemorial – to do with price, presentation, identifying and communicating with my customers – as well as some internet-unique ones to do with the sheer abstractness of dealing with people in a virtual dimension whilst negotiating over a commodity that remains very ‘real’ indeed. The universality of this umbrella theme of ‘engaging in commerce with my fellow human beings’ has really caught my attention; not least for the fact that, because it comes with so many preconceptions, sticking points and age-old insecurities, the treading of the territory has felt like a life review carried out across many lifetimes.
As the base note of this theme, there is that one thing that never – ever – changes; the fact that it all boils down to an exchange occurring between one person and another whilst, hopefully, not forgetting that (however virtual they might seem), there is a ‘real’ flesh and blood being at the other side of that exchange.
The importance of remembering this, to me, is one of the reasons that, as I step more into the inevitability of internet selling, a part of me craves and still prioritises the directness of dealing with people face-to-face, which is why as one part of my business (in its more commercial applications) grows to become international, the other is something I still nurture under my wing and keep very close to my side, looking forward to a day when I have something like a small gallery that I can call my own.
Its an interesting thing that, until recently, galleries were still something I tended to trust as operating somewhere beyond the least scrupulous tendencies of the internet-selling world. That naivety dissolved the week I received a lovely ‘personal’ email from what turned out to be a vanity gallery, explaining how they happened upon my work, admired and loved it and felt it was ‘strong enough’ to be featured in their imminent exhibition in a prime London venue…only there was a substantial fee to pay before securing my place. Flattered as I was, my suspicions were nudged sufficiently by this fee to check the gallery out much more deeply than the most immediately searchable information ‘out there’, only to discover the exact same email, word for word, had been sent to countless other artists worldwide, one of whom laughingly related how she had no visible ‘work’ online that they could possibly have ‘happened upon’!
Early this week, I chuckled to myself over breakfast as I tripped upon an “oops” email in my junk box, apologising for a marketing email sent to me in error. My curiosity piqued, I trailed back through to find said marketing email; it was from the marketing monkeys of one of the biggest names in enlightenment teaching and yet what it was proposing, to what was meant to be its inner-sanctum mailing list, was nothing short of multi-level marketing, promising massive revenues for pushing this ‘program’ hard to all the eager ‘second tier’ consumers of this product using psychology-manipulating methods that didn’t strike me as being all that enlightened.
What was so interesting was the oh-so personal sounding letter it contained; “I’m a really big fan of your work, etc.”, designed to be a one size fits all mailer to be cut, pasted and signed off to all these second-tier recipients so eagerly awaiting their big career breakthrough, many of whom are sufficiently seduced by that feeling of having been ‘handpicked’ by one of the big players that they are blinded to the considerable fees involved. In all too many cases, there is really not much of a product at all except for the sales package itself, which get passed around between tiers of people like the proverbial hot potato with no one wanting to be the last person holding it.
For myself, I have clocked-up a venture into publishing that felt a little, in hindsight, like I was seduced into something similar; that is, made to feel handpicked when I was likely the recipient of something considerably more random (though nothing ever really is) and, though I’ve reached a place where it was worth handing over every penny in exchange for the writing experience it afforded me, and the beautiful synchronicity of its timing in terms of shifting my own stuck energy around my writing career and unlocking mental doors, I took a conscious decision to disengage from the considerable marketing machine that tried to turn me into one of its cogs after the event. Where books flew easily and serendipitously out of the door, as many did, that felt great and in alignment but I was never in the market for pressure selling anything I had a part in…and that is just my personal choice, one that feels aligned with my integrity and who I am. Next time (and that project is already underway), I will self-publish!
This feels like another way that we have drifted away from the original marketplace, as ‘punters’ all too readily become faceless numbers on a sales sheet via the internet. Old-fashioned marketplaces are about as personal and direct as it comes and, in moving away from that in our mentality, as well as our logistics, we risk surrendering something that is quite intrinsic to being human and that comes down to seeing ourself reflected back in another’s eyes. As we drift away from that kind of selling (although it is enjoying a revival in some quarters), there comes a point, if we allow it, where selling stops being personal and starts being all about number crunching; how many hits, how many favourites, how many followers, how many sales today. I have no direct issue with that except when it continues to pretend to be personal when it isn’t. To me, that just doesn’t feel good and when I detect that in play, I step away from the business model.
I suppose it all comes down to staying aware of the fact you are being sold something, which is far easier to remember when you are stood in front of a market stall scrutinising the large smelly fish dangling from someone’s hand than when you are sent a warm and gushing email. Once you’ve identified that (and smelt the fish), its time to ask yourself, do you really want whatever that thing is so very badly. Then, and only then, is it time to proceed…and I find the gut delivers soundest advice, every time.
That fizz of excitement in the stomach has tipped me over the buy-point more times than I can recall and, even back in the days when I bought way too much, delivered some of the soundest decisions of my life – that standalone hat, holiday, venture or ‘object d’art’ that I still look upon fondly because it embellished my life in some meaningful way; it contributed something, sometimes in a surprising or round-about fashion. They are, quite simply, those ‘things’ I wouldn’t do any differently, or without, even if the price did seem very high at the time.
Having spent last week clearing out a massive portion of my house, preparing to offload it to the village jumble sale, I’ve spent a great deal of time processing through an up-to-the-roof-of-my-car load of life’s jumble, releasing so much of the old muddle of accumulated ‘stuff’ that had, very tellingly, clogged up some of my very deepest spaces for years; yes, even those handy voids beneath my drawers! Releasing some of these things – all purchases in their time – felt utterly cathartic on so many levels and, by feeling into each thing, I was able to make snap decisions (some of them quite surprising) about whether to keep or lose possessions that I had been hoarding for a very long time…and for what? Some rainy day or because they ‘might be worth something’? Well, let them be ‘worth something’ to somebody else now. Once I could allow that I had already had my value out of them, they had fulfilled their part of the deal and owed me nothing, I was able to let them go quickly and easily without a second thought and with no residual misgivings.
So, it all went off to a the little village hall where the average asking price was probably no more than a handful of coins, to raise money for the local community: an old wedding dress (first time around, tellingly ‘stored’ right above my head); designer clothes worn to the corporate job I loathed; lots of paraphernalia from the kids’ early childhoods (I get to keep the memories). What these throw-aways really flagged up for me, in the end, were the few items I decided to keep; those which, though ‘old’, still felt important to me and which can now be seen, used and appreciated once more. And isn’t that just like life itself – we don’t need to throw away everything from our past, nor do we need to hoard the whole seething jumble of it – rather, we keep what still resonates, what still feels important to us, as an ample reminder that there are always treasures to be found in our past and these continue being treasures once we decide to dust them off and integrate them into the now, as part of the every-day fabric of who we are right here. The rest we can let go of without a backwards glance.
Once we get into the perspective that ‘market selling’ of anything is just a trade-off of energy, a reciprocation and a value exchange, things get a whole lot easier and much closer to the zero point of when we first started interacting with our fellow human beings. Money has made it all so abstract and, thus, so complex and disengaged from what it really is; day-to-day, we’ve lost this sense of what its really all about. Very quickly and, often, definitively as beings, we construct this inner sliding scale of ‘what things are worth’ in fiscal terms – starting with those very first games of ‘shop’ as young children and continuing on in into the competitive earning-and-acquisition game of early adulthood when ‘collecting stuff’ seems to become the be-all-and-end-all of life. We may swop around the labels of the ‘stuff’ that we long to acquire; cars and fashion may morph into ‘enlightenment’, ‘fitness’ and ‘the answers to some really big questions’ as we hit the middle years…but its so often, primarily, about the acquisition of ‘stuff’ where money is involved; these things become a commodity and we lose sight of what they really mean to us.
To take it all back to source is a case of feeling into it – no less than I did with all that jumble – and knowing what this ‘stuff’ is worth to you (forget the money) as an experience in an exchange with the experience you put into ‘affording’ it. If it is worth it to you, if there is a balance, then the price becomes irrelevant.
By example, I recently needed some work doing on my house that was going to cost a lot for ‘what it was’, measured in terms of the very minimal materials it used and the two hours of work that it involved. In my own head, the work was going to cost the same as the amount I charge for an original painting that would have taken three, maybe four, weeks to complete. But then I looked at it another way: the work was to put right an issue that had caused us worry and a great deal of unpleasantness, during the cold season last winter, for a period of time that lasted…oh…about three to four weeks. Processing it this way helped me to let go of the state of resistance I was in about paying this guy to do the job and to allow that I needed this work doing in proportion to what I was offering in return. It was a fair value exchange.
This felt like hitting upon the hidden, often deeply buried basis of the monetary exchange of our modern world, where the out-of-sight ‘blood, sweat and tears’ gone into making the cheap factory items we expect as a given and, no less, the laudable price tag hung around the flimsiest designer item sold for the price of a year’s medical care in a third world country feed a system that is crazily detached from the core of the matter – which is ‘how much is this thing worth to you’, not measured in money but in the way that it adds joy to your life, an equation that (for me) must take all those ‘out-of-sight” factors into consideration. I find the degree of transparency and heart-guidance that I have brought into my approach to shopping has resulted in a time of my life where I purchase very significantly less than ever before in my life and relish giving things away almost more than gaining new things and yet am happier with, and more grateful for, what I already have than ever.
This approach to purchasing, as a value exchange, is something I wish I could more easily convey to those who measure my paintings in inches and ask incredulously “how much?” rather than (aside from considering all the many ‘out of sight’ hours of painstaking work they take to create) measuring them in terms of the many years, even generations, of enjoyment they may potentially bring when hung on the wall; but then, really, if I have to explain that… (grin). The same thought processing, if there were any thought to be given to something so obvious, underlies my preparedness to ‘pay extra’ for organic food; measured in terms of all the fit and healthy years ahead of me and the sustainability of the production methods, the size of my carbon footprint and so on, not just in terms of the taste and convenience of the meal I just ate.
However we look at them, marketplaces have always been colourful and pivotal places in the domain of human interaction and none more so, quite literally, than the one I visited recently in Provence. It had all those things you expect from a marketplace: colour, smell, noise, jostling crowds, bartering, laughter, disappointment, variety, repetition, originals and take-offs, surprises and staples. Like a microcosm of life in all these ways and more; there were things I resonated with, things I really didn’t (the meat and stinky fish stalls spring to mind), but then you don’t go to a marketplace unless you are prepared to be tolerant of the preferences of others because, by definition, all kinds of people get to meet and interact there.
Its a mixing pot of it all and, as you step back, you notice how people get into some sort of flow with each other, an informal dance that determines ‘it will be easier if we all walk in this direction’ or ‘its your turn to look now so I’ll step aside’; and as, with an almost imperceptible nod or a shake, they give away whether they are interested or not and so the market-seller knows whether to assert herself more or less, with no forcing since there are plenty more people coming around the bend. When people get to look into each other’s eyes as they hand the goods over, and as their hands brush in the exchange of coins, it serves to feed a pervading tone of honesty and mutual respect that no one takes for granted in a community setting. By and large, people are polite, patient and tolerant, for all the over-crowdedness, and everyone has time to stop off to listen to the musicians on the corner. When we get back to the directness of this kind of interaction with one another, or when we at least remember that this direct interaction is, really, still there underpinning even the remotest of our global exchanges, we naturally fall back into a pattern of treating each other well, with good intentions set and with respect for each other, recognising in each other the unique gifts and abilities that we each bring to the table.
Photos are of Lourmarin market in Provence; taken in August – for more Provence pictures visit the full collection on Helen White Photography.