This, like a polyester leisure suit, is not the kind of thing one brags about buying, but lots of people buy it anyway. "Sofa-sized" paintings selling for $10, or even as little as $7, each in mass shows of largely identical pictures, are many people's idea of poor taste.
Still, very little money is at stake and, who knows? Maybe one of them will become valuable. Stranger things have happened, some think.
But few things are quite as strange as the "starving artist" shows that regularly take place in hotels all around the country. One look at the newspaper advertisements begins to show what's so peculiar: "Beautiful original oil paintings, with spectacular mountain landscapes, ocean scenes and much, much more. This is a collection of our prestigious artists with exceptional quality."
The works of "prestigious artists" are selling for mostly under $35? Or does "prestigious" here mean deceitful, the archaic meaning for the word? Are we being sold a bill of goods?
It depends on what we think we're buying.
The first thing that needs to be clarified is what these companies are all about.
Take Midwest Starving Artists, for instance. It's run by Joe Phillips, an Indianapolis man who takes pictures from hotel to hotel during the winter and runs an asphalt maintenance business during the summer. The artists are not from the Midwest, nor are they necessarily starving.
"I get the paintings from an importer who works out of Chicago," Phillips says. "I don't know where he gets the pictures from." He speculates, though, that a number of the artists are in Taiwan and Mexico and from all over the Third World.
Even though the works generally look alike, Phillips says the paintings are created by humans, not machines. The artists pin up between five and eight canvases on a wall and work down them assembly-line fashion, first doing the backgrounds for all, then adding trees, then grass, then something in the center. A picture may take just 15 minutes to create.
Even so, Phillips considers himself choosy.
"We go through thousands of paintings just to get hundreds that we can sell," he says. "There are so many things that can be wrong with a painting. The same artist might have done six of the same painting, but in one of them he bent a tree wrong."
Jim Stringer has a Starving Artists operation in Houston, and he takes the same sort of works around to the same sort of places during the winter. During the summer, he is a "silent partner in a furniture business."
His brother Nick runs Starving Artist Group out of Lansing, Mich. There are other "starving artist" organizations in California, Florida and New York City, and similar operations that go by other names: "Struggling Artists of America," "Pacific Artists Guild," "Artists Co-op," "Caravan Art" and "Traveling Artists."
All set up shows -- which aren't reviewed by critics -- during the winter. During the spring, summer and fall, Phillips says, people like to spend their weekends outside and not in hotels looking at cheap pictures.
"If the art is presented truthfully and it's at a good price, then there's nothing wrong" with these enormous shows, Jim Stringer says. "I'm not saying that the art is any good. I have some on the walls in my house, though."
However, the truthfulness of some operations' presentation has been questioned at times. In the 1970s, operators of the now defunct Southwest Starving Artists were convicted of nine counts of willful violation of Mississippi's consumer protection laws. Those violations included using language that led people to believe that local artists were benefiting from the sales when they were not, and using the word "sale" when the paintings were actually being sold at regular prices. In addition, Southwest Starving Artists said that the sales were one-time events, when in fact they took place frequently. Southwest Starving Artists went out of business shortly thereafter.
But the question of whether some of the operators engage in deceptive practices has remained. For instance, advertisements pitch "paintings under $35," when sometimes most of the works are on sale for $200 or $300.
Some of the "fine art" auctions that travel hotel circuits also are dubious, with shills in the audience who keep bidding up the price.
Other traveling auctions advertise works by such artists as Chagall, Picasso, Rembrandt and Toulouse-Lautrec. The auctioneers may actually have five or 10 prints by well-known artists, but they start the bidding for them at $5,000 and up -- nowhere near the $20 that everything else seems to be selling for. It's a variation on the old bait-and-switch tactic, with auctioneers looking less to sell the valuable pieces than to lure buyers in with the hope they'll go for something cheaper.
A newer form of art sale catching on in certain parts of the country is the home show party in which, like a Tupperware salesman, an organizer sets up a sale in someone's home. The homeowners try to lure as many people as they know to come to the show, and they get a cut of the money.
Jim Stringer says that "you don't have to be a crook to make a living in the art sale business," and he is right.
However, one must be careful not to be led into believing that the works sold are of any real monetary value.
"I'll bet people bring me three, four or five pictures a week that they bought in these shows, and I have to tell these people that they just bought nothing," says Rose Long, an art dealer who has galleries in New York and the South. "I have to tell them that if it's as good as they say it is, they wouldn't be selling it at these low prices. They wouldn't have to travel it around."
The determining factor in ascertaining value in art is how much it sells for the second or third time. These works generally have no resale value, and art dealers laugh about the people who bring them in to sell, or they shudder at the state of contemporary Philistinism.
Like the leisure suit, much of this sort of art should be kept at all times in the closet.