Book review: Living the Artist's Life
Post #778 • April 24, 2006, 8:38 AM • 84 Comments
Not long before KH caught wind of it, I had received a e-mailed press release about Paul Dorrell's guidebook for the artist, blinked my eyes a few times, and hit Delete. She felt equally underwhelmed. But when the offer came to get the book for free, I decided to bite and give it a read. It came with a blurb from the longtime career services director from my alma mater, right on the cover, and a list of press mentions and radio appearances. I figured, what the hey.
Dorrell's blog describes Living the Artist's Life as "the seminal guidance book for artists." We use seminal this way regarding books that inspired a great many related works on the topic, not those published in the last two years. This kind of insensitivity to tone pervades the book. His enthusiasm for his work sounds like hubris, his sincerity sounds like self-indulgence, his self-abnegation sounds defensive, and his informal tone presumes my goodwill to a degree that I don't readily grant. Worst of all, it spends 170 pages talking about the artist's life without ever defining it. What differentiates the artist's life from other kinds of lives? Dorrell takes the question for granted, but it needs answering. You're living an artist's life when you're making art, looking at art, thinking about art, and trying to come up with ways to make your art better. Everything else that goes with it is a side effect. A lot of romantic and theoretical nonsense would disappear if people kept that in mind.
For all of the above, the book warrants a smack. I won't smack it, though, because it does no harm. I can't say as much for other books intended to guide the artist. (One memorably awful book recommended adopting a fashion quirk for the sake of making an impression. I think it suggested a pink mohawk.) Dorrell's advice, although couched in wordy confessionals, is sound. Don't waste your time with booze and drugs. Work hard. Make your resume like so. Approach a gallery like so. Shoot good images of your work. Your sensitivity makes you prone to depression and neurosis; if you suffer from either, treat it without hesitation. (Perhaps one should make more out of the fact that the treatment will be the same as the one offered to uncreative mortals.) Travel to Europe and through the US, looking at art. Live well, and indulge, but don't injure your health. Turn off the TV and read. (One exception: he discusses websites dismissively, in a manner unbecoming a denizen of the contemporary world. I have derived enormous benefit from mine.)
Extracting these chestnuts will require that you endure the retelling of tidbits of the author's life that you may not appreciate knowing, such as those regarding his physical relationship with his wife. While reading, I sometimes imagined a writing workshop instructor in the background, explaining how personal details create interest for the reader. Like many other things in art, it's true, unless it isn't. Dorrell needed an editor in more ways than one. He litters his prose with rhetorical questions and uses "freaking" as an adjective for emphasis.
His germane expertise derives from his work as a gallerist in Kansas City, and his no-nonsense approach to selling work. His gallery went into terrifying debt and he pulled it back into the black. He identified his own values for art, independent of those of the New York City scene, and built his stable accordingly. Based on details like these, he has legitimate things to say. If he had stuck to his experience as a gallerist, this book would ring more true. But he wants to talk about his writing career. He presents an idea, more than once, along these lines: You feel such and such about your art; I know, because I feel that way about my writing. It implicitly says "I'm an artist too!" Artists know what it means when someone tells them that too often or loudly: he thinks that art is a club that you can join, but even if it were true, he wouldn't be in it.
I might recommend this book to a teenager who is wondering whether the art thing is for him, or a late-starting adult with a limited background in art and a case of the jitters about getting going. For everyone else I continue to recommend Carol Michels' How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist for career information, and Robert Henri's The Art Spirit and Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write for the occasional shot in the arm.
I would also recommend that you read the following paragraph, taken from a recent book by Barry Moser about wood engraving. He has just talked at length about his craft, and has turned his attention to the life of the artist. In this excerpt, he sums up most of what you need to know, and indicates the main problem behind Dorrell's book.
I encourage you to never think of yourself as an artist. Certainly never refer to yourself as an artist. Leave that to someone else. To do otherwise is to be self-congratulatory and arrogant, and God only knows we see far too much arrogant, self-inflated, self-important pomposity in the arts (and in politics) today. So don't you go adding to that cesspool. Work. And fail. That is all that is important. And in so doing try your hardest to be the best that you can be, and try your hardest to make the things you make as well as they can be made. Make them for the ages. Do not squander your gifts by pandering to silliness and to Art Lite.
That's more like it.
(Artblog.net is on semihiatus until May 15, when it will resume posting each weekday. Next post: Friday.)