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Unsolicited advice

Post #1275 • January 13, 2009, 8:20 AM • 17 Comments

The changing of the year, the changing of the president, and the recent destruction of untold wealth have inspired more than the usual share of introspection around the blogosphere. I'm a practical guy, though, and I like my introspection to lead to action. Here, then, is that which I opine to my fellow artists, particularly of new modernist bent, for the coming year and beyond.

Make sure the work is there. I mean this in every sense - nothing that follows makes any sense if you don't have a current, solid portfolio of recent works. Sadly, I haven't been able to do much about this item until now - living out of an RV turns out not to be conducive to a studio practice, and moving a household is a time-pit at both ends of the move. But today I have a model coming to the studio and a serious commitment to get some objects created. I have resolved to think about my work as little as possible over the coming year, and make it in inverse proportion to reflection.

Learn to write. The time of the artist as inspired nigh-mute naïf is probably behind us for good. I have identified the difference between lookers and readers. As lookers, we want our work to stand on its own. Professionally, we can't. As explained at the link, the values of writing, which are robust and widely agreed upon, are penetrating the porous boundaries of art. Lookers are too rare to support a career. There are readers with an inkling of an eye who can be convinced to appreciate or even purchase given a cogent explanation. The whole granting system is based on writing. Visual visual artists typically don't have a fair shot at grants, but they get a fairer shot if they can put an intelligent proposal together. The lasting arguments about art are taking place in the medium of writing, and to the extent that visual concerns don't intersect with writerly concerns, we're at a disadvantage. On the other hand, we're right. In a perfect world any number of grunting savants (no disrespect, but I'm thinking of Larry Poons here) could toil in their studios and the results would speak for themselves. In practice, we need to make a clear case for our outlook that contrasts with the piles of obscurantist and mystical verbiage out there. If you're uncomfortable writing, read Brenda Ueland's book, take a writing class, and/or hire an editor when needed.

Embrace technology. When I first started putting the Walter Darby Bannard Archive together, its subject, horrified at the thought of my having to turn all those scanned articles into text, suggested that I post them as jpegs. This misconception about what creates value on the Web (an entirely forgivable one, for someone born in 1934) would have seriously hampered the effectiveness of the archive had I put it into effect. Technology is just how things work now. I wouldn't send a new art student into the world these days without a basic understanding of HTML. My website has made everything I do easier, from discussing my work with dealers to hiring new models (who can guage my seriousness by looking at several years' worth of work). My purchase of the domain name Artblog.net in 2003 likely made the difference between my having a recognized voice and proportionate obscurity. Two weeks ago I broke down and joined Facebook; a job opportunity has already come from it. You can hire assistance with technology matters and perhaps you should, but to the extent that you rely on others for technical savvy, innovative opportunities to use technology to your benefit won't occur to you.

Befriend marketing. One of the overiding qualities of my thinking is what I call Nonexceptionalism, defined as a skeptical response to assertions that a phenomenon is fundamentally unlike similarly classed phenomena. For instance, when someone claims the blurring of boundaries as an artistic virtue, I want to question whether they buy music that they like, or music that blurs boundaries. (Not that these are mutually exclusive, but potentially non-intersecting.) Likewise, I believe that publicizing your work basically follows the principles of publicizing anything else in the universe, and entails advertising, networking, and, as the Kama Sutra puts it, a great deal of talking. Artblog.net regulars have voiced concern about doing anything to further attention to one's art except trying to make it better. One ought to try to make it better, but the idea that doing so will eventually result in recognition strikes me as magical thinking. Perhaps at one time it worked. That time probably ended when the number of artists crossed the 100,000 mark. I find that even among galleries that represent my work, I must make an effort to keep them apprised of what I'm working on.

We are now our own news organizations. If you've followed the speedy journey of the newspapers and magazines off the cliff of history, jettisoning all kinds of critics from the vehicle like so much unwanted ballast, you may have wondered about the fate of the critic. Because of the state of the traditional media, I recommend an end run around the people we would traditionally rely upon to create a critical forum for our work. Thanks to blogs, we can virtually invite viewers right into the studio and solicit feedback, as I did last week. The results were enlightening, amusing, and best of all, helpful. I have been on both sides of this equation. As an artist, my ability to write a convincing statement and post it on my site has resulted in higher-quality press coverage. As a writer, the availability of background information, in-house critical analysis, and images has turned more than one capsule review into a full-length feature. If an artist sent me a package with those items along with a handsomely printed invitation or catalogue and a personal note, I would at least take a hard look at him. Eventually all critics will be bloggers. Bloggers need to get their information from somewhere. They might as well get it from you. Consider producing a blog of your own, if only a stream of images from new works in the studio and a short discussion thereof, a couple of times a week. If you have thoughts about other matters, so much the better.

Do not wait for a writer to save you. We've discussed many times on this blog that Clement Greenberg was more enabled by Abstract Expressionism than the converse. I confess to you, though, that more than one person has expressed to me the hope that I would get my writing out there as a way of righting certain wrongs that cropped up as Greenberg was forced out of the picture. This ascribes powers to the man that he didn't possess, just as iniquities beyond the commission of a sole individual are constantly laid wrongly at his feet. Use your artistic strengths and whatever writing acumen you possess to make a case for your work, the work that you love, and the work of like-minded fellows to whomever will listen. Eventually someone will make a case for your work in turn. Criticism is becoming a hyphenated profession of journalist-critics and practitioner-critics and novelist-critics and professor-critics. They are increasingly publishing their own thoughts. They are disappearing into the category of colleagues. Art criticism will persist forever, but whether we continue to hear from people describing themselves succintly as art critics remains an open question. There will never be another Greenberg; what's more, the Greenberg that many people thought existed never did. I may yet write that book, but only to gladden the souls of a minority of like-minded art lovers.

Define success. Mosts artists think of success as critical recognition and museum exhibition. But if the local critic's predilections stem from his wilder drug experiences and the museum curators are stuck in some academic rut that won't accomodate your work, you end up with the old Groucho Marx problem: belonging to a club that would have you as a member. No worthwhile visual artist is ever going to be a household name again. You're better off getting your work in front of the people who will appreciate it for what it is, regardless of how far inside or outside the art world they operate. Musicians, novelists, and performance companies talk in their own ways about building audiences. They assume that the people are out there and would like to be drawn in, given the opportunity to engage. They also assume, as a rule, that individual visits can be cultivated into long-term membership, formally or otherwise. As visual artists we can think about viewers in similar ways, inviting new people to have a look, enticing new lookers to buy, developing casual interest into sustained interest, moving purchasers from lower to higher price points. This is partly the idea behind the 1,000 True Fans hypothesis. Although it might help if some of these fans were rich or influential, what matters is that they be true. Don't base your model of success on the way art was handled during the middle or the final third of the 20th Century. To the extent that those worlds still exist, they do not reliably showcase the best work anymore. Perhaps what we normally think of as "the art world" will come around to sensible parameters in the downturn and can be influenced in that direction. Perhaps it won't and it can't. Perhaps there's a subset of like minds already operating in that world who will support you. Perhaps there isn't. Set yourself up so that you succeed by your definition either way.

Offer economy while the price of ideology is peaking. I have found the majority of contemporary curators to be ideological by nature rather than visual. Perhaps I have encountered a skewed sample. Perhaps you become a contemporary curator by hewing to a particular vision about the trajectory of art. In either case, dire circumstances force everyone from idealism to pragmatism, and ideology is a luxury that curators are temporarily unable to afford. Museums across the spectrum are struggling with funding, staffing, and acquisition budgets. Over the next year, maybe two, museums are going to be looking more locally for exhibition ideas, and therefore more broadly in kind. They won't give up on their ideologies - the loss of face would be to great to bear - but will find excuses to fit a wider range of work into them. Now is a good time to get to know your local curators. Once they may have shown no affinity for your category of work, but now they may find themselves considering it in spite of their preferences.

Create value. This partly reiterates the first point - make a pile of great work, work that moves your heart, work that makes you want to rush into the studio and make more of it. Make it fantastically good. Work hard. Although I've been talking about career concerns for the length of this essay, that's not what we're about. Amuse yourself, please yourself, and dare to do so on an ever-greater scale. If you're as self-critical as I am, you spend a sizable amount of time as an artist just tyring to make the badness go away. That's natural, but consider the flipside - goodness is real, as real as anything material. The effort we make on behalf of quality is substantive. We create value. The fundamental activity of a healthy economy is the creation of value through labor. If nothing else about history is on our side, that much is.

Tomorrow: an immodest proposal.

Comment

1.

MC

January 13, 2009, 10:06 AM

Excellent post, Franklin.

I tend to think that if you can't write convincingly by the time you leave High School, then you probably never will, but perhaps there wouldn't be "learn to write" books for adults if this were entirely true (although, I guess you just need the desire to write better to sell the book...).

You can find out more about my work at ryanmccourt.ca, nesw.ca, or commonsensegallery.com... but I will never join Facebook. Never!

Plus, the problem with advertising is that it entails giving money to regular media outlets, most of which I just don't approve of, morally speaking. So, that one's out, too. Now, if anyone wants to advertise with NESW.ca, we are our own nesw, er, I mean NEWS organization.

I spell success I-N-T-E-G-R-I-T-Y...

2.

ahab

January 13, 2009, 10:17 AM

Very good, thankyou. You're affirming much of what I find myself already committed to, and relighting some little bit of my fire for it that's smouldering.

3.

opie

January 13, 2009, 11:33 AM

One thing that helps a lot in an art world that can't appreciate good art is how much fun it is to simply make it. If you really enjoy making art the outside problems fade away quite a bit.

If it isn't fun, if you don't want to get to the studio every day and hate to leave, but spend most of your time having anxiety over your lack of recognition, it may be time to find something else to do.

4.

John

January 13, 2009, 11:55 AM

Franklin: There appear to be a million times more artists than the world needs. Since that cannot be changed, what is the strategy for working through or around it? Once artblog discussed the huge delta of the mighty Mississippi as a metaphor for the art world and compared it to the same river's headwaters, with a conclusion that the delta is not "where its at".

The sheer size of the unholy multitude of artists, to which we all belong, makes for a muddy situation. If the cream rises to the top, what difference would that make in the Mississippi's delta area? You can't find it for all the muck, and it is eventually absorbed by the ocean where it completely disappears.

So do we look for different headwaters? I don't think technology can provide them. How can we be our own news organization if no more than a couple of hundred read our news? What difference does a JPEG make anyway? I don't think writing can provide much. Small scale marketing on the part of bit players won't provide a new start. Museums have not been very interested in local artists unless those artists have "made it" in some commonly accredited far off venue. Etcetera.

You are a brilliant guy. So try again. Sam Johnson said throw out the paragraph you think is best. I'd say throw all of these out. What you seek is not there. Rid yourself of them and you might finally break though. Enlighten us and we will follow.

MC: One of the reasons I majored in English during undergrad was that writing was one of my weakest skills coming out of high school. I thought college was a place to learn the stuff that you had trouble with, not a place to specialize in what was easy. Anyone half-way intelligent can learn to write better by seriously reading those who write well. Then you just practice, practice, and practice some more.

5.

John

January 13, 2009, 12:09 PM

Opie: art without an audience is one alternative. But it is like constantly doing dress rehearsals without ever doing the real McCoy.

And you need a damn fine day job or other means of support to finance this, what the alien from Mars and the IRS would observe to be a hobby.

One reason Van Gogh never quite instilled the final burn into his pictures was the fact the world he lived in was hardly aware of what he was doing, much less cared. Getting over the hump may require that something be at stake, and the audience for serious art is the entity that provides that, or at least, a good part of it. The artist cannot provide "importance" entirely self-reflexively.

6.

that guy

January 13, 2009, 12:41 PM

It might be your optimism that is creating a peculiar acidic taste, common with most gag reflexes, but it could also be that regrettable lunch I just ate. I see where you are going with this, but don't forget about the rule of unintended consequences.

"I have resolved to think about my work as little as possible over the coming year, and make it in inverse proportion to reflection." It must be a sign of our times that you are now scheduling what you plan on not thinking about. Your approach to new years resolutions/advice is a bit to corporate for me. I'm with John, purge this puppy and get on with it. I think you will find your confidence and art abilities increase with each painting that you create that 'hits' the right way. Screw the culture junkies and their institutions. They will all but disappear in a few years in the coming depression anyway. The only validation you need is internal. You seem to have enough of that most of the time.

7.

John

January 13, 2009, 1:19 PM

I'll indulge in a little more hardnosed-ness. Rosenberg's "American Action Painters" was hardly insightful of what actually was going on with AbEx. But it reduced the list of what was important about it to one small phrase, ACTION PAINTING. Greenberg, on the other hand, wrote "American-Type Painting" which took it all apart, laid it out, and examined it along many different paths, leaving a long trail of aspects to think about.

My best guess is Rosenberg's crazy essay did more to promote the success of AbEx than Greenberg's much more distinguished effort. Just as Detroit put across the Camero and its cousins with the single word MUSCLE and Toyota is putting across the Prius with GREEN. There was very little in "American Action Painters" that could be understood. That was one of its virtues.

However, I'm not suggesting that you purge and forget. Instead, purge until you get it down to one thing that matters.

8.

Jack

January 13, 2009, 1:44 PM

I think Damien Hirst would agree with you, John. He narrowed things down to POMPOUS TAXIDERMY, and it worked. Sort of.

9.

opie

January 13, 2009, 1:52 PM

I do have an audience, John. it has sharp eyes but it is very small and has no money.

10.

Franklin

January 13, 2009, 3:25 PM

If you really enjoy making art the outside problems fade away quite a bit.

Amen brother. The pleasurable agony of making better art is impossible to explain to non-creators. For all the divisions in the art world, the most profound one, I think, is between the people who know what that's like and people who don't.

How can we be our own news organization if no more than a couple of hundred read our news?

John, you just argued against the existence of Artblog.net. On the contrary, those 200 readers matter, if only to you and each other, and who do you want to look at your art anyway?

Small scale marketing on the part of bit players won't provide a new start.

A new start for what? I'm saying, rather, to give up on the idea of fixing anything. Instead, what are you doing for those 200 people who care?

Museums have not been very interested in local artists unless those artists have "made it" in some commonly accredited far off venue.

I understand what you're saying here, but museums don't have a brain. They have curators, and I'm complicit in their disinterest because I have made no effort in the last couple of years to inform them about what I'm working on. They may continue to be disinterested afterwards, but that's a separate problem, and one that salespeople would manage with a very different attitude than your average spurned artist. I think their approach has something to teach us.

You are a brilliant guy.

You are too, John, and you deserve credit I didn't give you above for the notion of not waiting for a writer to save anyone.

It must be a sign of our times that you are now scheduling what you plan on not thinking about.

It's a sign of the author's recognition of his myriad weaknesses, one of which is overthinking.

Screw the culture junkies and their institutions. They will all but disappear in a few years in the coming depression anyway.

I would like to not join them. That's really all the above is about - charting a course through the year in a manner becoming a self-identified professional artist.

11.

Chris Rywalt

January 13, 2009, 3:59 PM

Regarding audiences, John, I believe -- have believed for some time now, even back before the Web was as big as it is now -- that our culture is on its way towards each of us being the other's audience. I suppose -- I'm going to quote Rush now! -- it's like the line that goes, "Each another's audience/Outside the gilded cage". But I'm thinking of it very literally: I go see my friend's band, he comes to my art openings. I listen to his music, he has my painting on his wall. And so on.

Vonnegut -- have I written this here before? -- wrote once about how humans evolved to live in small villages of maybe a hundred people. So out of every hundred people, you have some who are good at something, just to keep the village going, to keep the villagers happy when they're not hunting or farming. There's one guy who can tell stories and another who can play an instrument and another who can draw. What's happened is, global society has now thrown those individuals, any one of which would be a treasure in a small village, into daily competition with the absolute best in their field. How can I measure up to Van Gogh or Andrew Wyeth?

My feeling is that we're working our way back to that small village, only now it's virtual, and overlaps with millions of other small villages in time and space. Studies have shown that even in the largest cities, each person still only knows about a village's worth of people. So I think we're working our way back to that village, where we can each be the other's audience. I'll go see Franklin's work and he'll come see mine. I'll bid on a Bannard painting and he'll...well, he'll send me e-mail.

The only unfortunate part of all this, it seems to me, is that the answer to the question, "How are we all going to pay for all this?" is basically "Day jobs." Because that's one thing that hasn't changed.

12.

bannard

January 13, 2009, 4:46 PM

It might go cheap, Chris. Lambertville NJ is hardly the center of the art universe.

13.

Chris Rywalt

January 13, 2009, 5:50 PM

Lambertville has its own following around these parts. It's not far from New York or Philadelphia and it's become one of those highfalutin kind of touristy artsy towns with crafts shops and antiques stores and stuff. My wife and I stayed there once. It was really nice. It's sort of a ritzy neighborhood for people with a lot but not too much money -- not quite the Hamptons or Beverly Hills.

14.

ahab

January 13, 2009, 10:20 PM

that guy: Screw the culture junkies and their institutions. They will all but disappear in a few years in the coming depression anyway. The only validation you need is internal.

John: I'm not suggesting that you purge and forget. Instead, purge until you get it down to one thing that matters.

By ignoring the fallacies and vulgarities that have been shoehorned into galleries once dedicated to truth and beauty, I will have more energy to spare for earning enough to pay this and next month's studio rent?

While our museums squander precious resources sewing invisible thread into clothes fit for a king, I must be assured that a critical mass of people will someday realize that they can enjoy looking at art each of their own accord and recognizance?

Faint hope, and fainter I can hardly imagine!

15.

John

January 14, 2009, 12:58 AM

I responded at length to everyone then accidentally closed the window. Sorry, you deserved responses but they went poof.

I'll just say that the best strategy appears to revolve around curators. Unlike dealers, they do not need to make a profit. Like artists, they don't really gain much by going along with the prevailing trends. And they possess significant muscle that they haven't been using lately. They can move the system. The internet cannot. The internet expanded the existing system, but did not change much.

Gary Garrells at UCLA's Hammer Museum has curated a show based on the way things look, though it is roundabout. He selected six artists (abstractionists!) who are committed to the visual and asked them to each pick works that have influenced their work. Hence the show includes a wide range of works from a wide spread in time. You may not recognize all of it and disagree with his and their picks here and there. He describes the work in the show in an unexciting fashion compared to a Greenberg or Rosenberg, but goddamit it is visual language, not academic. That got my attention when a friend put me onto it.

ORANGES ANS SARDINES WALKTHROUGH. Hit the button on the far right to get it to fill your whole screen.

16.

John

January 14, 2009, 1:02 AM

Ah ha, I found the little sucker. I'll post it after what was to be its conclusion.

-----------------------

Franklin, the nominal 200 who pay attention to artblog are important to me and the smallness of their number is an argument for not against the existence of artblog, but there are many more real art lovers beyond that that are equally worth reaching. How? is a question worth digging into, but so far none of the answers are plausible.

Chris, the web has expanded the art system some, but it hasn't changed it. Pretty Lady is right that she doesn't stand a chance in it and she represents all of us, more or less.

Opie, I am more of an "art without audience" practitioner than you are. It is an alternative. But it reduces the stakes considerably. That's just a fact.

That guy, I doubt the the culture junkies and their institutions will disappear anytime soon. They may shrink some, but that is all.

Jack, effective marketing works for good and bad products.

If I were developing a strategy, I think curators are the ones to focus on. They do not have to show a profit, as does a dealer. They have some muscle that many have not flexed lately, instead taking their cues from dealers. But some of them realize there isn't much more in doing what the dealer system wants for them that there is for the millions of artists. I know of one who has consciously turned to the visual, in an explicit way. GAry Garrels

17.

Hans

January 18, 2009, 7:28 PM

Yes, Franklin ! You learned how to write ! I ordered the book ! Reading this great advices, I do not really understand the next step model of the "Immodest proposal" ?
Cool art power ideas for 2009, thank you !

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