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.