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Startups in 13 sentences

Post #1303 • February 26, 2009, 11:28 AM • 25 Comments

I was already taking a hard look at the latest Paul Graham essay when Chris Rywalt seconded my thoughts that some of his suggestions for startups might apply to an art career. Particularly that part about ramen profitability. And not giving up.




February 26, 2009, 11:51 AM

Graham is something else. I have read most of his essays on the web.There are not many really smart guys in the world. He's one of them.

And of course the start-up ideas relate to an art career, not item by item but certainly generally.



February 26, 2009, 12:02 PM

I read the "13 sentences," sensible enough, and, I would think, very useful entrepeneurial guidelines.

But how would the round peg of artmaking fit into the square hole of entrepeneurial enterprise? There is almost relentless pressure to make that happen, and artists in the USA want to accommodate that, it seems, because there is no other format in the USA in which to 'do business.'

My experience is that the art adventure ends when the art career begins. And I don't think that has to do with a need for artists to stop being Peter Pans.



February 26, 2009, 1:06 PM

"the art adventure ends when the art career begins"

This happens often enough, and there are enough famous examples to justify the observation. It doesn't have to work that way, but keeping the career from messing with the art is an art in itself.

For one thing, it means caring more about the art than about the career. You'd be surprised how rare this is.



February 26, 2009, 1:37 PM

Yes, Opie, my understanding exactly. Encountering clientele who get that is, of course, the challenge. Many deals have collapsed for me with clientele who don't. I've come to see that as about the only cause for deals falling through, and it happens regularly, so that makes # 13 in the Graham essay appreciated.

In my case, I really don't seem to have a choice in caring about the art. That's just how it is. I don't know what kind of lobotomy would be necessary to alter that. So the business deal has to be structured around that. Otherwise, even if I could get around my hardwiring, it's likely that the deal wouldn't move anything in my agenda except maybe my bank account.

One thing that has eased the situation that might not relate to the Graham article, is that, in the USA, among people whose habit is to see things in biz terms, an artist's age is a big credibility factor, because people don't have any other criteria by which to assess things. "Well, he's been doing it for so many years and his shirt's clean... He must be the real deal." I run into that all the time.


Chris Rywalt

February 26, 2009, 2:07 PM

The big question when reading this was, who are the artist's customers? Not to look at it strictly in a business sense, of course. But as artists I don't think we need to sit around and hope to be discovered one day, either. If you have to go after inspiration with a club (quoting Jack London again), then you also have to go after an art career with a club. Adventuring is fine but it doesn't put food on the table.

I was just watching a wacky film, "Picassos äventyr," which has a great scene where Picasso is so hungry he wants to eat his apple, but he needs it as his model. He father comes in and keeps taking bites from it, which somehow leads Picasso to Cubism. Picasso's father gets Gertrude Stein to buy the painting by hanging it from a fishing line from a balcony down into the Salon. (My copy has no subtitles and the film's Swedish, but since Picasso speaks Spanish, Gertrude Stein speaks English (and is played by a man), and everyone else speaks French, and almost all of it is pidgin, and furthermore it's mostly slapstick, the language is no barrier. Later, Winston Churchill shows up at a costume party dressed as a chest of drawers. It's that kind of movie.)

All of this is important now because only yesterday I accepted a day job. Makes #10 challenging.



February 26, 2009, 2:26 PM

A day job? You mean a Cabinet appointment? Maybe the new art czar?



February 26, 2009, 2:32 PM

Chris, I don't think it can be done, with the long run in mind, like selling furniture tailored to a market niche. That's the way galleries operate any more. An artist, stuck with the "calling" (I know, sounds horribly romantic), just has to use his/her wits to get the disease paid for, a different prospect altogether. Either approach can be profitable.

The danger of day jobs, besides what # 10 spelled out, is that a taste or two of the comparatively easy money can be very distractingly seductive and addictive. I recall people advising me to get a teaching degree so I'd "have something to fall back on." Looking at that idea, it wasn't hard for me to see the trap.



February 26, 2009, 3:12 PM

Artists don't have an arena in a market, or, outside of teaching, a professional arena. And the artistic temperament doesn't lend itself well to employment. Since I haven't the stomach or the political skills (in case you haven't noticed) to negotiate the "art world," (a pretense from the start, in my opinion; it had to pretend in order to exist at all.), then it's all up to me. The challenge is to take the things I know how to do out into the big bad world and find a place for it. That is as much about following one's nose as anything. I have a large nose.



February 26, 2009, 3:21 PM

When I told Clem Greenberg I got a well-paying, responsible job as an art department chair (my first real job since I was a kid) the first thing he said was "It won't be good for your painting".

The first couple of years the job really had no effect, and it never really kept me from actually painting, but after a few years it affected my ability to renew and reinvent,to "go back to the drawing board", which has always been the way I keep my work up to par.

It was only after I quit as chair that I was able to get it back, and it took a while at that.



February 26, 2009, 3:37 PM

Opie, as you must well know, nearly all who go the teaching route never get back to their work. For most, when they are able to paint again, it's too late, they've lost the thread, energy, drive, inclination, and can't find it again.

I don't see how an artist could give teaching the attention it requires. Whenever I tried employment, and I tried it a lot, I'd end up so distracted with ideas for painting that I wasn't any good to my employer. Plus, I resented having to waste time on an occupation I didn't care about. I could've survived the latter, but the combination of distraction and resentment was always too much. Being able to be an effective employee must have something to do with compartmentalization, which I'm not good at.


Chris Rywalt

February 26, 2009, 3:43 PM

I haven't tried juggling painting regularly with a job yet. Mostly when I had a job I was only painting once or twice a year. I don't know in my own life if that was coincidental or not; I "retired" to paint full time when I lost my last job and couldn't find another one. Since then I've had contracts here and there, short enough to suspend painting while working. If I have a studio and a job, will I work and paint? I don't know.

The job is work from home, sort of on retainer: The company will pay me weekly and I'll work on projects as they come up. It could be slow or it could have the potential to become overwhelming.

I guess I'll see. I don't have a choice, really, since I'm watching the crack in the windshield of our only car work its way across while I nervously note the odometer nearing 180,000.



February 26, 2009, 3:50 PM

Tim, there is a lot of variability amongst art teachers, with respect to both their teaching and their artistry.

The same variability exists, to a lessor extent, amongst the institutions that employ them. There are different levels of teaching loads and different levels of support (studios, grad assistants, and supplies, for instance). Nowadays, most of the faculty where I used to teach are not offered summer assignments, which completely frees up 3 months, freedom from pay, as well, but that's still one fourth of the year, not counting the various breaks in the teaching year.

It is not as difficult to teach art as some make it out to be. You can't teach ART. But you can teach technique and you can push, prod, and suggest approaches to getting better as artists.



February 26, 2009, 3:54 PM

Chris, if it's any consolation, my car is 39 yrs old. Runs like a top, though it has a little drinking problem.

Seems like your challenge is gonna be how to live with being pulled this way and that by conflicting demands, a question of prioritizing. That would have especially to do with serious discipline and compartmentalizing, I'd think.



February 26, 2009, 4:00 PM

John, I would think that teaching art would be mostly about teaching people how to see, how to get past their personal visual predispositions, prejudices, etc., like some form of psychotherapy or at least psychological counselling.

As a student, I recall thinking that I could get technique out of a library book. I ended up wondering what I was paying the teachers for. No reflection on you, John.



February 26, 2009, 6:34 PM

Well Tim, they don't bother to look stuff up. In fact, when I taught computer imaging, most students looked at me as if I was a human software manual.

Further, most needed and all benefited from "guidance" in even such relatively simple things as building a glaze painting in oil. And, as you say, many need help in simple seeing, although I would tell them that if that "little voice" inside them said the legs were too short, there was a 99% chance it was right and they should learn to listen to it. Inventing and assigning "projects" has its pluses and minuses, but is fairly necessary at beginning levels in most mediums. opie has shared some of his with me and I can tell you they are dynamite.

But the psych-out stuff I strictly avoided. Works of art are objects, and therefore objective. You teach that objectivity. Where cropping can make a picture better, where a change of color can help, where better drawing improves the picture, and so on. After a while their "personal visual predispositions" are something to exploit, not deny. Everyone must find limits, there are just too many raw possibilities, and their natural leanings can be a very positive asset in that regard.

Psychological counseling does not have much to do with teaching art, except some students have serious mental problems. I always sent them to the experts.



February 26, 2009, 6:40 PM

Tim you must tell us what kind of car it is that has lasted 39 years.



February 26, 2009, 8:07 PM

1970 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu. I thought I detected some slippage in the transmission a few days ago, took it to the shop. The mechanic, last of a breed of actual auto mechanics, added some fluid, told me to "put a little sawdust in there," if I felt any more slippage!

Re psych-out stuff, I'd never touch it in a group situation, but with individuals. Re "personal visual predispositions," we agree about exploiting rather than denying. By getting past those predispositions, I meant getting to a place where one could be in charge of them rather than be subject to them. Being able to see the predispositions from the mountain top. I've never dealt with a group of students, so your comments are interesting.



February 26, 2009, 10:11 PM

Yes, I agree they are parallel to req's for a professional artist. Actually, when seen in this context, it reminds me of 'Taking the leap: building a career as a visual artist' by Cay Lang.



February 27, 2009, 12:40 AM

I missed opie's comment on art administration when reading through and it did not come to my mailbox until just a minute ago.

What Tim suggests about art teachers is far more relevant to art administrators. I would not rule out that someone escapes the onus it places upon one's life and art, but I cannot name anyone that fortunate, including myself when I did that kind of work. The pay is good, though.

Art administration may be somewhat less destructive to academic scholarship, such as is done by art historians and art educators, and art criticism. Donald Kuspit may have been chair of an art department or art history department at SUNY for while, but I'm not sure.



February 27, 2009, 7:42 AM

That's true John. Administration is "your life". I had plenty of time to paint when I was chair but there was something corrosive about the job, or it took over part of my brain, or something I can't specify, that vitiated my art.

Teaching, now that I have been able to deliberately eliminate as much administrative-type work as possible, doesn't seem to interfere. It doesn't corrupt your psyche the way administration does.



February 27, 2009, 10:06 AM

"Time to paint" for chairs varies from school to school. High prestige institutions are much more generous with it than middle weights. I had significant time for painting and showing at Virginia Tech, but Western Michigan University buries itself and its chairs in "management culture".

The situation at middleweights is more time consuming because they attempt to solve their problems by heaping on management techniques. Chairs are the foot soldiers who are held responsible for collecting the data they love, as well as implementing the decisions they make, while faculty and students want to feel better about themselves and see chairs as the ones responsible to deliver that.

The same expectations exist at "better" institutions, to be sure, but there is less time spent with documenting exactly which type and exactly where each type of air is in the balloon before moves are made. Faculty and students everywhere view chairs as the cure for whatever makes them feel bad.

The chair positions at both schools were toxic to my art, like lead poisoning is to children, slow but sure. I have never understood it very well. When I was offered a deanship I had a catharsis of sorts and realized I simply had to get out of administration, not deeper into it. I not only turned down the dean "opportunity", I quit entirely after another year or so.


Chris Rywalt

February 27, 2009, 11:23 AM

My wife just resigned from being chair of her department. She got tired of the pointless busywork being heaped upon her from above. And that's not an art department, it's IT. Your observations seem accurate.



February 27, 2009, 12:40 PM

The lead poisoning analogy is just right. That's just how it happens. And it is hidden and mysterious. I say this not from some principled position but from the proverbial bitter experience.

And, as you imply, it is thankless to boot.You only hear about things when they are going wrong. If they are going right you have had nothing to do with it, of course.

I remember when I took this job so many years ago John said "all you have to do is make them happy". I thought it was a flip comment at the time, but I quickly realized how true it was, and how impossible.



February 27, 2009, 12:45 PM

Teaching, on the other hand, is almost sacred work. I have found teaching to be consummately rewarding, and often refreshing to my studio practice. There is nothing on earth like the feeling of satisfaction I get when I see my instruction come down a student's arm and into his medium, and it all works for him a little better. The only downside of teaching is that it's so time-consuming.


Chris Rywalt

February 27, 2009, 4:21 PM

I had no idea how much work teachers put in behind the scenes until Dawn started teaching. I now feel really bad for the way I treated my teachers when I was in school.

I still wouldn't go back for the world or anything, but I feel bad.



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