Thursday, June 30, 2005

Welcome to the jungle…

I found the interview with Squeak Carnwath interesting, and her views on life after an M.F.A. were especially poignant in light of an article released by the AP this week.

To sum up both, if you don’t feel like reading the links, Carnwath claims that many people with M.F.A.s stop making art a few years after leaving school because they didn’t realize how difficult a lifestyle it is, and they aren’t willing to make so many sacrifices. The AP article, in the Christian Science Monitor where I read it, was titled, “Are Young Workers the ‘I’m Entitled’ Generation?” Its author discusses why many bosses are frustrated at hiring young workers, who increasingly demand benefits and flexibility normally given to only veteran employees, and who aren’t willing to do grunt work.

I suppose these phenomena are probably related. But it surprises me that art, which has always been a difficult career to find success in, would even attract people not willing to make a commitment to hard work in the first place. My guess is that if you asked the professors in M.F.A. programs which students would become practicing artists upon graduating, they would pick the ones that they saw as hard-working, committed to their art, and willing to accept adversity in exchange for creativity- not necessarily the most talented students.

I remember several conversations with a friend of mine, my “rich patron.” He chose a degree in engineering, and enjoys his job sometimes, but is more often frustrated by it. He makes what I consider to be a ton of money. He knows how poor I’ve been since moving to North Carolina and becoming self-employed. He also knows that my art is more important to me than making money. But he asks me, “how can you be happy being that poor?” Well, of course I’m not. Yet when it crosses my mind that maybe I should do something else for a living, I don’t really even give it much consideration. I know it sounds corny, like I’m some starry-eyed idealist, but I just can’t do anything else.

We’ve all heard ad nauseum that you have to suffer to create. I’m not sure this is a truism so much as it is a minor comfort for artists. But considering the number of M.F.A. recipients who seem to think it doesn’t apply to them, maybe it should be inscribed on every graduate’s diploma.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

References? Pooh.

“References are unavoidable, whatever kind of painter you are. That is, at once, painting's strength and a frightening limitation; it is, in a nutshell, painting's difficulty.” -The Guardian, June 28, 2005

I think this is true, and I do not think it is specific to painting, or even art.

Having been painting in my apartment for years and not really showing my work, I have had some difficulty hearing other people describe my art in terms of who it reminds them of, or other artists they think I should like. While the latter can be fantastic, the former can be fatal. For example, today I started on a new direction in a new piece. While I was absorbed in my painting and my new CD, the custodian came in, and couldn’t resist interrupting. “Is that Winnie-the Pooh, or something?” he said, totally innocent of the fact that I absolutely loathe Disney (I doubt he meant Milne’s drawings) to the point where I believe that said corporation is the Anti-Christ of the animation world. Now I am left with the dilemma: do I leave the offending bear (which really, if you know cartoons, looks nothing like Disney’s perversion of Pooh, except in the fact that it is a cartoon bear), or do I try and modify or remove it to erase the memory of its perceived (by some) similarity to something I hate? I mean, if I really wanted to paint Winnie-the-Fucking-Pooh, you’d know it without having to ask what it was!

Sorry, it was just an innocent comment, but I really hate Disney.

The problem is, it won’t stop with cartoon bears. It’s all been done, so they say. There’s nothing new left in visual art, short of creating new media. (I’m sure the same things are said to writers, musicians, and others.) The references to other works of art will come, no matter who you are or how you paint. But what do they know? Who died and made them Elvis? Do we tell scientists to stop their work because it’s all been done? Duh! Why is it assumed that art is different- somehow limited by human imagination where other endeavors are not? Is it possible that something so personal and universal, and inherently creative, could run out of ideas?

Anyway, my point is, of course everything will remind some people of something else. It’s partly the way our brains work, making associations to help our decision-making survival skills. Artists should, for the most part, ignore these observations and continue with their own discoveries, or even better: if possible, artists should turn such comments on their heads and use them to their own advantage. Unless they actually like Disney.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

“Mystery Art Theater 3000”

If All The Vermeers of New York was video art, I admit I’d probably display it in a cardboard box in my attic. But while I don’t have the same issues with display as video artists do, it is part of the process of making and selling art of any medium.

Like most things in art, there are no set rules when it comes to presentation, but there is a lot of custom and some expectations. As undergraduates we learn words like “archival,” “museum-quality,” “permanent/fugitive,” etc. There are thousands of artists over thousands of years for us to learn from. Professional artists today can ignore these things, but it is necessary to be aware of them.

Collectors also have expectations when they purchase art, although these may vary depending on the person and the medium. In my glass, for example, I must be concerned with the “fit” of colors to the clear glass- I’ve had to write to a gallery and offer to exchange glasses they’d bought because a few months after I made them, I learned that the yellow didn’t fit, potentially causing hairline cracks in the glass. In this situation, while it was an honest mistake on my part, I took full responsibility. The main issue when dealing with a situation like this is reputation. When I sell a piece, if I am aware of any potential problems down the line, I disclose this to the buyer beforehand. I had a friend commission a painting on which I tried an experimental technique, so I felt it only right to warn him of possible implications years, or even decades from now. (See image below: "Golden Ratio," 2001, oil on canvas with paper and ink.)

The same logic applies to display issues. If a work needs special, non-intuitive care in display, most artists will be sure to explain this to a collector or gallery. Most of my paintings are self-explanatory, but sometimes glass is not: for example, hand-blown glass is soft, and not meant for the dishwasher. It’s best to make people aware of things like this before they come back to your studio wanting a refund!

In all, artists are the most familiar with their techniques and processes. They are the most capable party to deal with individual collectors and work out details of display and care. As such, they need to address anything they are aware of, whether it is during the making of the piece or after.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

This Modern World

The thing I found interesting after reading the interviews with Jacqueline Ehlis and Joy Garnett was the similarities in their motivations but differences in their conclusions. Both, it seems, are concerned with the state of the modern world- the media culture in particular. But Ehlis responds to this by insisting on abstraction as the only valid recourse, while Garnett chooses to co-opt the media’s images.

Ehlis apparently feels that the “information age” has led to a society where everyone, even artists, are trying to dictate what people should think, and her justification for painting abstractly is a conscious decision to not dictate to the viewer what they should see. I suppose, from my point of view, that this is the only reasonable justification for abstract art. But if you didn’t know her reasoning, it would just be shapes and colors on a canvas, enjoyable perhaps, but never working beyond the level of emotional response to visual stimuli at best and decoration at worst. So her justification, or to use her own word, her rhetoric, is an important part of the works, even as she tries to avoid it.

Garnett, on the other hand, chooses to use the over-saturation of media images available in print, TV and the internet and paint them directly, mostly unaltered from what I can tell. Some of these works can be quite powerful, but it seems this is more dependent on the original image than on Garnett’s handling of it. I admire her strategy more than Ehlis’s in theory, but would rather have seen more of her own subjectivity imbued in the work, either by combining images, changing colors, or some other artistic license.

In all I feel that these artists are both dealing with digital culture, but in very opposite ways, one by disregarding and the other by embracing. I suppose that this will be an issue for all artists now, as it is increasingly impossible to avoid reliance on technology. I feel this discourse will ultimately benefit the art world.


Friday, June 24, 2005

Turning Japanese?

Scholars outside Japan have begun to take anime seriously because they say it serves as a window onto deeper trends. "I would more accurately call the phenomenon the emergence of an art movement or way of thinking and viewing the world," says Marjorie Manifold, assistant professor of art education at Indiana University, "just as Impressionism presented a new way for artists, musicians, and philosophers to view the world at the turn of the 19th to 20th century."
Source: The Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 2005

As a lifelong fan of Japanese animation (anime) and recent fan of Japanese comics (manga), I have always been convinced of the validity of this art form. But it is only recently, as my generation of TV viewers and video game players enters adulthood and the popularity of this art enters mainstream culture that the media start to ponder questions like this. If it is true that anime represents a new art movement, how does this affect traditional art forms like painting?

Anime is of course a genre of animation. Manga is essentially a genre of comic books. Both comics and animation have been around long enough to have proven their worth as media capable of yielding legitimate artistic expression, so that’s not really the issue. What is drawing the attention of reporters and observers is the way anime and manga have become popular with so many different people all over the world. Especially considering the fact that Japanese culture is notoriously homogenous and even xenophobic, it is notable that these basically indigenous art forms draw the adoration of such diverse audiences.

Is this transcendence of cultural boundaries part of what makes for a successful art movement? Certainly. Enduring art speaks to something eternal, some fundamental human condition. The popularity of anime and manga are absolutely related to their ability to tap into deep human passions. Manga and anime, by definition, tell a story. Painting doesn’t have this restriction, and consequently sometimes becomes a vehicle for self-absorption. If you’re telling a story, you have to relate it to the audience- they enter your world, but you must make it accessible. Painting often is accused of being elitist, and I feel it is partly because of a sometime lack of concern for this public aspect of art.

So, as the professor quoted above states, is this art form a “new way of viewing the world?” I can only conjecture on her logic, as the article did not elaborate. But I can tell you that these arts are not only becoming more and more popular, but they have already begun to influence American pop culture (and what other culture have we got, really). It has even started to seep into fine art with the emergence of kawaii paintings. Some of the more overt examples will surely be trends that disappear with changing tastes, but the way that anime and manga delve into universal human truths and questions has the potential to agitate the fine art world.

I added an image to this post of my current favorite manga, XXXholic by CLAMP, a group of four women who have become the most popular manga artists in the U.S. Below is a link to their official site, but it's mostly in Japanese.


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Starving Artists, Inc.

In reference to:
“In the series art:21 that we watched today in class, some artists discussed their underlying motivations for turning to art as a career. Write an explanation of what kind of decision making process got you to your current point of studying art and participating in an M.F.A. program.”

I came across this most recent post on January Blog with a coincidentally (or not?) similar theme: the writer asks, “What, pray tell, is the point of graduate school?” Well, for me, I guess I wasn’t actually so concerned with the point when I decided to go.

As the aforementioned blogger illuminates, there are lots of reasons for pursuing an M.F.A. Perhaps galleries will pay you more attention. You have the opportunity of teaching at the college level if you so choose. I would add to this that an M.F.A. enhances a grant or artist-in-residence application. So there are certainly professional considerations involved. Many artists feel that somehow even thinking about these things is selling out, but unless you have a rich patron, get over yourself and face reality, or expect to paint in your closet and wait to get lucky.

I’m not saying that one absolutely can’t be successful without a Master’s. But recent studies have shown that most people without a college degree are no longer able to achieve middle-class economic status (unlike previous generations.) If it’s that much tougher for other Americans now, why would art be any different? In fact, art is notoriously harder to make a living in; so why not seek all the help you can get? And it’s not just financial- as I noted in a previous post, art is very much about making connections- “networking.” Being in school is a great place to do that. (How many of our visiting artists here at WCU had previous connections with the school in some way?) And of course, I’ve not even mentioned that schools are for learning (!) and how could that possibly be bad for someone who wants to make the most of their talent and hone their skills and message?

There’s nothing wrong with taking full advantage of the opportunities and privileges before you. All these things, among other, more personal issues, crossed my mind when I decided to go back to school. But, as I said before, I wasn’t as concerned with the point. Really, I just got to a place where I realized that the real world sucks. I’ve always liked school- and if I didn’t go back now, I probably wouldn’t have a more convenient time to go. This isn’t to say that I don’t think grad school will help advance my career- I hope to God it does!- but I’m honestly just really glad to be back.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Art as a catalyst for change

I found this on the “Bare And Bitter Sleep” blog Carolyn linked to. This is an excerpt, but the whole discussion was interesting (see link below.)

“I still think that if you want to create tangible change in the world, art is an incredibly inefficient way to do that. Art is good for a lot of things--revelation, meditation, self-reflection, communication of ideas, documentation, enlightenment, etc., etc.,--political change is not one of the things it's good at. For that, better to go with direct action, like voting or bombing something.
I guess I'm saying that it's totally legitimate for us as artists to understand our art as part of some larger resistance or subversion, but I think it's grandiose of us to think that some painting we hang in a gallery is going to end poverty or bring down corporate greed.”

Posted by: MAZE on Tue, 6/7/05 | 10:47 PM

While I agree that immediate results can be achieved by “voting or bombing,” I disagree that art is inefficient at changing human culture. It just doesn’t use the same methods as other types of revolution. Sure, it’s unlikely that George W. Bush will see a painting that will change his mind about global warming or the so-called war on terror and cause our government to alter its practices, but this does not mean that art is ineffective at political change. There are many, many people besides those in power who see and are affected by art. Among them: voters, teachers, journalists, activists, small business owners, children, and countless others, all of whom in ways small and large impact our local communities and the world. A work of art and its meaning may simmer in the sub conscience of a society until it is acted upon. Art may add depth and clarity of purpose to a movement already festering. Who would argue that film, television, and news media don’t shape our perception and world understanding? If a powerful painting were seen by as many people, why would it be any different?

Certainly, it’s a stretch to point to one single work of art as having changed the world. Nor can one point to any one single event or person as having accomplished that. The root of all change is a (grass-roots) movement: monotheism, democracy, industrialization, environmentalism; the list throughout history is immense. All of these have art as an integral part, directly or not, because art is a part of all human endeavors. The blogger quoted above admits this, but still counts art as an ineffective tool. But what inspires these movements? Often, a work of art (here I use art in the broad sense) provides a rallying point for a diverse set of views; a specific and simple image around which ideas can coalesce.

Those in power, the decision-makers, much as we hate to admit it, are there by our acquiescence. We are the ones with the real power; even though it’s easy to feel helpless in this complex, impersonal society, we are only as helpless as we allow ourselves to be. If an artist wants to stir up change, but decides art can’t be an effective medium, then it won’t be. I think the real issue today is not “Can art change the world?” but “How can my art be heard in an over-saturated culture?” But if I knew the answer to that, I’d be rich.


"Electoral Map" in progress

"Electoral Map" in progress
Originally uploaded by suelu23.
Trying to brainstorm what to write for my next blog entry, and thought I should use some more of my Flickr bandwidth. We are all familiar with the context of this painting, and realize that seeing a complex situation presented as two opposing colors is oversimplification in the least. By choosing this now familiar image of the country, I was trying more to record an event in our culture’s evolution than to analyze what that event means. I’ll have another four years to do that.

Friday, June 17, 2005

On art and the internet

Well, let me say that this is a very interesting and complex topic, and by the end of this writing I’m sure I won’t come to a conclusion. I have some thoughts on this of course, but like many issues on the non-creating side of art, I have conflicting feelings.

As someone whose paintings have been mostly out of the gallery scene (a self-inflicted wound, I admit- I just haven’t tried) I am sort of happy just by the fact that the internet provides such a potentially large audience. When I was a freshman in college, I had a piece published on the back cover (poster-size) of our school arts magazine. During the next couple of months, I learned that a lot of students had not only seen and enjoyed this painting, but had even hung a copy of it in their rooms. I was extremely flattered the first time I walked into some unknown person’s living space and saw my work hanging on the wall. I didn’t receive any money for that, of course, and I never sold the piece, but I could care less.

The internet provides some of the same advantages and pitfalls. I would love it if everyone in the world could have a copy of my work for free. (Of course, the internet can never match the experience of an original painting on many levels, but it’s possible to provide a format that, while inferior, is still highly enjoyable. And the technology’s only going to get better.) Along with increased accessibility comes the issue of actually making a living. I could charge people money to see or download my art off the net. But am I loosing money by letting them have it free? No, I’m just not making as much as I could- I can still sell the original, which doesn’t compare to the internet image.

Now, as for copycats and copyrights. My favorite example of this is “Calvin & Hobbes.” We’ve all seen it, and the stupid pissing Calvin car decals (I’ve even seen here in the South a praying Calvin at the foot of a cross). In its heyday, when the comic strip started getting ripped off, what did Bill Watterson, the creator and copyright owner, do about these unlicensed products? He refused to enforce the copyright, but also decided to stop producing the strip. How is that a good reaction to that situation? Not only do the people making money off illegitimate reproductions continue to this day to make money, but the fans and potential new fans are left in the void. Bill Watterson didn’t lose money from these thefts of his art, but they were insulting. So he just quit. I guess my point is, his art was the real thing- no amount of knock-offs could change that. If stupid people want to put some dumb sticker on their car, as long as you still make a living, who cares?

And so, you can see my ambiguity here. I want to make a respectable living, but I want my art to be accessible to a lot of people, rich and poor. The following link leads to a copy of “The Cheap Art Manifesto,” which I have owned for years. It comes from the Bread & Puppet Theater, based in Glover, Vermont. I have always respected it, and am still trying to reconcile its utopian message with real life. Food for thought, to be sure.


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Self-confidence self-help

I am assuming that the original topic of this forum was this post by Mat Gleason: "I think socializing is as important to an artist's success as anything, but having good art will get you further than someone who makes lousy art but is an excellent schmoozer." I would like to expand on this thought and respond to a few of the other comments in the forum.
Humans are social creatures, and we all must learn to interact with eachother to a greater or lesser extent in our careers. An artist, unlike some in other professions, has the luxury of choosing the degree and type of interaction for the most part. It's possible, for example, to hire someone to market your work. However, this is not always sufficient; in many instances, there is just no substitute for the artist's presence. An example from my own experience is with selling glass. I have been involved in many events (studio tours, festivals, etc.) where people come expecting to buy. But sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Having the artist engage the potential customer can make or break a sale. Often this consists of "schmooze" talk: "Oh, I noticed your shirt- I grew up near there" or "Have you ever seen glassblowing before?" Sure, anyone who has worked in sales will groan (I've gotten so practiced I actually recite the same phrases most times) but it works. People like someone who is friendly and offers them information to go with their purchase. It gives them a face and a story to put on their art.
Of course, gallery schmoozing is not quite the same as trying to make a sale. But the same principle applies. If one feels a personal connection with the artist- can remember a conversation, or something you two had in common- one is more likely to think positively of the artist, which obviously never hurts. Artists who say they don't like to talk to people or don't think it's important should learn otherwise. When I did my first studio tour I was terrified of talking to the customers. But you realize very soon after your first sale that it's incredibly easy. There's a pattern to what people want to hear from an artist, and I'm not saying you can just bullshit and manipulate them. (Well, you usually can, but it's possible to tell the truth and still have the same effect.) If you feel you're not a "people person" you just need to practice it more. Just because you have a fear doesn't mean you're obligated to be a slave to it. Everyone can overcome insecurity in their own way, and every artist should. Ask yourself this: if you are afraid to talk to people about your work, is it because you're afraid of rejection or a bad review? In short, do you have misgivings about your work? If you had the confidence to make the work in the first place, why should you be afraid of what people will say about it?
And so, my point is this: it is more important to have good work than to be a good talker. But there's no reason an artist can't do both with a little practice.


did it work?

Can you see the link?


Monday, June 13, 2005

Commercial creativity/ Creative commercialism

Well, this is a subject that I've been contemplating for most of my artistic life, and I thought a blog would be the perfect format for discussing it, since I haven't arrived at a solution. At issue is the complex relationship between the creative side of art- the pure act of making a piece, struggling with a medium and subject, and finally giving birth to something unique; and the business side of art- namely, the fact that artists must usually sell their work to survive.
Aside from the lucky (?) few who have rich patrons or trust funds, most professional artists struggle to survive economically and often are professional something-elses as well as artists. While this notion of the starving artist is historically romanticized, as someone who's been one paycheck away from starvation for several years, I can say that it certainly gets old after a while. Now, I'm not complaining- this is the life I've chosen and the tradeoffs are worth it. But everyone wants financial stability. I've watched the married couple I blow glass for- in their sixties- struggle through 3 very difficult years, when the sales which had been reliable for decades suddenly dried up with the limping economy. The last few years have been hard for a lot of artists, actually. We are in a very fickle career. Like an actor who finds themselves in the gutter after several blockbusters, artists rely on the whims and tastes of the public.
So what is an artist to do- especially one just starting on a career path? I was at a critical decision point last year. I knew I could- with loans- open up a glass studio. I could make a stable income for the rest of my life churning out Christmas balls and other production ware- or, I could go back to school. The latter would by no means guarantee financial stability. And the former would be boring, but not intolerable. So, my decision is now obvious, but my career path is still open. Will I become a studio painter? Or will economics force me to supplement this income with another source?
All artists are faced with this dilemma eventually. They all solve it in various ways; some by teaching, or mass-producing pieces, or any number of other things. Often young students consider these things as "selling out." This is absolutely incorrect (Thomas Kinkade notwithstanding.) In the world we inhabit, everyone must make money for a living, or rely on the kindness of others. No amount of money will taint an artist's soul if that soul is cherished and respected by its host. It is a fine balance between pure creation of art and production for survival. But it can be done. The question remains, how?

Friday, June 10, 2005

The center of the art universe

A question often arises in the world of contemporary art, "Is New York still the place where artists' careers are made or broken? Does an artist have to live in the city, or at least frequent the many galleries and museums there in order to stay on top of the art scene in America (and by extension, the world)? Is New York City, in effect, the center of the art universe?"
I propose that a more relevant question would be, "Does the art universe need a center?"
Most of us know, and budding artists quickly learn, that networking among peers is essential to establishing and maintaining a career in art. This usually meant going to galleries and museums of contemporary art, visiting other artists' studios, trying to get work assisting artists, joining trade groups, etc. But, while there is no substitute for meeting someone face to face, I would argue that it is becoming more and more acceptable to establish a working relationship with someone you've never met. It is not only the advent of the internet and cell phones that has pushed this trend, but simple demographics as well. There are just more people, and not all of them can, or choose to, live in cities like New York. It is also quite feasible for an artist to travel wherever they need to be- even an international flight is relatively easy to manage.
But it is not just the artist who needs to make connections in the community. What of the collectors- the support of whom the artist cannot survive without? There is an expectation that if you want to find and buy art from someone "up and coming," or at the peak of their career, you will seek them out in New York. If someone doesn't show in New York, they are nobodies- or, as is common with folk art here in the South, they are labeled "outsider art." There has been a presumption that an artist can't realize national or international fame without the stepping stone of NYC. This may have been based in reality at one point, but to continue this belief is delusional isolationism.
Yes, New York's art scene is still extremely relevant, and most artists who gain widespread recognition will have their work shown in its galleries at some point. But it is no longer a de facto precondition for success. Much more important is for an artist to take advantage of the resources in their own community. Networking can happen anywhere there are other people with an interest in art. There are galleries, museums, arts councils, and schools everywhere, and if someone is willing to take an active role in their community, connections will be made. It may happen more slowly than in New York City. It may mean more frequent travel as an artist's career outgrows that locale. It may eventually lead to New York City. But a successful art career can find nourishment anywhere the artist is willing to work at it.