Bitterness, an artist’s greatest enemy

Sarah Thornton talks about writing Seven Days in the Art World and makes other contemporary art related observations in this short, meaty video.

I’m particularly fascinated with the following segment:

The other day I was asked, “What makes a successful artist?” . . . That’s a really complicated question, I could be giving you a lecture. There are so many processes of validation, legitimation, different benchmarks of credibility which are not just financial . . . Rather than waffling on about that, I just said, “A successful artist is one who doesn’t feel bitter.” And I really, really believe that. There are multi-millionaire artists who somehow feel bitter about their lack of recognition, and then there are people who are doing their own thing and finding emotional satisfaction in it.

Hearing the statement “A successful artist is one who doesn’t feel bitter” is another instance of someone else clearly articulating a mish-mash of thoughts that have been rolling around in my head — about my own work and from the perspective of a creative catalyst, thinking about other’s work.

Most artists I know personally, now, are not bitter (as far as I can tell). They are like me, day-job artists who pursue their craft and concepts because of a subconscious, driving impulse. If that impulse is ignored, if we bottle up those ideas and don’t find time to work with our hands, we become cranky.

However, it doesn’t take me long at all to think of some of the personalities in my college studio courses and think “Yup, he or she might be bitter.”

Personally, I would like to be able to live off of my creative impulses, which means I will have to somehow gain recognition in order to sell. The impetus for the recognition is, though, to be able to do what I love, what I’m skilled at and what that subconscious drive relentlessly pushes me to do.

It’s not to gain personal notoriety. The goal is not narcissistic, where I can see bitterness easily taking over.

Video via Savannah College of Art and Design’s deFINE ART series.

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Thriving arts and crafts in [very] rural places

Yesterday my wife and I drove two hours north to the very small town of Clearwater, Nebraska. One of the seven or so yarn stores in the state happens to be in this community of 300+. We had a great discussion with MareLee, the proprietor of the business, about creativity, community and the unHurried prairie life.

Prairie Threads (website down at the time of this writing) opened about two years ago. When she told the town council she planned to open a fiber arts store they thought she was crazy but supported her anyway. Clearwater, like so many other tiny towns, is on the verge of dying.

Hannah & Maisie & threads

Her good friends back in Washington State, where she had recently moved from, thought she was nuts as well, certifiable. Why would someone move from a lush, populated, coastal state to the landlocked Great Plains, to the edge of a grass covered desert, to a sleepy little town?

All of those Washington friends have since visited her in the Nebraska Sandhills, and none of them are questioning her sanity any longer. Upon visiting, her friends realized how productive she was artistically after getting away from the frenetic city-dweller mentality. They realized you can sit and have a real conversation without the pressure of somewhere to go, someone to see, something to do. They saw how she is now a real part of the community she lives in — crazy or not — in a way she never experienced living in the big city.

We talked about Kathleen Norris’ book Dakota and how living on the prairie encourages a slower pace of life, a contemplative life that encourages creativity. We all agreed that, as artists, we become crabby if we don’t have the time to work out an idea that is simmering in our head, and that focused time — something that can look an awful lot like doing nothing to a casual observer — is a necessity in creative work.

I drew a lot of parallels to the Scissortail art center idea during the conversation. MareLee pointed out that the yarn store venture was a lot of work and required years of persistence preceding success. Teaching is a key aspect of her business (she has 40 years of experience to draw from across all fiber arts: knitting, spinning, dyeing, weaving, etc). She was able to purchase a home and place of business for a song (her son, living and working in Washington D.C., pointed out that what she paid was barely a down payment on a place in the city).

If you’re ever in north-central Nebraska, make it a point to stop into this prairie gem. While you’re up there, have a meal at Green Gables in Orchard, Nebraska, a barn converted into a restaurant.

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Art in an enlightened culture

Yesterday I saw a New York Times article titled The New Humanism (if that link doesn’t work, it should be the top article via this link). It’s a fantastic article, well worth the ten minutes to read. In the article author David Brooks examines how the Enlightenment influenced our own American culture, distinguishes between different philosophies within Enlightenment and then talks about how science itself is now disproving much of what the the Enlightenment taught. An excerpt from the article — which will be more clear to author David Brooks’ point than if I tried to restate it — follows.

We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect . . .

. . . We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion . . .

. . . Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else . . .

. . .First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.

Art is not quantifiable. Artists don’t think in terms of what is or isn’t quantifiable. As artists, we’re not afraid to attempt to articulate the “processes down below.” Art is messy. It readily accepts the challenge of difficult subject matter.

All of this begs a question in my mind: How does living in a culture so reliant on the ability to quantify, so entrenched in the French Enlightenment idea of individualism, effect that culture’s reception to and perception of the arts?

Would the arts have been better off if the Enlightenment had remained a somewhat obscure philosophy, or if the more well-rounded ideas found in the British Enlightenment usurped those of the French? Would the United States be like if it were less focused on science, industry and economy and more focused on relationships and the humanities? Would it be easier to make a living as an artist? Would modernism and its penchant for individaulism have been so prominent?

I don’t have answers, but it’s still interesting to ponder. Carve out a few spare minutes this weekend to give the article a look and tell me what you think.

The unmarketing socially benevolent artist

Not that I dislike the idea of being an artist on and of the Great Plains, but this would be the life. It seems to have all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. (Is that a good thing? Since it’s starting out in real life, I’m using it as a good thing in this context.)

Create for yourself a persona and carry out creative acts of artistry to bring awareness to social injustices around the world. JR, a French photograffeur, was awarded this year’s annual TED prize with accompanying “One wish to change the world.” The artist is very protective of his true identity, at first wearing sunglasses and a hat pulled down over his face in a Skype interview with TED.

A number of JR’s monumental photographic installations are “unauthorised,” pasted on the sides of buildings as inconspicuously as possible while officials who will most certainly object to the message go about their socially unjust business. One such installation was going up in China when he was being interviewed by the New York Times; JR was worried they might get into trouble. “We went into the building next door, and it was empty, and we went up to the tower, and nobody stopped us, so we just started working,” he said in the article. “It’s crazy. This city is so huge and overgrown, the more you’re in the middle of things, the more you feel transparent.”

The money the artist garners from sales and prizes go back into more ambitious projects around the world acording to the Times’ interview. See the artist’s installations on his website.

Or not (Museums and the value of art)

Art historian Daniel Seidell speaking at IAM’s Encounter 10:

The Whitney would like you to believe that as an artist you have made it if you are included in the Biennial. I know and have worked with many artists who have participated in this exhibition and it is certainly not the case. But such an exhibition can be a useful means for an artist to develop his or her life project. Or not. But that “or not” is not what The Whitney wants you to consider.

I like his language in this quote, particularly “life project” and “or not.” One thing I would have, in retrospect, liked more of in my college education was perspective. There wasn’t any sense, as I recall, of our starting out on a journey that would indeed last a lifetime. We focused on the present, not thinking about how the sculptures we created in our classrooms marked the inception of a life-long portfolio.

A portfolio that may fall into the “or not” category. It may not be part of renowned shows in prestigious galleries. It may not be featured in contemporary or cutting edge publications. However, it can still be an important part of a cultural landscape.

Seidell goes on to talk about his own experience curating at the Sheldon Art Museum, and how some of the things in the Museum’s storage vault were acquired with great fanfare and are now monetarily worthless, while one small painting that was purchased amidst great protest at the museum is now the most valuable.

His lecture explored how museums and galleries serve as catalysts for cultural transformation.

“Arts funding is job funding”

Interesting little bit I’m reposting — per the author’s request within the post — from Jeffrey Salzberg‘s Facebook notes (someone I don’t know). Salzberg works as a stage lighting designer.

Recently, I had dinner with some lovely people and the conversation turned, as it so often does these days, to politics and economics. I mentioned the importance of arts funding, and one of my companions — an artist herself — said something like, “I care about arts funding, too, but jobs are more important.”


It’s time we stopped thinking of ourselves as charity cases. Arts jobs are no less important just because we make theatre (or music, or sculptures, or ballets, or . . .) than they would be if we sold cars or built computers — in fact, they have even more impact, proportionally, on our local economies. The arts are huge consumers of materials, which must be manufactured and transported and, of course, artists and other employees of arts organizations buy the same groceries, clothing, automobiles, and other goods as do those in other occupations. People who attend arts events are likely to dine out before, and go to bars afterward. In the United States, more people attend professional arts events than attend professional sports. I’ve seen estimates that every government dollar that goes to arts funding has between six and seven dollars of economic impact.

I’m writing this in September of 2010. In 7 weeks, we’ll be electing senators, members of Congress, legislators, and governors. This is a time when our elected officials — and those who want to be our elected officials — are most likely to listen to us. Ask . . . no, demand . . . that they tell you their positions on arts funding. You can post this note on your own Facebook profile by clicking “Share” below (“Share” also has the option of sending it as a private message), or you can post it as a link on your candidates’ walls by copying the URL and pasting it either as a link or as part of a comment.

Let your message be loud and let it be clear: “Arts funding is jobs funding.”

The sentiment expressed by the companion artist in the first paragraph is evidence of how poorly the arts are viewed in American culture. It’s not news to regular readers of The Aesthetic Elevator, but still worth reposting in order that we not forget the state of the arts, so to speak.

On the political front, I’m not nearly convinced — in fact I’m not convinced at all that government funding is a good way to create jobs or stimulate the economy, let alone a successful way. It hasn’t really worked so far according to the news reports, not in the timeframe people hoped for sure. However, if the men who redistribute our own tax dollars from their D.C. offices are going to continue to believe that it does work, they may as well be throwing money towards the arts too as Salzberg suggests.

On Musical Form: Is one way better than another?

The one session I didn’t go to at the Hutchmoot was the one dealing with song. I am a fan of music, but my back was not a fan of sitting any longer on that particular day.

Later the same day, however, I got the chance to ask one of the many musicians hanging around at the moot a question I’ve had for a while now:

Why does so much new music follow more or less the same form?

That form goes something like this: verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus. Years ago I noticed that my own musical interests were going a different direction from the norm. I grew up listening, well, to what my friends were listening too, and then migrated to loud “Christian music” because I wanted to be more holy, and then in college began to develop my own ear, so to speak, for music. You can see a little more about this progression in the Soundtrack of My Life.

The musician’s answer was interrupted by someone wanting to buy a CD, but the long and short of his response was that that I was out of the ordinary as an artist and thus making these kinds of observations, and that the form is used in order to make it easier for listeners to remember the songs. He made it pretty clear musicians, in general, in Nashville, want people to easily recall their music.

I did learn something in the brief little conversation, but I still have questions. Shouldn’t musicians be working imaginatively with musical form though as “artists?” Shouldn’t they be creating things that are memorable in new ways? The musician I talked to pointed out some successful diversion from the common popular form, but they still seemed like a simplistic solution in my untrained opinion.

Are a lot of musicians creating for the lowest common denominator?

I’m also trying to figure out if the idea of memorability enters into the mind and process of a visual artist, a painter or a sculptor. It never has for me that I recall, not in the way that the musician in Nashville suggested anyway. Of course, music has a wonderful enigmatic superpower that the other arts just don’t. Our minds are drawn to it in a way they are not necessarily drawn into processing colors on a canvas or words on a page.

An interesting musical contrast to the make-it-memorable-mentality might be Herva, who I wrote about last year in a post titled The importance, and trap, of artistic freedom. Herva wrote

I want to make music with my heart and my hands, to paint or write (or whatever) with my insides (intelligence, spirit, guts, soul) guiding my choices. Will anyone pay for it? I have no idea. Will anyone other than me think it’s good? No clue. But I have to allow myself not to care or worry about that right now. Every creator I’m a fan of creates things oozing in singularity, works that rise out of the sludge due to their originality, clarity, and vision.

This is the opposite end of the spectrum, it would seem, from the person I talked to in Tennessee. Is there a right kind of way to make music? Is there a correct way to paint a painting? Or should the questions be reworded, “Is there a better way to make music, or a painting?”

On pricing art, art as a hobby, art in the church . . .

Another great article from Comment to highlight today that talks about pricing art and art as job vs. art as hobby. A few quotes to highlight and respond to, and then a link to point you to the writing in its entirety.

I had a professor in my first year of college tell us fresh-faced art majors that if there was anything in the entire world that we could imagine doing besides art, we should do that other thing, because art was just too difficult to pursue without an unwavering dedication. He was right, and those of us that stuck with it knew we had been duly warned about what we were getting into. In a sense, the moment we decided not to change majors, we relinquished our right to whine about being underappreciated or undercompensated. What we did receive, however, was a new responsibility regarding stewardship of the discipline into which we had been adopted.

We talked about pricing a couple of times, but I wasn’t blessed with this kind of accurate bluntness at the beginning of my art schooling. (Does this mean I still get to whine about being underappreciated or undercompensated?) Of course, I sort of eased into my studio art major through pre-architecture, and then graphic design.

On more about doing that other thing besides art, read this post.

The one conversation I really remember on pricing was Eddie Dominguez telling us why his dinnerware was priced as high as it was. Paraphrased as I remember it: “I’d rather sell one platter at $10,000 and have nine to give away than sell ten platters for $1,000.”

Crafting images and objects can legitimately operate as both a form of recreation and a means of cultural reorganization and critique. Making things in order to enjoyably pass a Sunday afternoon, and making things in order to operate as lenses for interpreting the meaning of the world, are both justified endeavours—but they are not the same endeavour. The problem is that distinguishing between the two is complicated by an insidiously ordinary similarity in material and posture. If we imagine two people standing before two blank canvasses with brushes and paints at the ready, how are we to know which one is trying to unwind after a long week, and which one is trying to change the world?

Castleman, the author, describes the difference between art-as-vocation vs. art-as-hobby better than anyone I’ve seen so far, and tactfully too. I’d been thinking about this distinction more and more recently, and his writing on the topic puts my mind at ease.

This article may serve as a personal manifesto of sorts for me. Most of Castleman’s thoughts aren’t necessarily new to me, but they are organized in such a way that the piece is very enlightening. I could end up reposting it in its entirety if I keep going with excerpts and brief responses. That said, go read it for yourself: Will Paint for Food

Respecting your audience as an artist

Laura Tokie wrote an interesting article over at The Curator last week titled Art Meets Town. There are two things from the article I’d like to talk about.

The first, and more interesting, is that of respecting your audience as an artist. Don’t deny it now: As artists we can be snobs. We sometimes think our own opinions — and not necessarily just on artistic matters — are better than the commoners, so to speak, around us. Tokie uses Squidward as an example of this in pop culture.

She then talks about the founders of the Williamston Theatre in contrast to such snobbery.

    The professional artists at the Williamston Theatre are nothing like Squidward. The founders are big-pond tested Midwesterners who love the small-town way of life, and believe that art can be a thread in the greater fabric of a community.

    With this belief, the Williamston Theatre challenges attitudes held by many so-called artists, as well as so-called regular people. Some artists assume that they know what “the common man” likes, and dismiss their interests and opinions.

I’ve been a snob in the past, and sometimes I probably still am. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why this mentality seems so prevalent among artists (though if we want we could use Art School Confidential‘s suggestions), but ever since my wife pointed it out — let’s all be grateful for this kind of marital accountability — I’ve earnestly tried to change my perspective. In all likelihood, my musings (and problems) with the idea of artist as genius are a result of this attempt to loose myself from these chains of egocentrism.

The process by which the Williamston Theatre came into being is worth noting. Instead of just diving into the project, there was talk beforehand with city officials. This was followed by readings in local businesses in order to build relationships and gain support. “The four founders of the theatre didn’t want to thrust art upon the town, but rather tell stories with, for, and about their audiences,” the author notes.

Williamston, Michigan is a small town, and what I don’t quite understand in Tokie’s article is her apparent belief that artists must be “big-pond tested” — which I take to mean that the artists at the theatre were vetted by the big city — before being considered worthwhile.

    Squidward represents all that is bad with small-town artistes. They want to be special, the standard-bearers of all that is culturally excellent, but look down on the very people who could be their audience. They yearn for “these people” to be more refined and sophisticated. Ironically, some are not talented. There’s a reason they never tried to make it in the big city.

I’m really trying not to be irked by the last comment in this quote, trying to understand where she’s coming from. However, to me it sounds a lot like the same kind of elitism that she’s trying to debunk by lauding the Williamson Theatre. Yes, there is a cultural understanding that as an artist you aren’t somebody until you make it in the big city. However, quality of craft or concept are simply not directly tied to big city living or galleries. And if she thinks they are, I’d really like to hear her rational for that.

Day job artists in Europe

An excerpt from a good article in the Guardian:

    But none of these scenarios will ring true for the average artist – who is more likely to be stacking supermarket shelves, waiting tables or writing ­advertising copy by day, and acting, dancing or sculpting by night.

    Right now, the economic climate for artists in this country looks particularly bleak. There’s the innate financial ­instability of most artistic careers (low earnings, and sometimes none at all; little job security; no pension or other benefits), together with the recession. Then there’s the fact that – ­unlike some European and Scandinavian countries – the British government makes no ­specific social provision for artists, ­unless through the publicly funded ­regional arts councils.

    In Denmark, for instance, 275 artists are granted an annual stipend of ­between 15,000 and 149,000 Danish krone (£1,750 to £17,000) every year for the rest of their lives. In France, public funds are awarded through regional bodies not unlike our arts councils, ­except that the range of awards is much greater: artists in the Ile-de-France ­region, which includes Paris, can, for instance, claim up to ¤7,500 (£6,545) specifically to equip their studios.

    But in this country, for artists without a lucky early break, rich parents or ­benefactors, a day job is often the only way to survive. It needn’t mean that fame and fortune aren’t just around the corner: Joy Division’s Ian Curtis worked in an unemployment office until 1979, well after the band had released their debut EP. Van Morrison immortalised his old job as a window cleaner in the 1982 song Cleaning Windows; composer Philip Glass wasn’t able to quit his jobs as a plumber and a taxi-driver until the age of 41.

    What a day job inevitably means, of course, is spending the majority of your waking hours not doing the thing you love: making art.

Via the Curator.


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