Saturday, August 13, 2011

Choices, choices...

A crossroads...what a nice, simple concept. You’re on a journey along a road and get to a place where you need to choose whether you this way or that way, black or white, yes or no. It’s such a convenient analogy and at times to be sure it’s appropriate. Art is a journey and sometimes you do reach a crossroads that is a clear choice, so often though we are not travelling as on a road but are adrift on the open sea, we have a course but are influenced by forces beyond our control and can end up drifting off in an unexpected and unwelcome direction.

It’s so easy to drift into bad habits, I’ve recently caught myself taking my art for granted, I’ve been pushing myself hard to produce work for my coming exhibition and have found I’ve developed a ‘that’ll do, next!’ attitude to my paintings. Where the hell did that come from?...and how will ‘that do’ exactly? Will it do because it’s saleable? because it’s up to a certain standard that I’ve come to expect my art to adhere to? Sounds a lot like a feeling of complacency to me, something an artist has no business experiencing.

Just this morning I read a post on t’internet from a gallery owner about being spammed by aspiring artists who tell him that their art will be just the thing for his gallery, he went on to say, quite rightly of course, that a gallery cannot simply display anything that any artist thinks is worthy , the business doesn’t work like that and on the whole aspiring artists need a bit of business acumen. There is of course a large element of truth in that, if you want a gallery to display your work then you’ll need to conform to the gallery’s standards, they know their market after all. If you want your art to sell then you need to produce work that appeals enough to buyers that they buy it. I can’t help though to feel a bit uncomfortable about this though, of course we have to compromise ourselves to some extent. If we accept a commission we are probably working with a subject that is not one we would have chosen, sometimes it’s necessary to ‘brute force’ such work to get it done. 

This is one of those areas where there is no definite choice but a subtle shift in direction. We don’t decide to never paint what we want and how we want to but to cynically turn out work that conforms to a sensible model that is appropriate, saleable, complements the galleries wall decor etc, where we decide that inspiration, wonder, experimentation all get thrown out in favour of grinding out pretty pictures. What happens is that it’s easy to get lazy, to slowly slide into a way of painting that ‘ticks the boxes’ without even realising it’s happening until one day you look at the work you’re doing and say ‘what the hell’s all this stuff?’.

What’s to be done though to prevent this slide into conformity, even into mediocrity? You have to pay your way. How far are we prepared to let ourselves slip, to slowly compromise our work to gain a modicum of critical & financial success as an artist? Once we’ve developed enough skill to consistently turn out crowd pleasing work then it’s very tempting to do so at the expense of what you could become if you stuck to your guns, didn’t give an inch and painted what and how you were inspired to paint. 

At some level we all know that that’s how you become great, not by knowing which arses to kiss and pickling cows and such but by being absolutely honest and 100% dedicated to our vision, our ideas in art.


  1. Evening Ben,
    Another great post. You're right on the mark, once again. In my own case, I've told many a well-meaning friend who suggested that my work should be in a commercial gallery, that my stuff isn't consistent enough, not the right subject matter and my production insufficient to even apply.
    They seem surprised at what they perceive as self-deprecation or even false modesty. It doesn't take too long to explain it so they understand. Part of the explanation is my desire to remain unencumbered and free of the very things you write about.
    But, I'm one of the lucky ones. After only twenty years in the navy, I was able to retire with a very decent pension at the age of 44. As long as we live comfortably within that pension, I can afford to paint who I want, what I want and when I want. I can take months or even years to finish a painting. I have taken advantage of one of the most wonderful gifts a person can have: Time. I wake when I want, stay at the studio as long as I want and have no commercial pressures to influence my life.
    I have sold a fair amount of work, most of it through the Portland Art Museum Rental/Sales Gallery which juried me in back in 2003. Fortunately, they have only two, gallery-wide shows per year and there is no requirement to submit an entry if I choose not to, or if I have nothing I feel "good enough" about. The freedom of this gallery is just right for me.
    I realize I'm a very lucky painter! Not only am I free, I'm not starving! Sadly, not everyone who might enjoy a similar freedom, manages to take advantage of it. I've witnessed more than a few people who are terrified of it and manufacture all sorts of things to kill it. I fee sorry for those folks--truly sorry.
    Anyway, good luck finding a balance with this issue, Ben. It's not an easy thing to work out, but I have a feeling one blessed with your active mind and self-analysis will be successful.

  2. Aye, it's like Virginia Wolfe said, you need £500 a year and a room of your own to be creative. There are times when I'm feeling particularly bloody minded when I think the state should support artists, just with a room and and basic necessities, to allow them to get on with their work without distraction. So many people believe that art is just something you nine to five like any other job, wouldn't want it to be like that of course but there would be some benefit to it as far as peace of mind goes...

  3. Me, Again, Ben,
    A capital idea! I receive a couple of art-related newsletters each week and most of the authors, (artists all) are sharing ways to market art, not make it, or make it better. When a letter does encourage readers to improve the quality of their art, it's based solely on the idea that sales will increase.
    As you might expect, I'm strongly considering un-subscribing to these vaguely-disguised sales and marketing tools.
    Not to judge too harshly, but these letters seem to be produced by artists who have gone over to the "Dark Side" and are more interested in selling readers on website development than anything else.
    It has been interesting watching my own country's love-hate affair with the arts played out in our political arena, or should I call it a circus?
    Recalling that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, more particularly, poor immigrants, it should be easy to understand the periodic flare-ups against any government support for arts.
    In trying economic times, like today, crafty politicians pander to those poor, angry, jobless people, fanning the flames of discontent for almost anything the government does--or doesn't do. Of course, those politicians have plenty of money and don't really give a damn about those they choose to hoodwink. It's all about seizing an opportunity and wringing every last vote out of it.
    But, I'm sure you know all of this. It's really nothing new. Most people ignore the arts when times are good. Cooler, better educated heads are able to quietly provide funding to keep arts organizations and artists going. Unfortunately, these aren't those times.
    For your sake, I'll stop now. Getting a bit wound up, as you can, no doubt tell.
    Let's just hope things will get better soon and maybe the planet will survive a few more orbits.