Saturday, September 19, 2015

Art + Expectations

"I don't get it"

   A while back a friend recently posted a lament about not getting enough “likes” on their Facebook posts, relating to their (really good) professional artistic work. It's a valid concern, and wondering about "return on investment" is a legitimate point, especially as it calls into question what one's base motivation is for making, and for sharing. This in turn prompted a whole interrelated series of tangents I tried to write down and coalesce some notes around the general topic of expectations in art. More after the jump...
   This topic is a really important one, and there’s rarely one simple answer to the questions that come about from mulling it over, nor are there rarely any that will work in all instances all, of the time. To be blunt, making art isn’t (necessarily, or shouldn’t be) ever contingent on anyone else's approval – or disapproval. Even your own opinion isn’t a reliable barometer, as in my capacity as an art educator I perversely enough sometimes have to convince some students that their work is good, despite what they might think to the contrary. Ironically that can be almost as much of a challenge for a teacher as critiquing quality work by more advanced and accomplished students and finding it lacking, ie objectively judging their efforts to be less than what they are capable of (“is that the best you can do?”).

   Coming from the perspective of someone whose creative works reside primarily in meatspace, and are gradually disseminated through the platform of print media, the commonplace expectation of instant gratification can be easily observed in the on-line arena. That can be amusing at best... at worst, annoying as hell. A case in point would be a recent cartoon of mine that went "viral," with tens of thousands of views, shares and likes, far eclipsing the combined circulation of the newspapers it runs in. There’s a giddy rush at first, but in the end it’s an ultimately empty caloric binge, one that will fade away and leave you right back where you started, alone with yourself and your work. And odds are good that the very next piece you produce and/or post will attract only a tiny sliver of attention in comparison… but does that mean that piece or post any better or worse than the one that went viral? I have had the absolute dumbest shit sell instantly, or get shared like mad, and meantime the works of True Genius®™ go utterly overlooked and sink without a virtual ripple. Well either way.... whoopdy-doo.

   After decades of toiling in relative obscurity it’s always just another facet, a humbling bonus, to get any attention and/or acknowledgement, positive or negative, of your artistic efforts. Even with new and different technological platforms and marketing efforts the main motivation has still always been that of doing it anyways, regardless of reward or compensation. Now that’s a lonely, hungry place to stay, perched up on high a soapbox of integrity, as it feeds into the stereotype of starving, desperate artists, and exemplifies the distinction between a legitimate, mature artistic pursuit or a passion that will forever stay just a hobby, versus a profession.

   Case in point being again looking at how my long-time vehicle of expression or primary medium (media) of print has had virtually no instant gratification as far as any connection with readers/viewers (aside from the rare letter-to-editor when something really offends). The newspaper was essentially a giant void of nothingness into which I just kept throwing work into, year after year: basically blind chumming in hopes of an eventual bite. As the years went by there was a very gradual buildup of a base that was big enough so that the occasional query or comment would be made in passing and in person, usually while I was out and about running errands (ex: "hey what the hell was that last cartoon about anyways?"). It was well over a decade before I became peripherally aware of any fans beyond immediate family + friends, or saw enough book sales to merit any metric of “success.” And make no mistake it is a self-defeating trap to start the toxic head-trip of comparison and tallying up hits, visits, likes… or the size of paychecks.
“Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. “ - Ursula K. Le Guin 
   Many nibbles later, and literally thousands of images + business cards later, you will have to ask yourself the question of “is it worth it” and answer it for you yourself alone. If this perceived value is strictly derived from monetary gain, or in conjunction with popularity, you will have a definite answer. Pegging the worth of your work to how many “likes” or views it gets is another point along the continuum. In between is a personal, complicated, and constantly evolving set of standards that makes up artistic self-justification (even a business ethic can be based upon this balancing act of tightrope between work + fun). My personally recommended default operational setting is an amalgamation of many different facets: basically it’s like an alloy, tempered by reality, that is stronger and sharper than anything pure.

   Next along the completely relative measuring stick of progress would be sales – but again, on its own that’s never going to be the full picture (see alloy above). Becoming cognizant and aware of an audience at this point might begin to temper both your work and may even ultimately affect your reasons for making it. I’ve also had the benefit of knowing folks who have gone on to great reward, financial, academic, fame etc. and it’s always been interesting to note the gradual changes, if any, to their work. Another description of this process is known as “selling out.” If the goal is to reach as many people, ie to cater to the lowest common denominator, then that will definitely infuse if not restrict your content and style. By all means take more pictures of kittens and Kardashian butts, which evidently the mass media can’t ever get enough of. And again, all of the mullings in this post don't just apply to making artwork, but also to blogging: I am reminded of this when lurking about many forums with threads that overflow with marketing and monetizing strategies, which to me is an instant turn-off.

   The other, opposite extreme is to be deliberately obscure and regional, appeal to a very small demographic, quality versus quantity, if you will. I was reminded of this while driving the “new” station-wagon that boasts an old-school cassette-tape player, and consequently I’ve had two (the only ones remaining from my collection) recordings - originally taped off albums no less - on heavy rotation of a couple banjo pickers whose work is absolutely wonderful. They’ll never be as famous as Steve Martin, as critically regarded as Earl Scruggs, and respected as Pete Seeger, as popular as Ricky Scaggs, or as fashionable as Bela Fleck – but by no means does this diminish the quality of their work or affect the enjoyment of my personal favorites. Neither one is listed on the Wikipedia List of Banjo Players nor do they appear on iTunes, but trust me, Art Rosenbaum and Michael Cooney rank among the best. I mention them here as an observation that popularity will never equate quality, and that their work, along with many, many other “undiscovered” (relatively speaking) artists, is an example of why the singleminded pursuit of fame is essentially meaningless and trivial, if not toxic.

   Another metric of measuring “success” comparable to “likes” on Facebook and visits to websites is the public show: traffic coming to an art opening is a great example. But even then if your sole basis for grading an exhibition as “successful” is based purely upon numbers, like either foot traffic at the opening or attendance over the course of the show, or who specifically shows up or doesn’t, or solely on sales, or some combination of these, you’ll likely be discouraged in the long run from showing your work, and eventually abandon it. Look around – there’s an overwhelming number of people who have abandoned their artistic endeavors and opted instead for a saner, mature and lucrative career working a 9-5/M-F job... hopefully with benefits.

   But back to the gallery: another correlation between on-line and physical space is with exhibiting your work in public at a gallery: you’ll never know if and when or how and why the majority of folks ever see your work or what their reaction was, if any – it’s anonymous and mysterious. Meaningful, insightful and provocative comments written in the traditional guest book that’s left open with a pen on a gallery stand at a show are very rare. If anything you'll get the usual “great work” or “loved the show” etc. – which is directly comparable to clicking “like” on Facebook posts, and each and every one is to be taken seriously as a sincere gesture. It’s also really humbling to covertly observe random strangers walk right on past your pieces, or maybe at best the work gets a brief glance: again, this is exactly like any post on-line or comment feed.

Image: Jen Sorensen (excerpt from "All You Need Is Like")

   The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people in the community will not go to an art show, most people rarely if ever voluntarily visit a gallery, and of those that do, you’ll most likely never even know that they saw your work. Many people prefer the anonymity and silence of seeing works without the pressure of having to deal with the maker physically being there, which is after all the primary purpose behind hosting an opening and fostering direct interaction with a creator. This is a crucial distinction with on-line interactions, as the buffer zone is gone between creator and other people, and not just the paradigm of traditional networks and marketing has shifted, but the dynamics of relationships between artist and viewer has morphed, with a new set of expectations on both ends. But still there’s the harsh reality that of the minority who do attend an opening, the vast of the majority will never purchase anything. So as I always tell my students, if that - the standard, traditional gallery model - is where you want to go and how you want to go about it, good luck. It’s a hard row to hoe, and another discussion on how to achieve “success,” however you define it. Translate this observation to anything you put up on line, and the analogy holds true. It’s a question of what do you want and how much long-term, not just sustained but consistent output and disciplined effort are you willing to invest. For nothing. Maybe for ever. The Zen warrior approach of “expect nothing – be ready for anything” is sage advice.

   Another thing I frequently lecture about while on the topic of rejection is that if you, say, happen to get into a juried exhibit, well, congratulations… and so what. And if you don’t, then condolences… and hey - big deal. The end result should be the same – pick yourself up off the floor, or come down from the ceiling, and get on with it anyways. I’ve lost count of how many much better and more talented artists I’ve met that have never, ever shown their work, never made it into a juried show, never had a show of their own, or ever made a single sale. That said, some of the most “successful” artists out there absolutely suck in comparison, and it’s a damn shame to see mediocrity rewarded at the expense of true talent. That’s why honesty and humility are defining characteristics and qualities that I react to, orient to, and respect in other artists. A common definition of humility is the tacit acknowledgement that there will always be somebody worse than you... and there will always be somebody better. Just be yourself and do your own thing in your own way in your own time. Which on it’s own is no guarantee of anything, but it ought to be enough to keep you going and make it worthwhile to make. Be as original as possible, be nice, make deadlines, be profligate in producing pieces.

   A note here that quite often I don’t have an abundance of self-confidence in myself or my work, and I confess it can still be somewhat of a risk or daunting to be vulnerable and to open oneself up to criticism – or complete indifference - when exposing myself by publicly displaying my work. And yes, even with lots of experience and a well-worn, calloused perspective I’m not above being hurt by petty jealousy and resentment. Like everything else, both good and bad, get over it, and while at it get over yourself too, move on, and keep making more anyways. Maybe that’s denial, stubbornness or delusion or deep, unshakable faith in oneself.
How can newcomers build an audience from scratch?
The short answer is that most can't (and most never have). A tiny minority of the people who set out to make a living from the arts will have the right combination of luck, skill, talent and perseverance to find their audience. Those people will do the same thing that all the people who fail do — post their work, converse with fans, tour, perform, teach, publish, etc — but they will succeed. Such a tiny fraction of those who set out to succeed get there — it's such a tiny fraction of such a huge population — that anything they have in common is just as likely to be a coincidence as causation. This is the thing that no one in the arts wants to admit: we all succeed mostly by luck, and the thing that separates from the talented friend who gets nowhere isn't our gumption or inspiration, it's chance. You can get more chances by trying harder and sticking with it, but no matter how much sticking and gumpting you do, you might fail. - Cory Doctorow 
   One thing above all else that will always mitigate both rejection and fame is the simple act of teaching – showing how-to stuff to all ages is immensely gratifying (and always a little terrifying in a different way). But again, don’t expect to change lives, make a difference, or be rewarded with constant, if any, atta-boys along the way. Like art, it doesn’t work that way, and there is the exact same set of inner-searching and constantly shifting sets of justifications to combat frustration and doubt. If you know deep inside that you did the best you could possibly do, that might be more than enough to recommit to doing it more, doing it again, even better next time around, even if that in turn fails to achieve the desired results. And so on and so on, until many, many years later in retrospect will a cumulative result be revealed.

   Point here being be happy with where you’re at, and grateful for what you got… if that’s all there is, then ought that be enough? If not, then try another way, or give up and try something else. To summarize: the only constant in my career has been to just keep making it, keep putting it out there, no matter what, despite good or bad criticism (most artists are their own worst critic anyways), from the accolades to being completely, totally ignored. I always try to remember that nobody owes me anything as an artist. Conversely I don’t owe anybody my art (excepting the regular clients). It is what it is, and I do what I do. That’s a Hallmark caliber platitude to be sure, but aside from the work speaking for itself, there’s no other possible explanation at the core of it beyond such a self-evident justification, like taking a walk in the woods.

No comments:

Post a Comment