The Estheticist (Issue 4, October 2010)
The Estheticist is a free ongoing service of art consultation around practical, philosophical and ethical issues around the visual arts profession. To ask a question, email estheticist [ at ] aol.com. Participants accept that their questions may be used for a printed publication that will serve as a professional development tool for emerging professionals in the arts. Your question will be confidentially and the question will appear as anonymous unless you specify otherwise.
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I am an artist who is fairly well known in her hometown – a middle-sized art world center. Through the grapevine I heard that an influential curator is curating a show at the main museum there on a subject that is THE subject that has occupied a good part of my career (and most people in that art scene know it). Furthermore, the title of this upcoming show sounds strangely similar to the title of one of my works. Yet, my work has not been included, and I have heard that the artist roster is finalized. This curator knows who I am —we’ve met and been in panels and other things together before— although I am not sure the extent to which he knows my work. I know that being excluded from shows that one feels are exactly about what one does as an artist is an unnerving but common incident, but this case feels to me particularly humiliating given the location, context, and proximity to me in the content and title of the show. I have no way of knowing if this is simply an omission or if this curator really doesn’t like what I do — yet I feel that my exclusion will be interpreted locally as a statement against my work. Is there any way I could insinuate myself into this exhibition (remember that so far the show is not public knowledge), or at least get clarification about why I am not included without appearing presumptuous?
Dear Hometown Girl,
Your anxiety and even indignation about this show is understandable. However, there are few things for you to think about: first, you should ask yourself what this incident might say about your own insecurities as an artist (all artists have insecurities). You yourself say that you are well known in your town, that people identify this subject with your work, and that people will notice your absence in the show. If all this is true, then the embarrassment may actually be experienced by the curator who failed to include your work, as he may appear to others as not having done his homework properly. If, alternatively, the curator is intentionally making a point of excluding your work, there is no point in arguing with him on that. You may want to send a trusted friend or supporter to casually mention your work on this subject to this curator, but this is a risky task that may backfire, if it becomes public knowledge that you lobbied (and maybe failed) to get into the show. Like it or not, the best course of action on your part on this situation is to do nothing, and let the events unfold. You must trust that the work that you have done in the past stands on its own, and your reputation should be able to withstand the fleeting passing of a famous curator through your hometown.
Last summer I made a misstep by assaulting a good friend critic with the work of another dear artist friend. Something went wrong but I am not sure what it was. I would like to get your advise on how to help the career of other colleagues without making anyone uncomfortable, including myself, and how to detect and communicate a negative response from others.
The North African
Dear North African,
It is commendable that you have the generosity of heart to help out your artist friends. Intercession by a -theoretically neutral- third party is the most important kind of help that one can receive as an artist. However, and as you also realized, you do have to be careful not to impose your friend onto others and thus jeopardize your own relationships. If you want to introduce an artist friend’s work to a critic, here are a few things to consider: 1. do not let your friend know in advance that you will be making that connection; if for some reason the critic doesn’t like the work or the idea of meeting your friend, you will end up demoralizing your friend even more. 2. when you introduce the artist to your critic friend, this also has to be done gently and with tact. One way to do it would be to invite the critic to your friend’s show (without the presence or knowledge of your friend), or simply share images of your friend’s work with the critic and ask for an opinion. It also would not hurt to be perfectly honest with the critic and say that you want to help your friend— most people are sympathetic to such situations. Also, if in your request you show to your critic friend that you are aware that you may be imposing on his time, this simple acknowledgment will go a long way.
It is not appropriate to ask your critic friend point blank to do a studio visit with the artist, or to do anything that will place the critic in a difficult situation (such as starting to be pestered with solicitations by your artist friend). Your critic friend may feel obligated to comply with the request just because of your friendship, but it may generate resentment later. All you can do for your artist friend is to facilitate a way in which the critic will get a glimpse of the work; if there is interest, you can help even further. But it is not possible for you to convert others to your friend’s art. You may want to ask yourself if there are any other ways in which you can help your artist friend, maybe through invitations to social events where your friend may make new connections; or through sharing information about grants, residencies, or resources that may translate into opportunities. And regarding how to communicate a negative reaction: you should always prevent from hurting your friend’s feelings by plainly saying things like “my friend didn’t like your work”. You should always present it in the best light possible, which could be something like: “I believe my friend is focusing on other kinds of art at the moment.”
I have a persistent fantasy where I approach someone like Rob Pruitt and offer him a cash reward if he can get me a solo show at Gavin Brown’s. All he’d have to do is whisper in Gavin’s ear, right? Here’s my question: how much should I offer him?
Dan Levenson (New York)
Thank you so much for your question. As you yourself recognize, this is a fantasy, which is defined as “an idea with no basis in reality”, so I feel, for the sake of usefulness, I should answer the question in how it would
work in the real world. In the real world, no money will be directly exchanged or offered and you must never be personally involved in the operation. You have to get a triad of collaborators: one, an influential collector, then an influential critic and an influential curator. All of
them at different times need to whisper to both the ear of Gavin and Rob. Then you set up a star-studded celebrity dinner where they are invited and they meet you. At that dinner they will be surrounded by other impressive individuals who will whisper to them about your magnificence and hotness. Then the influential collector will make the request to Gavin to quietly sell a few works of yours from his collection (these will be works that you will have given to the collector for free beforehand). Gavin will jump at the chance and turn the offer into a solo show. (for more details on how to do this, watch “The Sting”). You will ask, I am sure, how do you then get a hold of that influential collector. Basically you do the same “triage” process with that individual, and the same with the previous three individuals that you will need to reach to in order to get to the collector who will get you to Gavin. This is why these exercises are known as social climbing: you can’t parachute your way in —only in fantasyland.
Whose opinion is the right opinion in the world of artistic critique? How do you deal with polar opposite opinions?
You point out a perennial problem that artists face: whom should one listen to? If we receive negative criticism, is it because our work is truly deficient or because it is so advanced that others can’t perceive its visionary nature? If we are praised, is it for the right reasons? And when our work is simultaneously praised and attacked, what does that mean?
The field of art critique, as you are referring to it, has a wide range, from the novice to the connoisseur. Needless to say that the criticism of the layperson, while it can sometimes be useful, it generally lacks enough knowledge of context to make informed assessments of your work ( so, for instance, I would not be overly concerned if your local dry cleaner hates your performance art works).
Then, toward the middle of the field of criticism there is a remarkably wide area of consensus- such as, agreement on what is a technically and conceptually-sophisticated art work, the relevance of certain movements, artists, and also on what constitutes a truly original artwork versus a simply derivative piece.
On the extreme end, however, which is what I imagine you are referring to, gets very interesting. Critics, curators, and artists break into various camps – formalists, conceptualists, neo-Marxists, guattari-ists, etc. Many times their differences simply cannot be solved, partially because art history is full of equally valid opposites (Matisse/Picasso; Delacroix/Ingres, etc) and there is no such thing as a single path to making significant art. But even if one of these camps were to possess the absolute “truth” as to where art is going in the future, at least from the standpoint of the present moment we don’t know what the current debates between these camps will look like. And it is not possible for you, not to anyone, to know the outcome of these debates.
All this to say that when you receive conflicting criticism about your work you should pay close attention to who is formulating these criticisms (or praises), and what is motivating their comments. Could it be personal? (many times it is). Could it be their inability to recognize the possibility of practices that are different from theirs? Are they a bit blinded by their commitment to some monolithic art principles? Are these people who you respect, even if you disagree with them? Ultimately the answer may lie on which camp you identify yourself more closely with. And it has to be a deeply personal choice. Your best bet is then to follow the opinions not that most flatter you, but that point to the issues that you care most about. And, needless to say, to follow the opinions of those who are currently considered the “taste-makers” just because they are given importance in the art world, will just turn you into an opportunist — something that may helps in the short run, but nothing more.
One more question…
What is the responsibility of the artist in making more art? Isn’t the
world already overwhelmed with objects, stuff, art?
Am I having an artistic crisis?
Yet another classic question. This one, however, contains no less than four hidden fallacies in its simple formulation.
The first one is that you are assuming that art is always about its material object.
The second one is that existing art is capable to be an efficient surrogate to any possible future art.
The third one is that art is born out of responsibility, not out of necessity.
And finally, that art can stop to be made.
All four of these assumptions are wrong.
Art may often be an object, but it is much more than its objecthood- it is a way of understanding the world that allows us to see it anew. Even if we were to destroy all the existing art today, its effect has already taken place in us and we have evolved partially thanks to the insights it has given us. Then, most artists make art not because they feel a civic responsibility to make it, but simply because they have to: making art is much more of a human need that it is a constructed activity that services society, even if that ends up being one of its functions. And, as a human need, you can’t prohibit art making— it would be futile and pointless. And that is a good thing, because every passing moment brings a new kind of reality, and that new kind of reality demands some need for interpreting it. That’s what artists do: they respond to the moment they are living. So while you may admire a Leonardo, he is still our ancestor, not a living person with whom you can have a conversation about your daily life. Contemporary art can do that for us, and if we are willing to listen, in the best cases it won’t feel like an accumulation of stuff, but a liberating, enlightening experience.
I’m truly afraid that after graduate school I’ll end up working the same awful, minimum wage jobs I had before starting graduate school. How can I prevent that from happening when it’s all over with? Would it be too far of a stretch to move out of the country (USA) in search of work? Are job prospects better anywhere else?
Try to use art school to learn some skills that you may be able to repurpose for other jobs. There are many fields that absorb people with art school training: conservation, fabrication, digital imaging, archiving, education, museums, paper making, advertising, theater lighting, sound and film editing, television, graphic design, 3-D modeling, drafting for architecture, publishing, etc.
The pay of these jobs will depend on how advanced you manage to get your technical skills. Let’s face it: you won’t ever make a lawyer’s salary, but it is perfectly possible to find a reasonably satisfying niche that would allow you to pay the bills and give you the peace of mind to make your work. I wouldn’t discard the possibility to move elsewhere, but if I were you I would only do it if the place you move to will be a beneficial climate to develop your artwork.
How do you tell your best friend who is an artist that her most recent work is the most awful crap you’ve ever seen?
Liza G. , Madison WI
If you feel so strongly about this new series you must speak up, for your friend’s sake. One way to do this indirectly -that is, without you becoming the bad cop- would be to instigate a situation that will bring the awfulness of this work into your friend’s mind. Such situation would be such as bringing a respectable and outspoken person to come see the work and be upfront about it. Another strategy is simply to lobby for her previous work ( which presumably is better than the current one ) and convince her that there was an interesting direction in it that she should retake. But the truth is that the best and most effective strategy is to simply arm yourself with courage and tell your friend that you love her and that her work is the most awful crap you have ever seen. She may not stay your friend for long, but she will thank you one day.