The Estheticist (Issue 5, November 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 this monthly blog and/or for a book that will serve as a professional development tool for emerging professionals in the arts. Your question will be treated confidentially and it will appear as anonymous unless you specify otherwise.
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How do you deal with rejection? As an artist, I know I need to apply to grants, residencies, and other professional opportunities — yet I have a very hard time when my application is rejected: I enter into a depressive mode and my already low self-esteem takes another blow. Sometimes I feel that I should not even bother entering into a process that may hurt me even more than what can help me. What to do?
A central part of being an artist is to accept that not everyone will understand, like, appreciate or be willing to support your work. The application process to a grant or a residency is only one of the many ways in which this reality becomes manifest; it just feels particularly brutal because these are instances where people (jurors, curators, etc) are forced to make a “yes” or “no” decision about your work. In reality, your work is being always evaluated when you exhibit it or make it public. Furthermore, the reasons why a work is rejected can be very complex, and sometimes have nothing to do on whether the jurors like the work or not — sometimes some artists are selected over others not because the work is deemed superior, but perhaps because it is more appropriate in form or context to the kind of opportunity for which it is being reviewed. At the same time, I don’t advise you to ignore rejection altogether: while you should not let them get to you emotionally, you should try to examine, in an objective way, the patterns of these rejections and see if there is anything about them that you can help: was the application well written? Did you aim too high? Is the documentation appropriate? Were the artists selected significantly different from you and why? This should be studied only with the purpose that you can make a more informed and better application the next time. And yes, you should continue applying — even at the risk of getting yet more rejections, it will only make you a better artist.
I am a painting student currently doing a BFA in an art school. I am convinced that I want to be an academic/realist painter — that is my goal in life— and I have a deep dislike for anything conceptual. To me, an artist who doesn’t know how to draw is not an artist, and the whole contemporary art scene seems to me like a giant scam. My professors however want to push me to do more “contemporary” stuff, but it all seems to me like bullshit. I just keep telling them that I want to be an academic painter, that I could not care less about any other kind of art, but they say that I am stuck in the past. And perhaps I am, but why is painting like Velazquez such a bad thing? He was a better artist than anyone alive today.
Dear Velazquez II,
You are entitled to do any kind of paintings you like— whether they are exact Velazquez reproductions, social realist murals, or paintings of Elvis on black velvet. And you also are right in being distrustful on the way in which the art market tends to create a hype for certain kinds of art. However, there are a few things for you to consider. First, it is unfortunate that you have taken such a categorical stance given that you are still doing a BFA. Art school is meant to be a place where you explore different mediums, where you study art history, and where you expose yourself to a variety of practices. Your professors certainly cannot force you to be any kind of artist in the future, —in fact, I can assure you they will be gone from your life after you finish your BFA, and you will be free to do as you please— but while you are still studying, you should take advantage of these other worlds they can offer. If you want to be taken seriously as an artist you have no choice but to understand what all periods of art are about and be capable to critique them from an informed standpoint before you reject them.
Your ultimate decision has to do with how you see your role in society. Strictly academic artists make work that is about pleasing the eye, about the use of technique, and it is mainly used to decorate environments. Contemporary art is about commenting on our contemporary life, often in a critical manner. There are many gradations in between, of course, but as long as you think that you want to make work that is unique, that makes an informed comment on reality, you will see that it is not possible to ignore other kinds of art being made today around you. This applies also to artists working in the realist canon: even they, when they are successful, are making work that is aware of contemporary issues.
Making traditional art is uncomplicated and straightforward: you either know how to paint like Velazquez or you don’t. Contemporary art is messy and ambiguous, and you may never know if what you are doing will be considered relevant; yet that is how great visionary art is born. All art at some point was contemporary. And while certainly there is a lot of bad conceptual art out there, I can assure you that there is even more horrid, ridiculous, and amateurish realist art — and this variety comes without the benefit of the doubt as to its mediocrity.
Why are art magazines so boring? I am an artist and I consider myself reasonably well-educated, but I just can’t get interested in how magazines write about art. For the most art I find the writing of our trade pompous, unnecessarily wordy, and unimaginative. Am I alone in thinking this?
Dear Frustrated Reader,
You are not alone. For a long time there has been a generalized dissatisfaction around art magazine writing. You well pointed out that these are trade publications: as such, they need to employ a language that commands respect in the field. The kind of “objective” or “neutral” voice that you see being pursued in many art reviews and features draws its style from art theory, if not necessarily its substance—thus our suspicion about it. And certainly this pursued objectivity takes precedence on creating imaginative writing, which could be perceived as not serious and even amateurish by some ( there are art critics who write in overly opinionated ways, mainly to entertain, and/or to create an artist-like following). The good news is that blogs and other online communications are starting to liberate art writing, making it more fluid, concise, and less bound by archaic or academic rules.
I am an African-American artist. My work deals with a wide variety of issues: nature, politics, urbanism, and even abstraction. However, I feel that because I am an artist of color my work tends to always be read under that lens. Worse, curators tend to ghettoize me by inviting me to ethnic-specific kind of shows. Don’t get me wrong: I am not conflicted about being black. And I guess my work could partially be read in that context, and I have accepted some of these invitations because they have been good opportunities to show. But I don’t appreciate being ghettoized this way, and I feel my work gets reduced to be about being black. How can I communicate this to everyone?
Every time you are invited to exhibit at a show you need to weigh in the advantages and disadvantages that it provides. It sounds like you have accepted to be in shows that emphasize issues that you don’t want to be too associated with, perhaps because you think that it will just provide you exposure. You should think twice. The kind of exposure that a show under this subject may provide may be precisely the kind that you don’t want to get. In other words, while your work will certainly become more visible, it will reinforce the connection between your work and those culture-specific issues that you want to detach yourself from and just contribute to further ghettoize you. Artists make entire careers of just dealing with one subject; this doesn’t sound like a good idea for you, especially if the subject you are associated with comes out of genealogy or necessity. The only way to break the circle is to decline invitations to exhibitions that will reinforce the perceived stereotype of what your work is about. You don’t want to be invited to exhibit because of your ethnicity; you want to be invited because you are a good artist.
What is the etiquette for selling work from the studio? If I have a gallery, can I sell from my studio too? Should I sell it at half price, or can the price be higher?
Open Studio Artist
Dear Open Studio Artist,
Selling from the studio when you have a gallery can be a risky proposition, especially if your studio is available to a public that can also be reached by this gallery. Even if that was not the case, (for example, if you gallery is in Europe and you are in the US) you should not sell work out of the studio without the knowledge and previous agreement of your gallery (some galleries may be ok with this practice, others won’t). Furthermore, you should be careful about reducing your prices from the ones of the gallery —it may only downgrade your own prices and hurt both you and those who represent you.
I am a conceptual artist who makes deceptively simple pieces. And I am sick and tired to be told by ignorant people that my art work can be done by a four year old, that it doesn’t require any effort, etc. I would like to have something to tell these people every time I receive an imbecilic comment like that. Any suggestions?
Dear unloved conceptualist,
Next time anyone suggests that what you do is simple, ask them to prove it — not by telling you what they would do or how would they do it, but by doing it. Most people think they can paint a Pollock or a Malevich, but when put to the test and given the materials, they have no idea how to do it. It’s the same with conceptual art. Hand them a piece of paper and a pen and ask them to propose a conceptual art piece. As they are certain to produce an amateur and naïve piece, then proceed to do a ruthless critique as you would tear apart the work of a student.
I am an emerging artist who works as receptionist in a commercial gallery to make ends meet. I am a good worker and am liked by my boss, but I have always felt slightly uncomfortable about being an artist who works in a gallery. The other day I had an awkward situation when a collector had seen my work in a show elsewhere and started talking to me about it in front of my boss, asking me to come to my studio. I know that my boss didn’t like that, but I didn’t know what else to do. I guess my question is: is it a bad idea for an artist to work in a gallery? Am I shooting myself in the arm by pursuing a job at a place that technically should be representing me?
Dear Dislocated artist,
You are right: it is wrong for an artist to work at a gallery. It is of course a necessity for many artists to take a job at a gallery, and many artists at some point in their careers have to take a gallery job. These, however, when they are done, should be on a temporary basis and it is much better when the role that you play in the gallery is a behind-the-scenes one (say, registrar, shipping, etc) and not being at the front desk. Being in the job of receptionist will expose you to interact with desirable individuals (such as Roberta Smith, for instance) in very undesirable circumstances. Your job implicitly diminishes the status that you should or potentially could have as an artist, and while you are getting a paycheck, you are doing yourself a disservice by presenting yourself to the public as someone who is not more than an assistant to others. Furthermore, most people in the artworld are chronically incapable to appreciate complexity, so to most people it is impossible to grasp that the same person can be a talented artist and a receptionist by necessity. And finally, this may be a strange fact, but collectors, curators and critics in order to be seduced by an artist need to have an aura of distance between the actual person and them. In your current job, there is no way that you can create such aura, and for the most part your being there demystifies who you could be. If I were you, I would ask your boss to let you do another job that is less public inside the gallery, and if that is not possible, start pursuing another job opportunity that will keep you away from the line of fire of critics and curators so that next time that they interact with you they meet you as the artist, not you as the gallery receptionist.
I’m sure you have addressed a question similar to my query in the past, maybe on a regular basis, but where does an artist start? I have a current, and large, body of paintings and I am eager to establish a relationship with a gallery, ideally in NYC. Is there a source that suggests new galleries or galleries that promote the work of new artists as a specialty, or philosophically?
There is a lot of information online, but very few promote actual next steps or suggest resources that may actually help secure a show. I’m looking to connect with galleries that may take a chance on showing the work of an unestablished painter.
Thank you for your inquiry. Your desire to “get started”, as you say, is perfectly understandable, but there is a reason why you can’t find a source that lists new galleries for new artists to pick: galleries don’t like to be solicited randomly just because they or you are new in the market. Furthermore, “getting started” doesn’t mean that you necessarily need to get a gallery, be it in New York or elsewhere. Nor does having any gallery guarantee that you will be in a better position than if you didn’t have one- some galleries are so awful that it is better to get started solo until a better deal comes along.
But let’s examine this need of a gallery for a moment: the reason one wants a gallery is to sell work and to gain exposure and reputation. If your need is to make money, it is preferable that you supplement that need in some other way for the time being while your career starts taking off- you don’t want your paintings to carry the burden to support you right away, otherwise you may not be able to experiment freely with them. If your interest is to increase your reputation as an artist, you first need to build a reputation that will make you visible, and perhaps, attractive to the dealer. This is done in two ways: one, by inserting yourself in the circuit of acquaintances and people that support that gallery, and by studying the program of this gallery. You can’t just arrive to a gallery and dump your slides for them to review- they will likely go directly to the trash. You need to make an informed approach, choose the galleries whose program you identify with, and make a case for them to review your work explaining why you think your work connects with what they do. You also need to be ready to argue why you think your work would bring something new to the gallery’s program. This won’t guarantee that the gallery will take you in (nothing does) but I can assure you that the more seriously you take your approach the more seriously they will look at your work.
That said, it is wrong to think that getting gallery representation is the solution to enter the art world. Usually it is the other way around: galleries take you in BECAUSE your work has something new to say, and if it has something new to say it is likely because you have paid attention to what others have been saying with their work and are ready to respond to them.
What is most important, in other words, is that you pay attention to the works of other artists around you and see how your work dialogues or interacts with them. If you think it doesn’t in any way, most likely you could benefit from attending more art exhibitions and openings, and become a more integral part of the art scene through its discussions and debates. That will get you a better sense of the things that curators and artists are in pursuit of, and to be part of that conversation, and in the long run, getting a gallery may come afterward, naturally.