The Estheticist (Issue 7, January 2011)
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 a professor at a college, where I teach art. Most of my students are not going to be professional artists — they take art as an elective. The other day a student brought in an artwork based on an amazing idea, albeit poorly executed. I have been obsessing about that idea for a while now, and I am certain that if I were to make it myself (and given that I am a professional artist I could realize the idea in a substantially better way) it would be extremely successful. I know that this student won’t become an artist (she is not interested in that career anyway) but would it be unethical if I basically took that idea and made a work of my own?
M. R. F., Boston
Let’s say that someone invented a formula to cure cancer but wasn’t able to make the actual medicine, nor does he realize the potential of this idea. Would that person still is the author of the formula if you carried it out successfully to fruition? The fact that your student doesn’t see the potential of the piece she conceived, or that she doesn’t have the skills to produce the final product in a professional manner doesn’t mean that you can now claim its authorship. It is not only unethical, but also insincere with her and with yourself. If you are to carry it out, you will need to give your student some sort of credit (and I don’t mean school credit, but an unequivocal, public credit). It is a fact of life that professors find inspiration from their students, and ideas in art are constantly stolen between artists, but to take someone’s idea —anyone’s — and present it as yours own, will always be a predatory act.
I’m an MFA painting student (that stupidly went from undergrad straight to grad school) and I will be graduating spring 2011. Everyone’s excited for me, but I’m left feeling anxious and overwhelmed. To be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore with my work. I have no sense of direction or urge to paint (which is horrible considering my concentration), I feel happier with ceramics (another horrible thing, considering I’m expected to primarily paint), I’ve no idea how to marry painting and ceramics for my thesis come spring (is it really necessary? are my professors right?), and I simply feel lost. How do I find my way to what I want to create again? I’ve never been a confidant artist, despite others appreciating my work. I need to find a way to believe in my work without doubt or despair.
Also, I’m terrified come graduation what to do with my life. I want to teach college level art one day, but not right away. I need a break from the currently confining walls of academia. What would you suggest for a newly graduated artist to do? Is it okay to just travel, create work, find master artists to apprentice under, and basically live a nomadic bohemian lifestyle until I find myself? Overall, I feel like I’m expected to grow up in a short amount of time, figure out exactly what to do for my thesis in the spring, and make inspirational art. How do I do this, yet alone get back to loving/wanting to “make?” Help!
Thank you for your time.
The anxiety that you are currently experiencing is perfectly understandable and normal, and actually most common for those who are graduating from art school. It is normal to not feel inspired, to feel overwhelmed, and to have serious doubts about your work— all that is part of being an artist.
There is no point in hiding the fact that the toughest period for any artist usually comes right after graduation. Why? Because that is the time when you officially leave the safety of a secluded environment when you can make your work. However, there is no need to panic. Art school is not a normal condition, but on the contrary: it is a completely artificial environment, so you are coming back to real life. So, while it is normal to feel as you do, you are not jumping into a precipice —rather, you are coming out of one.
You have to deal with your situation by parts. First: the thesis show is not the last show of your life, and while significant, you have to see it in perspective: it is just a show. If you don’t have a major body of work to present, so be it— nor does it need to represent the kind of work you will do in the future. I wouldn’t recommend mixing ceramics with painting at the last minute just because you are told it’s a good idea by someone else— you have to do what makes most sense to you. Nor should you feel guilty about abandoning painting altogether— many artists evolve outside of painting, and the experience you developed while painting will remain with you regardless.
Second: after you have dealt with graduation, it is very good to take some time off to think about what you want to do with your work, but you also need to be responsible to yourself and don’t allow this “time off” to become an aimless, permanent vacation. If you want to be an artist, you need to mentally remain one, and make yourself go back to make art after a few months. The most important aspect of being an artist is to continue producing and thinking about art. You are about to experience absolute freedom, and what is scary about this freedom is that it doesn’t have a built-in structure for you to develop your work; you will have to develop it yourself and find your own discipline. You owe it to yourself to continue producing as an artist at least for a couple years after art school. If you realize you don’t want to make art, then you may chose to abandon it, but you don’t give yourself that chance, will never forgive yourself for not trying hard enough. The bottom line: particularly during this pivotal time before and after graduation, please ignore what everyone expects or wants from you: the only thing that matters at this point is what you want and what you want to accomplish as an artist. You will find the answer sooner or later, but it won’t necessarily meet the deadlines for the MFA thesis show.
If I want to make a piece about, say, water pollution, how much of an expert do I have to become on the topic? Sometimes it feels like when an artist addresses a social issue it is judged on how deeply one engaged with the subject, so that it doesn’t look opportunistic. I am a concerned citizen and want to make pieces about social subjects that sincerely matter to me, but I am not interested, nor I can, write a dissertation on every topic I address.
Dear Unschooled Activist,
Neither you nor any other artist can become an expert on every subject we take on to develop an art piece. Nor could there possibly be a quota of knowledge about every subject art is made. The main problem may have to do with how you conceive the functionality of the piece you are doing and your own role as an artist addressing the issue. If you are indeed doing an activist piece that intends to teach or inform people about a particular issue, or even, to attempt to “solve” the issue through your artistic intervention, you will undoubtedly have to become versed on that issue, otherwise you may run the risk to appear naïve and may find yourself biting something larger than you can chew. You may also need to ask to yourself: if your goal is to fix a social problem, why is an artwork the means to do so? Of course you need to be knowledgeable on the subjects you address, but art is not supposed to replace other fields of knowledge— instead, it can bring a different perspective that can illuminate them. That kind of expertise that artists brings do not require a PhD on a given subject, but a kind of ability to observe, visualize and think critically that can’t be acquired by becoming an expert on, say, water pollution.
I would like to hear your opinion on the high art vs. kitsch art dialogue. It seems that we have been confronted by this question again and again and yet a clear distinction cannot be provided. Who makes the decision whether art is high or kitsch or neither? The artist? The gallerist or dealer? The viewer? The critic? And is the question really important at all?
Dear Mr. Realist,
There is no central organization that decides what is or is not kitsch, nor a single ruler who determines what is good art or not. However, there is a divide between art that is about an earnest search for beauty, spirituality or whatever you have and art that is fueled by an ironic take on that search.
Whether we like it or not, contemporary art is grounded on irony. If you make work that appears to ignore the critical attitude toward earnestness of, say, fifty years ago, the work will be identified as naïve or kitsch. The question is unimportant if you don’t want your paintings to enter into the collection of any major museum or ever be recognized by the contemporary art establishment.
Today’s art is presented in a myriad ways— on Youtube, performances, books, one-to-one experiences, etc. The whole concept of what an exhibition is has changed. Yet most magazines and newspapers keep publishing reviews mainly of shows that happen within the confines of a gallery and which last the typical three weeks— yet those are precisely the venues, I think, that show the more conventional kinds of art, shown in the most conventional ways. Is criticism behind?
Dear Emma M.,
Conventional publications review conventional shows, and conventional critics review the work of conventional artists. There are those publications that try to address the alternative forms of exhibiting art, but most of them, like the art they discuss, exist below the radar of the mainstream. To ask why the New York Times, for instance, can’t break from their formats for reviewing gallery shows is to ask why the mainstream can’t absorb what’s outside of it.
I feel that we in the contemporary art establishment are a bit schizophrenic about the public. On the one hand we want the masses to embrace art; on the other, we hate it when art is too crowd-pleasing, when museums bring in too much people, etc. and instead we seem to be protective about our insider knowledge. What is going on here?
Tom, San Francisco
The sociologist Daniel Bell coined the term “knowledge society”, arguing that those who produce knowledge in post-industrial societies secure a position of cultural advantage for themselves. If we think of art as a form of production of knowledge, we can see that the popularizing of insider knowledge about a certain kind of art erases the original advantage retained by those in the cultural strata and the larger public, causing anxiety amongst producers for their loss of status. The relationship then between producers and consumers of culture is one of interdependence, but —particularly as it applies in contemporary art— as the information age increasingly erases the boundaries between audiences and content-producers, we are likely to see an increase in this schizophrenia in the coming years, and perhaps further steps by art insiders to produce even more encrypted and codified forms of art.
Why do artists need galleries these days? The 50% they take seems outrageous. Should we try to sell our own work online? Are galleries becoming obsolete?
Galleries are not obsolete. And even though a few successful artists have been able to survive without gallery representation—Christo and Jeanne-Claude are one rare example— going at it alone is equally complex and demanding, if not more, than working with someone who may represent your work. The artworld uses online marketing, but the true relationships are made on a personal, one-to-one basis.
Even though it seems that online sales are easy to do, think about the thousands of people like you who are also trying to promote themselves online.
It seems to me that every debate I have about art is ultimately resolved with quoting philosophers (or, whoever wins it is the one who quoted the best thinker).
Do you think that in art the buck stops with philosophy?
Philosophy has certainly been the stage onto which most of the key (and of course, aesthetic) debates amongst artists, critics, and art historians have taken place. And some artists, like Joseph Kosuth, have gone as far as arguing that art is a way of making philosophy. But I would say that the wider consensus is that, ultimately, philosophy functions best as a lens, and not as the ultimate consequence, of art. Great things can emerge when philosophy and art function as means to explain each other, but when someone tries to make art with philosophy, or philosophy with art, the risky result is either pompous (and self-absorbed) illustrations of ideas in the former and incomprehensible (and likely inconsequential) babbling in the latter.
In this new section, we propose new art terms that address current phenomena in art.
Career Waste management
Euphemism that refers to the process by certain artists of reacquiring and destroying works of their own from certain unflattering periods, in order to show a stronger historical output.
Recent tendency in the art world to develop fashions around different disciplines, such as “the pedagogical turn”, “the ethnographic turn”, etc.
Refers to the addiction in the art market to works produced in the current year, even if they don’t introduce new concepts or forms.
Art school inflow
Self-reinforcing process by which art and curatorial schools attract a homogeneous class of students with similar values, social class, and political views which leads to standardization of creative outputs.
Process by which some curators organize shows, without visiting artist studios and mainly relying on web research and social media.