The Estheticist (Issue 8, February 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 very talented emerging artist who is being invited to shows in small galleries or modest art spaces, but I don’t want to spoil my career by showing in these places. I want to start big, and so I am holding out to be picked up for a big show in a museum or gallery. Do you approve of my approach?
Dear Ambitious Artist,
Your gamble is risky and borders on the unrealistic. In order for your plan to work you would need to be a genius and be lucky, two very rare things. You could, on the other hand, be an average artist with an overblown sense of self, which, in contrast, is very common. And you don’t have the distance to be a good judge of which one of the two you are.
Furthermore, your logic that showing in a lesser space will only create a diminished impression of your work is not entirely sound either. Almost no great artists had their start by having a full-scale show at a major museum, but instead started by showing at fairly humble spaces (some of which may now feel legendary, but only in retrospect). And finally, you become a great artist by exhibiting, so you should take the opportunities that are being given to you. If your work is meant to go to bigger places, chances are it will get there eventually by being shown, not by turning down exhibition offers.
What sort of performance interventions that engage with a governmental body or political community (i.e. congress, city council, lobbyist bar crawl, political fundraiser, etc.) would you be interested in seeing? If an artist solicits answers to a question like the preceding one from a community, and then performs them, where does authorship lie, and how does s/he keep the relationship and artistic product ethical?
You may remember Komar and Melamid’s project of asking a group of people what kind of painting they wanted to see: the result is, almost invariably, a kitschy painting ( usually of a landscape ) which not many artists would be too proud to claim as their author.
Your question appears to depart from the premise that the artist role before individuals or communities is similar to the one of a contractor, who comes to a place to perform a specific job (like an electrician or a plumber). The problem with this thinking when applied to contemporary art is that audiences without an expertise in art practice won’t know how to direct an artist nor be able to envision the possibilities that an artist can bring to them— thus if you ask, say, the council of a small town what kind of public art they would like they may ask for a pretty mural.
What ends up happening is that by relinquishing your control of the artistic process you also relinquish any possibility of making a work that may have a degree of criticality and experimentation, both of which are needed to produce a substantive work. Your proposal would certainly benefit by being attentive to the interests and hopes of the community, but it should not just be subservient to it. You want to challenge your audience as much as you would like to engage them, and hopefully give them a work that can both instigate a dialogue and retain artistic integrity.
After reading the Manual of Contemporary Art Style, I am convinced that I should give up the pursuit of my own personal artistic vision in exchange for a strategy that has more of a chance to lead to my financial and curatorial success. How can I tear myself away from a commitment to becoming the artist that I was meant to be?
Graduate Seminar Class Member, 3D Department
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Dear Graduate Seminar Class Member,
You need to start by answering two questions to yourself. First, when you say “the artist that I was meant to be”, what kind of artist is that exactly? And the second is, why is the financial and curatorial success more important to you than pursuing that original artistic vision?
You alone can answer those questions, but whatever route you choose to follow the key realization you may eventually encounter is this: there is no true success unless it is the result of your true artistic vision. What the Manual of Contemporary Art Style does is to provide you a few tips toward social climbing and calculated social tricks to get attention (mainly with the intention to expose the cynicism of these practices). This does not constitute a true career plan and in the long run is kind of a pact with the devil— ultimately your opportunism will show and will make your career collapse. In other words, doesn’t matter how able you are at strategy— ultimately your work has to evidence some originality and imagination, and that is only achieved with an artistic vision. One can argue that Warhol was all strategy, but his very strategy was actually at the core of his artistic vision—thus his genius.
Is not making art art?
Fluxus artist, France
Dear Fluxus artist,
This is more of a logical than an aesthetic paradox, and it all depends on whether you are stating “ I am not making art”. If you say that you are not something, (think of Nixon’s infamous “I am not a crook” statement) you (intentionally or not) are still defining yourself against it, and invite the possibility for someone to argue the opposite. This dynamic is the central engine of art. Non-art is an extension of art as it is a negative territory determined by the existence of art, or rather, it is “art-at-large” (see The Neologist section). In his Negative Dialectics, Adorno argues that we achieve meaning on objects through negations, not through affirmations. What one needs to do in order to effectively abandon the possibility that something may not ever be art is to escape the declarative territory, where non art cannot even be named, where it remains invisible. The moment we find it, we have already taken a step to claim it as art.
Can current post-production practices be a stimulus to rediscover the historical role in culture that editors, collectors, librarians have played, as well as any other individuals who have been previously shadowed by authors, composers and interpreters? *
Editor, Mexico City
[*this question is in connection to Nicolas Bourriaud, who argues in his book “Post-Production” that artists today operate closer to the way Deejays do.]
If by “rediscovering the historical role” of editors, collectors and librarians you are referring to gaining a better appreciation of the act of information or art collecting and organizing as a creative act, I believe that this appreciation has always existed, and I don’t think that ideas around post-production alter it in a significant way. If, on the other hand, you are referring to the possibility of elevating these individuals’ work (which admittedly is seen as secondary to the art production they process and organize) as art in its own right, the answer would be that this has also always happened, but always also as part of a process of retroactive reconstruction in which we, from our collective present, declare a particular editorial or curatorial project as art. For example, we can determine that Antonio Carreño’s 1930s Manual or Good Manners (social etiquette) reads as wonderful literature, but we can’t deny the historical fact that this work was not written with that purpose, but instead in all earnestness as a compilation of adequate social behavior. Carreño thus turns into a great writer in an accidental way, or rather, through a deliberate process through which we, and not Carreño, have constructed. In fact this automatically happens, independently of any theories in vogue: a good deal of medieval literature and art, which was not meant to be art or literature in the form that we understand it today, has been accepted as such. Anonymous Russian Icons are now declared as art and not just religious tributes.
In any case, I would not hurry to say that post-production theory amounts to a declaration of independence for librarians. The way that it is formulated by Bourriaud, post-production refers to a way of making works which incorporate the mechanisms and methods such as appropriation, juxtaposition, found object, collage, etc. While these methods may come from disciplines connected to research and techical knowledge (the editor or the librarian) these are incorporated into a critical discourse with the intention to formulate a statement. If you don’t accept this distinction and instea declare that all research is art, then you need to extend the honor to practically every kind of activity that consists in writing things: the author of the ingredients in the cereal box merits equal literary consideration than the editor.
What suggestions would you offer artists who are seeking to overcome creative blocks?
Dear Miss Constipated,
There are many strategies to overcome creative blocks.
Some of them include 1. Change one’s environment. This means something as simple as going to a new coffee shop to think, going on a trip, a residency, or simply going for a walk. The change in routine and exposure to new spaces help you to thinking about your work in a different way. 2. Seek inspiration by spending a period of time reading, visiting exhibitions, or revisiting works that in the past have inspired you; 3. Impose exercises to yourself to loosen up your creativity. Some of these could include to fill a booklet of post-it notes with ideas or words in a short period of time, then display them on a wall and see if what emerged is of interest; take a ream of paper and make a drawing per minute (or write an idea or sketch for a potential work) for an hour; etc. 4. Talk to a group of friends about your work; hold a critique or simple conversation and bounce off ideas from them; 5. Collaborate with someone to produce a new work. I don’t particularly endorse drugs and alcohol as a methodical solution, but they have unquestionably helped many to create. Approaches abound: Rachmaninoff, for instance, pursued hypnotherapy, with success.
I am a professor at an art college in the West Coast. A talented BFA student who I have tutored closely asked me for a recommendation for grad school a few months ago and I gladly accepted. However, as our relationship grew more casual over the school year, at some social event at school the student made a demeaning and hurtful comment to me about my personal life. His comment was done in jest, and I may have invited such relaxed behavior as I am usually for breaking the hierarchy barriers with students. However, I am deeply offended and feel it was a completely uncalled for insult. I made this clear to the student and asked him to never talk to me again unless it was for strict school business. Now the student has written to me to ask me if I can still write his recommendation. I want to stay true to my word, but at the same time I don’t think I can vouch for this student’s character anymore. What to do?
Dear Offended Professor,
A professional recommendation to graduate school usually includes vouching not only for the student’s academic record but also for his or her character. Given that your estimation of the student’s character is clearly now diminished by that incident you described, you should be direct with him and let him know that due to what happened you don’t think you would be the best person to recommend him at this point.
However, while this experience may prove educational to him, it may also be educational to you. You yourself say that you may have encouraged this student to engage with you more casually; by doing so, you may have given the wrong impression to this young student that he could interact with you as with any classmate. While he displayed poor judgment, you also sent wrong signals by actively breaking the professor-student social barriers and then being surprised that the student relaxed enough to speak his mind. You should consider on whether a cordial, yet slightly more distant relationship could serve you, and your students, better.
What are the pros and cons for emerging artists working in small cities vs. large cities?
Dear In Between,
The large city gives you greater exposure to current exhibitions, debates, and dialogues going on in the international art scene — a kind of exposure that is hard to replace. The small city typically offers cheaper rents, and in some cases, better material resources to make art (say a university town). It, however, can get too comfortable and not challenge you enough as an artist —sometimes without you even realizing it. In the end, as an emerging artist who seeks to become established needs to maintain an ongoing relationship with the large art capitals, if it is not by moving there, certainly by maintaining a presence there (traveling frequently, working with a gallery in that city, etc).
How can an artist who has previously separated a fine art practice from social or political advocacy merge the two into effective social art?
Dear Super Activist,
First, how is it that both of these activities currently exist separately in your life? Could it be that it is better that both function in separate ways? How would your art benefit from becoming explicitly social (assuming that what you did before wasn’t)?
What does your activism gain from your acting not as an individual but as an artist?
The reason these questions are important is because many artists who feel the moral imperative to abandon bourgeois-type of art production and turn instead to a social form. Yet art that is didactic, illustrative or subservient to a social cause is not worth pursuing as art- instead, it is best to just do activism without the aspirations of making art works. This is not to say that an artist can, and should, effectively be involved politically and socially — it is a civic duty to be so, and not only for artists. And there are indeed many artists who have successfully integrated their aesthetic concerns along with their social and political views. The merging of the both, however, should happen naturally. If instead you make social art out of a sense of duty, you may be short-changing the art part.
In this new section, we propose new art terms that address current phenomena in art.
Euphemism used to describe an artwork which departs from a wonderful and/or original idea but is poorly executed.
Refers to ideas, situations, or objects which have been deemed as direct opposites of art ideas, situations or objects. As soon as an artist declares something to be art, and its opposite not to be, this opposite is only one step away from being claimed as someone else as art — thus it is “art at-large.”
Refers to the two-line sound bite that a dealer typically learns to say about an artwork he or she is exhibiting at an art fair. Dealer spiels have to be extremely concise about who the artist is, what their work is about, and what the piece being examined is. For example: “She is a video artist who lives in Chechnya. Her work is about the Chechen war and this piece is from a series of short films about her bombed neighborhood.”
Term that refers to curators who specialize in riding curatorial trends en vogue, often exhibiting the better known artists of the moment.
The term refers to those artists who base their entire production in the direct imitation of the body of work of another, better-known artist to the point of almost literal appropriation, arguing that they only reference the work.
Mock Turtle Art
Describes the kind of artworks within the field of social practice which claim to transform, emancipate or educate audiences but which in reality only do so in a symbolic manner. (the term “mock turtle”, popularized by Lewis Carroll, refers to an 18th British soup which was a cheaper imitation of the real green turtle soup. In Alice in Wonderland, a character known as the Mock Turtle lectures incomprehensibly to Alice about her own education).
Unknown Likes /Known Unlikes
A merger of the Facebook Like/Unlike formula and the famous Donald Rumsfeld statement of “ there are known unknowns […] and there are unknown unknowns” etc. mentioned before the Iraq war. Used as shorthand by young collectors to refer to those types of pieces or artists that they beforehand know that they will be predisposed to collect or dismiss.