Ni vu ni connu
One of my aims int his Blog is to address issues relative to the process of thinking as a professional artist. It’s a tough one, because many people have only a vague idea about it, believing that living by art is about ‘just’ making it then trying to sell it. Even people who live by teaching art but don’t practice it seem to have a misconception about it.
Success professionally to most people means sales, big-ticket sales. They've heard tales of artists selling work for fabulous prices and are inspired to believe they can as well. They think all they’ll need to do is hand off their work to a gallery or dealer and voila! Fabulous riches.
Let us say that indeed, a solo exhibition in a commercial gallery sells out. The artist and the dealer are hyped, excited. More exhibitions are scheduled, in other towns perhaps, follow-up events are planned like interviews and guest appearances, clients clamour for more work so orders come pouring in, agencies accord artists’ grants. The logical next step is to ride the wave, right? Except very quickly, forget working to inspiration, forget experimentation, forget having dry spells until the artist and the work become collectible commodities and assistants can be hired or the sketches and plans can be handed off to crafts people: for now the artist must produce. The studio must become the 9-5; art making becomes the job. Are artists really willing and prepared to take it on? Most are not.
Preparation is essential, or fame will be a greater burden than obscurity.
First and foremost, being a professional artist is about self-knowledge. Not egocentricity or narcissism but real self-knowledge. People who want to live by art need to know where they come from, who they are, what they know, how they know it, why it’s notable and what they need to do about it visually. This isn’t fixed knowledge; it’s constantly mutating knowledge, which means people need to reconsider their absolutes and their limitations and do something about them too.
Secondly, it’s about obstinacy, endurance and courage, even by those who are insecure, self-effacing or docile in other contexts. Art cannot be ‘the other’ thing or the ‘when I have time’ thing, or the ‘sacrificial lamb’ thing. It is about not feeling guilty or self-indulgent, and it’s definitely about having a long-term commitment to it. It’s about learning, researching and endless self-critical practice. Long-term, means long-term, not just ‘later’, as in ‘when the kids grow up’, or ‘when I retire’; or ‘when my husband/wife/child is sleeping’, it means like any other job, regular concentrated hours. It also means from now to eternity, because that’s about how long it will take. Family has to know this, accept this, respect this and support it; everyone needs to embrace it and move on.
Third, it’s not about fame and fortune though it would be nice if these were by-products of a committed and honest practice. Too many focus on these results but don’t have the patience or stick-to-it-ness to develop their technique or knowledge enough to live up to them. Some are clever or good self-promoters, they can force or sidle their way into ‘the milieu’ but they get trapped by their own ‘success’ and are either enslaved to granting agencies or become manufacturers of art commodities.
Others become so demoralized by their dependence on the whims of galleries and indifferent audiences, others yet get so depressed because they see their work gathering dust in every corner of their studios and homes, that they slowly abandon their practice. Those who stick to it despite it all work from their gut, they create from their conviction, from their unshakable faith that their images express their Truth.
Fourth, it is about focus. What is the aim of learning, of experimenting, of trying, even of achieving mastery? Express something, represent something, abstract something, record an impression of something. ‘Something’ means clarity, intent and purpose. That means having the technical skill and to be expressive as means to an end, for that’s what leads to the control of the imagery, which goes hand-in-hand with achieving one’s artistic intent.
Fifth, it’s about being able to conceptualize, communicate, contribute, compete and continue. Professional artists may create alone when they practice their art, but they become part of a continuity and a community when they practice their profession. Making ‘art’ images entails accepting a responsibility to all others who also made or make such images: one artist’s professionalism, or lack thereof, affects all others’ practice.
Also, the moment artists show their work even to one other person or take their images out of their studios they want something for it, anything from money to acclaim, from respect to support, from praise to criticism, from commission to representation, from competition to acceptance, from contact to relief, from provocation to impact They need the skills to make their art, but they also need to know what they’re willing and able to do for the art once it’s made and the skills to get the something they want for it.
Each level of professional practice has its demands. There are different but cumulative requirements that must be met as the artist’s profession progresses onward through the levels in all their permutations from private/amateur to local/emerging to regional/semi-professional to national/professional to international/renowned. Artists need to know what level they hope to achieve, understand what is needed and do whatever it takes to achieve it.
Sixth, they need to create WITH something. Materials, tools and equipment also have a history; they are designed to achieve certain ends and allow for specific effects. Many retain their original qualities indefinitely if they are handled properly while others change and evolve and must be re-mastered continually. There are those that are dangerous if not handled with respect and expertise, over time maybe even causing serious health problems or even death. Some will be unforgiving, others will be cooperatively revolutionary if the artist knows how much push and pull beyond their expected properties they will tolerate, Artists must know their materials and tools at the highest level of their potential.
No one I’ve ever met makes art for nothing. Or, if the intent really were ‘just for me’ or ‘because I love it’, or ‘don’t care if it lasts’, or ‘it can mean anything”, or “I don’t need the money”, if anyone really didn’t want to deal with all the other aspects of “being an artist’, then he or she would made art and leave it somewhere secret for it to decompose and disappear. It would be, as they say in French, “Ni vu ni connu” (neither seen nor known).