The Art Rules
Over the past several years I've conducted hundreds of webinars with an amazing array of art experts: artists, curators, art dealers, gallerists, museum directors, art consultants, and more.
I was knowledgeable going in, having had a gallery for over 30 years, commissioning art for one of the largest public projects on the planet, writing on art for The Huffington Post, and coaching TED Fellows, and still, I've learned a ton from the experts I've worked with.
I've had my mind changed on numerous issues. I've learned, been schooled, and I keep coming back for more. Working with artists is awesome. It keeps me engaged, challenged, sharp, and doing something good for others.
Art is intensely important to our society — to all societies. It's what keeps us rational, inspired, and knowledgeable. The art rules. Most people don't choose art. Art chooses them.
Invariably, I ask the guest experts in the webinars when they were first consumed by art. Most answer that it was as early as they can remember. Lots of people flat out want to be artists. And being a successful artist is so hard for so many. Unnecessarily so.
It is my strong belief that all — that's all — artists can be successful. And that includes you.
We Are Unique
Each of us is unique. Each of us is different from everyone else on the planet. Each of us has our own set of unique experiences. We are different — different from everyone else.
We all know brilliant artists who can't sell work to save their life, and we are certainly aware of artists whose works we can't stand that are making a whole lot of money.
It's not as if there is some neutral, statistical way to determine what constitutes a great work of art. Or even what makes for a lousy work of art.
Art Is Subjective
Art is not like a sport, or the stock market, where we can analyze quality. It's up to each individual looking at the art to make their own determination. Certainly some people "look" with their ears, meaning they are influenced by someone's voice they respect, but all those folks have just as many opinions about what is good as the rest of us.
Now — consider all the foregoing: we are unique; some artists succeed, some don't; art is subjective and it is up to each different individual or buyer to determine their own relationship to the art.
Okay, this is really good news, because what it means is that it's merely a matter of numbers. If an artist is him or herself — and doesn't follow trends or emulate someone else — their art will be just as unique as they are. Following trends is inefficient. By the time you identify one, it's pretty much gone. And if you emulate someone else you deem successful, you will be promoting their vision and driving people to them and not to you. It is important to be yourself and to do what resonates.
If you're unique, and look into yourself for the inspiration for your art, you art will be yours and different than everyone else. Conversely, the people looking at art are just as unique in their aesthetic response, based solely on their experiences and perceptions, as artists are. This means that everyone has a different response to any work of art.
Therefore ... it's all about the numbers. What you need to do to succeed is simple (sort of). Get your art in front of enough people and/or in front of whoever the "right" people are, and those people will pay attention to your art, some of them will buy it, and you will see income. Do this well enough and you can succeed very well.
Collector Dana Martin Davis pointed out to me in a webinar that there isn't really an "artworld." Instead there are many different art villages. For example, working with galleries is one art village, alternatively not working with galleries, or working solely with art consultants, or pursuing large-scale public art commissions, or seeking grants or exhibiting at street fairs or applying to juried competitions are all other art villages.
As an artist it behooves you to figure out what art village (or villages) you are in and what art village(s) you want to be in, and once you have, then navigate to where you want to be.
Separate Your Vision from Your Strategy
Vision is the stuff that is non-negotiable: the substance of your art; the reason you create; the core values that you express; the essence of what makes you different than everyone else.
Honor your vision. Accept it. Hone it. Own it.
Strategy is everything else: all the things that are negotiable, like size, price, color, frame or no frame, and all the tactics that you use to get your art out into the world.
This book accepts your vision and is all about strategy; what serves you and your art to get you the success you want; and how you function and work to get your art to take care of you.
If your art career is not where you want it to be, it is time to change what you've been doing. This does not mean altering your vision. By definition, your vision is awesome. It is, however, time to alter, or create, a winning strategy.
The Top 3 Criteria for Success
Since the reason people like, appreciate, and buy art is totally subjective, the quality of your art is not the number one criterion in determining its success, but it is still important. You should always strive to make excellent art, with materials you are proud of, in a manner that is true to your vision. People will recognize the pursuit of quality and appreciate it. Quality makes a significant difference. The quality of your art is the third most important factor in determining your success.
Second most important is making distinctive art. Make art that resonates with who you are. Make art that comes from within. Make art that is personal and comes from your soul. Make art that you are proud of. It is foolish to make art that too much resembles someone else's. The point is to get attention for what you are doing and not to have your efforts promote someone else. Be who you are. Be proud. Do it with conviction.
What's most important for a visual artist is to grow your community. Be a solid proponent of art and artists you believe in. Success in the artworld, like so many other places and things, is about relationships, getting involved, helping others, and growing a scenario whereby others want to help you.
Attention spans aren't all that long anywhere. If people are going to act on your artwork — to own it, or exhibit it, or write about it — they need to think of it. They need to see reminders periodically.
Making good art in your studio is a prerequisite, but it is not sufficient to enable good things to happen. Good things happen because you take the initiative, because you are engaged, because someone wants to be nice to you, or because they've come to understand your visual vocabulary and are excited about it.
Success is totally available to you. It only appears difficult because the guidelines aren't apparent, and because art schools haven't figured out the relevance of really teaching these guidelines well.
It's only difficult until you grasp it. This book is filled with "aha" moments, when you realize that success isn't hard, but that it does take effort and perseverance. And when you start — or more effectively — take responsibility for your success, doors open; art gets shown, seen, written about, exhibited, and paid for.
The Art Rules. We are all at its mercy, but there are also art "rules," pretty much unwritten, but over time, and with consistency, they are the conventions that shape the artworld and determine how one navigates their way to success. This book demystifies the process and shows you how to succeed.
Let's get started!CHAPTER 2
On Being an Artist
It's difficult being an artist. There are no written rules, lots of different role models, a propensity to go it alone, and the necessity of growing one's own support community. Lots of you work in isolation, yet share common challenges. You want to spend as much time as possible in the studio and also know damn well that you've got to get out of the studio if you are going to generate any substantial results.
Being an artist is full of dichotomies and you've got to have the strength of character to follow your own vision and muse.
Lots of people advise artists to find another career if you possibly can. Most artists I've interviewed tell me they knew they'd be an artist from a very young age — as if it was predetermined and they didn't have any choice. Jerry Saltz says:
I always tell students, whatever you do, do not be an artist unless you absolutely positively have to be an artist. No one tells you this, but it's almost horrifying how much time you're going to spend alone. It's a nightmare. Art takes you away from yourself, of course, and it brings you to yourself. It's a bridge to something else.
There tends to be two different trajectories that successful people take — often beyond their control. The first is a meteoric rise followed by the inevitable effort to hold on. Think perhaps of Jedd Garet, Julian Schnabel, Tracey Emin, and Jean Michel Basquiat. The second trajectory is slower and more consistent, perhaps never really peaking, but steadily growing. Think Brice Marden, Robert Stackhouse, Jun Kaneko, Laura Letinsky, and Dawoud Bey. For most of us contributing to or reading this book the second path is more likely. This book is about the career of being an artist.
Vision vs. Strategy
I advise artists to distinguish between Vision and Strategy.
Vision relates to the non-negotiable core issues, the raison d'être of being an artist, the compulsion to create and the content you embrace.
Strategy is everything else. How big you make your art, its price, frame or no frame, edition size, galleries you associate with, or not, people in your support group, how often you get out of the studio, how you speak about your art, and on and on.
This book is about strategy: the strategy of creating a successful and fulfilling art career. Here's a clue. Be Creative. Apply the same creativity to your career that you do to your art. Consider what Michelle Grabner observes:
I would say that after school is where I figured out how to manage a studio, how to think about materials and appropriate language to what I was thinking. But it didn't happen in school. I don't think that's very uncommon and I think that's often the case.
Ultimately, it's all about the numbers. You don't need to be on the cover of a national magazine to thrive. But you do need to get your art in front of enough people so that you grow a sufficient following to support your vision. Jerry Saltz said:
Robert Ryman and Cy Twombly existed for the first 30 years of their careers on seven people buying their work. You only need to convince one dealer, nine collectors, four critics, and two curators. That's all. You don't need so many goddamn people.
It's easy for artists to focus on the immediacy of their next work of art, or perhaps even the next body of art, but it's also imperative to think about where you want to be in ten years and then ask yourself what needs to happen in five to be on track. Look at the big picture periodically and ask yourself where you want to go and how it's going. This doesn't need to be a belabored exercise, just a recurring awareness of the bigger picture. What serves your objective? What's extraneous? Theaster Gates puts the bigger picture in perspective:
If I were to ask myself, "What's at stake in being an artist?" I would say that I want to make my work, I want the respect of my peers, a little bit of shine every once in a while, and somebody to smile, or a pretty girl or nice guy say, "Theaster, I heard you gave that talk that was really nice, please come to my gallery opening." That kind of shared comradeship is important. And then, you want to make some money if you can. But if that's the case, there are so many ways you can do that, and you don't necessarily need to do that with a museum. There are other venues for cultural production that could be equally satisfying, and that could take advantage of the big city.
One's engagement with their "job" is different for an artist than more traditional occupations. An artist needs to be honest, insightful, and vulnerable 24 hours a day. The vulnerability is about the necessity to look within yourself and find the relevant personal issues that you're compelled to address in order to get to the central resonating issues that draw people to your work. If you are an accountant or a lawyer, the same kind of honesty and vulnerability are not required. They just put their uniform on and go to work, and at the end of the day they can return to being themselves. For an artist, there is no façade, no hiding, and no pretending. There's much more risk in being an artist as John Fraser points out:
Teachers talk about this issue of risk and taking chances, and developing skill — that never changes. Even when you're out of school you've got to constantly take chances and push. But then you get to the point where you reach a clearing of sorts, or a level territory, and you have to commit to what you've already started. That's a point where you really take the risk.
Often artists see themselves as loners, but there are many common traits that artists share. To focus on what you have in common with others enables you to work cooperatively for mutual benefit. Clearly there's reciprocity. It is not just about what you can get. It's also about what you can give. I've learned a lot from Dawoud Bey, who says:
Form a community, don't network. I don't want people to network. I want people to form a community with me. Forming a community implies something a little more authentic, meaningful, and that you're forming a mutual support network. You're supporting others, others are supporting you, and you help each other get wherever it is you're trying to get.
You have to have authentic relationships. You have to. Even when you're being persistent, you have to be graceful. No one is going to show your work because you're a persistent asshole. They might show your work if you're persistent and graceful. It's up to you to know the difference.
The Three C's of Being an Artist
I learned about the three C's from Jason Middlebrook: Content, Composition, and Context. For many artists the first two are sufficient. They just want to do their own thing, make their own art, and pursue their own vision, essentially not paying attention to the larger world and its issues. And that's fine:100 percent acceptable. They can achieve success. They can make money. They can have a satisfying career.
But for many — both artists and mere mortals — there's more. There's the larger dialog: the question of where we fit in the world and what we can do to make it a better place. How do we contribute to making a larger difference? That's where Context comes into play.
Important for anyone, including artists, to comprehend Context is to understand and appreciate the antecedents: those who've come before us, those who have shaped and enabled the path we walk. How can we build on the foundation given us if we don't know what it is? It is imperative to understand the contribution of artists who have worked in a similar medium or aesthetic.
That means painters must know about painters, photographers about photographers, and Minimalists about Minimalism. We do not exist in a vacuum.
There is a conversation going on. If you want to shape history, and to be relevant, you've got to comprehend the bigger picture.
Bey nails it when he says:
Our work is part of a much larger conversation, a conversation with the entire history of art making up to that point, a conversation with other objects that are related by genre or material or form to your work. You have to be aware of how your work contributes to that conversation.
It's not just a question of making good work because you like it, but good work because it contributes something to this conversation that is going on, whether you're aware of that conversation or not. People that you're showing your work to are highly aware of that conversation — it's the field that they work in. This notion of your work in relation to other work that's being made is hugely important: to have some highly critical notion of how your work engages in a conversation with other work that's going on at the same moment.
To be a meaningful artist is a perpetual challenge. It is not just a matter of making pretty pictures. At some point that may be the genesis, just like when a proud parent shows me an attractive drawing made by their precocious ten-year-old. That's nice. But that doesn't an artist make.
Look at yourself. Where are you? What do you want to do? Where do you want to be?
Collector Dana Martin Davis reminded me that there really isn't an artworld per se, but that there are layers upon layers of art villages: different levels and ways of engaging with and interacting with art. Think about what's right for you. Ignore others' value judgments. Find your own truth and pursue it vigorously.
For Wesley Kimler it is clear. How about you?