September 13, 2011

Advice to a Young Artist

Recently, I had discovered a half brother, born to my father in a subsequent mariage. It's a huge and epic story, wonderful, and crushingly sad in that we had both lost a father together before we had an opportunity to connect within a physical presence of each other, all of us father and sons. It's also too personal to relate in its fullness at this time in my life, especially in a blog post.

Along the way via FaceBook, I "met" my half niece, daughter of my half brother. She wants to be an artist and she asked for advice. I answered. It was written on the fly and it needs refinement (I've nipped and tucked it along the way), but here is what I wrote in response:

Ok Heather. I can get a little long winded sometimes, I'll try to keep it short and break the answer up in posts.

There are three things that you can do immediately:
1) draw or otherwise make something every single day.
2) read history and theory
3) see art in museums, galleries and elsewhere
Drawing or otherwise making things. Drawing is a fundamental medium.

By drawing what you see before you, you can come to know the difference between what you think you see and what you actually see. You can appreciate how we configure in our minds, a schema of the world, and by becoming self aware, you can rebuild and refine it.

By drawing what you imagine, you can grow your ideas and build the power to imagine more and richly.

While drawing is fundamental, it is ultimately a beginning. There is recognized today a whole range of media from the traditional arts ("painting, sculpture, architecture", as I recall the words that are chiseled on the pediment of the Art Student's League, a famous art school in New York in the 40's-if my memory serves correctly), there are a multitude of media from video to dance, from printing to installations. Experiment with what intrigues you, with what challenges you. Expand your familiarity with as much as you can.

But do something every day no matter how small, or how brief the moment. Once you become unsatisfied by a day unfulfilled with a creative act, you are on the right track.

Get to know your history. Read as much of art history as you can. Start with your library and ransack the place, read everything they have on art. Get to know the biographies of your favorite artists, read them in depth and via several biographers.

To really know art history, you have to know it in context to world history. That way, the story of art can be made sensible, and you will see how naturally it came about in relation to the world as it changed around each artist. To become really well grounded in art and world history, you have to get familiar with the history of ideas, with philosophy. It will take a while to form a mental map of how all this will integrate, but in time you will appreciate your effort, I assure you.

The history of ideas will help you comprehend the argot of art theory. There is as much poppycock as gemstones intermixed in art theory, and if you aren't well prepared, you might get overwhelmed by the Alice in the Looking Glass aspect of it and discount it altogether.

Art theory is currency of what we call the art dialog. Art is about community as much as the other identifiers, and this is a good way to think about the art dialog. The term is written in a singular form, but it is really a plurality. There is no art dialog, there are art dialogs. Think of them as chat rooms. Each one dreams of being the top of the heap. And some are for a time and then another takes its' place. One place to find a dialog is in magazines such as Art Forum... but I hesitate to get much more specific than that. It's best if you tunnel into that world yourself, and articulate your own path.

Get out and see physical art. I don't know what is near you in this regard, but I know that St. Louis is the home of a few museums and private collections that I think might be available to the public. By getting face to face with art, you can understand scale, the "hand" (a tactile thing), how presentation helps or hurts art, the relation between the artist and the audience, stuff like that.

Every city that has something going on in terms of culture will tend to have art galleries. Like that there are many art dialogs, many kinds of artists, many kinds of art, there will be many kinds of art galleries. You have to get to see enough of them to discern the bad (disconnected from the art dialog) and the good (so connected). The cities in the states with a decent population of art galleries ranks like this: New York, LA, Chicago or Houston, San Francisco... and the list dwindles fast after that. Houston is excellent and near you, I think. Chicago too. If you get to make a road trip, be sure to check out the art schools in the area, poke around and sit in on a class if you get a chance.

But ...are you sure about being an artist?

It's an uncertain life. Risky. Many years ago when I was young, the choice was much more stark. The choice was between security and the life of manifesting one's vision. It still is, but today, security via a structured career in a larger entity (corporation/government/etc) is not so stable and sure. Risk has migrated to what was considered earlier safe and secure. Nowadays, a degreed credentialization from higher education is not always a path to a secure future. As universities have become alienated from the marketplace, they have been making promises that they can't keep in terms of careers. Trade schools have been getting more attention today because ultimately, acquiring skills (in other words, the capacity to do something that most cannot) has become a botom line that was earlier hidden in plain sight.

This idea of uniquely possessing skills in the conventional business world is parallel to the reality of the importance of uniquely possessing an aesthetic/conceptual/media expressant point of view within the context of the art world. When you come out of art school, you will know what everyone knows but only what everyone knows. Finally, the arc of the life of the celebrated artist is marked by the articulation of a uniquely insightful point of view. Risk has indeed migrated, but the arts will forever remain a riskier bet.

The idea of art is large and getting larger. Art of cooking, the art of war, "thinking out of the box" is another way of considering the role of "art "in business. The definition of art has been expanded a great deal. It's also wise to bear in mind that while creativity is critical in all business arenas, only the people near the top get to exercise it at scales as expansive as the narrow arena of "high art". Folks in the low rungs of General Motors are in the assembly line, it's only at the higher rungs that you get to make the call on the next model of automobiles.

I used to entertain the notion that I should first discourage young folks like you from being an artist in situations like this. As in Judaism or a Shaolin Temple, the initiate should first be discouraged and only after the evidence of demonstrated persistance, should the applicant be admitted into the ranks.

Are you sure? It can be hard. It can be disappointing. Destiny might require that you go to the bitter end to be true to your vision. Art implies an audience and recognition from the audience the measure of your success as an artist. When an artist pops out of school, the first prize to reach for is the nomination as the next wunderkund. Short of that, you shoot for recognition as the overlooked gemstone. Short of that you shoot for posthumous recognition, via the presumably undeniable physical evidence of one's oeuvre. For example: one of the greatest architects in Southern California was Irving Gill. He wa the absolute beginning of Modern Architecture in California, a real pioneer. He designed and built icons that should be preserved for eternity. He also died with a bag of avocados to his name, partial payment for a commission for a house he designed. Of the 25 or so students in my grad school graduating class, only a few continue to make art. I see artists struggle all the time, it can be brutal. Many of them are staggering under student loans, some are on unemployment, others get swept into the jobs they first used to service their art (with no shame intended in this description, we all have to do what we have to). Do you have what it takes to be an artist?

Are you sure?
Posted by Dennis at September 13, 2011 2:07 AM

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