Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Why did you become an artist?

Here’s what I asked artists:  
Last Saturday the New Museum organized a panel discussion titled YTJ: Then and Now: Redefining Generations. On the panel were Carroll Dunham, Joan Jonas, and Mira Schor -- all mature, established artists. They said (and I've since confirmed it with with many friends that teach) that kids coming out of art schools today expect to exhibit right away and make money as artists. It got me thinking that their motivation for becoming an artist must be very different in some ways than mine and my generation of artists. So, to do a very unscientific sampling: why did you become an artist? 
I got back about 40 responses to this query. The great majority said they felt they had no choice. They made things since they were little and sort of fell into it; or they felt compelled to (some actually used the word “addiction,”); and many came to it by default -- because they were good at art but weren’t good at anything else. Of course there were other reasons -- a very few said they chose art because it was a noble thing to do, and a few said they always were artists. Chance probably plays a big part in decisions all young people make about what occupation to pursue -- but I think artists may be unique in that so many believe they had no choice. And, in spite of the rosy expectations young people have about art as a career, I suspect most of them also feel they have no choice. Here are some insightful and articulate responses:  

From Marianne Fourie:
Call me artist I've been reading some of the replies you got and must say I find a couple of them puzzling, especially those from artists who say that they have 'always been' artists. You also think that young artists who are fresh out of art school and who expect to exhibit and earn money from their art have different motivations for becoming artists than you and your generation had. I don't think their motivations necessarily have anything to do with their expectations.

So here's what I do think: To me, ‘artist’ describes what you do in life rather than some inherent, innate quality you have as a person. You can be born creative, but I don't think you are an artist from birth. I think the visceral nature of what for want of a better term I will call the 'career choice' of art confuses the issue for a lot of people.

The term ‘artist’ has become complex and it has a lot to do with the rapid changes in the visual arts over the past century and a quarter. The world of visual art today is completely open-ended. There exists no intellectually decent normative description of what art is. The art world has generally rejected any limitations to what can be labeled 'art'. This is an excellent thing for all artists because it opens up infinite creative possibilities. If I call something 'art', then it is art; if I say 'I'm an artist', then I am one.

Ironically, this has made it more difficult for many artists to appropriate the term for themselves. Because of a perception of the open-endedness of the art world as being a policy of ‘anything goes’, of complete relativity, a kind of resistance has grown to the appropriation of the term. Because anyone can call themselves an artist, the term 'artist' has become laden with all kinds of profound meaning to give it value in the eyes of others.

I have met several artists - and one of the comments written to you by an artist illustrates this - who say they had trouble calling themselves 'artist', probably because calling oneself an artist is seen as the attribution of some kind of hallowed status. I’ve experienced this myself. When I started off as an artist and told one young person that that was what I was, she said to me "You shouldn't say you're an 'artist', you should say 'I make art'". Now this is not because she believed that nobody had the right to call themselves an artist; she just decided that me calling myself so was pretentious on my part. I found it strange considering that nobody had ever corrected me before when I said that I was a journalist or a teacher, two professions I've been in. It would be silly to say 'I do journalism' or 'I do teaching' because one is too coy to say 'I'm a journalist' or 'I'm a teacher'. It should be the same for artists.

When we decide to become artists, and we do decide to do so, we shouldn't be afraid to name what we are. I don't know of any other profession outside of the arts where saying you are something, makes you it. When you call yourself a banker, it is most certainly because you completed a degree in Finance and are employed and paid a salary by a bank. I don't have a university degree in art and I certainly don't draw a salary from any institution which names me as an employee 'artist'. And yet I feel it safe to say I am one. This makes me both very lucky and very unlucky, as I'll explain.

As I've pointed out, the term 'artist' carries a value judgment, which, of course, is not unusual. All words have connotations, whether positive or negative, and a specific connotation can be held by a very few individuals or have a broad social hold. It can be deeply ingrained or based on an ephemeral impression. When you say ‘doctor’, people, depending on their experiences and cultural and social backgrounds, will have different pictures come to mind. But I don’t think that any doctor will say of another doctor, as I’ve heard artists say of other artists, “X is not a doctor.” They might say “X is not a good doctor” but unless the doctor has forged her/his diplomas, the question of legitimacy isn’t raised.

It would be useful for all of us artists to use the term ‘artist’ as neutrally as possible and this means coming to terms with the issue of money. I think we should look at artists in the same way as we look at, say, bankers. No, seriously. The word ‘artist’ should be accorded to all who claim it but nothing stops us from evaluating the worth of what an artist does, just as the work people do in other professions is judged. There are good bankers and there are bad bankers. Anybody who calls themselves an artist is one, and that is where we are unique. But there are good artists and mediocre artists and bad artists. We can all have many different criteria for deciding what makes an artist 'good', 'bad' or ‘mediocre’ and some will probably say that deciding what makes an artist good relies far more on subjective judgment than what makes a banker good.

And the question of ‘worth’ becomes a very thorny issue for artists when it refers to material worth. Unfortunately, society in general tends to measure success in earned wealth. Rich equals good in many minds. Money as a measure of value is an issue in all professions, not only in the arts. Possibly, there is more subtlety in a value judgment of 'good art' than of 'good banking' and certainly, far more factors come into play in such a judgment, but it isn’t true when money is the measure. Does reaching the highest position in a financial institution and drawing an astronomical salary make one a ‘good’ banker. Considering the role of some of these bankers in the fall of the economy, it would be silly to say ‘yes’. Can all the bankers who made wise investment decisions which took long term results into account please raise their hands? They probably never made the Forbes billionaires list but their choices could qualify them as ‘good’ bankers.

Perhaps because of the speculative nature of the art world in financial terms and the impossibility of having objective measures by which to qualify art as ‘good’, ‘rich artist = good artist’ is also an equation that artists are confronted with. I have often been asked how much money I make or how many pieces I’ve sold by people who are not involved in art in any way. It's one way for them to determine whether I’m a ‘good’ artist, or even a 'real' artist, in the absence of any objective proof.

Much as I dislike this attitude and find it offensive, I feel it is less dangerous than the one that posits that to be an artist you have to accept poverty as the price to pay for your choice in the sense that the sacrifice is a moral necessity rather than an acceptance of the real state of the art market. I find that voluntary poverty smacks too much of asceticism. And asceticism comes with the notion of sacrifice for some higher good or some moralistic purpose.

That art school graduates expect to exhibit straightaway and make money as artists seems to me to be sweetly unrealistic but does not make me question their motivations for becoming artists. There may be a few deluded people who decide to become artists because they think they will become rich, but they can only be few and far between and possibly clinically insane. However, I see nothing wrong morally with hoping to make a living out of a career choice, even if that career choice is art. And there are a few people who actually do make good money out of their art, though they are aberrations in the world of art where even artists who have achieved critical acclaim, are represented by well-known galleries and whose work is in museum collections still have day jobs.

In what way can the motivations of young artists be called into doubt because they feel they are entitled to earn money like anybody else who chooses and starts a profession? Only if one sees art as a calling, much like the one a missionary receives from some higher being, to give up all material pretensions and march off into the wilderness to convert the unbelieving. I understand that many artists feel that they were answering some kind of call to become an artist, that they felt they were ‘different’ or ‘outsiders’ and that they didn’t fit in with mainstream expectations of what they should be. But we are doing ourselves a disservice by setting ourselves up as beings who should be entirely unmaterialistic. It means that the term ‘artist’ takes on either quasi-religious undertones or the vision of the artist as mad-and-solitary-genius which makes it a heavy one to attribute to oneself.

We can’t stop other people seeing artists a certain way, but I certainly think we can stop making it more difficult for each other to call ourselves artists. We can use all kinds of adjectives to categorize artists: professional, amateur, hobby, graphic, part-time, full-time, etc. We can make art that is mystical and transcendental without having to set ourselves up as mystics or gurus. Let’s leave the value judgment for the work itself, whatever we choose those criteria for judgment to be.  

From Kenneth Garber:
Wow, what a question. There are so many possible answers. The one that comes first to mind is that I was young and innocent enough to believe I could pursue an activity that gave me more pleasure and emotional/intellectual engagement than anything else I had ever come across, and that I could actually support myself doing so. I was also lucky enough to come of age at a time when there was enough general societal affluence to encourage such a belief.

I'm not sure that I ever thought I could support myself simply by making art. I always assumed that I would have to teach in order to have the financial security that was very important to me. Having grown up in a working class family in which financial concerns were often an issue, the idea of being a "starving artist" held no particular appeal. I guess it would be fair to say that my love of making art was counter-balanced by my perceived security needs.

It's also true that working as an artist was a kind of play for me. I can't say that I ever had any grand ideas to express, or had any major artistic ambitions. I simply loved to watch and respond as an idea for some object emerged in my imagination and then became flesh, so to speak, as I worked with my media. I think that when I gave myself permission to become an artist rather than an art historian, I was also giving myself permission to be more authentically who I am. In Joseph Campbell's terminology, I was giving myself permission to "follow my own bliss." That's what I thought I was doing at the time anyway.

So the short answer to your question is that I was following my bliss. The fact that I could in no way describe the past 40 years as unmitigated bliss does not make me regret the choice I made. I have had more moments of meaningful engagement as an artist than I can imagine ever having had doing anything else. It turns out that bliss is a moving target.

I hope that this answer hasn't been too long. I'm more used to surveys with little bubbles set in columns labeled "strongly agree", "somewhat agree", "strongly disagree", etc. This has been a kind of free verse survey.  

From Meredith Lippman:
I wanted to create something magnificent and uniquely me visually. I also felt that art meshed both my mind and my hands and gave me a sense of individuality, independence and challenge.

By the way if you had just paid out over $160,000 for undergrad and another $60K + for grad school, you also would want to hit it big and exhibit quickly. That might have something to do with it. Then there's always the discussion about Saatchi and what he has done to the "art market" and youthful star making.

Actually, I think these are exciting times for art - fast and furious.

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