In the recently published Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, 36 artists offer their insights and advice on becoming and being an artist. It’s a terrific book and I recommend it to any artist regardless of what stage they’re at in their career. From my first reading, one artist—Stephanie Syjuco—stood out with what she had to say. So, I thought to share with you some of her most memorable words. The following quotation is from her open letter that begins “Dear Art Student / Recent Grad / Young Artist / Prospective Artist / Colleague.” This entreaty is Syjuco’s very first point:
1. STOP MAKING ‘ART’ AND START MAKING YOUR WORK.
This is at the top of the list for a reason—namely, because it’s so easy to make things that look like art, act like art, get sold like art, yet in the end aren’t really art, but are phantoms, mere commodities or quantifiable, digestible sound bites. And unfortunately, you’ll be encouraged to do this. In general, these are the things that art schools and the art world push you to make because they’re legible and can be spoken of in ways that make sense to everyone: collectors and curators alike. This ‘art’ has the correct visual markers and can slip easily into exhibitions and catalogue entries. At first, it seems really exciting to play this game, and it could get you a lot of mileage if you play it right, but in the end, these are really boring things that don’t have a lot of depth to them. Try to resist this approach, because it’s unsatisfying in the long run. Be prepared to be unpopular, unclassifiable and perhaps even out-of-date in terms of what others (and this includes the market) desire of your art. You’re in this for the long haul and in the end it’s you who has to live with what you produce as your work.
In a footnote, Syjuco adds:
Interestingly, you’ll get double points if you ‘represent’ a certain gender/ethnic group/nationality/class background. I’m not saying that these aren’t valid and urgent topics to tackle in your work. I’m just warning you to be wary about how you’re being asked to ‘perform’ this subjectivity within the art world, because it’s not as much about you as you think, but about you as an idea that serves an accepted function of discourse. And I’m not sure that’s what you really had in mind when you set out to make the work.
I think the whole thing is insightful but this line is so good it bears repeating: Be wary about how you’re being asked to ‘perform’ this subjectivity within the art world, because it’s not as much about you as you think, but about you as an idea that serves an accepted function of discourse.
Artists, too often and too easily, fall into believing the (flattering) self-image of being against-the-grain free thinkers. The reality is that the art world—like any social system—has a definite grain, a seductive one at that. It’s littered with narrow-mindedness and bias. And like any system, these thought processes, and the institutions that support them, reinforce the status quo in that world with all kinds of reward structures.
Exhausting it may be, but it’s our job to question everything—ourselves and our institutions, some of which may be near and dear to our hearts and personal histories. They may even be giving us a pat on the back, or even a buck or two, from time to time.
So, as Stephanie Syjuco says, be careful. Be wary. Stop making ‘art’—phantoms, commodities, sound bites—and start making your work.
Quotations from Stephanie Syjuco, from the book Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life, published by Phaedon.
Image: pearlblossom Highway #2, David Hockney