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Stop Making Art

May 29, 2016 — Leave a comment

hockney-pearblossom-highway

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 Be prepared to be unpopular, unclassifiable and perhaps even out-of-date in terms of what others (and this includes the market) desire of your art.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

 

 

Liquid City, Unitled no. 123, Frank Rodick

Liquid City: Untitled, no. 123
© Frank Rodick, 1999

 

…what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does…. 

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

— Charles Bukowski, from a 1986 letter to his publisher and benefactor, John Martin.

Read the entire letter, and some comments, here.

We are all potential Nazis in our desire to master the turmoil in ourselves and in the world. And we can triumph over the Nazi temptation only when we surrender to the turmoil that can never be mastered.

– Morgan Meis, “When Hitler Was Curator”

Many thanks to Morgan Meis who writes thoughtfully on The “Degenerate Art” exhibition at the Neue Galerie . . . and the human condition. Click here to read the whole thing. It’s worth your time.

Self-portrait by Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, murdered in 1943 at Sonnenstein Euthanasia Centre.

 

We are all going into the dark. Some of us hope that before we do we have been honest enough to scream back at the fates. Or if we never did it ourselves, that someone, derelict or poet, did for us once in some euphonic way our inadequate capacity for love did not deny our hearing.

—Richard Hugo, “The Triggering Town.”

With Thanks to Derelicts and Poets: A Short Prayer I Can Say Amen To

Samuel Beckett. Photograph by Mary Evans.

Maybe I lied. It’s not really a love letter. It’s a compliment.

It’s the best compliment ever paid to an artist.

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