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 Be prepared to be unpopular, unclassifiable and perhaps even out-of-date in terms of what others (and this includes the market) desire of your art.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

 

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After Wikipedia, what I got when I googled “self-esteem” is a site called Psych Central. Here’s their opener on the subject:

Have you wondered about what self-esteem is and how to get more of it? Do you think your self-esteem is low? Do you know how to tell? Do you know what to do about it?

We’ve been gnawing on this bone for a long time. Publishers have churned out mountains of books on self-esteem. It’s made careers, and filled thousands of hours of therapy and television—a slew of anxieties and adorations around the holy grail of liking ourselves better.

But for all the wringing of hands, money spent, the talking and toil, the search has flopped. People aren’t wiser or happier for it. Except for maybe the advice peddlers. At least they’re richer.

But what about artists? That’s a vocation where getting your self-esteem pummeled is pretty well the norm. When you’re not being ignored completely, rejection notices arrive in steady parades. Aside from those, the attention you do get—unless you’re a commercial success—often takes a peculiar form: rancorous questions and insinuations about the utility, if not very point, of what you’re doing. And speaking of money, unless you chose your parents wisely or you’re a star (just room for a few of those), there’s the matter of never having enough of it.

With all that to navigate—and look forward to—wouldn’t at least a small injection of self-esteem be helpful for artists? Instead of long days and nights of self- and other-inflicted beatings, mightn’t a shot of I’m-okay-and-maybe-sometimes-even-a-little-bit-better-than-that be just the thing to spur artists on? Wouldn’t liking ourselves more help us push out a few more words, verses, pictures, or notes?

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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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Pictures of My Mother

March 16, 2013 — 12 Comments
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Portrait, Frances Rodick (Red Pearls)
©2012, Frank Rodick
Archival pigment print, 100 x 82 cm / 40 x 32 inches

Last September, Irina Chmyreva, who curated my exhibition Faces Interred, asked me to write something about some of that show’s work. I usually hate artist’s statements, so I tried to write something different. This post is a reprint of what I wrote.

If you want to see a complete set of the images I’m talking about, along with details, click here.

When artists write about their own work, what they usually come up with is an explanation or interpretation. They—we—try to answer the question What’s this work really all about?

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With his irreverent book Half Empty, David Rakoff made me laugh. Out loud and lots. But he also explained, succinctly and in his unique way (here insert adult content warning), what being an artist is really about (the italics are mine):

… hanging out can be marvellous. But hanging out does not make one an artist. And secondhand wardrobe does not make one an artist. Neither do a hair-trigger temper, melancholic Continue Reading…