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Pearls from artists* # 433

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving. VIGIL: Jenny Holzer and @creativetime

Chatting with Jenny Holzer.  It looks like she did not want her picture taken, but she was actually waiving.

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

…Two positions exist, the artistic and the commercial.  Between these two an abiding tension persists.  The eighteenth-century American painter Gilbert Stuart complained, “What a business is that of portrait painter.  He is brought a potato and is expected to paint a peach.”  The artist learns that the public wants peaches, not potatoes.  You can paint potatoes if you like, write potatoes, dance potatoes, and compose potatoes, you can with great and valiant effort communicate with some other potato-eaters and peach-eaters.  In so doing you contribute to the world’s reservoir of truth and beauty.  But if you won’t give the public peaches, you won’t be paid much.

Repeatedly artists take the heroic potato position.  They want their work to be good, honest, powerful – and only then successful.  They want their work to be alive, not contrived and formulaic.  As the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch put it:  “No longer shall I paint interiors, and people reading, and women knitting.  I shall paint living people, who breathe and feel and suffer and love.”

The artist is interested in the present and has little desire to repeat old, albeit successful formulas.  As the painter Jenny Holzer put it, “I could do a pretty good third generation-stripe painting, but so what? 

The unexpected result of the artist’s determination to do his [sic] own best art is that he is put in an adversarial relationship with the public.  In that adversarial position he comes to feel rather irrational for what rational person would do work that’s not wanted? 

…Serious work not only doesn’t sell well, it’s also judged by different standards.  If the artist writes an imperfect but commercial novel it is likely to be published and sold.  If his screenplay is imperfect but commercial enough it may be produced.  If it is imperfect and also uncommercial it will not be produced.  If his painting is imperfect but friendly and familiar it may sell well.  If it is imperfect and also new and difficult, it may not sell for decades, if ever.

Ironically enough, the artist attempting serious work must also attain the very highest level of distinction possible.  He must produce Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov but not also The Insulted and Injured or A Raw Youth, two of Dostoevsky’s nearly unknown novels.  He is given precious little space in this regard.      

I daresay, this last is why I devote my life to creating the most unique, technically advanced pastel paintings anyone will see!

Eric Maisel, A Life in the Arts:  Practical Guidance and Inspiration for Creative and Performing Artists

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 11

Great Salt Lake

Great Salt Lake

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about.  It just seems to come with the territory.  But for some reason – self defense, perhaps – artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.

Romantic, but wrong.  The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision.In fact there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work.  The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.  One of the basic and difficult lessons  every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.  X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by over-painting the still wet canvas.  The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished  art.  The best you can do is make art you care about – and lots of it!

The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.  Of course once you’re famous, collectors and academics will circle back in droves to claim credit for spotting evidence of genius in every early piece.  But until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally.  Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your well being.  They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours – and this is something to be genuinely thankful for.  Yet however much they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world:  learning to make your work is not their problem.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Comments are welcome. 

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