Some Advice for Artists

This is another transplant from my former blog. Enjoy!


A few things young artists and art students should think about when contemplating their career:

Do what you don’t like: an artist has two vital resources, imagination and skills. Building the latter is what enables an artist to express the former. If you don’t like to draw, then draw. If your work is strictly abstract, try life drawing. Having techniques at hand enable you to turn to whatever is needed to make a piece of art succeed. If the idea is there but it requires a skill you don’t have, what then? Learn photography if you’re not a photographer, learn to crochet if you’re not a yarnbomber. Learn to play the piano. Stay a student, even when you have become a teacher. In connection with that –

Imitate, then innovate. There is a school of thought that says looking at other artist’s works too often can contaminate your own imagination. Perhaps it is true, especially if your imagination is weak to begin with. But we live in a society that is saturated with images. They are inescapable. The idea of contamination has become a moot point. This is why copying is an important learning tool. I don’t mean quoting in the postmodern sense. It’s an exercise in understanding how artists arrive at conclusions. Perhaps making your own minimalist sculpture won’t teach you much about miminalism, but it could teach you something, which leads me to…

Read, but not too much. The second form of imitation is learning how an artist thinks. This is very hard to do. There are many books on art, and a plethora of magazines and blogs, but they are mostly concerned with art from the historian’s point of view, or the spectator’s. Most art magazines are written with curators, critics, and art lovers in mind. They can only scratch the surface of what it means to be making art – for a start, they focus primarily on already completed works, in which the possibilities have been narrowed down to certainties. You can do without 99% of the art writing produced; don’t hesitate to do so when you feel like it.

Learn the system, even if you hate it. As I wrote a long time ago, most artists don’t know how a museum or commercial gallery functions. Understanding this can help you make decisions about future steps in your career. Not every artist is cut out for a solo show at MoMA; some artists don’t even want one. But how such a thing happens (it’s not just who you know) can at least remove one obstacle. Yes, money plays far too large a part, and there is an intelligentsia that renders much of the art world class-bound. These barriers are overcome by artists regularly – just not that many artists. Rail against it, slander it, but if you know how it works you can also plan how to work against it.

Accept that you don’t control what other people think of your work. Perhaps they are philistines, or are only attracted to what someone else has already deemed “cool” or “cutting edge.” Or it might be that your work is just not their thing. Buddhists learn to let go of desire; cultivate this. And please understand the difference between desire and ambition. An artists can be committed to his/her own practice and belief without desire. It’s tricky, but worthwhile. In regards to interpretation, let that go, too. If they see rose petals where you were intending pure abstraction, why argue so long as they like it?

View success in personal, not professional, terms. Ultimately the artist is the arbiter of some aspects of success. Weekend painters who never intend to sell anything can be just as happy in their work as a world famous artist. An appreciative audience is all well and good, but a little dollop of selfishness is (in this case) not amiss. Believe in yourself and work toward your goals; whether the rest follows or not is not always relevant. Defining success is hard enough without making one such definition your life’s goal.


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