Friday, January 21, 2011

A Better Way to Jump the Shark

copyright Hannah Phelps
View from Robert's House
oil on canvas, 6" x 12"

Quite a few months ago, a friend invited me to attend a panel discussion with her. The event, entitled “Surviving and Thriving in the Art World”, included some of New Hampshire’s best known artists, a gallery owner and a museum curator - all individuals I consider successful in their fields. If they were going to divulge their secrets to success in the art world, I was interested.

The moderator led the discussion with a pretty general question: “What is your number one advice for artists?”

The answer was a very long conversation between two of the panelists, a well-respected painter and the museum curator, about how horribly unfair the “art world” is and how hard it is for an artist to get their work noticed because of the skewed definition of what “art” is these days exemplified by the formaldehyde shark piece by Damien Hirst

I was feeling inspired already.

Then some of the other artists recounted their early days when they had no health insurance and wondered how they were going to feed their children. Teachers and school systems were blamed for not adequately educating children about the value of art. And then more depressing stories about rejection, lack of funds and horrible day jobs to earn any money at all (including hated teaching gigs).

There was a tiny mention of committing to your craft and keeping the passion for what you do to sustain you through the tough times.

Then some more talk about the formaldehyde shark and sensationalism replacing serious works of art in museums, galleries and public spaces, making it hard for a real artist to scrape out a living.

You don’t want to end an evening like this on the wrong note, after all.

I am not going to tell you who any of these people were or where the panel was located. I respect all of them and the work that they do. And, in my personal experience with many of them, they are nice, generous folks. But they disappointed me that evening.

I don’t need to go out of my way to have a debate about what art is or isn’t or who should get public funding and who shouldn’t or any other related topic. 
I hang out with artists all the time. I can have this conversation all day, everyday with a very willing audience. I know where to find the blogs and websites devoted to this very issue - those that find no value in the type of work I do because it is unimaginative and “too easy” to “copy” my environment and those that rage against all the conceptual, post-modern “crap” that demeans Art and steals resources from “real artists”.

And you know what? I spend zero time looking at those sites, reading any articles about any of this or engaged in conversations about the definition of “art”.

Do I think that a lot of people are spending too much money on terrible art? 
Yeah, I really do. Do I care? Not really. Anyone who is going to spend millions of dollars on rotting food sculptures, portraits made out of found heroin needles or toilet installations probably wouldn’t buy one of my landscapes anyway. That type of art enthusiast usually doesn’t respect the work I create any more than I would want a tour of their personalized collection.

The art world has split in two. That other half has nothing to do with me, so I don’t pay any more attention to it than I do golf tournaments, NASCAR or entertainment “news”.

It is easy to sit around and blame a corrupt and unfair system full of ignorance and spite for your lack of success. In any field. 
It is harder to ignore all that buzz, find the individuals and communities who will appreciate you and your work, and get down to business. You can spend your energy getting upset about a $12 million dollar dead shark at the Met. I have art to make.


Christine Marx said...

Bravo! Well said.

Hannah Phelps said...

Thanks, Christine.

I admit, it felt good to get it out!

Hannah said...

I enjoyed reading your rant Hannah. It's all too easy to use the public venue as a means for airing frustration, disappointment and anger. But, how about the alternative question. How, now can we move forward to support each other as artists in what ever medium we choose to employ? (But, I agree, I'm not much for some of the materials you mentioned.)

Hannah Phelps said...

That was more of what I was hoping for, Hannah. I thought we would learn how to "thrive" no matter what type of creative work we did. I wasn't expecting a small war :)

I have to believe that there is room for all of us to do what we are interested in doing. The rest will work itself out, I hope.