On following art

Last December, art world power couple Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz visited the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to give a talk about art and making one's way as an artist. Smith has been an art critic with The New York Times for nearly three decades, and Saltz is senior art critic for New York Magazine. I was searching for this talk because I vaguely remembered a wonderful quote from it in which Saltz addresses artists and the role of money and envy in the art world: "Stop feeling deprived — this is an all-volunteer army. If you don't like it, the door is right there. You can get out."

That pretty much sums up Saltz's persona as art critic; he has amassed a following for his straightforward, no-holds barred criticism, especially with an energetic, blunt style of micro-criticism on social media, which has reached the skeptical, up-and-coming Millennial art guard.

When I searched for snippets of the conversation online, I was looking for some Saltz blatancy to reinforce some convoluted point I was going to make on this blog about how art is work, being an artist is hard, and blah blah blah (not that any of that is untrue). In fact, in art criticism, and in the art world at large (they are nearly one and the same), it's essentially taken for granted that artists are simply always... around. Making art. Being artists. Because that's what they do. What it takes to be an artist, or how difficult it is, or what it took for that painter to get their work up at that gallery is usually glossed over or ignored altogether, unless the story itself is sensational in some way. In fact, the art world at its most capitalistic and vainglorious simply assumes that artists, and by extension their artwork, simply appear like tiny, colorful electrons and neutrons, bouncing around trying to form molecules, which in turn might turn into some sort of atomic disruption (ie. big sales at auction, or a black sheep blockbuster solo show). That is, if the conditions are right. And by Conditions, I actually mean a singular thing: the market. It's the market that is impacted by taste, trends, money, and power.

Keeping it real, Saltz put it this way: 

Right now, people don't understand art. They understand movies, TV, they understand Kim Kardashian — sadly they all understand money. And unfortunately we sort of do too, so whenever money is brought up, there's an odd sour taste in the mouth, because right now, while most of the world is very poor, the art world is partying down. We want you [artists] to have a piece of that action, but we don't want you to end up bitter, cynical, weird because you're not making money. Because only 1 percent of 1 percent of artists make that kind of shitload of money. And will you? Probably not!

That being said, I was swayed to write along a different vein when I ran across Smith's counterpoint to Saltz's assumption that artists will be artists. To be fair, I'm sure the audience was chock full of would-be artists, but in a wider context, to the creatives of the world, Smith's advice is worth cataloging:

You don't have to be artists. I would say that if there's anything else you can do, if there's anything you can do other than being an artist, do it. Being an artist is hard, and being a good artist is especially hard. A lot of people, when they start out young, they think, 'I love art, so I must be an artist.' That's not necessarily true, it's more complicated than that. The artist is the romantic persona, the most visible or most popular persona. But if you go with art, you have to be willing to follow it. And if art takes you somewhere other than being an artist, you have to follow it.

This struck me for a number of reasons:

1. Being an artist is hard

Anyone can go to school for art, or take workshops, or apprentice with other artists. But being an artist is an entirely different ballgame. It's exceedingly difficult to make a living by making art. It's incredibly rare these days that anyone sits alone in a studio, cranking out masterpieces that are sold before they are created. Today, artists make their living by teaching, working the lecture circuit, exhibiting their work as much as humanly possible, working commissions and the "bread and butter"--all to be able to make the work they really want to make. It's a lot of work. That's why it's called artwork.

2. Being a good artist is especially hard

I could start doling out quotes from Kant's Aesthetic Judgment, but I'll spare you. What does being "a good artist" even mean? This is one of those bizarre, almost nonsensical, purely subjective statements that the art world assumes as truth. By this, I mean that the Conditions (ie. the money) essentially decides what is good and what is bad. It always has. When it comes to "making it" as an artist, unfortunately, it's about what other people like. That is, if you want to sell your work. If you're the rare breed that does it for yourself and yourself alone, then ignore all of this. Do what you do. But DON'T curry your work to the market. DO be aware of how your work fits into your market. Because your market might not be New York or London. Mostly, being a good artist means working your ass off (all the time), responding positively to feedback and criticism, and finding a way to make your art good. See? Good is good. Totally makes sense....

3. If you go with art, you have to be willing to follow it

Because it sure as hell won't follow you.

4. If art takes you somewhere other than being artist, you have to follow it

I entered undergrad as a fine art major. I wanted to be a painter. But a few semesters in, with several drawing and painting classes under my belt, I realized I was already burning out. I was trying to force it. I desperately wanted to be cool, and all the cool kids were art kids. Sure, I could draw and paint pretty well, but the inspiration wasn't there, and forcing the issue was killing all creative drive. So I switched to art history, ostensibly at the time for "better career prospects." (Snort.) Rewind to 2008 when I graduated with an art history degree, and zero experience, at the big, fat beginning of an economic recession when even a corporate coffee shop decided they couldn't hold onto me.

But fast forward a few years to Edinburgh, UK when I finally pursued a graduate degree in art history (following passions and all that) and in the meantime learned that the only way I would be able to do exactly what I wanted to do, and be a part of what I wanted to be a part of, was to do it myself. Three years ago, I wouldn't have imagined that my interest in art would take me in the direction it has. But I had to let go of the idea that being an artist was for me. It might never be. Smith's comments are a friendly reminder that art is what you make it, and if I ever say that something should be done for the sake of Should, then someone please kick me. The only reason art and making and projects should ever happen is because they have to. Art simply must be, and be what it must.


Ellen Siebers

Ellen Siebers

Artists to watch: If It Bends It's Funny (If it breaks it's not funny)

Artists to watch: If It Bends It's Funny (If it breaks it's not funny)