Ken, my printmaking professor, was great because he’d often demonstrate what not to do. Much of the time, he didn’t do it on purpose. In showing how to clean up an inkwell, for example, he might fumble a putty knife or splash the mineral spirits. But the gaffs were common, and it taught you how to recover when you invariably made the same mistakes. More importantly, Ken’s teaching was infused with kindness and good humor, and his unconventional ways were ultimately effective and valuable.
I am a big proponent of artists setting goals and identifying role models: Who do you look up to and why? Are they successful? Happy? Do they treat people around them well? Do they look like they’re having fun? Identifying and answering these questions for yourself helps to shape a vision for the kind of life in the arts that you want to lead.
On occasion, there are opportunities to identify negative traits and behaviors that you would not like to emulate. Perhaps these come courtesy of an unscrupulous colleague, who abuses the art field’s unsanctioned nature to claim a status that wasn’t actually gained. Or maybe a supervisor whose treatment of colleagues is unethical or morale-killing.
I choose to view the art world as a series of communities populated by bright, hard-working individuals who are in it because they appreciate art and want to share their enthusiasm. There are, unfortunately, unsavory individuals who would prove me wrong.
In the book “Why Smart Executives Fail,” Sydney Finkelstein, of Dartmouth, observes that “spectacularly unsuccessful” people (mere failure doesn’t qualify; you have to wreak havoc and ruin lives) have certain traits in common. These people see themselves and their companies as “dominating their environments.” They demand total allegiance and have the answer to every problem. (James Surowiecki, “Local Zeroes,” New Yorker, March 28, 2005)
These people are exceptional. It’s up to the rest of us to minimize the damage they do, and to defend the perception of artists, arts workers and the art field. We do that by upholding our values, and being vigilant, accountable, and optimistic.