Values, Meta-Practice

Only in an obfuscating art world does transparency seem radical

Some generative, collective thoughts for transparency and against competition.

Thinking about all the things that are supposed to go unspoken in the art world, and artists’ self-preservation, and how even a teeny bit of transparency can seem risky or radical in the obfuscating art world. Our battles seem so hard won, why share any insight with others? Exactly because none of this is easy. Info and access are the easy bits, relative to good work, persistence, and longevity.

“Every interaction involves a choice between collaboration and competition, and to what degree. Eventually you have to choose the world you want to live in.”

—TC

“So much of the way that the art world is structured favors competition. Grants are competitive. … Artists compete with artists–stealing ideas instead of sharing them, or using copyright laws to guard against thoughtful re-use. Artists compete for shows in a limited number of exhibition spaces instead of finding their own ways to exhibit outside of these competitive venues. Artists conceal opportunities from their friends as a way of getting an edge up on the capital-driven competition. … This is a treadmill made from decomposing shit that is so devoid of nutrients that even its compost won’t allow anything fresh to grow. We need something better to run on. … Working toward a global network where one creates opportunities and, in turn, can respond to limitless opportunities without the pressure to compete, allows for a more generous, diverse and open art practice.”

Marc Fisher (Temporary Services), “Against Competition,” Blunt Art Text #2, April 2006 via Stephanie Syjuco/Free Texts

 

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Meta-Practice

Be Here Now: Artists’ Majority Power

Lately among my colleagues, sharing information and support has been especially active and enjoyable. We usually send links to art opportunities,* and I’ve also been contributing ideas to CF’s curriculum. In a virtual book club, we share intellectual discourse as well as a sense of camaraderie.

I was reminded to be grateful for this generosity after hearing from a disenchanted colleague recently. He was frustrated and fatigued, but worst of all, he seemed to feel hopeless about his position in relation to the art world.

So many artists feel like there aren’t enough resources to go around; that we are all competing for a limited number of opportunities/commissions/gallery rosters/fashionably “in” careers as art stars, and only the already privileged, networked, and fashionable win. It’s true that the art world is structured so that it can’t accommodate all of the artists who would like to make art for a living. As an artist, the odds are that you win some, and lose most. Rejection is unavoidable, and it can result in

an increase in sadness, despair and hostility, and a decrease in self-esteem, belonging, sense of control and meaning in life

according to Todd Kashdan, George Mason University professor of psychology (“Understanding Rejection’s Psychological Sting,” Huffington Post, September 16, 2011). To counteract the effects of rejection, Kashdan suggests cultivating

those powerful human capacities for awareness, openness and compassion

As artists, we have to help each other. We’re in the best positions to understand what our peers are going through, and to hear of opportunities that might be perfect for a colleague. After participating in a public art program in Poland last year, a friend and I shared this year’s call, and colleague’s work was selected. A deserving artist and an interesting program connected.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #40, 2011, glitter gel pen on gridded vellum, 11x8.5".

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #40, 2011, glitter gel pen on gridded vellum, 11×8.5″.

People assume that optimism is simple minded, but it’s actually pessimism that’s all too easy. If you look for reasons to be cynical about the art world, it will provide in abundance. But if you cultivate optimism and enact your principles amongst your peers, I think it will be more rewarding ultimately. Cooperation, not competition, is the best approach for a life in the arts.

Disenfranchised artists might consider RY’s advice:

Pressure leads to perseverance; perseverance to character; character leads to courage; courage to hope.

Since my birthday, I’ve been grappling with a personal achievement gap of sorts—what I’ve done or am about to do, versus some ideas that drifted down from aloft like stray pigeon feathers about where my art career and personal life should be now.

Just like everybody else, artists can easily mistake career achievement for happiness. A lawyer might think, “I’ll be happy when I finally become a partner,” and artists might think, “I’ll be happy when I my career takes off.” The challenges of working day jobs to support art practice are in ample evidence in our daily lives, so we assume that selling enough art to live on will unlock a more authentic state of creative freedom.

But as AV pointed out (in a book club meeting!), art stars aren’t necessarily more free or happier. They may feel like sovereigns of mini-empires, compelled to pump out increasingly higher priced products in order to sustain multiplying sectors on organizational charts, while terrified by the thought of ceding relevance and influence to other artists.

Two ways of looking at the art world. Left: A conventional model where the majority of artists are struggling and strive to become a member of the tiny percentage of art stars. Right: A different perspective, extolling the  benefits of not being darlings of auctions, media, collectors, etc., and appreciating the kinship of peers who are hardworking, inventive,  tenacious, and generous; free to re-invent our practices and shape the communities in which we would like to participate.

Two ways of looking at the art world. Left: A conventional model where the majority of artists are struggling and strive to become a member of the tiny percentage of art stars. Right: A different perspective, extolling the benefits of not being darlings of auctions, media, collectors, etc., and appreciating the kinship of peers who are hardworking, inventive, tenacious, and generous; free to re-invent our practices and shape the communities in which we would like to participate.

I’ve written before that the “art world” is too often equated with a tiny sliver of artists, auction houses, collectors, galleries and critics, who, in my view, are actually on the margins of most artists’ (and people’s) experiences.

Similarly, I’d like to re-frame a pyramid of working artists. I’ve always thought of the vast majority of artists as underlings, trying to claw their way into inclusion into that elite world of international art stars. But just as one chooses whether a half-glass of water is half empty or half full, we can choose to imbue the majority of artists with the majority of relevance (the beauty of majorities!). My peers are vibrant, meaningful, and no less creative and worthy of attention. To complain about this disparity is to reify the minority’s hierarchy. To acknowledge our majority power is to assert our freedom over our attentions. 

Susan O'Malley, Inspirational Posters: Be Here Now, You Are Exactly Where You Need to Be and Listen to Your Heart billboard, Rapackiego Square, Art Moves Festival, Toruń, Poland

Susan O’Malley, Be Here Now, You Are Exactly Where You Need to Be and Listen to Your Heart billboard, Rapackiego Square, Art Moves Festival, Toruń, Poland // Source: SusanOMalley.org.

*RateMyResidency.com is an artist-initiated website that offers users the chance to review residencies. I love this idea, and have been hoping for something like this appear for some time. This site is still pretty new, so not many residencies have been reviewed, and I think the interface could use some tuning up, but in the meantime, it’s a great resource for upcoming deadlines.

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Art & Development

The Greatest of All Time

Few things impress me as much as discovering that champions are also genuinely nice people.

In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall wrote about Scott Jurek’s constant encouragement of fellow runners. After setting records at 100-mile ultramarathons, Jurek would plop down in a sleeping bag and cheer on every last runner, sometimes for 12 hours or more. During a 50-mile race in sizzling Mexican canyons, as he pursued the lead runners, Jurek stopped to brief a fellow runner on the trail conditions and aid stations ahead of her. He increased the distance he’d have to reel in his competitors so he could help a friend.

I’ve had the pleasure of learning from one of the nicest and toughest people I know. Bunkerd Faphimi is a muay thai figher and trainer at Fight and Fitness in San Francisco. He has an astounding 350+ fights under his belt. He’s known in Thailand as the People’s Champion, and as soon as you meet him, you’ll know why. He’s incredibly kind, generous, and playful. Have a look at his fight videos. He likes to take a lot of punishment, and yet, he’s often smiling in the ring. Not a showboating smile, but one of enjoyment. Better yet, watch him spar with students. He offers a near-constant onomatopoeic commentary, delighting in an activity in which he’s mostly letting himself get kicked, punched, and put in the clinch. He’s the living antithesis of both the evil Karate Kid Freudian-father archetype sensei, and, with his sheer unpretentiousness and demystified approach to muay thai, of the ‘magical Asian’ Mr. Miyagi. His love of muay thai, and of life, is like exuberance embodied.

I often find myself defending fight sports from people view it as sanctioned brutality. What they don’t understand is that these are highly evolved sports that people spend years of their lives dedicating their lives to. You don’t get to that level without knowing, in your heart of hearts, that this is what you really want, and proving it over and over again. As Chris Cariaso, the other head trainer at Fight and Fitness (and a super nice guy who rescues dogs when he’s not training, teaching, and fighting in the UFC) said, he’s “living the dream.”

This gratitude for life experiences also extends to gratitude to other competitors. Though fighters and promoters hype fights as ways to settle personal beefs, fighters also experience profound gratitude and respect for competitors when the fight is fair, their skills are closely matched, and the fight is so enjoyable that the outcome becomes less significant. When you’ve witnessed your opponent’s skill and heart firsthand—when they’ve gained your respect and you haven’t compromised yourself or your performance in any way—you recognize that there is no shame or sadness in losing to such a worthy competitor.

This is very similar to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow: the activity becomes autotelic, skills are well-suited to the challenges, and participants lose themselves to the activity.

You can see this elatedness exemplified at the end of bloody battles when the fighters, after the last bell, happy and exhausted, embrace. They also often gently touch each other’s heads or draw their foreheads together—I’ve even seen a boxer wipe another’s face. You don’t have to be a social psychologists to recognize these signs of affection and intimacy. Their wide smiles are pictures of gratitude. (Forrest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonnar, TUF1, is a classic example. I’m sure I was not the only fan rooting for both of them by the end.) Sometimes, one fighter will raise the competitor’s hand in the air, not necessarily to signal his own loss, but to acknowledge his opponent’s champion spirit. In a world of machismo, humility shines.

Premise #1: True champions express gratitude, humility, and generosity.

McDougall writes that people are born to run, and that we love running because we love being with other runners. We are part of a human pack when we run together. Though endurance running is often accompanied by pain and exhaustion, many top runners compete with smiles on their faces. The joy of the activity is self-evident; the urge to help others enjoy the activity follows.

Speculations: Art is highly competitive and individual artists often compete against each other for grants, residencies, commissions, exhibition opportunities, and teaching jobs. Who are the top practitioners in the arts who express profound generosity and gratitude?

How do artists—even as competitors—help each other? Share our joy? Express our pack-hood?

When do we help each other find the flow?

Is art practice like endurance running? Can artists find the joy even as we slog it out for miles in the rain alone, as well as when we assemble and compete?

When our skills are evenly matched how do we raise another’s fist in the air, recognizing their spirits?

Is there a lesson for artists to be learned about becoming a contender before becoming a champion?

Read the abstract of a fantastic profile of Bunkerd by Elif Batuman in the New Yorker.

Watch a video interview with Bunkerd on MyMuayThai.com, an excellent resource for all things muay thai by a true practitioner.

[Added October 16, 2011] Read a recent blog post by Jurek on running with others.

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