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, 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.
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, 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.