Putin's Response to Being Told To Get Out of Dodge (Ukraine) - Oil - 40" x 55" - 2014
For those of you who don't know me, I am a curmudgeon. I often express this "beingness" when any part of the visual arts profession is being infantilized or associated with whining. That being said. . .
As I could not respond to the essay : Things I’ve Learnt About Pricing Creative Work (Published on February 10, 2017 in Linked In) in the usual way, i.e. : in the comment section (my comments being too long and too many) I have posted them in the following essay entitled. “Is getting over ourselves ever a sure thing?
And so. . .
Things I’ve learnt about pricing creative work presents us with 16 points of reference to the topic of pricing. Or does it?
(Note : To make things clearer, the content from the original essay (to which I am referring) is in italics. My reactions are in regular font.)
And so. . . :
1. There’s no perfect price list.
Agreed. (See! When not prodded with a stick, I am quite an amenable fellow. . . )
But. . .from what I can gather, this presentation is not about actually selecting a price point. It is more about normalized hesitation and "them". . . . Obsessing about price points, as a subject of concern in our times, seems to be a norm in the visual arts (illustration or otherwise). Not because it should be, but because we live in anxious, hesitant, worried, OCD times. Expecting perfection rather than excellence seems to be a given. And then, there's this apparent acceptance of treating clients as generically impossible or difficult. . .
Though the arts, as they relate to creative thought, are based on trial, analysis and failure - and trial and failure again - and growing and growing some more (despite trial and failure), we have somehow homogenized it into being something about 'our" purported genius and “expected” success - especially where selfie-styled recognition and finances are concerned. But, it seems, that “out there” there are "people", often called "they" who seem to not understand the greaterness of us who strive so vehemently to impress them artistically. Let me elaborate on these topics emanating from the essay: Things I’ve learnt about pricing creative work
As to the rarely dealt with price point considerations in the aforementioned essay, I can only state :
CHOOSE one and get on with life for god’s sake!!
At 9 I wanted to be a portrait painter - i.e. : make a living at painting portraits. My father made me realize that this decision involved time and expense and hard work in order for me to eventually get to where my resulting efforts would be worthy of somebody’s undivided attention, let alone hard earned money. So. . . . I practiced and concentrated on bettering myself every day - and this without thinking (or earning) “money”.
But once there - once arrived at the level of professional work - whether fine or illustrative arts - (I have practiced both) - I tried to stay focused. Concentration on the essentials (creating) was (is) more important than concentration on the obvious (the product). Therefore, selecting a most practical price list rather than a complex one did help get me back to thinking about what is more important - otherwise, it is obvious that dithering about prices would have made me look like a mercenary bastard who was simply looking for (a) $, £, € and/or (b) recognition based on the $, £, € I could get rather than the work I could produce.
Coming from a “labour” background, I simply chose the least intrusive price point list in my quest to work as a “working painter” : i.e. : I selected square inches (cm) of my smallest work = $50. (35.92 Euro or 30.61 BP). Naturally, this does not take in the “illustrator’s” complex point of view (from which this article stems) but the concept remains the same. Simplify and clarify. More in keeping with illustration, at the end of my article I have submitted an address all illustrators should visit to solve their price point problems - once and for all.
(Note how generous of me this is. I could have made all of you read every snarly word of this essay before allowing you to head straight to the good bits. . . :) )
That being said. To those obsessed with adding up the costs incurred during our oh so special creative "me-time”. . . I say : get over yourself. We rarely get our “money back” in hours or materials spent. That’s the nature of artwork creation. And unless we are Warhol, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, H. R. Geiger, Maurice Sendak or Richard Corben (which we are NOT!) the artwork creating process will get us a sizable income (eventually) but rarely the amounts realized by the greats before and during our life times. If that's a bother, better to change professions and get over the whining.
2. No one wants to talk about money.
So! don’t talk about it!
The idea is to hang our work for display and try our hand at letting it say what “it” has to say. If it says nothing (to anybody). . . people will move on to looking at someone else's work. The selling game is the same - whether it’s cars or mobiles, book covers, posters or fine art landscapes. If we haven’t learned from a “rejection” exercise then what we need to understand is that, possibly : (a) the work is not good enough yet (b) the work is too expensive for what it is, (c) the work is not what people are looking for or (d) maybe. . . we’re not made for this gig. . .
As to being queried about money value for our work - that’s par for the course when we are manning the sales booth or visiting a client. If that’s not our bag, we should get someone else to handle the oh so “not lovely” client base. We should also consider finding a gallery or agency (that wants us) where it’s the sales person’s job, and not ours, to discuss with bright and not so bright potential clients.
3. Everyone has a budget.
Certainly! And that budget may or may not wish to fit our presence within its specific plan spectrum. But then, what has that to do with our price point? There will always be those who will not buy and those who do - and at its jittery worst "might, maybe, perhaps will buy" are the times when we get our most antsy - and. again, so what! It's part and parcel of the "art game" Take it or leave!
5. People like bargains.
When I want a bargain, I don’t go to a gallery. I go to a thrift shop or second-hand store. I don’t go to regular shops where sales are on because that usually means they’re trying to flog something they haven’t been able to get rid of in the past year. BUT, in dealing with people who nonetheless are looking for bargains, I smile and grit my teeth. We all need such consternation in our lives. It builds grit, stamina and maturity. As for handing out bargains, I don't. I'd rather starve. Only my regulars get a discount and I only give away to charities I truly and honestly believe in. Otherwise, everyone pays the price indicated - or they don't. . .
By the way MANY “lovely” clients do not have the budget for “our work”. That they don’t doesn’t make them any less lovely. AND. . . if they nonetheless have a yen for our “turtle that looks like a dove making love to a horse”, it behooves us to organize a payment schedule which would fit both our needs and theirs. Better to get $5 per month for the next 50 years (with no interest on the balance) than get $0 at all.
By the way if the selling part of our “I’m an artist” illusion doesn’t pay the bills, it’s possibly time to look for a job that does, so we can go home to painting in our spare time - thus honing our skills to a level which would "eventually" get us enough money to pay our bills painting on a full time basis. If a client’s (considered not up to par on the sophistication bell curve) banter and bartering and haggling “gets us down” - better to learn that from the beginning. It proves, (a) we’re not grown up enough to be in this business and (b) with not too much time wasted, we’ve discovered that maybe weeding a garden, with only weevils to deal with, is more in keeping with our strengths.
6. Working out quotations is a job in itself.
What? You haven't budgeted for a secretary!!! Sheesh! (Again, my take on sarcasm., . . )
Quotations are part and parcel of the job we are to do - or not. Why highlight this aspect as a "don't you understand?" reference. Quoting is part of our profession. It's not our potential client’s problem. If working out quotations is cause for dizzy spells, we should head back to our basement flat (paid for by a full time job which does not require hanging things on the wall, meeting with "those people" and begging for sales). In essence, it is NOT an insult to be seen to be working full time “elsewhere” than in our studios - unless contemporary self esteem issues happen to be more important to us than self respect. Check out some of the top people in the arts in general. Many have had to and some still do work elsewhere in order to pay the bills. This does not make them any less in the (real) visual arts and so why is this concept so beneath so many of us today?
7. People only want to pay you for the time your pencil hits the paper (hand hits the mouse....*insert relevant creative skill here*).
Really!!! How horrible these “people” are!
Quite a generalization! On the other hand, are we dealing with the correct demographic or is it that we are "slightly" too enamoured with ourselves and our talents?
“We want to use an illustration from your website for a national advertising campaign,” he enquired, but when money was mentioned he said “why should we pay you, you’ve already done the work.”
First off. Such a person does not require an answer. What they need is to see our backside “politely and smilingly” walking away from their “offer”. No more than that. Not worth discussing. Not worth thinking about. Such an individual is a boor who has not yet achieved a level of evolution which permits them to recognize artwork, let alone “art”. Now, if our work is deserving of better, then maybe encountering someone like this, once in awhile, is par for the course and undeserving of anything more from ourselves than a loud “pshaw!”.
But then, let’s not display equal and opposite “self-grandeur" behaviour. Even at our best we will have our detractors, and anyway. . . we are never going to be god's gift to the world no matter how many times we look in the mirror. Selfie attitudes do not make a biography legitimate.
The rest of this (#7) makes me cringe as it implies that (a) our work is at such a high level only a mindless twit would recognize it as less. (b) it generalizes the world (note : words such as “people”, "they", "them" and "clients" were used more than 25 times in the aforementioned essay in ways a client base should never be referred to by someone trying to earn a living soliciting "these people".
When "people" feel that they are being looked upon as part of the great unwashed - just maybe, "they" don't want to deal with us. . . And an “us” and “them” mentality never a financially successful combination makes.
“ ‘People’ only want to pay you for physically creating and they sometimes don't understand that saving a pdf file or writing out emails takes up a hell of a lot of time.”. . . . .
How dare “they” be so rude! - (Note : extreme sarcasm. . .)
“The client can sometimes turn into the equivalent of a five year old child on a trip to Skegness “Are we nearly there yet?” “Are we nearly there yet?”
In expressing this sentiment, are we failing to realize that "possibly" we are describing the self-important artist rather than the client?. . . Just saying. . .
It would be good to note that competition is rife in this 1st half of the 21st century. 90% of us will never make our living in the visual or illustrative arts. But that does not mean we are not good nor does it mean we should “quit while we’re ahead”. It simply means that we must deal with reality by being real - and be DEFINITELY less emotively attached to the obsession that is the idea of “being seen to be” an artist, à la 19th century fantasy. Better to be a damned good half-time painter, sculptor or illustrator, enjoying the creative process (as we should), than pretending to be a so-called artist drinking our lives away at the prospect of always having to deal with yet another boor client who fails to see our "specialness".
8. Some clients can be a little disrespectful
I’m only at #8 and already I am rhythmically banging my head on the desk. . .
The “we” and “them” mentality in this essay is, among other determinants, not in keeping with the intent of the title : “Things I’ve learnt about pricing creative work”.
A merchant, producer or distributor does not pick and choose its client base! The name of the game is produce, display, present for sale. The whole process says nothing about “guaranteed sales”.
“Being talked to like this on a regular basis is easy to make you lose confidence”
Ah yes, such micro-aggressing on the part of the dastardly beyond the realm of the arts.
Before we end up spending all our hard-earned “sale of artwork” money on self-indulgent therapy, maybe it would be best to change professions. . .
9. Talk to other creatives
Having each others backs is fine at a peer level. This is where we can allow ourselves to rant and rave and order another bottle. On the other hand, getting advice and assistance in understanding marketplace foibles is best achieved through consultation with the more experienced than we. Once an individual has been in the field for awhile, they generally (and generously) do share their tricks of the trade and their "been there, done that" experiences with up and comers. Times may have changed but personality connections and confrontations have not.
All this being said, throughout time the most successful people in the visual arts have been those with gumption. Successful artists are a tough lot. Often, they have started out with nothing and their goal has always been creating excellence, not achieving greatness. Artists are those who dared greatly and did and do whatever is required to get a job done, and this DESPITE. They are those who forged ahead at a pace which would knock all opposition aside - and this without negative attacks on either their competitors or their buyer base. They did not, do not, whine or cry or say woe is me throughout their careers. Like Van Gogh, they were (are) constantly challenged and took (take) the next difficult step DESPITE any and all opposition, rejection or pressures to fail, or superficial anxieties over "what not".
We live in a time which has sadly normalized and defined obsession as passion, victimhood as beingness and pseudo honesty, authenticity and entitlement as confirmation of our self worth. We fear failure because our need for self esteem is more important than our quest for self respect.
But the world we live in is ironically one of ecological survival not of Renaissance. It is more in need of refuse collectors and recyclers than yet another so-called, self-defined artist. So, let's stop the whining. We in the arts are privileged!!!! We see and feel things no others do. Our job is to create work which “says something” - not to define those who cannot appreciate it as lesser. We are owed nothing and should not expect to be recognized simply because we say so. Those who in centuries past thought in this vein (prior to the introduction of art galleries and agents) simply ended up being apprentices to those who actually were artists. Better they would have spent their time being positive in order to lift themselves above and beyond even their own best estimates. But then, that is a choice made. . . or not, isn’t it?
10. Underpricing work doesn’t do anyone any favours
“Remember those lovely creatives you just got moral support from? You don’t want to be undercutting them.”
Under-cutting someone?. . . Pricing our own work has nothing to do with others in the field or their work.
“Nor do you want them to do that to you, right?”
What is this?!!!! Working in any visual art field is not an extension of being in secondary school. Neither does being a creative mean being “college friends true”. Life as a painter, sculptor, dancer, writer, conceptualizer, composer or illustrator is beyond adolescence. It is not based on a frat school agreement over a secret hand-shake! It’s real life. It’s being out there ON OUR OWN - whether we like it or not.
Succeeding is on the minds of all of our peers. And when the time cones for them to go for it, the rest of us had better get going - or get out of their way.
Pricing means establishing a realistic (professional)base which recognizes “our” level of expertise and recognition - not anyone else’s and most especially not based (today) on what we dream we should get.
11. Everyone views money differently
In our studios, we are (more often than not) dreamy wanna-bes who have a talent which craves to be expressed. Super!!! In the studio, that is exactly how things can be. But the minute we walk out of that special place with artwork under our arm is the moment we become producer/distributor/seller/merchant - not an “arteest”.
At this stage of the game, we are nothing more, nothing less, than pitchmen/women hawking our wares. Artwork is a thing; a physical product which at its most extraordinary is called “art”. What's the difference? Artwork is exactly what it is : a product of our efforts. At its ultimate best it allows itself to speak on its own, over and above its creator. It is a painting or sculpture or something else which rises above and beyond the physicality of the artwork created. At this level of excellence it is an enigmatic extra-ordinariness which speaks, reaches out and touches viewers - whether they buy the “thing” presented or not. And that is when it is called "art" - that which not only touches us deeply and requires no purchase whatsoever, but elevates us along with it to a higher plane of understanding.
12. Being upfront is good.
Finally! Something valuable.
Being prepared before a meeting with a client is essential. Handed out at the appropriate time, printed parameters save time and effort in explaining and re-explaining obvious and not so obvious facts about a "dealing". It almost always eliminates the worst of having to deal with those we don't really want to.
Oh lord. . . Setting a price base is not an experiment. It is not a question of re-calibrating how the world turns. It is an organized, efficient activity which has as its goal to be the well ensconced cornerstone of our financial survival.
Once we establish a solid price list (based on reality, recommendations of prominent gallery owners, collectors and comparing with other “like work”) no further consideration, worry, anxiety or anything else should be agonizing our souls. Second guessing is for amateurs who don't take the time to "do it right". Establishing a price list worthy of the level at which we are (not at a level of our wishing) allows us to get back to what we (purportedly) do best : creating artwork. Playing around and being indecisive can mean experimenting ourselves (literally) to a professional death. Doing the pricing job right more often than not demands counsel from more than we.
14. Don’t compare.
Too much dithering with feelings rather than reality in this section. I can’t comment on the content or legitimize it.
“Give ourselves permission. . ." “ Sheesh! On to number 15. . .
15. Get it in writing
Good! Number 15 says it all. I have nothing more to say about this. . . (Surprised?)
16. You’re not an arse for placing value on what you do
“Placing value on yourself feels incredibly egocentric, but you need to stop thinking about it as something personal, and view it as a service that helps to solve people's problems.”
What is this with “artists” so in need to see themselves as the “product”, the brand? When we create a price list it has nothing to do with “us”. Price lists are simply established guides related to the monetary value of a physical thing that we are trying to sell. Nothing more. As we grow and become more well known and our work is considered of greater value, our price list will evolve in total - in a consistent and structured manner. That’s it. That’s all. No more complicated than that if it has been properly set up from the start.
“I've learnt that people can often react quite badly to freelance creatives who ask for a decent fee.”
Who cares!!!! How others react and feel is not under the purview of our power to alter.
“It's as though we creatives turn into blood sucking vampires behind our easels, just waiting to pounce on the next corporate professional victim who won't comply with our rigid demands. We're a right cocky bunch, us illustrators, always showing off about how much money we made from that picture book we got published in 2003 that earns us £10 in royalties a year. I know what you're thinking "who do you bloody think you are?”
Really??? This actually goes through our minds? We see our clients and our potential clients' minds in this light??? Not good. . . Definitely not good. . .
“Many of us have been led to believe from day one that art and creativity isn’t valued as highly as ‘academia,’ whether that’s from anxious family members who worry about whether we can actually make a living from it, or whether that’s being scoffed at by other professionals for ‘not having a proper job’, as though we all sit around colouring in all day. Society still has a long way to go in seeing the value of creativity, despite the fact it may well have just persuaded them to buy one brand of shampoo over another, or influenced them to donate to charity through an ad campaign, or enabled them to enjoy the film they’re watching whilst sat on their nicely designed couch.”
This adds nothing to the essay except to say the author is pissed off.
“I actually do think design is changing the world all the time - it influences people to make very important decisions and it helps to sell huge amounts of products and services. It boosts the economy. It adds colour and life. It creates connection. It builds community. It changes people’s minds.”
True. The rest in this section is nothing more than a whine. So I shall pass.
(So good of me - but then, maybe I am (a) simply exhausted by all of this or (b) getting mellow in my old age. . . )
“Got any helpful tips you’ve learned about pricing creative work?”
(a) Take your time. Build your price list solidly. Get it done and get it right and let it do its job so you can get on with yours : creating and (b) STOP second guessing this damned list. Give it and your work time to impress.
Otherwise, my only recommendation - as this essay is more in keeping (despite its negativity) with illustrators - is to suggest we all read, from cover to cover : The Graphic Artists Guild Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, available as either hard-copy or digital format at the following address.
Anxieties - Graphite - 10" x 14" - 1984 - Private Collection
Picasso, I am sure, was filled with love and happiness when he sketched and painted his children. Those depictions communicate both these emotions and his talent for intense yet subtle lines, shapes and form. Yet, his hand did not rely solely on pleasantries to elevate his seeing to its greatest heights. Picasso was a master of all emotions - not just happiness. This, over and above his talent and skills, gave him "legitimacy".
A case in point, he did not create La Guernica, because it made him “happy”. He was livid and needed to express powerfully and graphically the horrors that humans shamelessly inflict upon themselves and their environment. Standing before this artwork makes us realize that the creative giant of this painting was not only angry; he was disgusted.
Good artwork creation is not based on being in a superficially happy place - as contemporary “artists” are wont to believe. Art is not a bowl of fruit or pretty flowers unless those still-lifes, googly eyed baby faces, pretty bird nests, Hollywood star portraits, puppy drawings and squiggly abstracts have something more to say than that they exist as wildly exact reproductions of the photos from which they were copied. Artwork creation at its most sublime is based on speaking a visual language - speaking it clearly and powerfully, gently and horribly, whisperingly and screamingly - and this in regards to the world about us - about the truth, about the facts of who and what we are. It is a shaman’s game where far too many are fixated on becoming idols if not false prophets. Branding, in the realm of the visual arts, must reside in the comments made not the commentator speaking. It’s not a matter of being happy. It’s a matter of seeing and sharing factual truths.
Artwork creation is the physical foundation upon which we seek to present “art” to the world. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t be so hungry to be seen to be “artists” and our work to be seen to be “art”. Creating visual statements is a responsibility at best and, at worst, a toy in the hands of those who ironically have long forgotten what actual “play” really was. Falling in love with the use of cheery reds, moody blues or luscious greens is not enough to make someone an artist. The content has to be given back its legitimate stature if art is ever to speak its mind with any volition or consequence - i.e. : above and beyond the physicality of the artwork. Creating something called artwork wishing itself to be “art” must bring back the voice of “what is” which, sadly has become too virtual to be of any value to the growth and survival of humanity.
In all of this, “happy” is an odd, sad word. Creative excellence is not about how a painter feels when he/she has achieved a bettering of their yesterday's work. It’s about the relief exhaled once a statement of consequence has been made. Pleased or contented, might be less overwhelming than "happy". But they are more realistic responses to our work being let go to stand on their own. When everything has aligned itself in order to achieve a better statement, a more powerful or enigmatic message, a creative person usually accepts to simply be satisfied for a brief time with that moment of success. Visual artists of any consequence are not into "being". They are into doing. And a next thing is always in need of being done, of being said, shared, transmitted and reacted to.
Though a legitimate feeling at any time, happy - especially today - relates too much to the North American Disneyesque concept of fun and easy; to a desperate constant search to be if not an illusory presence in our nervous existences. In essence, as a never ending, as a fulfillment, as a lifelong goal, the contemporary perception of happy has become a rather demonic rejection of our other legitimate emotions - those we humans hold within and which are capable of being expressed and shared - if only political correctness did not censor them with such intense authority.
Artwork creation, first and foremost, is a challenge above and beyond the skill sets required to speak a language well. But visually speaking coherently has become increasingly difficult. First, because we are losing our ability to “connect directly with others” (other than through virtual wizardry) and secondly because our audience is more often than not made up of viewers who, because of the “fun” and “easy” superficiality of image creation and use today, fail to grasp the complexities of the poetic in a visual language - unless it is structured to be "entertainment".
Fun and happy, therefore, are dangerous definers of life. In their quest to be dominant, they are nothing more than deniers of what makes us human, deniers of the times - a 21st century which seems to be rendering up-and-comers more and more depressed, more and more anxious, more and more afraid. As Mr Simon Sinek recently stated : Our younger generations have been dealt a bad hand. In other words we’ve taken from them the ability to not only thrive but survive.
Was that a vengeful act on our part or simply an ignorant or stupid one? Only our consciences will tell - if ever.
So. . . . . . . . . Too serious a reaction to the simple word "happy"? No.
When we belittle expression to a lowest common denominator, we belittle ourselves and we belittle the emotional connections we are trying to make with others. Artwork creation, with the intent of having it be seen to be art, is a serious business. And for that to return to its serious roots, artwork will have to be much more than its canvas and brushes and paint and varnish. And if it is to be a legitimate reflection of the times in which we live, it will have to damned well become a hell of a lot angrier before it can ever become anywhere near legitimately “happy”.
The curmudgeonly defense rests.
Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860–1939)
I love artwork.
As a product of individual creativity, it is everywhere.
But I am more enamoured with, more tantalized by, more in awe of art because, despite all illusions to the contrary, its presence is more elusive, more rare than the rarest of gems.
Art is not just creativity. It is what celebrates the best that humans can be, the genius to which we all aspire, the grandeur that is the highest that we as a species can reach today - with the proviso that tomorrow opens yet another door to further mysteries.
North of Darkness book cover (mine) - 2016
North of Darkness is a tribute to the author Elaine Poulin's resilience and determination.
Translated from the French version "Perdre sa boussole", North of Darkness highlights the trauma of PTSD - whether in the soul of soldiers, police officers, first responders or those who travel to unknown lands to help those in need.
PTSD, when it strikes, is an onerous burden to bear. The journey told in North of Darkness takes us beyond the pain of it and into the ever possible light. Congratulations and hugs to my wondrous daughter Elaine.
North of Darkness is available from at : http://www.lulu.com/shop/http://www.lulu.com/shop/elaine-poulin/north-of-darkness/paperback/product-22976208.html
detail image from: Return Of The Vietnam Vets - 1978 painting by B.A. Poulin
Responses to comments made on my postings at times tend to be long-winded, I therefore sometimes reply as a post rather than a simple yay, nay or hmmmm. This is one of those times and I would like to both acknowledge and thank William Beckwith for his comment on my last presentation : D'ja Hear Van Gogh's Crazy. . . Again!
William always makes me think further. And so. . .
It is not the caring observation that William describes so wonderfully in his response to me which bother. Willam Beckwith's presentation of an experience before a van Gogh piece simply and profoundly highlighted the human in the man van Gogh rather than the "sickness". There was empathy rather than sympathy or ogling in the discovery of this artwork's power. And I only wish I could have been there to experience it also.
No, my reflections are rather linked to the morbid interest in the mad van Gogh by those who seek out "the sick guy who painted and shot himself" rather than the artist who created despite his illness. It is also the connections we at times collectively make between mental health issues and creativity - i.e. : that the former is the cause and/or stimulant of the latter, which are upsetting.
Our own little mental health nest?
Being as the “art world” is a small segment of society (presumed to be 2% of the total population - though research is sparse ) is it not odd that we collectively associate (if not emphasize) mental health issues as being part and parcel of the creativity realm? Are we saying : “well, you have “issues” but then, you have a compensation - you’re creative?” or. . . “well, you may have “issues” but then, what do you expect - you’re creative?” So. . . mental health "acceptability" is only a viable topic when associated with the arts? It often seems so as it both differentiates "them" from those who are not artistic while pointing a finger at somewhat questionable (yet tolerated) differences in being within a purported "normal" environment.
But how is it that we shove aside, if not ignore this same issue, (no pun intended) when referring to the rest of the world - those who are not seen as “artistic”? Is it that we consider other spheres of human existence as having no mental health issues or is it that those issues beyond the arts don't really titillate us? Or is it, rather, that these issues frighten us - being that they hit too close to home. . . ?
When an excellent truck driver, a scientist with lauded research discoveries or a loving parent kills themselves, we don’t associate their achievements or lack thereof with the suicide but rather speak of their accomplishments as after-thoughts - asides about which we know little and which therefore are not seen as relevant to the consequences of the illness which afflicted them.
In the arts we immediately create a link. Is it because most of us who are not artistic perceive creative action as an impossible magical exercise - if not a devil worshiping one? Is it because the door of “artwork creation” is always slightly ajar - teasing us. . . at best dangerously welcoming. . . at worst “allowing us” a peeping tom look into an “eccentric” world most of us fail to understand? Or is it that we who are in the arts consider our little world to be oh so special that we can be and do whatever we say because we can get away with saying we can?
In Dr Judith Schlesinger’s book : The Insanity Hoax, she clearly references this dichotomy of perception in that we speak of the artistic crazies (whilst giggling even) but fail to recognize that the issue of mental health is a universal phenomenon which does not hold artists more dearly within the folds of its cape than it does others. And despite an increased public awareness re : mental health, we still cringe at associating “those things” with “us” and rather continue to speak of mental health only insomuch as it relates to others. Are we keeping a “healthy” distance from this still unknown yet ”say we know more about it” state? Or is it, possibly, that we who need to be perceived as “normal” are not as up-to-date on these matters of import as we say we are.
The perfect normal
Normal is what most of us purport to be. Yet, normal is nothing more than what there is the most of. So then why is this the state in which most of us want to be? Well, it's the “good to-be-in" state. . . Right?
But then why is normal so boring to most of us that it constantly needs to be enhanced or compensated for? Why does the state of normalcy require its adherents to consistently search out the rationally impossible “perfection” as its zenith? Is it not evident that the quest for perfection has two great failings : (1) : It’s an impossible to achieve goal. And (2) : If perfection was a plausible accomplishment, there would actually be nothing beyond it worth pursuing other than death.
Perfection implies having accomplished everything, in the only and therefore best way possible and therefore nothing more can be accomplished since we are now "perfect". Ergo, the next step? Death. But in our societies, death and its "normal" precursor "growing old" are verboten. They are "things" we most heartily and “crazily” try to avoid as they imply demise - and that is a sorely feared thing. Now, if that is not abnormal as a baseline for normality, then what is?
But then, with death being fearsome we do try to compensate by looking at more "insanely realistic" (?!) goals. . . : i.e. : “to be seen to be as perfect as possible”. . . Sigh!. . . Long live the elimination of wrinkles, flab and motivational speakers. . .
But, as the goals of perfection and being seen to be - along with their concomitant “being seen to be normal” - remain the ultimate (though impossible and restrictive) achievements, I guess normal is as normal does. None of these goals allow for discrepancies, self-bettering or any other accomplishments. In essence, normal is as falsely elitist as it gets, perfection as domineering as sanity purportedly allows and nothing actually is worth pursuing or even exists beyond either perfection or the quest to be seen to be.(So there! Harrumph!)
Our insane view of sanity variances
So restrictive are these 2 existence elements (perfection and normal) that it is rather odd that this pair would allow for the perception of insanity (a generically defined negative) as having a somewhat tangential link with creativity (a perceived "somewhat" positive).
How ironic that normalcy would hold such a seemingly unstable view - in light of its consideration of perfection being the ultimate quest. Does a recognition of "acceptable abnormalities" not open the gates to insanity now being perceived as nothing more than an all-encompassing title for an indescribably long list of degrees of variance? (Horrors!) And in this sanity/insanity variance display are not all of our own “states of being” listed along its continuum. . . “somewhere”? (even greater gasps of horror?!).
And if that is so. . . would fitting somewhere along such a sanity scale of variances therefore not be a positive? Would it not be a more healthy state of perception and being than the euphemistically called “normal” - whose sole battle appears to be that of maintaining stasis at all costs? Are we not all, in one form or another, sanity challenged - and this on a daily, if not hourly basis? If so. then why the ghoulish obsessions with the so-called disturbances "in others" - especially those who are "higher ups" than we? Are we afraid of the ever sneaky "pointing finger of fate"?
The paradox of OK and not OK
Normality has always been a collective (read : “acceptable”) arena of functionality. It is the bar by which we (morally?) define the (with it) solidity of our governmental, corporate and social structures. By normal we mean that anything else (then what there is the most of) is oddball if not crazy and at our most "paranoic" : dangerous. In other words, we tend to classify and codify in order that the great majority (us?) is always (despite acceptable variances) perceived to be “OK” (on top) and therefore can control that which threatens us : i.e. : what isn’t OK. As for those "left-overs" in our societies who fail to pass the OK test. . . Well. . . Their “states” will always be debatable by those who have a strangle-hold on what is “normal” or OK and who have the power to establish how these not-OK people are to be handled. And that is good. . . Right?
The abnormality of that which is normal
Out of generosity (!) on the part of those in authority - (we are civilized societies aren't we?) - creatives have grudgingly been deemed to be “acceptably abnormal” as members of our societies - despite the fact their individual creative quests remain at odds with the seeking or the being seen to be of perfection - the single-minded goal of normality.
Creatives believe in "achievability", not impossibility. Theirs is never a goal of perfection, of being the best, but rather of being the best that it is possible to be today. While tomorrow is simply a future timeline during which a new door opens - one which allows "all creative people" the freedom and challenge to better their yesterday’s best - despite the hordes surrounding them who seek perfection - often through ads and the taking in of marketing ploys rather than the wisdoms of the likes of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, of Maureen Jennings, et al.
Consequently, despite perceived eccentricities, maybe creatives "amongst us" aren't all that crazy. Rather than defeat themselves through discouragement and an existence who's only goal is foiling death, they reach beyond to that which consistently opens the door to more rather than less - to a better life through a never ending search for excellence. And so, would this not mean that perfection seekers, the normals of this world, are at a much higher risk level of insanity then creatives?
In this light, van Gogh would have to be a very highly rated sane individual, despite his mental health issues. His goal was never to copy (render perfect) that which he could not create but to create every new day the best reflection of the perfect wonders of visible compositions he encountered daily. In essence, his need was never to be perfect but to "perfect" himself, his "seeing".
As painters we may be on a more intense acreage of the bell curve that all of us straddle. But this does not make us more crazy and therefore more creative; or creative therefore more insane. It simply explains the varied levels of passion eccentricity requires in order to strive to be the best we can be despite all odds.
That being said, it cannot be denied that our sane-insanity may have “asides”. . . i.e. : overtones which, like cancerous cells, may cause havoc with the healthy elements feeding our need to better ourselves each and every day. But then, does this not imply the wondrousness of the unknown, of the challenges, of the possibilities which allow us to stand firm against the odds threatening our well being and our ability to “function despite”? And does this not confirm, rather than deny the healthy aspect existence of our wondrous yet "imperfect" immune systems in both our bodies and our minds?
Basically, being human means being that imperfect, that much incredibly and beautifully flawed - that much of an unknown. And that in turn possibly means that our definitions of normal are also seriously and eerily flawed.
In essence, we are all astride this curvature of the unexplainable. Some of us on the edge of numbing boredom, others on the razor’s edge of a passionate need to discover, explore and express. And so, degrees of normality are nothing if not simply degrees of sanity at one end of a “being” spectrum with extremes of insanity at the other. And with time and experience and fate and happenstance, all of us never-endingly slide up and down that bell curve we inhabit; being positive, being negative, being creative, being not, being sane and insane.
And through the acceptance of what is, and the ebb and flow of it, it suddenly becomes possible to find within our worlds the greatest of all attributes of the greatest of all states of being that can be : the mystery of our own personal “uniqueness” - that seemingly frightening thing which makes us "us" and, which at times upsets others, whilst keeping us on our toes.
In essence, we are all in and of the same box of “chocolits”. What type of chocolit are each of us individually? Well. . . The world all on its own will decide one day. . . Probably when we are no longer around to have a say.
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait
"On the Verge of Insanity. Van Gogh and his Illness" - Exhibition - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam - From15 July 2016 Up until 25 September 2016
"On The Verge of Insanity” What an insulting title for a “research exhibition” purporting to be about the life of a visual art genius. What is it that is so enticing about promoting a supposed link between creativity and insanity? Is it that we are trying to prove we are “better than” - i.e. : not “insane” like van Gogh? Is it, conversely that we are, but god forbid someone else finds out? Are we really as enlightened as we pretend to be? Are we really interested in being concretely embedded in a learning process which would render us more knowledgeable, more understanding and more appreciative of the varying degrees of capacity, of functioning and dysfunctionalities we all must deal with in our daily lives? Or are we simply side-show freak aficionados?
What is it in this dead man’s manifesto of “being nuts” that makes peeping goons of us all? Is it that he is dead and therefore “safe to play with”; so dead he isn’t able to take that ear cutting razor to our rather ghoulish psyches; so dead he can’t deny us the pleasure of believing whatever it is we choose to believe, and this, without requiring facts to bolster our oh so contemporary contentions?
We were once passionate about the incredible creativity of this man. Today, the tide has turned. I guess we all have to kill off our heroes lest they remind us we possibly, maybe, might be just as “crazy” as they purportedly are. In essence, we simply need van Gogh to be “mad”. . . Quite an enlightened mental health footing to be standing on. That “need”. . . What an enlightened research project that would be!
But why am I so irritated? Everyone knows that Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear! Really? Not true!. Everyone has been “told” he did. And everyone believes what they are told by those who just as intensely "cross their heart and hope to die" tell us they speak the truth. And anyway. . . It’s easier to go along and get along than have to “think” and even argue about what is factual and what is not.
With van Gogh passed away so very long ago, his work remains but, it seems, his “story” remains even more so. And with him long gone, we're free to romanticize, manipulate and conjure - all without corroborating evidence or proof that anything we “sing about” is true. And why would we bother to study any available facts further anyway? He was obviously crazy, wasn’t he?
Details do tend to get in the way. . . And so, it’s a lot easier to deal with “who’s its and what’s its” like : Did he chop off a chunk? A whole ear? A tiny bit? A big bit? Anything at all? Did someone else chop it off? Better go with self-mutilation. That’s “in” right now and sells a lot more t-shirts.
In the end, it is the "expert" cohorts who have led us astray - the least honest by promoting lies, the most honest by not delving into a situation which merited clarity - if only for the respect van Gogh was and is due. But such is not what has been nor is it yet to be. When contemporary scientific research acceptably incorporates more the concepts of “maybe”, “possibly”, “might have been”, “could have been”, “it is said” and the ubiquitous “hmmm, I think. . . ” what we get, in the end, is propaganda, manipulation, emoting - generally for product promotion purposes, drama and entertainment - along with all the benefits of enticing a paying audience. . .
Now, what is not in contention is that an ear was sliced. What is in contention is that the letter of Docteur Rey, being presented in this new exhibition “for the first time ever!!!! Come one, come all!!! provides evidence in that regard. Docteur Félix Rey’s report does no such thing. Dated the 18th of August 1930, it is a rather ironic note in the present circumstances. The most poignant and relevant comments made by the doctor are not obsessively related to the “ear event” as one would expect. Rather, the missive is a very human and not medically based plea. Loosely translated, it reads : “I would hope that “you” (the reader) would not miss the importance in these matters - and that is the celebration (as it deserves to be) of the genius of this remarkable painter.” To whom Docteur Rey addressed these words is not clear through the display of this artifact in the exhibition. No related references are made - either pre or post statement. In essence, this letter provides nothing but titillation.
The fact remains that interest in (obsession with?) the minutiae of van Gogh’s life is rather disturbing. It reminds us of our times. . . that, as individuals and collectives we too often remain at the low ebb of humanity : side-show freak (reality TV) aficionados. Our interest in others is far too often associated with their incapacities, weaknesses, frailties, foibles and failures rather than their extra-ordinariness or even ordinariness. We are attracted, or so it seems, to what makes others “weaker or lesser” (than we?) - lest the cravings for attention we so desperately try to hide impale us with the self-esteem issues we so ardently are fixated with today.
When did we lose our capacity to appreciate greatness and especially that which exists DESPITE a superlative creator’s mental health issues? Have we ever been able to recognize another’s striving and thriving without being envious or jealous? Maybe that would make a more substantive research project than one which, once again, highlights our ongoing madness fixations re : van Gogh. But then, we’re not dead. . . And we might not like being probed by our "oh so imperfect peers”.
Sadly creativity, celebrated as a concomitant adjunct (now that is repetitive!!!) of madness or disability, is a growing “trend”. It has become so prevalent in the visual arts today, that some even promote themselves (first) as having a disability - either physical or mental - before promoting the work they do “despite” that disability. It seems some of us would rather receive pity than understanding, support and encouragement. Or is it that we seek our artwork to be considered of a higher caliber through associating it with our inherent or "adopted for the purpose" eccentricities.
Where mental health issues should be considered seriously and recognized through a looking glass of compassion and empathy, there seems to be a growing preference for manipulation over truth, profit over self-respect. By constantly harping on the mental health issues of van Gogh we inevitably belittle creativity, talent and lives fully given over to a passionate search for excellence. Even worse, we belittle those who suffer from mental health issues which are seriously real. In light of these wonderings, and within these parameters, is it that we are “putting in their place”; humbling those whom we see as so much more? Or are we egoistically elevating ourselves to a level that we do not deserve? That’s another research project which would well be worth the undertaking.
Coming back to the “On The Verge Of Insanity” hoax. . . (Ooops!) show. . . a book is being launched for the occasion. It is written by Ms Bernadette Murphy, an amateur historian and first time author. In an interview she states :
“There’s something semi religious to the way he offers a part of his body to repair a part of her body,” Ms. Murphy said at a preview of the exhibition. “She had a nasty scar on her body, and it’s as if he’s giving her fresh flesh.”
Would Ms Murphy please stand and deliver : What are her qualifications to utter such religiosity nonsense, Such utterances are more in keeping with sensation and ignorance than fact? What is it with us that we prefer peeping through a hole in the wall that we ourselves have inserted rather than stand in the open learning about what is or is not fact in the mental health arena. How is it that research and science have become no more than an assuming and a following up with anything and everything that serves to bolster the “veracity” of our emoting “spiritual” proclamations"? For such an enlightened era we are definitely showing ourselves to be seriously wanting. . .
Ms Nienke Bakker, curator of this exhibition, also adds to the insensitivity of this “ghoulish show and tell” by pointing out that apart from 25 artworks, it will present “other objects” like a corroded revolver that van Gogh MAY have used to kill himself when he APPARENTLY (not factually) committed suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Is this the fodder upon which respected historians, scientists and researchers base their conclusions? Or are we dealing, once again, with lowest common denominator titillation “à la Barnum and Bailey”? Ms. Bakker further adds (based on what “she thinks”) such insight as : this was the “delirious, unconscious behavior that became characteristic of van Gogh’s series of mental breakdowns”. Has Ms Bakker a degree in either psychology or psychiatry? If not. . . Should one, not recognized as professional in the psychological arena, refrain from making such nonsensical statements that only an amateur could spew forth without recrimination?
Ms. Bakker further adds :“The three most frequently asked questions are: What happened with his ear? What kind of illness did he have? and, Why did he commit suicide?”
One would think that a legitimate curator would have directed questioners, ringing their hands with glee, to the fine works of the artist who’s only goal was to celebrate the wonders of life and light, not the ghoulish implications of a side-show freak enhanced death.
Steven Naifeh, an American historian and author, puts the final nail in this coffin of idiocy when he states that after giving this show the benefit of the doubt he could only conclude that the “proof” offered up by this reality TV display (surely in search of increased numbers of museum visitors) is neither new nor is it credible.”
If the goal of this exhibition is “not” to link the artwork to van Gogh’s mental state but rather to make clear that he was struggling to work despite a debilitating illness, its intentions and concept fail miserably. To realize such an intent would have been more honestly and less creepily accomplished by creating yet another exhibition focused on van Gogh’s incredible work - work which has never ceased to base itself on one wish and one wish only : and that was to highlight the wondrous extra ordinariness of the world before him. . . and us.
And, crazy as he was, van Gogh simply persisted in this quest to celebrate life and light “despite” his greatest obstacle : the fact that most of his “sane people” audience failed and continues to fail to grasp the obvious, the real and the wondrous.
Winter Sunset / Couché de soleil hivernal - Oil/huile - 8" x 10" - 2009 - Private collection privée
This post is dedicated to a loyal reader who recently admonished me for laughing at a recent other post.
You’re a generous interlocutor, George. So, in response to your righteous comments, I am taking the time to defend the intent of my comment if not the boorish behaviour :
Yes. . . George, I laughed. Sometimes, I laugh in order not to cry. . .
To answer your first question : Yes, during these past 50 years, as others, I have felt the sting of many “criticizers”. But as a youngster I also received encouragement. In the end, I chose to follow the latter and ignore the ignorance, deception, meanness and jealousies of the former. (Though at times as a child I was a victim, as an adult I refuse to be.)
In regards to the Masters mentioned : Matisse, Picasso, Warhol, none broke the rules or created new ones. Neither did the Impressionists (even though many of us adhere to this myth since it pictures "them" being like "us”, i.e. : rebels). Actually, what the Impressionists and subsequent "different" artists did was to express themselves in the unique styles they had adhered themselves to. But, break the rules? No. Seth M. Baker in the Happenchance blog states : that some of us define difference in representation as "breaking all the rules" or "changing the rules of the game". But he asks us to look closer - in order to see that "the basic, structural rules of the game never really change". The conventions change. . . but the rules remain the same. (My apologies to Mr Baker for re-configuring his sentences to meet the needs of this post. I've nonetheless retained the intent of his presentation.)
Masters have always adapted the flexible powers of established rules to their “different way” of saying what they wished to visually say. But whether abstract, figurative or non-representational, masterpieces have never been built on broken, abandoned or sporadically invented “me” rules. Though possibly politically correct in our era of me, myself and I, all these do is confirm that :
having a style of one's own must not be confused with being consistent in the repetition of drawing and painting errors.
Creating one's own rules remains a self-centered exercise. Artwork created to meet the needs of one individual is not “art”. It is rather an uninformed type of art therapy. What the author probably means (& here, I speculate) is that we should feel free to draw, paint, sculpt & overall create based on our own inner workings. I have no trouble with that. BUT, to promote breaking rules which, from the onset, many know little about - to promote such a cavalier manner (as if being a professional has nothing to do with structure) is rather unprofessional & hence : laughable.
What we myth, rather than miss, is that Picasso (& others) knew & followed the rules to a T. Picasso, for example, could break them, if he so wished, because he knew them better than anyone. At 15 he could draw figuratively better than most of us can after 20 years of drawing classes. His subsequent work was worshiped because, despite what we "see" or how we describe "it", there is balance, form, structure, design & composition at a level most of us can only drool over.
Rules are the structure upon which freedom is based. Anarchy doesn’t cut it. When we acquire rules of our “trade” we should even go further - i.e. : assimilate them - take them in to a degree at which they become part of who we are. In so doing, we set ourselves up to be uber-skilled & thus no longer in need to think about their application. And when we no longer have to think about the rules we apply, creativity takes over - seeing with the mind's eye the breadth of application possibilities. We can then bend, adapt & flex them to meet the needs of our personal expressions. How? An integrated structured discipline opens the door to freedom of expression rather than limiting it. This, in turn, reveals (as Dali so aptly inferred) our personal style. He augured that to search for a style for ourselves is futile since only through structured effort & process does “a personal style” emerge - and this, when it damned well pleases. :)
I therefore (in order to not cry at the silliness of our era) laugh at the notion that everything is about “moi” - that I can break rules I know nothing about; that I can say to the world "I am an artist, therefore I am" - and worse : "you should, too!!!” Hogwash!
What we fail to grasp is that there are millions of people out there who draw, paint & sculpt as well, if not hugely better than we do. And all we can hope for is that someone, maybe. . . just maybe will discover the genius in our work (tisk) and we will reach unprecedented stardom. But as with all reality vs reality-TV considerations, this is only a possibility; never an assurance.
And so, buying notions as cure-all potions in our quest to be recognized is futile. And listening to our heart alone is never enough unless all we want to be is a hermit. And so, when discouraged, we should reach out, not in. Emptiness can never fill our needs glass. Someone can always be found who will recognize our worth and motivate us accordingly - but never on illusions. Being sold on such irrelevance as “having to be me” by motivators, whether in the arts or in any other realm, is redundant. Despite all negative feelings motivational speakers focus on to get our attention, we are already “us” - warts & all. We just have to stop looking into our negative mirrors and crying "oh woe is me!".
Being a painter or sculptor, let alone an “artist” has NEVER been easy. Though something worthy to aspire to, there are no guarantees, no matter what anyone intimates. Better to strive to be the best we can be today (all the while hoping for better) then to pretend that just because we say we are artists, it makes us grander already. But then again, that does not mean we are dead or less than. It simply means we have to accept reality as our stepping stone; besting ourselves every next day and working hard - because that is what visual art students, apprentices & artists do forever : They work - & they work hard!
Naturally, not all of us have the middle name “van Gogh, Koons or Michelangelo. But, that being said, we should nevertheless recognize that ALL OF US are creative. We were born so. Survival would not have been possible without this trait. But, then again, to say that this makes us all artists in this era of “I am, therefore I am” is rather illusory. As talented as we are, our fate may simply be that we are Joe (or Josephine) More-Than-Ordinary. BUT. . . even then, the best that we are today is what we can repeatedly count on since today's best is nothing less than the foundation for besting itself tomorrow. And so. . . . We never know. "C'est la vie" and that is what is wondrous about not knowing what the outcome of it ever is.
As for being the “deciders” of when we choose to be “professional”. . . creating artworks in a studio is just step one on a ladder of many rungs. It is only when we step outside and beyond our navels that we come to realize that viewers of our work are actually the ones who determine what our position as a painter, sculptor, etc. will be. Note : This doesn’t determine who we are but what our work is. In essence, being an artist has much less to do with choosing to call ourselves "artist" & much more to do with how and whether our work speaks to others.
As for artists being "different". . . It's a grand notion. . . But we are not (if ever we are even artists). This idea stems from 19th century romanticism which continues to taint 21st century thinking and which has encouraged the recent publication of “The Insanity Hoax” - an excellent book by Dr. Judith Schlesinger. It describes the fallacy of artists being seen to be “different”. At our best, creatives are “reflectors of what see and feel”. We speak to the world about the nuances we notice and express, in the hope that these reflections will speak to others; inform, touch & move them. That’s all we can do in this quest. It isn’t about “us”, about being recognized. It’s about getting our work out there so that “it” becomes recognized. Becoming an artist is determined by the voice of our work, not ours. The status or title of artist, therefore, has more to do with doing than being. It is a consequence of our work speaking out.
Rather than submitting to gurus who urge us to "be" something and to break rules about which we often know so little, we should get inspired by reading more about the lives of the masters and on their focus which, for all intents and purposes, has always been about "doing", making, creating and not being.
As for authenticity, it is what we do “normally” unless we are outright hypocrites. It has nothing to do with our level of self-confidence. Many people who fear life are more authentic and real and worthy of our admiration then those who sit atop thrones of self-confidence. Van Gogh was afraid, yet he functioned, and this, despite his "problems". Can we say he was not authentic? Munch "screamed for help", having lived under the weight of his father’s excessive religious piety and subsequent psychoneurosis. And yet, what could have ended up being a personal therapeutic journey became a universally recognized “scream”, one to which the world could identify and sympathize, if not empathize. With such powerful statements, Munch's work reached out, his need responded to the needs of others thus allowing art to emerge from his artwork. Self-confidence may at times be a positive, but it can also be the progeny of arrogance more than the mother of creativity & “art”.
Granted, to be encouraged is always better than to be discouraged. I certainly wrote about that in my own book : Beyond Discouragement, Creativity. But using words & phrases such as : “The art world is a scary place - it can collapse even the strongest person”, “. . . the fears of those who feel lost without any valuable guidance or direction”, “. . . every artist. . . with a lack of self-confidence, worry and confusion”. . . . . . (phew!). That puts a lot of emphasis on "suggested" problems more than on concrete solutions.
Discouragement is not a foundation upon which we can build strengths as this would be tantamount to promoting self-esteem as a legitimate replacement for self-respect.
What is self esteem? It's how we see ourselves based on what others determine we should be. As such, it is detrimental to mental health. Self-respect, on the other hand, is what we need more of : i.e. : a healthy perception of ourselves as someone who has the potential to be excellent - that is : the best we can be today in order that tomorrow we can best even that.
And so, motivating people to look to self-aggrandizement above and beyond a healthy self-respect perception is too reminiscent of the many “encouragement” or motivational speakers of our time. Selling positivity by promoting wishes, dreams and illusions is detrimental to creativity. The only way to encourage anyone is to reassure them that there is always a tomorrow - that one day when we can always have a shot at besting our yesterdays best.
Its all the same!
Artwork created today, whether figurative, abstract or non-representational, often tends to cause the same reaction. “It all looks the same”. And where it is figurative, it is referred to as flat; resembling more “a photo copied” than a unique artwork created from life or photo reference. Why is this? Is it possible that we have stunted our career paths by being too enthralled with tools and the technical aspects of self expression? Is there a stage beyond which we can be recognized for more than the proficiency we espouse? And if so, how do we get recognized for creating something which goes beyond the medium itself - as more than an awesome technical exercise? How do we get to the point of mesmerizing people with the stories behind our subject matter? How do we get viewers to stop looking for perfection in rendering and get them to actually see what we are visually trying to say? Finally, how do we stop viewers from repeating the same old, same old : “Wow, that’s so real!” “It looks like a photograph!” or the sneering : "My kid can do that!"
And when people say these things, what are they actually saying? Is it our fault that viewers can’t connect with anything more than the “thing” they see before them? The answer to that is : Maybe yes. . . And maybe no. . .
Today, it is not so much what viewers see in our work but rather how they look at artwork. Often, what they are looking at is how much “visible effort” has gone into a piece - not necessarily how much skill is required, but how much skill is implied. They react the way they do because that’s how the world now values everything. If it looks like a “brand” and has a “recognized” logo, it’s better. If it’s unrecognizable, they are leery rather than curious or excited. If it looks complicated and something they can’t do, it automatically elicits an exaggerated “awesome”; whether the work is good or bad.
Also, we live in an era of spontaneous gawking with a concomitant 10 second attention deficit time frame which, more often than not, leads to reactions of “whatever”. As a contemporary collective we focus more on tech-toys than on the poetry they can produce. And therein lies the crux of the matter in both the creation and viewing of artwork.
Most people today cannot “read” visual statements. We’ve all gone to school to read words, to define life in a quick reference-symbolic mode rather than in an appreciative and meditative mood. By the time we reach grade one, the idea of pictures and images have been relegated to the kindergarten gouache on newsprint garbage heap. And with that, our inability to see beyond looking is sealed. Actually, if there is art in our artwork, most viewers don't recognize it or avoid it because of an odd discomfort in the “feelings” area of their brains. To contemporary viewers, it is less threatening to be taken in by the technicalities of the “how to” in artwork then to be awed by the “sensations” of the “what is” which tries so desperately to speak to them.
In past centuries general populations of the world were illiterate, (no one could read except scribes and monks). Nonetheless, even the considered least within a society were visually and oral history astute. They understood messages emanating from the paintings and drawings they looked upon. They got their news from neighbours and town criers. The content offered was then “sub-contracted” through repetition networks which eventually took on colours of their own. At times the “news” was even retold expansively through grandiose paintings recalling (and often mythologizing) the feats of leaders; kings, queens and warlords.
In essence, the news back then was no less propaganda then it is today, where we continue to espouse more the entertainment value of information than appreciate actual “knowledge”. All this to say, that the press of bygone eras was nonetheless more visual and oral; using pictures and imagination to stoke discussion and allow viewers and listeners to “read” into the information provided. The advantage of those times was that all the proffered “news” was taken in and processed by less connected individuals who, on their own, decided whether the contents were worth being analyzed, trusted and/or laughed at.
Today, with our quasi total dependence on ipads, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, selfies and digital pics created by the billions. . . there is little time for taking in, wondering about or analyzing - only time for spontaneous reaction and regurgitation. In our times, information is codified to “chicken feed” us all the same data through millisecond captures. All information is tabulated, chewed and digested for us. We no longer have to think or feel on our own. And anyway, it’s deemed "safer" that all of us should receive and respond to the same things as “one voice”.
And so, in regards to images, we simply don’t need to, nor do we have time to, "see" anymore. All we have time for is a “split second look” while, almost at the same moment, yet another image pops up for the instant gratification demands of our "millisecond appreciation" capacities. But how does this make us visually illiterate? With seeing so many “pics”, are we now not ahead of the curve in this area of expertise?
A devolutionary process
Ironically, through this 21st century glut of visual stimuli, we are possibly the most visually illiterate generation since the beginning of time. With 24 hour a day news and instantaneous search processes on the internet, tons of information (and next to no knowledge or fact related to it) blinds us to actual connection and "seeing". Where once cave dwellers, smelled the winds, sensed the rains coming days before their arrival and recognized danger from miles away, we have become a race desensitized from that which once assured us security as well as truth and mostly a life which encouraged evolution and progress. Where long ago we discovered new continents, not so long ago we set out to discover new worlds. But today. . . we plug ourselves into hearing voids which allow us to jettison our "selves" into cocoons of oblivion. We avoid reality through cell phone disseminated visual entertainment entrancing us as life lived fails to. And so, blind and deaf to what actually is, we walk into traffic and crash into telephone poles in a quest to discover the virtual nirvana sold to us as "the" salve for our stunted egos and a “boring” world. Whatever!
The death of feeling
Where once the mysteries of complexity stoked our curiosities, “modern” times dictate obsession over passion and easy and fun over what once guaranteed not only individual but collective survival and thriving. And that is partly why we are functionally visually illiterate. Seeing is just too complicated and definitely not fast enough for the contemporary absolute necessity of our existence : fun. Another ignored facet of seeing literacy is the sensual aspect of it. To see beyond looking we must still be able to “feel”, to sense, to know the smell and sound and taste and touch of each other. And because we have so abandoned ourselves to the nether worlds of technology, to the tools which pleasure our numbed brains and hearts, we are fast losing our ancient natural capacities to survive and achieve the delicious orgasms provided by actual rather than virtual communication and touching. In essence, we are quickly becoming immune to the heart rhythms of others and of ourselves. And, as a consequence, the sharing inherent in creative acts, and in the “art” which seeks to reach out, to connect, to speak with us we are fast approaching our best before dates in the area of human dignity. One day, no one will be touched or moved by another’s human reaching out. And when that day comes, we should all hope that our batteries and electricity don’t die out.
Complexity over simplicity
Today, as in the past, much of artwork is rather simple if not simplistic to read. All of us are creative. But not all are poetic or visionary. Artwork therefore demands much in the area of superficiality - of decor and “pleasure” and ever less in the areas of appreciation and respect. But in much artwork there is a possibility of art hiding within. Are we ready for it? We must recognize that its message is not always, or rarely is, “easy” to read. When art transcends artwork it is more often than not a complex and awe-inspiring vision which has the capacity to move, to engage the extraordinariness hidden (if not stifled) within us all.
And so to read art; to see the essence of imagery, sophisticated observational, spiritual and emotional skills are required. We have them. But today, we often abandon them to the cluttered storage sheds of our minds. And so, images in the 21st century easily become cursory add-ons to the entitled silliness that is "moi"; toys, colourful curtains to brighten up and frame our life’s frosted windows. Pictures, today are often nothing more than colourful nonsense, entertainment, advertising based propaganda. And with life satisfaction ebbing, compensation through self-generated narcissistic selfies reassure us that we actually still exist and that the world (at least for an instant) does revolve around our navel-gazing importance. The concept of the late television show Seinfeld was correct. We’re slowly falling into ourselves, in a world modeled on nothingness, submission and superficiality. Where we go from there is anybody’s guess.
And then. . . there is even more of "moi"
In essence, images no longer say anything to us unless they are about us. . . and even then, they increasingly fail to convey the sought after feelings of security since the non-integrated and assimilated imagery we speedily embrace no longer “says” anything to us which is reassuring, intriguing, curious or exciting. With no imagination left and no more a capacity to “see” what someone else has said, we, over time, become lonelier and lonelier as communication means less and less. Taking in and analyzing and actually “thinking” on our own becomes more and more impossible as a desperate need to "be" loses the intensity of its desire while virtual life redefines the parameters of our ever narrowing confines. Fun and easy, we forget, is for Disneyland. Without a depth of thought and ability to take in, there is no capacity to then "share sharing". And without that, no community. And without that, no capacity to be is possible.
A high priest calling !!!
Visual artists, musicians, creators, makers. . . These are the real high priests of life. When it is good they can pat themselves on the back as their role is to reflect what is and what can possibly be. When things are bad, as they so often are today, their role is the same - to reflect what is and what possibly can still be. Are we then all artists? No more then all of us are geniuses. But as creators, intending to communicate “something” through artwork, we have our work cut out for us, lest we become one with the hordes who no longer see or wish to. We are lucky. We can still create, disseminate and distribute any way we can, including via the world wide web. But this is not the total answer. Being launched into space does not mean we are reaching Mars. The questions at hand are : Are we really talking the talk? And lastly, does talking at all matter?
To simplistically prove a point, not long ago, I created an unscientific yet telling experiment. At an exhibition, I stood near a painting of an old woman smiling beautifully. The artwork was not Michelangelo-ish but it had a lot going for it in the area of communicating warmth and reaching out to others. Approximately 100 people passed by this artwork; noticed it and commented. Of those who did, 95% instantaneously referred to the yellow teeth in the woman’s mouth, then moved on. . . Few if any stayed long enough to “see” beyond that perceived to be negative nor did they take the time to try to “get” what was actually being conveyed by the work.
Was that the fault of the painter or the viewer? Possibly a bit of both.
To be or not to be
As stated before, today’s viewing public is more in tune with what is physical or tangible - obvious, therefore non-threatening. Today, artwork is nothing but a product to be looked at. “Seeing”, to see more than the physicality of a thing, takes effort beyond a simple stare or glance. Today’s viewer often has no idea that, possibly, there is more being offered them - an actual “artistic statement ” which may be worth considering, wondering about or discovering. Maybe, hidden within the artwork being “criticized” rather than critiqued there's something worthy of our time and a blessing to our being. But taking the time to realize this is impossible since more often than not we have already moved on. If truth be told, in a split second we are probably already texting “nothing nothings” to some invisible data receiver.
Therein lies our new position, our new problem as visual artists. We are having to work ever harder to reach a visually illiterate public engrossed in so many nothing activities about nothing that noticing something about something is just too complex to fathom.
And so, transmitting something spiritual, sensual, tangibly mesmerizing, enigmatic or wondrous is not as easy as simply wanting to - no matter how skilled we are.
Nonetheless, we are crazy creatives. Despite still being in the acquisition and assimilation of skills phase of our lives (where we learn the elements which make up the visual language we wish to speak) we still wish (crave?) people would be touched by the stories we tell and not simply look at the pencil, brush or chisel strokes we lay down. Visual artists at their best are dreamers, thinkers, and players in the field of connection. We crave saying and sharing with like discoverers and appreciators. But sadly, as long as viewers (and we) are more mesmerized by our pencils or brushes and how we use them, they (and we) will be forced to remain in the staring (or not) phase to which they (and we) have become accustomed.
The freedom to create
The simplest answer is that we must give our work the freedom to say something beyond even our own comfort level. It must convey intensity, softness, aggressiveness, power, gentleness. It must be emotional and impactful to the senses, not simply emotive. The artwork has to say more about itself than we do about it. It has to say more about itself than about us. Art, beyond artwork, happens when we not only acquire knowledge and skills but assimilate them. And therein lies the creation of the freedom to create.
When we not only acquire but assimilate skills, they become a total part of who and what we are. They become a language and we become it. And because this phenomenon occurs, skill usage becomes automatic. We apply those skills without even thinking. And through that functional ease a freedom to express emerges. And through that freedom “art” is given an open door to show itself - if it is there t all within the artwork being created. And if and when it chooses to, art will transcend the physicality of the artwork - becoming the mystical entity that it is - becoming the shared source of life in which it encourages us all to “do” more rather than simply “be”.
All of this happens when our work goes beyond academic effort and in so doing becomes poetic, whimsy and magic; raising questions rather than submitting pat pc answers. Transcending occurs when what we say is so well said that it becomes thunderous and ethereal. For all intents and purposes, physical artwork is created with the tools of a trade. Art emerges from this created physical product - proving beyond a reasonable doubt that life is ever more than we pretend it to be. And that is only “seen” to be through the most primordial talents we possess : our senses. Logic allows the world to be understood. Sensuality allows the world to be wondrous and worthy of being lived.
Oftentimes we interpret the world as annoying because it is complex when in fact what we mean is complicated. Yet, life is quite simple to embrace (to act upon) though complex in its make-up. To be van Gogh-ish, Rembrandt-ish, John Singer Sargent-ish, Rothko-ish, even Warholish we must unquestionably assimilate skill sets - i.e. : have them become such a part of who we are, we no longer have to think about them when we wish to say something above and beyond the ordinary. But all in all, this process is a simple matter of “doing it”, mastering what needs to be mastered in order to speak eloquently. Though all of us can paint, we all wish to be heard and seen as more than simply brush handlers or chisel pounders. Assimilated skills free us to move beyond object creation and to whisk us into the realm of mysteries that “art” affords us all.
And art IS willing to “happen”. It happens when our hearts and souls embrace the ideas of touching and being touched, of moving and being moved. Art is about connection and communication. When it is only about us it never rises above being a physical ego thing, a therapeutic product, artwork at its least creative.
But skeptics in the painting of “reality themes” (that element of the contemporary art world made up of the most numerous practitioners) still cries out that their realm, their ideas are being shoved aside - are not seen to be "real art". So does that eliminate them from potentially being seen to be artists or their work art?
I don’t buy the whole premise of some things not having the potential to be artistic or tangibly powerful. Some of the simplest premises are the most complex and the most alluring.
Think Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Gary Greene, Eakins, Serov and the Glasgow Boys, amongst others.
And, let’s take the work of one of the most famous examples of American ultra-realism, other than Andrew Wyeth. This man took the most ordinary of ordinary people and made them icons. He even used the most cliché of interactions, events, situations and environments as his primary subjects. And when he painted anything, it was “photographically, illustratively real” to us.
So how did viewers go from saying that his work was nothing more than a photo to falling into a total reverent silence when standing before one of his emotionally charged paintings? Norman Rockwell took the most ordinary, the most realistic subject matter and raised it to a level of sensual pleasure, sensual malaise, sensual laughter, sensual propaganda (?) - so much so that his artwork continues to move even the hardest of hearts today. Like us, like several of the Impressionists, Rockwell used photos extensively as reference tools - but never as images to copy. His secret? He was more interested in telling a compelling story than creating a perfect picture.
Perfection vs excellence
To be a visual artist we must recognize that the idea of achieving perfection is born from without. As such it is an imposed expectation (based on the rules of another). Excellence on the other hand, comes from within. It feeds a self-nurturing concept which promotes the idea of being the best we can be today, while encouraging us to best even that tomorrow. Where perfection in creativity is rigid and final, excellence is fluid - a never-ending becoming. It offers up a tingling feeling of eventually, possibly, maybe, hopefully, one day achieving our goal of realizing a masterpiece.
But in the end, whether we are eventually seen to be artists or not, whether our efforts are called artwork or art is irrelevant. What counts is the journey and just maybe turning a viewer into total jelly upon seeing one of our grand artworks. :)
Finally, there are 4 things to remember as drawers, sketchers, painters, sculptors - visual artists who wish to achieve better than yesterday:
1) Art is always artwork. But artwork is not always art.
2) Artwork always answers its own questions. Art, on the other hand, is always impishly asking yet another.
3) To create “art” from our efforts we need to be disciplined enough to free ourselves to be free.
4) For art to eventually emerge from our artwork, we must free it to say (without interference) what it is that it wishes to say. And if, in the end, it says nothing. . . Maybe there is no message. Or maybe our agitated and overloaded minds are not yet calm, quiet enough for the hidden message to be received, to be taken in, to be “seen”.
There are 2 ways of looking at style : style as defined by the parameters of our expression - in regards to what is “out there” - for example : Impressionism, Realism, Abstract Expressionism, etc. These are collective styles, representational idioms which are sometimes (erroneously) called “genres”. Then there is having a “personal style” which for all intents and purposes identifies us as having our own recognizable graphic way of saying something visually; as we so often do in a written form through a personal handwriting. Ironically, personal hand-writing styles are disappearing. Many in younger generations have no idea how to hold a pencil or pen let alone how to use them. Because of keyboards that men would never have admitted to using not so long ago (that was for "secretaries!". . . ) whole generations are no longer identifiable through a hand-writing style.And as we crave perfection rather than excellence in our drawing and painting styles, we will soon, logically speaking, no longer have a drawing or painting style. . .
Collective styles we can choose to embrace. The latter, the personal style, emerges from within. And, this emergence occurs once we have not only acquired but assimilated the skill sets required to speak a specific language. And once these skills are assimilated, we begin to apply them without even thinking. This, in turn, allows us a freedom of expression unknown to us prior to these tools having become a part of us. And when this happens, we suddenly, again without realizing it, begin drawing, painting or sculpting in such a personal way that viewers come to recognize the "who" of a visual statement above and beyond the "what" of the visual statement itself. This is how we differentiate the works of Michelangelo from those of Picasso, Caravaggio, Rockwell, Parrish, et al.
In his own inimitable style (no pun intended), Dali said it best : He explained that it was a waste of time to chase after or crave a personal style since that style will happen despite all efforts to hunt it down. In essence, personal style happens when we stop trying to be unique and simply let the naturalness of our strokes and expressions be themselves.
But once we have this "our" style (or as some esoterics refer to it : a “voice”) does this guarantee we become an overnight sensation? Sadly (and realistically). . . no. Sales do not suddenly multiply when our style makes itself known. As in all selling games, the marketplace determines whether it will accept or reject how we say things - not us. We can present our style and the styles we use it in, but we can’t impose it, anymore than we can impose a style upon ourselves. If we try, we will be denying who we are. If we obsess with a goal of creating our own style, we will end up being as J F Martel indicates in his seminal book : “Reclaiming Art In The Age of Artifice” : creators of pastiche - superficial artworks that never become “art”.
Are we stuck with a personal style? No. We can deny it, throw it away, try to become something we are not. But that isn’t going to get us a legitimate place in the world of the arts. Can we change the styles in which we work? Absolutely. We can paint in whatever style (or “ism”) we want without denigrating or rejecting our personal style. Picasso, for example, always remained Picasso no matter what he did or how. He played in stone, ceramics, paint, drawing and more - and yet we always recognize his work. His personal style; his hand-writing, never wavered. What did change was the representational styles in which he worked. Much like when he spoke French or Spanish, the language spoken changed but the man speaking was always recognizably Picasso. He never pretended to be anyone else or to say anything in any other way than his own. That's what made him Picasso and style is what makes us "us" - in whatever language we speak.
La bergère a des oreilles - Oil/huile - 10" x 12" - Collection privée, Ottawa
The roots of twenty-first century portraiture stem from European traditions which, themselves, were influenced by Egyptian & Roman perspectives.
Early on, over and above religious and story-telling genre paintings, commissioned portraits had one thing in common : they were all of one "type" : that which depicted societal status - the position of an individual painted. The name "Henry", in King Henry the VIII, was of little consequence. What mattered was the title "King", not the person. The portrait had but one goal : depict “His Majesty” at his most "Royal" - i.e. at his most powerfully rich, benevolent (or despotic) best - (whichever was the politically correct quality to have at that time).
Whether the subject was a Queen or Consort, a King, Pope or Countess, it was the position held which was painted. Human failings or attributes were of lesser consequence and likeness could but did not necessarily happen. What had to be depicted was the "value" of the subject’s position as it pertained to the “commissioner” of the portrait and/or the society of that day. Over and above power, portraiture also served to "publicize" the general wealth of a client (as in : having more money than).
Since the 14th century with its emphasis on religious iconography, European portraiture has continuously evolved - going from representations of “position”, to representations of “profession”, to today’s renderings of “person”. For all intents and purposes, portraiture has gone from being based on perceptions of What I Am to those of What I Do to those of Who I am.
Today, we commission a portrait of ourselves, of a loved one, a friend or colleague to celebrate their/our uniqueness. And with this freer perception of the“who I am”, a more open consideration of personhood has come to pass. With a less rigid ideation regarding “what or who we are”, we are more open to recognizing (if necessary to the purpose of a portrait) an individual’s contribution to their community, institution, corporation or society at large - over and above their "beingness". Thus the concept of official portraiture has survived all of these centuries because we now look upon a portrait subject as more than simply the reason why they were painted.
What Of The Contemporary Need For Likeness
Cameras have forever altered contemporary perceptions. Through the 20th and now 21st century, we have come to increasingly recognize "likeness" as a primary benchmark by which we communicate and share (or not) with others. In essence, "what we look like to others" (or think we do) has become a crucial twenty-first century connection characteristic. A portrait painter must keep this in mind if he or she wishes to survive in the increasingly rarefied air and prized practice that is portrait painting.
Nonetheless, "recognizability" should not be the single greatest focus in the creation of a portrait. To be successful, a likeness must be more than its physical self. It must have depth. It must speak eloquently to a subject’s personality and to a sitter as a stand-alone individual. In contemporary terms, and regardless of painterly stylistics, the “face” must offer more than someone's unique nose or ears.
Ironically, though, we do so prize being recognized. We selfie ourselves to death in the hope someone will know we exist. . . But then, what will it matter? In the distant future our "portraits" will for the most part be anonymous; where no one will care much for the 15 minutes of fame concepts we espoused. Centuries from now we will, through our portraits, become nothing more than the latest in a bland rendition of an enigma genre. . .
Or, wondrously, we might become that fascinating smile, that questioning look, that sad reminder of something, someone mysterious - those eyes in that unknown face that viewers gaze into rather than stare at - and all because of the same question which has been asked since the beginning of time; since the discovery of the first incredible portrait ever created : Who was she? Who was he?
Bernard Poulin. . . I paint, I draw, I write