Art is an interesting thing. There are many different kinds of art and many different opinions on what is or isn’t art. My goal is to find ways to create things and generate a livable income from that work. You’d imagine that would classify me as an artist. However there are plenty of people who wouldn’t call me that. There are plenty of people who make a living off their work but they identify themselves by different titles. I imagine part of it’s to avoid any stigma associated with the term or to specify their trade beyond the generic. Some folks make things like jewelry, furniture, plush dolls, all sorts of things, and consider themselves crafters. Some people like me draw talking animals or funny caricatures of people and call ourselves cartoonists.
The Myth of the Starving Artist
If you open a book on making a living creatively these days you’ll find some opening chapters dispelling the myth of the starving artist. This is the public perception of an artist. Somebody who toils away in obscurity, poverty, struggling to survive while laboring over their masterwork that will only bring them fame and fortune long after their death. Why is this myth so pervasive in our culture? There’s lots of reasons. It’s a romanticized vision based on misconceptions of what a living artist’s life is. Many folks who don’t know anything about the art world and many artists themselves fall for this stereotype. It seeks to make the artist altruistic and above monetary concerns or even concerns about surviving at all. If you’re an artist, all you should be thinking about is rendering some supreme, ultimate truth onto the canvas and nothing else. That’s how it’s done, right? No, that’s not how it’s done. If you paint for yourself and make a living through some other means, that’s fine. But working artists should concern themselves with finding work.
“Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime!” He was also seriously mentally ill. He was a great painter but I wouldn’t recommend anybody pattern their life after his. In fact I’d argue against patterning your life after anybody, successful or not, because everybody’s life and circumstances are different. Some things can’t be repeated by everybody and it’s best to find your own path to the mountain using others’ as a rough guide. Is it better for the artist to never sell their work and die penniless than to illustrate based on what their clients want? Is “selling out” really that big of a fear? Apparently it is for some people.
Another sub-section of this myth is that artists, being poor and destitute, should accept any offer that comes along from people willing to give them the time of day. Anybody with Photoshop can do what you do, why should I pay you an honest wage or at all? Shouldn’t you be satisfied with the exposure my project gives you? Isn’t seeing your work printed or used in some other means for my profit good enough? There are plenty of people looking for artists to work on speculation. They want the artist to donate their time to something on the promise that, should this thing make money, they’ll get a cut of it down the line. Imagine a plumber only getting paid that way. Picture a heart surgeon haggling with some guy who says he’s used knives before, how hard can it be?
Ok, title of the post, better make this good. Well first I want to address that people use this term wrong. Modern Art was art made roughly between 1860 and the 1970s. Modernism is a movement that some scholars argue is still going on even though we had Postmodernism emerging in the 1980s. When I hear people complaining about the pointlessness they see in art news today, they’re usually referring to contemporary art. Artist using elephant dung? Artist photographing a crucifix in a jar of his own urine? Lets just call it contemporary since it’s going on now. Movements should be named by historians. Ever listened to a bunch of people in bands sitting around trying to classify their sound? We’ll stick with contemporary.
Art can be controversial, that’s fine. However some people seem to only want to make art that’s geared towards offending somebody. These people exist outside of the art community. Look at the success of reality TV and shows like Jackass. Now I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. (Lord knows I can’t look away when an episode of Jackass comes on) But we should look at the intention of a work. We should see what thought went into it, what the artist is trying to say with it, and why it can be seen as upsetting. I love how some people don’t consider editorial cartoons relevant today and yet some are still controversial enough for the cartoonists to get death threats. Cartoons say a religion is violent, people respond by threatening or committing acts of violence, I’d say somebody’s not getting the point. Entire discussions could be had around the opinions behind those cartoons before even mentioning the reaction to them.
Whenever people discuss performance art I like to bring up Chris Burden. He was the guy who had himself crucified to a Volkswagen and had himself shot in the arm by an assistant. It all sounds crazy out of context but if you read up on him, his history, and what he was trying to say, you understand him a little better. This isn’t to say you totally get the meaning and significance behind it or that you magically approve of his work. It just means you can see where he’s coming from and can make a better educated argument for or against his art.
Often people will criticize art for it’s simplicity. Jackson Pollock made art of splatters of paint dripped onto a canvas. Piet Mondrian made straight lines and blocks of color. Mark Rothko made streaks of color. Georgia O’Keeffe made abstractions of flowers. Andy Warhol made pictures of soup cans. Each of these artists has a story. Each of them has a history that explains why they started making art the way they did and why it’s important. A big part of being an artist is being able to explain your own relevance and convincing people to believe in it. If you’ve seen the film Art School Confidential, you’ll recall a scene where a professor is asked, “How long have you been doing the triangles?” and he replies, “I was one of the first…”
Some artists make pieces where the object itself isn’t the art but rather your perception of it is. I recall hearing about one piece where the display was a series of egg shells where the yolks had been blown out. Often during transport some of the shells broke. When that happened the curators got some more eggs, blew the yolks out, and the show continued. Another artist had bags of trash during a show and one of them got thrown out by a custodian who assumed it was trash. The artist simply gave them another bag of trash to replace it. There’s also the concept of Found Art where the artist literally finds an object and calls it art. Sometimes these displays are poignant. Sometimes something we see every day will take on a different look when you see it in a gallery. What is a portrait but another painting of a human face? It’s the perception of that face, the significance of who it is, how it’s rendered, all sorts of different factors. That is what separates the Mona Lisa from Elvis on black velvet. It’s also what separates a blown out egg shell from a FabergÃ© egg.