I worked on this post over a few days, decided it was too contentious, personal, or self indulgent, and that it was like an email you write but don’t send because once you’ve written it, it’s out of your system. It’s me thinking out loud, and putting my thoughts to proverbial paper. Finally, I thought I’d put this little qualifier at the top and publish it anyway.
Whenever someone asks me what kind of art I do I’m stumped. Admittedly, I’d ask someone else the same question if I found out he/she was an artist or musician. I’ve never bothered to take the time to rehearse an answer, but I could probably say something like, “I do my own thing”. That might give it up a bit, hint at me belonging to artists who don’t belong.
I find I am more broadminded about art than most artists I come across, who tend to subscribe to one branch of art-making and dislike others, kinda’ like how kids of my generation made a point of hating disco and country music. I have rather eclectic tastes, especially in music (which I am generally more fond of than visual art), and am not as competitive as many other artists surprisingly seem to be. I am much more likely to support them than they are to support me. True, I’ve written many articles decrying multi-millionaire, blue chip, overrated, celebrity artists, whose value I don’t see, but they can literally afford to take the hit. In fact, it will ricochet off of them and pierce my flesh. When you criticize the most powerful people, trends, and institutions in the art world, you can’t expect the same forces to embrace or promote you.
There’s something loaded in the “what kind of art do you do” question (less so when it comes from me). It implies that there are “kinds” of art – rough groups of like-minded people who work under the same banner. There actually are, and this lends an artist’s work authority, but I have nothing to do with it.
I find it odd that people gravitate towards allegiance with this or that trend or movement, or even medium. Some artists will say, “I’m a painter”, and that signifies a studio, tubes of paint, brushes, canvases, paint-smeared smocks or clothes, and a long tradition one is a part of. I can’t say “I’m a painter” because I primarily work digitally, even if most of what I produce are very painterly images, and I have a background in painting. It’s also misleading to say I’m a digital artist, because this tends to imply things like fractals, or doing work which is predominantly about the technology, rather than using it for a more traditional look.
When I’ve entered digital art contests, and been accepted, they’ve tucked me in the back of their publications. And when it comes to traditional painters, the leader of the Stuckists, Charles Thomson, once declared one of my digital pieces “conceptually art”, which meant that it was NOT art in reality, but theoretically art in an unresolved ether. Actually, it’s a very large digital file and can be printed as large as eight feet wide (at 150 dpi). The best rebuttal would have been to make an edition of precisely one eight-foot-wide version, printed on metal, and hit him over the head with it, in which case it would become abundantly clear that digital painting can be both as scarce and as physical as you want. Wouldn’t really hit him, and you can look at his paintings, and my art, and decided for yourself if my art is less real or authentic than his.
I was never a Stuckist myself, nor wanted to be – they seem more than a bit reactionary – but I was a member of their Facebook page for a while, partly out of curiosity, but largely because it gave me a place to share my work where SOME people would appreciate it. I overlap with the Stuckists a bit on their objection to the blue chip conceptual spectacles, such as Hirst (and his small army of hired assistants) put on. But I don’t share their blanket denunciation of Postmodernism and conceptual art. I’ve done conceptual and performance art, and my thesis project was an installation.
Further, Stuckism rejects my art, not just because it’s digital, but also because I believe that art CAN move forward, and everything worth doing hasn’t already been done. And, really, a Stuckist should be a paint “dauber”. As a Stuckist you should also be an amateur, and not ironic. I have an MFA, and love irony and ambiguity. For me, being a Stuckist would be like trying to fit my whole body into a shoe.
I am intrigued that the Stuckists and Remodernists pride themselves on being part of a movement, and will keep pointing people to their manifestos, in which one kind of art is the good art, and other kinds (including my oeuvre in progress) are not. I don’t have the inclination to write a manifesto, can’t imagine someone else following in my footsteps, and have no inclination to subscribe to someone else’s manifesto, or join a movement. I do like and support some of the work of Stuckists/Remodernists, though.
More on what motivates me, coming up.
I often post my work in sci-fi groups on Google Plus, where it is sometimes very popular, and in a “Dark Visionary Art” group on Facebook, where it also does fairly well. But I am not a sci-fi artist, though I include sci-fi elements – nor am I a “dark visionary artist”. I wouldn’t call myself a “visionary”! That’s perhaps not as astoundingly arrogant as calling yourself a “genius”, and perhaps not as freakish as claiming to be a “psychic”. It’s not as annoying as declaring yourself enlightened on the internet. But it implies you are a different breed and special kind of person – a visionary. I’m a regular sort of person with no super powers that make me special. Some of my work can pass as “dark visionary art”, but it’s just “passing”. I can accept “visionary” if it only applies to the work and not the person, and signifies the art is based on the imagination, such as Surrealism. I’ve even been advised that my work is too dark and gross, and still I am not a true “dark” artist. It’s just one side of me. I also sometimes make ludicrous pieces just for laughs.
I notice that quite a lot of people like some of my art and really don’t like some of my other art. I recently received a mixed compliment, which was probably sincerely intended as very positive, but because of my practice was also quite negative. I’ll quote the person anonymously:
“When critics, colleagues and former professors say the my work is maturing or the like, I am struck by their inability to truthfully say “I never really appreciated your former work, but this interests me.”. I have been following your post since you posted your essay on postmodernism. I can say with confidence that I never really appreciated your previous work, but this interests me, big time. True your previous bodies of work all have specifics that are singularly admirable, but this stuff strikes me.”
That is mostly very complimentary, and I do appreciate that the author troubled himself to write it, but I was at a loss to respond, because I’m not sure how someone could like my newer art and not, apparently, any of my prior art. Perhaps what he likes about my new art is the heightened realism and three-dimensionality that using Zbrush to make models lends the final image. This brings me back to some of my art seeming to belong to a certain familiar genre, and some of it not. I’m second guessing the commentator, though, because he wasn’t specific, and I really have no idea what he liked and why. I only know for sure that he’s not a fan of most of my work at all, and felt obliged to tell me so. Perhaps his motive was to high-lite the sincerity of his admiration for the newer work. Hmmmm.
I submitted work to an online magazine (either “Beautiful Bizarre” or “Bleaq”) that I thought might be interested in my art. Their kind rejection email said something to the effect that while my work was definitely good, it wasn’t the “aesthetic” they were looking for. Of course it wasn’t. There was overlap, but I’m not a believer in their aesthetic and everything it represents. I have no keen interest in, say, zombies, vampires, goth, tattoos, piercings, paganism, corsets, the macabre, or whatever. I don’t fit in.
I hashtag a lot of my art with “horror”, though it definitely isn’t a part of that genre proper, but may appeal to those who like horror.
One of my pieces I tag as sci-fi, horror, Expressionism, painting, and digital painting [below].
This one seems to put people off. It’s definitely not “horror” in the way vampires or zombies are, but is in the way Colonol Kurtz spoke of “horror” at the end of Apocalypse Now. But that’s not really what people typically mean by horror. “Horror” shouldn’t reflect politics, or war, or instances of police brutality. It should be supernatural, not real. And while this has a robot in it, it’s not really sci-fi because it’s not primarily about robots and the future. And while the brush strokes are easily visible and expressive, you can’t really have “digital” Expressionism, nor I imagine sci-fi expressionism. It’s also too painterly and expressive to be political art, which is generally more conceptual and cerebral.
If you flip this around, I’m not particularly interested in horror, sci-fi, political, or even digital art. For me musical analogies are always helpful for understanding visual art, which tends to be more arcane and surrounded by a fog of obtuse, and misleading theory. If I were a musician, it’s safe to say I wouldn’t play metal. This is not to say I don’t like metal, but rather that I can’t imagine ONLY playing metal. This is also why I don’t consider Black Sabbath, as cool as they are, as good as Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin had more range, but could still rock out just as hard. If I were a musician I’d possibly incorporate some heavy metal guitar riffs hither and thither, and perhaps even solos, but it would be mixed in with lots of experimental electronic stuff…
Stick with me, I’m getting to something.
I recently got on Instagram, and it’s been rather instructive, quickly exposing me to a plethora of art I hadn’t encountered in other places. And thus I see a lot of trends, such as thickly impasto, abstracted heads in the middle of canvases (stay tuned for my post on Antony Micallef). Right off, I can tell you, I’d put the head on the side of the canvas, just to do something a bit different (see my next piece, which will be done in a few days). Anyway, I see a lot of art that falls into loose categories and genres, each with a wide appeal and extant audience. [Incidentally I’ve noticed a trend that traditional painters will “unfollow” me. Kind of annoying when you support other people’s work, even if you think it’s a bit conservative and safe, and they reject yours.]
I remember a friend of mine, whom I worked with as a temp in New York, telling me he was thinking of attempting to write a novel. He explained that he’d like to do “genre writing” because there were extant parameters and instructions on how to do it. There’s also a market and audience. I remember this because of how alien it was to my own sensibility. If anything, I’d want to “do my own thing”, whatever that would be.
Back to the guy who wrote the mixed compliment. I finally responded when I had something at all to say other than, “uuuuh, glad you like it. Thanks”. But, what I served up was, surprise, ambiguous. Because I started something else that isn’t really the work he liked. It’s much more “Surrealistic”.
Glad you like some of my newer work. That may change soon, as I’m doing some new experiments with a different emphasis. Prepare to be nonplussed in a few days when the next work comes out.
Best of luck,
I just figured that if he only liked one thing I’ve ever done, the chances of something else that was different also appealing to him would be unlikely.
And let me just segue into another comment I received the day before on the same series which I gather he liked:
“Yet are you capable of imagining a female who is Not defined by her sexuality? Her physical body, and how fuckable it is deemed to be? Aim to attract or repulse an assumed male viewer, or in this picture, the discomfort from both together? Maybe your professors had a point about you straight white males maybe shutting the fuck up for five minutes, at least on some subjects.”
For this commenter I do belong in a category of artists, and could easily answer the question, “What kind of art do you do?” I could say, “I make straight white male art”. This person completely missed that the art in question, while it does engage the opposites of attraction and repulsion, is largely a reaction against the objectification of women in art, and how popular that kind of blissfully, untroubled-by-feminism-art is.
Well, that’s the political part of it, because, as usual, there’s more going on. In reality I’m bored shitless and sometimes annoyed by all the NSFW (not safe for work) art that gets easy visibility online as compared to other less prurient art forms. Basically, anything with boobs in it, as long as it doesn’t suck, is likely to get some attention, whereas my work is mostly steadfastly ignored. I decided to put boobs on quite grotesque and even frightening monsters. On one level they are parodic commentaries and criticism of boob-art. But I had to make it ambiguous enough to “pass” and, y’know, get some of that NSFW attention. Some people, either on the boob-art end, or the anti-boob-art end have, however, taken the works literally as either being good or horrible because they are presumed supposed to be somehow sexy. The works are accepted either for mistakenly belonging to the fashionable NSFW genre, or mistakenly rejected as belonging to the “straight white male misogynist” genre. When dealing with irony or ambiguity there is always the risk of being taken literally. I suggested to the feminist commenter that she imagine the pieces were done by a female artist, and see if that changed them at all. Not sure why she ever presumed it was for a male-only audience other than that is a standard trope in decades-old feminist theory about art of hundreds of years ago. I’ve already received positive comments on the work from women, and one female, feminist painter in particular.
What motivates me is discovery. I want to know what’s under the next rock, or around the next corner. Most every piece I do is an experiment. I’m trying out some new technique, subject, hybrid, or approach, or any combination of those things. If I do a piece that’s based on photographs, the next piece might be drawn from my imagination, just for variety. I see my process a little like a shark circling its prey, or a baseball team’s strategy to load the bases before the home-run-hitter goes to the plate. I try to approach art from different angles, combine and integrate what I learn.
Yes, I’m fully aware that working in more than one narrow style is highly discouraged by those who offer sage advice to struggling artists. However, their advice pertains to selling art, not realizing your vision. Is it better to settle on selling compromise good art, or to strive for great art?
This is an easy question for me because I answered it, unhesitatingly, when I was 18. I read some good novels at the time. Classics. And I knew then I’d rather be the sort of person who writes a great novel and gets no recognition than the highly successful, slick author that churns out milquetoast bestsellers. Who aspires to the second-rate novel? Most people, I guess. I don’t write novels, but you get the idea.
With the internet and popular venues such as Instagram, visual art is an ultra-saturated and competitive enterprise. It’s like MMA. You can’t just be a good boxer, you need to have a ground game, and be skilled all around. I think it’s the same for visual artists, however, in art, as opposed to MMA, perception wins over actual ability. Just consider how invincible and heroic Ronda Rousey or Connor McGregor seemed until they were destroyed by underdogs with no glitz or celebrity status. The artworld equivalents of Rousey or McGregor don’t suffer ego-shattering defeats because the hype is considered part of the art (see Andy Warhol), and the more overblown the celebrity the better the art. Thus we have abysmally bad drawings/paintings by Tracey Emin heralded as priceless masterpieces. Reputation trumps actual art in the art world.
I suspect it is naive that an artist can by sheer virtue of the quality of her or his art be able to find a seat on the survival raft of the art market. Art can be dismissed with the wave of a hand, or the utterance of some snippet of art rhetoric (such as “straight white male”). It’s almost a given that art isn’t understood, if it’s any good, unless people take the time to invest in it. Think of poetry. I for one, am not going to like any poetry unless I give it the time it deserves. OK, if you think you like poetry, think Opera.
A new idea will excite me. Churning out variations on a theme, both in terms of style and content, on the other hand, could become a lot like a job. I really don’t know how Jackson Pollock could make so many drip paintings (much as I like them) without getting bored. They were “all-over” paintings, so there was no composition to speak of. There was no subject. The color tended to be subdued, and otherwise subordinate to the texture. While they might be about mood, a lot of them are going to be about the same mood. You’d think an innovator like Pollock wouldn’t settle on one discovery and keep doing the same experiment over and over. But the art world demands more of the same and a series of commodifiable objects branded under a celebrity name. Today’s artist searches for a style to brand, and then they get a kind of monopoly on that particular way of working, but are also constrained by it.
To me, artists like Mondrian painted themselves into a corner. I suppose the purity and simplicity of a distinct signature style appeals, but if you are going to stick to one, which is kinda’ like being a chef that specializes in pastries and pastries only, it should be a broad one that allows maximal creativity and content. If you are a “painter” and you’ve written off subject matter, lighting and shading and modeling, you don’t have that much left to play with.
I can’t imagine making only drip paintings, or Impressionist landscapes, but I have thought, again and again, that Pollock would have been a better Abstract Expressionist if he made landscape paintings on Sundays (not all day or anything, he could have just knocked one out in the morning or afternoon). Hopefully the paradigm in which an artist is a style and a brand is attenuating, because it doesn’t really benefit the artist or the audience [see my article 10 Abstract Expressionists, and the signature styles that killed them*].
At the same time as I’m thinking about the attraction in art to affiliate oneself with a group or extent style (and accruing to oneself the authority of that style and strength through numbers) I see the same sort of thing play out in American politics, conspicuously in the primaries. For example, I watched a video of Trump supporters arguing with people who’d come to protest Trump. Both sides shouted their one-sided viewpoint. Further, you will find that the Trump supporters and critics in the media each blame the aggression and violence on the opposing group. For Trump supporters the protesters came of their own accord specifically in order to shut down the rally. Imagine protesters did that at a popular concert. How would the fans respond? And the anti-Trump media focuses on Trump’s own words, his various strutting and posturing, playing the tough guy, and advocating getting rough with people who disrupt his campaign. Each side is convinced they are right, and the opposition is nuts. But if you watch actual footage of the conflicts, people on both sides are talking shit, antagonistic, and it easily escalates into pushing, shoving, and then fists flung in both directions. One group calls the other Nazis, and the other calls them Communists. Nevertheless, reporters will claim that none of the protesters initiated the violence, and they were all peaceful. Meanwhile, Trump claims nobody has been injured, or seriously injured, at one of his rallies. Each side embraces a story that doesn’t allow for the story of the other.
I’ve taken to reading conservative commentary on the news, even though I’m a lifelong liberal. Formerly I thought paying attention to the conservative side of the spectrum would poison my mind, but now I consider it a good exercise in tolerance to hear out their arguments. The reason that I look at either side on the further ends of the spectrum now is not to get the main story, but rather to find the holes in the narrative of the opposing viewpoint so that I can better assess the truth myself. The Trump rallies are a perfect example, with both sides placing all blame on the other. And as a Bernie supporter I can easily imagine becoming violent at a Trump protest, even if I personally wouldn’t do so. I can also imagine having a different life and becoming violent on the Trump side. One of the virtues of getting older and a tad wiser is one can imagine oneself, honestly, playing different roles under different circumstances, and not see oneself as a completely constant and fixed identity.
When I was in college I remember one of my teachers telling me she identified with the perpetrators of some horrible crime against humanity, like the Holocaust. At the time I could only identify with the victims and didn’t really understand what she meant, though she explained it well enough I didn’t question whether or not she was on the side of the good. Now I know what she meant. She didn’t see the Germans of the time, or whomever it was, as alien, other, different, and inherently evil. Rather, she saw them as people who were reacting to extraordinary circumstances. When you can see the enemy as human, than peace and resolution are possible, especially if they can see you the same way. This is one reason I’m uncomfortable with the term “terrorist”.
Speaking of tolerating conservative twaddle, someone (it was Stefan Molyneux, who pisses me off) was making an argument about why “terrorists” are not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. I didn’t say I don’t leave scalding comments under their articles, and in this instance I brought up that Green Peace has been labeled a “terrorist organization” and asked if he thought it was OK to go after the families of members of Green Peace.
I’m wondering if people don’t like to be on their own, out on a limb, unaffiliated with a movement, group, style, or party. Do people want to join the pack, or differentiate themselves from it? Do they want to fortify what they already believe, or seek new insights and understanding?
You already know I like to fancy myself the latter. And this may also be a consequence of circumstances. At least part of the reason I’m not on-board with radical, Postmodern, conceptual identity-politics art, such as I was taught in grad school, is that I couldn’t be. Compared to my classmates who were encouraged to empower themselves, I was supposed to disempower and deconstruct myself. You have to have a lot of power to begin with to embrace a career of disempowering yourself and have anything left over. That and it wasn’t my interest in art to begin with. I started drawing as a young kid. As I mentioned various magazines and groups reject my work.
Another factor has to be being an expat. When you’ve only lived in your own country and haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot of travel, you may take your culture for granted and see it as normal, common sense, inevitable, and just the way things are. Of course some people can overcome this without leaving their home town, but if you DO leave, you may be forced to overcome it. After living in another culture for long enough, you discover your own culture is arbitrary, and in some ways quaint and hamfisted.
I’ve lived the last ten years in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. At this point, when people ask me, “Where are you from?”, I say America, but that’s not the whole picture. When I go to the Western grocery store here in Siem Reap, I read labels in French, read the words on the Thai packaging, speak Khmer, listen to the Chinese tourists speaking Mandarin, and occasionally say something to them. Including English, I can have 5 languages kicking around in my head in a single grocery-shopping trip. I say I am American because of my citizenship, and certainly some of my cultural traits (probably including my disinclination to inwardly conform), but I don’t have an America-centric perspective. For example, when I think of China, it’s from the viewpoint of living there for over four years in smallish rural cities in which there were only a handful of foreigners. When I turned 45, I’d spent roughly 4.5 years in China. The very odd thing about that, to me, was it meant that one out of every ten days in my life I’d awoken in China. Now I’m 50, and one out of every 5 days I’ve awoken in Asia. In a sense, I may be only 80% American.
[I’ll save being 50 for another article. It’s generally thought of as a disadvantage in art, as younger people are seen as the natural innovators. But there’s an advantage to having been out in the real world living and working, and having some experience under your belt. Also, it’s not like I just started making art.]
I’m not bragging. At this point I’m not successful according to any external standard, and unless a miracle happens, I won’t be anytime soon. I’m pondering. I can’t take credit for speaking 4 foreign languages. A year of foreign language was a requirement in college, and I chose French because it was the international language (should probably have chosen Spanish because, well, I could have at very least read the signs on the bus going to and back from school). I taught myself Thai very deliberately, but ended up in China because I sorta’ fell through the cracks, and only came to Cambodia because of the recent military takeover in Thailand and increased visa prohibitions. Each place I go I try to learn the language (except Vietnam, because I found Vietnamese too difficult) but I never intended to learn more than one Asian language, or live in more than one Asian country. That’s just part of getting kicked around the globe a bit. I’m also not spectacular at any languages, except perhaps English (and only if you compare me to non-native speakers), but have easily devoted hundreds of hours to each of the other languages, usually easing off after I plateau at a passably functional level, but enough to get a real sense of the language.
I’m using being multi-lingual, to some degree, as an example of not having just one context or vantage point. Instead of defining myself as this or that, it makes more sense to do so as NOT this or that.
As I went to get my third cup of coffee for the day, um hum, I had a memory, which is just an anecdote really suitable for this article. When I was a senior in High School, I went through a metal phase, which totally overlapped my prog rock phase. Well, I had a drawing class and in it were a few dudes who liked their metal. The other guys had long hair, I didn’t. One of them liked the Scorpions, the other Judas Priest, and I got Iron Maiden. In fact we each liked all those bands but had our favorite, at the time. A couple years later I ran into the Judas Priest guy in a record store. I was at the register buying a record. He was shocked and appalled that it was a Japanese bamboo flute recording. And so it appears some of us gravitate to identifying and belonging to a sector, or sub-group of humanity, and others, like myself, who do not feel this compulsion, or reject it. I still listen to some Maiden, Scorpions, and Priest, but I don’t know if my erstwhile friend ever got into Japanese bamboo flute music, or any world music (which I’m well into).
My art is part painting, digital, sci-fi, political, fine art, popular art, conceptual, abstract, “visionary” (I would say “imagination based” instead), Surrealist, Realist, dark, funny, Postmodernist, Modernist, traditional, experimental, psychedelic, and Expressionist. Maybe the answer to “what kind of art do you do” is “I don’t do a kind of art”.
Suddenly it occurs to me when someone says, “What kind of art do you do?” to answer, in just the right tone, “shiiiiiiit”.
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2 replies on “What kind of art do you do? – Reflections on “belonging” in art, and life …”
Another great post Eric. All artists get asked this question and it’s difficult to explain. Even if you say abstract it doesn’t give any idea at all of a painting. So I say just look at them and you will know. As far as worrying about what the art world says I would say as long as they don’t like your stuff your on the right track. They are in it to make money and real artist paint for themselves. I agree with you on pollock and most famous artists for that matter. They find a style that sells and reproduce it over and over. No longer an artist in my opinion. I met an artist last month that said she’s found her landing pad. That made me sad but she’s fine with it. A few like Picasso kept on evolving their entire life and remained artists. You are one of the few artists I have ever seen in my 30 years as an artist. Keep up the good work.
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Thanks Matt. Comments like yours are rare, and really appreciated. I even thought it might be someone trolling me until I read it a few days later. I get so many negative comments on my writing and art that when I get a new comment, I have to brace myself. So, when someone is quite supportive, it can require a double-take.