[Note before I get started. I’m not a tortured artist, and have no mental illnesses or addictions. I’m not even prone to depression. If there are no extenuating circumstances, I’m told I can be annoyingly chipper, especially in the mornings. The way I usually choose to deal with things is with light humor.]
I was watching this video about “The Truth of the Tortured Artist” by The Art Assignment, which is a sequel to their former video, “The Myth of the Tortured Artist”, and suddenly a work by me filled the screen. To fully appreciate the grand irony of this, and the kick in the teeth delivered to yours truly, this is what is being said when my art crops up.
If an artist seems too happy, or seems to be enjoying themselves too much, then maybe they’re a charlatan, pulling wool over our eyes, asking mind-boggling sums for art that wasn’t that much of an inconvenience to create. But then again…
What is the art produced by the charlatan and sold for mind boggling sums? Behold:
This is the actual photo of Koons with one of his paintings:
And here’s my version:
Wait a second. That’s an early version. My Photoshop collage is incomplete. After I placed this image and caught my mistake, I realized putting in the early version proves the background painting is by me. here’s the completed piece:
The art experts who made the video can’t be entirely blamed for falling for my stunt, because my image of Koons with my fake painting rakes very high in Google image searches. Here’s the top results for a “Jeff Koons Painting” search:
Mine comes in #9. There are more pics of just the “painting” as well as close ups in the first page of results. It looks legit. It’s kinda’ better than a Koons because it’s got more zip. Here’s the piece I created in his style:
See them side by side:
I was going to concede that the real Koons’ painting was more erotic, but, I’m not even sure of that. It’s more blatantly erotic. Ultimately the comparison isn’t my main point, it’s the psychology of seeing my parody in the context of it being the quicky art that sells for millions by slap-happy, superficial art stars.
I made this parody after seeing some Koons paintings, and realizing they were just Photoshop collages which he’d paid his hired assistants to painstakingly — some would say soul-crushingly — reproduce in artists oils using a paint-by-number sort of process. I analyzed his technique and created what I (and apparently the world) thought was one of Koons’ best paintings, if not his best. I surmised that if his crew reproduced my collage he could have sold it for millions. Evidently art experts chose it for their video fully convinced it was the real deal.
I’m not really bragging here. Doing a Koons styled parody Photoshop collage is hardly the pinnacle of my art repertoire, or anyone’s, and it’s just one of many art pranks I’ve released into the art world. Again, it’s the Black Mirror kind of cruel irony delivered on my video-watching retinas that really interests me. Though, admittedly, I’m so accustomed to being properly shit on by the art world that I forgot I’d even seen this video (also, being a working man, had to put my attention on my workaday responsibilities), until other videos by The Art Assignment appeared in my recommended YouTube feed, thus jostling my memory. So, if you were going to write some sort of variation of “get over yourself” in the comments, it’s redundant. If I get any more humble, I might need therapy.
Before I get to why the unwitting inclusion of my parody serves to refute the argument by Art Assignment, which I don’t agree with, I want to address why I made the parody in the first place, how I planted the seed, and why it’s art.
background of the parody.
I’m quite sure I was frustrated and disappointed with the art world in general, and I’ll spare my more faithful readers yet another repetition of the history of my graduate school, and my career being crushed by the dual forces of conceptualism and political correctness/identity politics. I’ll just leave it at that having happened. After that I pretty much disengaged from the art world for two decades. When I eventually came back to it, I was not impressed.
Koons, Hirst, and other appropriationists, as well as the paradigm that legitimizes their supersized, assistant or hired artisan produced, multi-million dollar creations was all the rage, and I just saw the Emperor’s New Codpiece encrusted with gold and jewels.
Koons particularly annoyed me. His “paintings”, however, were the one area where he actually tried to make his own original images, even if they were collages. They were modestly interesting, but whereas I couldn’t hope to compete with him at paying other people to make finished art pieces for me, I could compete at Photoshop collages. Artists like Koons, Hirst, and even Paul McCarthy, eliminate virtually all competition by outspending them hundreds of times over to create grandiose art spectacles. But when it comes down to the sheer creativity or skill involved, they lose their edge.
To spread my fake and see if people would take the bait, I wrote a rather convincing analyses of Koons’ paintings, the art historical influences, and the defining characteristics of them. I slipped in my own creation as his crowning achievement, and the one painting I would discuss in detail.
A quick check of my stats reveals that article has been viewed over 10,000 times. It is a rather surgical strike at Koons alleged astounding creativity.
Why It’s Art:
This is kind of a funny thing, because the type of art authorities who consider Duchamp’s urinal, or his putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, to be the among the best artistic achievements of the 20th century, would utterly dismiss any of my parodies or other attempts to subvert the moneyed art world as misguided and probably pernicious fluff that should not be given any attention. That said, by their standards my parody is rock solid contemporary art.
First off, it succeeds in many of the same ways that the Koons’ paintings it parrots are considered successful. The missing piece is the crew of artists who can’t make a living off their own art, and must spend countless hours of drudgery reproducing a Photoshop collage large scale, in oils. Note that none of the thousands of people who read my article figured out that “Arousing Curiosity” was really be me (and neither did Art Assignment).
And let me just go on a little tangent here and tell you about The Art Assignment. They work in partnership with PBS, and the woman who made the video in question, Sarah Urist Green, is the creator, host, and curator of the series, and a former curator of contemporary art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. And this is rather charming:
Can I just enjoy for the moment that at the time I’m writing this over 45,000 people have seen the video, and assuming they didn’t all watch all of it, at least several thousand people think an image by me represents the most innovative minds in art today.
Honestly, though, you and I both know they don’t think that about me at all. We can be very confident they don’t think I’m worthy of the least attention, and do think my interpretation of any of this, or Koons, or art history is wrongheaded. If pressed they will acknowledge that my parody is obviously inferior to a Koons original, and they were more focused on HIM than on the artwork he was proudly posing in front of, etc… End tangent.
You can see it as a multi-leveled art piece. There’s the collage itself, which I really got into, and I think is not bad at all. Not among my best pieces, or my most famous [that’s my KFC mutant chicken, which even appears in Snopes], but pretty good as far as Photoshop collages go.
Then, one level up is placing it in a photo behind Koons. There’s the Photoshop component, which isn’t terribly difficult, but there was a little finesse in finding just the right picture to work with.
Next is placing it in an art historical context in my own article — which legitimizes it as important contemporary art. When invisible gas released into the air is considered art, or displaying a crumpled piece of paper, writing a bogus article featuring a fake art piece also qualifies.
Finally, there’s the image appearing high in Google searches, and ultimately infiltrating the art world by being presented as the real deal.
Note, again, that those who most celebrate Duchamp for trying to get his urinal (The Fountain) into an art exhibit are the same people who will vehemently dismiss my getting my Koons parody in an authoritative art video as worthless anti-art drivel, or worse. To be more succinct, they couldn’t give a fuck about me.
The Kick in the Teeth
It’s the bitter irony, folks. Like tens of thousands of artists, and several others I know personally, I struggle merely to be able to continue to make art at all in my free time. the “tortured artist” may be a myth, but the “starving artist” isn’t, metaphorically speaking. The video, which is a bit of back-peddling from the first one — which made the argument that artists don’t need to suffer to be good artists — acknowledges that sometimes making art itself is difficult, and thus is a kind of suffering:
It’s not easy to make good art.
Personally, I don’t consider the act of making art to be suffering, and I rather think the argument misses the bigger point, rather astoundingly [more on that later].
Nobody else will have the same reaction to the video. The cosmic irony is tailor made for me. But you can perhaps participate vicariously. Let me explain, for those for whom it isn’t already obvious.
Notice that what we see full screen precisely when the critic states “maybe they’re a charlatan” is a work by me.
It is the absolute, most abysmal utterance in the whole video, and it is visually fused with my own creation. That rather makes ME the charlatan, and me rather than Koons. Well, it’s ambiguous, but that’s definitely one possible reading.
Next, quite predictably, the video is NOT criticizing Koons, but will go on to defend him, in which case the happy, glib artist who sells his paid-for art for “mind boggling sums” is vindicated, and the artists who suffer the fate of having to give up on art, their work being destroyed by their relatives, and so on, are self-deluded, inconsequential beings, who aren’t the real artists to begin with, and certainly could never compete with the likes of Jeff Koons.
Here’s the continuation of the quote I opened with:
But then again, we appreciators of art also respect skill and craft, that Whistler reminds us can be built up over the course of a career. Matisse could describe a subject brilliantly with only a few lines, but that ability was honed, something he worked on diligently throughout his life…
So you see, Koons’ paintings and sculptures display skill and craft honed over a lifetime, and the apparent ease with which he
commissioned created them is actually the extraordinarily refined skill of the true master. Got it.
Her argument does not apply to artists who hire other artists to make their art, in which case the skill is that of the hired artisans, not the conceptual artist Übermensch.
And so, what I have lodged in my imagination is my own mock creation heralded as the extraordinary expertise of the uber rich artist demigod. On one level this just makes it worse. It’s like losing some sort of contest, and then finding out on top of it that the winner cheated. It just adds a creamy topping of injustice to already having lost.
How My Parody Refutes the Argument of the Video
I’ve already addressed that a bit above, but I’ll go in more detail here. First off, is that they can’t tell the difference between the super-genius creation of Jeff Koons and a parody by me. That they selected the photo with my art in the background even suggests they prefer my aesthetic. I might pat myself on the back for out Koonsing Koons, but, of course, I can’t really assume that with any certainty. It could be that an intern was tasked with assembling images from the internet, and the people who might have spotted an imposter didn’t see the full video until after it was completed, and happened to look away at that precise bit. I doubt that, though. Either way, it still stands as is.
Let’s go into what’s wrong with her argument. The general argument is that you don’t need to have a mental illness to be a great artist. True! But that’s just shooting fish in a barrel. It’s what she misses, to use another cliché, that’s the elephant in the room. She inadvertently blames artists as the source of their own suffering, and conveniently omits the salient fact that the art world is rigged, and if an artist doesn’t get his or her first or second show in a top tier gallery (which mostly means being in the right place at the right time), he or she is doomed to failure [more on this coming up]. Her next comment is almost comical:
The tortured artist myth arises when you neglect your mental health, or worse, consciously leave it untreated in order to be the suffering soul you think you need to be…
I can’t say that in my art education through grad school I’ve met a single person who cultivated mental illness, or advocated it. I can recall one art teacher saying something to the effect that artists need to have substance and life experience in order to have something to say, but that’s not the same thing as inviting mental anguish upon oneself. I suppose there are some people out there who think one needs to spend quality time in an asylum, but, again, I never met one.
Most artists were rather under the impression that, like Duchamp, one could game the system and change the course of art history with a brilliant conceptual gesture. That, or they were dedicated to championing underrepresented groups [especially themselves], or other political causes.
True, some of the most dramatic artist biographies revolve around the tortured artist, especially Frida Kahlo or Vincent Van Gogh. Frida is much more a story of overcoming extraordinary physical suffering (from her bus accident), than one of wallowing in it. And in Vincent’s case, it’s very hard to ignore that he only sold one painting in his lifetime.
We might say that, well, lots of artists only sell one work, or nothing, or just a few, in their lifetimes, and don’t go shoot themselves in a field. Yes, but the critical difference is that we aren’t one of the greatest artists who ever lived AND couldn’t sell a thing AFTER creating our life’s work. It’s a little different if your art is sucky, or just OK, or pretty good. There’s less discord there. And how many artists work as ferociously as did Vincent? So, there had to be very serious disappointment because of how hard he worked, how great his paintings were, and that not only could he not sell anything, he was reviled in the community as a social pariah, and over 80 people signed a petition in Arles demanding he be removed from the community. Those are what I’d call overwhelming external factors.
In Green’s first video she played a clip of Hannah Gadsby asserting that Vincent didn’t know how to network. Notice how it placed the blame on him for not being accepted. Note to artists: If the general public doesn’t understand your art, and thinks it’s shit, it’s because YOU don’t know how to network (and are cultivating madness). Here’s the quote:
“He wasn’t born ahead of his time. He couldn’t network. Because he was mental! He was crazy! He had unstable energy! People would cross the street to avoid him! That’s why he didn’t sell any more than one painting in his lifetime. He couldn’t network.”
This is not only bogus, it’s heinous. Does she think Vincent’s contemporary, Paul Cezanne, could network?! Cezanne received an inheritance that allowed him to continue. That’s the difference. Money! Is she not aware that Vincent’s brother, Theo, was an art dealer in a very prosperous art gallery in Paris, and sold Impressionist and Post Impressionist art, including that of Monet, Degas, and even Gauguin? The correspondence between the brothers is the stuff of art history. Though, it doesn’t really seem that Theo promoted Vincent’s work with much zeal at all, and that might have been another slash at Vincent’s happiness. And, so, networking was hardly the issue, or even an issue.
Her attitude is probably much more akin to that of the other people who shunned Vincent in his lifetime. Imagine how he would feel if he could see her video. She, at least, has the benefit of hindsight, and she still takes a major shit on Van Gogh.
It’s also not that he was “born ahead of his time” but rather that he had a uniquely sophisticated aesthetic vision, and the public couldn’t process it. He was too idiosyncratic, or unfamiliar for them. Their non-comprehension is not his failure.
Further, notice how Gadsby shows no compassion or sympathy, attributes nothing as causal to Vincent’s mental struggles, but instead just inflicts it on him as a reprehensible condition: “he was mental”. All fault is his, because of what he was.
What I’m getting here is not just that we aren’t encouraging artists to NOT believe they have to suffer, but mocking those who historically have. It’s part of a new paradigm that Gadsby lays bare [No, WordPress spellcheck, I didn’t mean “bear”] in her rant against Picasso:
I don’t like Picasso. I fucking hate him. I really– I just– He’s rotten in the face cavity. I hate Picasso! I hate him! And you can’t make me like– But you get it a lot: “Oh, cubism…” And I know I should be more generous about him too because he suffered a mental illness. But you see, nobody knows that. Because it doesn’t fit with his mythology. They go, “I think you’re thinking of Van Gogh.” No, I’m thinking about them all, actually Because Picasso, he’s sold to us as this passionate, virile, tormented genius, man, ball sack, right?
This is the core message: “I’m thinking about them all”. Who are “all of them”? Well, it includes Picasso and Van Gogh in this very quote, and is the “passionate, virile, tormented genius, man, ball sack…”. We learn from Gadsby that:
“The history of western art is just the history of men painting women like they’re flesh vases for their dick flowers. … ‘Cause it doesn’t get any better with modern art, I tell you.”
There we have it. All of art history, up to and including modern art, is ball-sack, dick-flower art by tormented, male geniuses. Gadsby argues, significantly:
They’re all cut from the same cloth. Donald Trump, Pablo Picasso, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. These men are not exceptions, they are the rule.
She forgot Gauguin, Egon Schiele (and we might as well throw Gustave Klimt in there), Waterhouse, and Chuck Close [all of these artists are in recent scandals], but I guess she included them all when she said the likes of Weinstein and Cosby are not exceptions, they are the rule.
[I suppose I fall in that category, too, because, well, I AM an artist, and last I checked I have a ball sack (yup, still there), soooooo, to hell with me and my art! I have the same sort of issue with these overarching blanket conclusions about male artists as I do with ones about white men, and so on, which seem to all apply to me these days. Well, when others tell me what my introspective reality REALLY is, they universally project deleterious qualities onto me, and I am as persuaded by them as if they tried to tell me I shot Kennedy. No, I’m not in league with Harvey-Fucking-Weinstein, and blaming all males for the behavior of what really are the rare exceptions is textbook stereotyping, profiling, scapegoating, and all that nasty business we are supposed to be against, morally speaking. When did people stop objecting to double standards, or even noticing them?]
So, the problem is not really that we are concerned about the mental health of living artists — that’s a clever subterfuge and sugar coating on the pill — what we really are is against the historical, hard-working, accomplished (they like to use the word “genius” as a pejorative to sideline hard-earned skill) artists who suffered for or because of their art, and were ball-sack & dick flowers. That and the precedent of quality that their art represents. Ultimately, this is about who controls the narrative, and who is rewarded with a career, accolades, and monetary compensation. A new paradigm is being peddled here, and probably what we need is more people like Gadsby and Green. No longer do we select our artists based on the quality of their creations, it’s more important to choose them based on who they are and what their message is. Is it the right perspective presented by the right kind of person? OK. Rubber stamp it.
Another odd thing about the first video was Green’s stressing that virtually everyone is creative, including statisticians. Why, even data entry clerks are creative in their spare time. I don’t know how aware she it that this plays into the same anti-art and anti-artist paradigm as the other stuff. We shouldn’t elevate artists as especially creative when, dammit, Suzy in accounting wrapped a present and smacked a bow on top, but a little asymmetrically. This is as weird as writing a piece about how you don’t need to train vigorously to be a boxer, and, by golly, everyone is an athlete because even using a stapler requires some aim and coordination. And everyone is a comedian because Tom, in the warehouse, had me pull his finger just the other day. Shit, everyone is a philosopher because the mailman said, “That’s life” when my bank card got lost in the mail. So you see, artists aren’t anything special, so, we should just pick the best people to be our artist representatives, and we have a litmus test or two for that, and it has fuck all to do with artistic achievement.
A Google search reveals Gadsby has a net worth of $6,000,000. This is a very rich person eliminating money from the question, when it is the all important factor. Did she work as hard as Vincent, and is she as good at what she does? Chances are no and no, not even close. This is just the supremely lucky taking massive dumps on the supremely unlucky. Someone who is fabulously rewarded for her contributions is mocking someone who got virtually nothing but humiliation for truly outstanding contributions. All hail!
And what was Sarah Urist Green’s reaction to that clip in her first “tortured artist” video? Allow me to quote:
Did I raise my fist in triumph when I heard this. Yes. Yes I did.
I raised my finger. Once for each of them. You probably see now why I’m bit hard on Green. We may appreciate Gadsby’s messages as empowering lesbians, and giving an alternate perspective, but her art historical stance is actually decades old, extraordinarily biased and narrow, and ultimately terrible, as it ends up hating artists en-mass because of their gender. I’ll agree with Gadsby and Green that “romanticizing mental illness” is ridiculous, but slamming an artist with the epithet of “mental” and “crazy”, and blaming his lack of success on it, and on his inability to network, is nasty and stupid (and not funny either). Perhaps he needed a better internet connection. So, yes, romanticizing mental illness is not a good thing, but neither is stigmatizing someone with it and condemning him for it. We may be against actual misogynist artist’s behavior, but impugning other artists with the same crimes is itself criminal.
There’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario here when it comes to Van Gogh and his mental health. Which came first, Vincent being mental, and thus not being able to sell a painting, or, not being able to sell a painting and then finally breaking down? Well, fortunately we don’t have to entertain the latter, because Gadsby and Green have assured us that only the former is true. If I were in a class and the teacher was spouting this kind of noxious drivel, I’d just get up and walk out [and I have done this].
Let’s get into some supporting facts about the reality of what artists face in terms of viable careers. And we can probably all agree that failing in your career and having to give up, while also enduring economic hardship, whatever your career is, is not going to be uplifting. It’s more likely a fairly toxic cocktail of disappointment, stress, humiliation, and injustice… Consider the last time you were laid off [especially if you didn’t deserve it] and not sure you could find a suitable new job. Add that you must accept it’s because you are not good enough at what you do [whether this is true or not]. But you want facts.
In reality the art world is cruelly rigged against artists, and almost all contenders will be nipped in the bud before they have a chance to develop. The most crucial factor for being successful is being in the right place at the right time. Virtually everyone else is fucked.
Scientists analyzed over a half million artists’ careers, did the stats, and discovered that the key to succeeding as an artist is almost entirely dependent on showing at one of a handful of top tier galleries early in ones career. An article in artnetnews — What’s the Secret to Making It as an Artist? — tells us:
The findings show that starting out at prestigious museums and galleries almost always leads to long-term success, but it’s much harder to break through to the big time for artists who have to start small. Among those who enter through more obscure institutions, only 14 percent remain active in the art world over a period of ten years.
So, if you don’t get hooked up with the top galleries in the world from the get go, and even if you work hard and show in smaller galleries, you have an 86% percent chance of being utterly thwarted. Those are some shitty odds.
I gather it’s a bit like Hollywood. You gotta get into some blockbuster films early in your career, and become yourself a commodity. Do we really think some of the stars that we see in countless movies are the best actors in the world? Or are they mostly excellent, but not really better than thousands of other actors who just didn’t get the right chance? It seems that Hollywood has room for a small number of superstars, and everyone else is relegated to the sidelines.
We can also look at the music industry. Is Justin Bieber really one of the most dedicated, talented, and interesting musicians alive, or did he fit the preexisting marketing template?
If you are an artist and do get picked up by one of the few top galleries, your chances of flopping are 0.2%. Now that’s a good bet.
If one of your first five shows as an artist is held at a gallery in the heart of this network, the chances of your ending your career on the fringes is 0.2 percent.
How does this work?
The network itself will protect you because people talk to each other and trade each other’s shows.
We can clearly see that it’s not the best art that rises to the top, but rather the best insider investment applied to the product of certain, hand-selected individuals. The most successful art is determined not by the eyes of the people, but by the money-making strategies of the richest and most powerful galleries.
What we can take away from this is that no matter how good you are, if you don’t fit the template the top galleries are banking on, and if you weren’t one of the precious few chosen by them to fill the template, your chances of any career at all as an artist are abysmal. In such a case, you will plod on clinging to the last vestige of hope until you are ultimately extinguished as a creator.
At that point, you will be told by insider art videos that the problem all along was that you deliberately neglected your mental health, or made your brain into a lightning rod for insanity, and are a bat-shit crazy pariah. YOU didn’t know how to network. People crossed the street when they saw you because you are anathema to them.
The art world tells us that artists don’t need to suffer, so don’t do it to yourself. You see, they are there to help counsel you and talk you out of your self-harm. But in reality, they are the ones who are sacrificing artists’ happiness for their own personal, extraordinary, financial gain. If you are not part of their monopoly on the art world, than you are the competition and need to be marginalized into invisibility.
The video, which apparently believes itself to be helping artists by dissuading them from seeking misery, merely adds to the struggle artists endure because of lack of acceptance or success from an art world that has a vested interest in their failure.
Unwittingly highlighting a parody by me as the quintessential exemplar of the best of the happy contemporary conceptual artists showered with riches and accolades chips away at the foundation of their argument. I am anything but that kind of artist, and to the degree my parody can pass muster, Koons is indeed a charlatan, and the video is a sham.
A ray of hope for artists
Some of us are life-long artists who are just never going to give up until we face-plant in the dust. We don’t need the accolades, fame, or fortune of the top artists. We just need enough to keep going for as long as we can. I could probably ride out my life making art for the price of just one of Damien Hirst’s more than a thousand assistant-produced, bland, formulaic, dot paintings. An artist like me doesn’t need the success of a Hirst, or even a 1,000th of it
Because of the internet and the ability of artists to sell directly to the public, it is remotely possible to make enough to survive independent of the top galleries, or galleries all together, IF one is good enough and works hard enough. Contrary to what the video attests, one needs to have rather robust mental health, self-discipline, and organization skills to persevere against the odds.
Maybe it’s not possible for most of us, but until I can say I’ve given it my very best effort, including promotion, and fought til the bitter end, well, life’s been terribly unjust to billions of people throughout history, and at least I have a fighting chance at all. The parody won’t help. I consider my pranks [of which there are many, and they are all over the internet] to be pranks. They aren’t my real art. And as I said, I forgot all about the video and my art in it entirely while preparing my lessons for my English students. In fact, the reason I wrote this post at all is I was too tired from teaching to work on my art, and it was a sort of easy diversion.
Now it’s back to work. Contrary to all the evidence, I still believe that the real secret to success as an artist is making quality art, and that everything else is bullshit, or noxious bullshit. Besides, making art has its own intrinsic value completely independent of whatever anyone else thinks about it or pays for it. The real measure of success as an artist is successful art.
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