Monday, April 22, 2013

"But I Only Sell to My Friends!"

The camellia bushes outside my office window give the world their luscious pink blossoms in the midst of winter when the weather is so unpleasant that I seldom venture outside to admire them. I always think it is very brave and generous of them to cheer up the dark time when so many other plants are sleeping. Camellias don't care, presumably, whether we admire them or not. Their whole thing is to realize their nature.

Artists, too, are driven to realize their inner nature, but for people there is the concomitant need for attention. The work must be seen, it must be appreciated, it must be purchased.

My specialty is art history, and from it I've learned something important about the art world at every level: friendship circles are at the core. If you study how a museum got a certain painting, you will often find that a famous artist donated it, especially in the 20th and 21st centuries. Or the painting was acquired by some wealthy collector because it was suggested by an artist who was helping to build his or her collection. Even at the very highest levels, the art world functions just as it does here in Silicon Valley. At every level, artists hang out together, learn from each other, give their work to each other, and purchase work from one another. At every level, artists form associations to promote their work.

That old devil Self-doubt makes a local artist whine, "But I only sell to my friends!" Who can understand what you are doing better than another artist? Who can better imagine how clever your technique is or how much time and effort it takes? Having your work purchased by another artist is along the lines of winning an Academy Award; it is acknowledgement by your peers.

I just realized I've been assuming the artist's friends are also artists. That is very likely to be true; but what about non-artist friends?

There is a quality at the base of painting, or by extension any work of art, that is not generally recognized by art critics or historians: personality. To put it in a formulaic way, up-tight, rigid people tend to make up-tight, rigid art, which in turn will be attractive to up-tight, rigid people. Of course, it can't be reduced to formulas like that, but your art inevitably reflects who you are, so people who like you are more likely to like your art.

As a writer, one thing I find painful is that I'm not a great writer. I suspect it is human nature to be creative, but creativity can be measured on an infinite scale. My idea of the very greatest writers would be Marcel Proust or James Joyce; the distance between their level of talent and mine would be measured in light years. It is humbling. On the other hand, comparatively few people can understand either of those writers. You have to be almost as smart as they are to get it. People at less lofty levels of intelligence are looking to read something less challenging. Even more to the point, people with that a prodigious talent are generally not available for everyday writing tasks—like reporting on the art scene in Silicon Valley.

As for art, most of the works we love to see in museums would not be at all suitable for our homes or offices. Not only is the work too expensive, and probably too large, but it just wouldn't look right. It comes from the wrong place and the wrong time; however smart these famous masters might be, they know nothing about our world here in Silicon Valley—how we live, the types of frustrations we face, or what we value. The local artist produces art from our own world; that gives it unique value. You could compare it to music. Most people are drawn to the music of their own generation; you can just relate to it better.

Each artist has her or his own audience. It isn't a question of better or worse art. Each artist radiates to a particular segment of the world around her. The artwork creates its own community.

When you present an artwork for the world to see, it is not like you are a student getting critiqued. It is more like putting your hand out in friendship; a work of art is more like the smile on your face. If a person comes to look at your art, it is like they are returning your smile—they want to strike up an acquaintance. You opened the conversation with your art; they are responding. Now it is your turn. How can you encourage their interest? I'm sorry to bang on here about an obvious point from How to Win Friends and Influence People, but it's your turn to take an interest in the visitor. I mean, beyond their potential as a buyer, beyond their need to be educated about art values—what kind of person is she or he anyway? You just might find somebody you would like. Is your friendship circle so full that you can't admit another, if only for the time being?

Nevertheless, I think that all artists should emulate the finest artists in one respect: they should use their art to explore and express their inner world. I'm not talking about art as therapy. I'm saying art can be used to explore ideas and feelings. An idea might be as abstract as the relationship between primary colors or it might be as socially concerned as depicting a homeless person in front of Safeway. You might want to express the wind in the trees, or how humans are recklessly destroying animal habitat. I hate to hear an artist say, "I could never paint that. It would never sell." This attitude will seriously limit your growth as an artist. It is all well and good to keep developing your technique, but true growth comes from making your art work for you. Growth as an artist comes from exploring your eccentricities, indulging your obsessions. In this serious, soul-destroying world of conformity and conventionality, making art is about having fun. If you have a thing for painting roosters or fish or feet or topographical maps, go for it. Give in to your inner child, or teenager, or fisherman, or ancient Chinese scholar, or mad hatter. Go with it, work it out, see where it leads; that is what I mean by exploring your inner world; that is the path of development as an artist. You can trust me on this one: You are just as likely to find your audience by being your true self as by being "salable," which only means being "just like everyone else, but with my own twist."

Let's get real about money. Only a small percentage of people can make a living by making art; better you should make friends. Selling your art is a sign that someone likes it, but your artwork is making a contribution to the community even when it doesn't sell. People need art in their lives, not just beautiful art, but meaningful art. The art you make is meaningful to the people in your community. Art builds community. Your visitors may not take any artwork home in their hands, but, like the beauty of a camellia in the winter, they absorb it in their minds and hearts.

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