Left Out In the Rain
Feeling aesthetically isolated, even alienated, is nothing new. "Alien" in the sense of Other, not literally an alien. Have always felt I've lived on that thin edge of insider/outsider, one foot in both worlds most of the time. I've been wondering lately about fitting in, aesthetically, artistically, and if it's really worth it. The usual doubts of practice, when Art is a Way. I've been wondering, underneath that, about the still unsolved lifelong dilemma I've had about receiving moderate to high critical acclaim as an artist yet being unable to turn that into any form of recognized success. Not that recognized forms of success are necessarily to be desired or sought out. Depending how you define success, of course. Still, it would be nice if people respected you a little for what you do best. And maybe paid you what it was worth.
A depressed economy, which tends to accentuate whatever forms of artistic or commercial narcissism are normally in play, is also a factor. I live for now in what is still one of the more economically depressed parts of the country. When the GM assembly plant in this county closed, it took a lot with it; a lot of people, and a lot of peripheral businesses. Most of that hasn't rebounded. The farms seem healthy, and the corn this summer is high and green. But people tend to view art as a luxury when they're worried about the rent; rightly or wrongly, even against all arguments about the social, personal and spiritual necessity of the arts, the bottom line is that poor people don't buy art. If they're aesthetically oriented, they instead make it for themselves. Folk art is genuine art, long before the big cities galleries ever "discovered" it. Folk music is whatever music people feel like making, at home, on the porch, in the living room, in the kitchen, wherever. It doesn't require a musical education to make good music. Musically I'm over-educated for my social environment, but when something needs to be explained about how a piece of music works, there's no one better.
What is the gateway? How can it open in both directions?
There is an element of chance. Lots of good artists miss their chances because they don't get noticed by anyone within the commercial arts machine—whether we label that the gallery scene, corporate patronage, o building up a group of regular private collectors. How do you define success? What do you define success as being?
I don't trust even my own feelings of envy, of sour grapes, when directed at the apparently successful careers of other artists. For me it's not a competition; although I know at least one artist who seems to find it necessary to be competitive with me, but I chalk that up to the usual artistic insecurities that we all are prey to. Maybe there's a reason I find myself in the land of artistic rejection. Even when you carefully tailor your submissions to a venue that you think is an ideal match, between the venue and your art, there's no guarantee. I have no doubt that some choices are political, and others matters of personal taste. Whoever wins a chapbook poetry contest, for example, is only slightly set aside from the pack of other applicants, many of whose submissions may have been of equal merit.
When one gets constantly rejected, though, a few choices seem to loom more prominently: 1. give up, go off and do your own thing, stop trying for even slight recognition, just ignore the whole rat-race; 2. keep applying, keep getting rejected, build up a tolerance for rejection, and learn to be comfortable with uncertainty; 3. work to become an insider, so that you have a better chance of being remembered against the background of all the other outsiders. The latter option seems to me to be too political, too manipulative; but maybe I am too honest, too diffident, too unassertive for my own good.
Obviously marketing is a factor. It's well-known that artistic success is not always determined by intrinsic quality but by who has the best marketing plan. I'm not a great self-marketer; I'm probably too diffident, too modest, too deferential. I tend to be a soft sell rather than a hard sell. It's not that I can't do a hard sell, but it does make me feel exhausted and demeaned. I'm no good in retail sales, that's well-established. I don't push hard enough, as I don't like being pushed.
That's the real truth, and maybe it's why I don't win the prize often: I hate being pushed, so I tend not to be pushy. And perhaps you do have to be pushy, competitive, and self-assertive. It's entirely possible that I've missed the boat on that one.
With no false modesty, many things I do artistically I do pretty well. I make some good art. I remember Kerouac once asked, before he became well-known, "Why can't they see that I'm good?" That's artistic self-confidence, although it can be eroded away by constant rejection; and Kerouac ended up being eroded down till it more or less destroyed him in the end. If you're good, and a sensitive soul—and being a sensitive soul was partly why Kerouac was good as a writer—the rat-race can be doubly hard on you.
Let us ruminate on two other factors: fear of failure; and, fear of success. When an artist has both of these in play, it can be paralyzing. Sometimes, perhaps it is better to go be a monk in the hills, and ignore the usual fray. Go do what you do, and find some other living while doing it.
Fear of failure is less crippling than fear of success. Failure after all is probable, even expected. Most artists fail, depending on how you define failure. It's an uphill struggle against all odds. There are few rewards along the way. Fear of failure makes some artists manic, and they drive themselves ever harder. That's how mediocre artists sometimes succeed when better artists don't: Work ethic. Obsessive self-marketing. Thomas Kinkade is not an artistic genius, just a painter with a gimmick supported by a major cottage industry; he succeeds financially even though most of his art is crap. It's not hard to be a better artist than Kinkade, but it's hard to put together and sustain the cottage industry.
Lots of artists self-sabotage rather than deal with the halo of demands that surround (financial) success. Fame, fortune, the fickleness of the audience, the tides of aesthetic fashion which can be more pernicious than anything else if you choose to be swayed by them. Sometimes success is just too much work, and the art itself suffers due to lack of attention. Lots of artists make dumb mistakes, or hesitate in just the wrong way, right at the cusp of becoming known. What are the rewards, after all? It can seem to be a burden rather than a reward.
Having an agent who helps you secure your next book contract might be more a marker of success than the number of fans who come see you at your opening, or on your book-signing and -reading tour. Forward momentum.
I'm all wet. I'm just musing over the same questions every artist muses on, from time to time.
Most of this was brought forward to contemplate by encounters with an artist friend who seems to now view me as competition. Does that mean I'm getting better as an artist, for him to now feel insecure around me? It doesn't mean I'm getting more visible. He relishes telling me the dollar figure of his last major sale. He has a circle of existing collectors that don't mind paying all that. He's established, and has been selling his art for many years. And he's good, there's no doubt of that. I suppose it's that artistically he's moving into territory that I, artistically, have already colonized, and am good at. Hard not to make comparisons.
For my own part, I encouraged, and had some suggestions. His technical learning curve for new media is much steeper than mine for learning to draw; and I made at least one good drawing last week, which is turning a corner into his territory. But I can be encouraging because I don't feel competitive. Maybe that's my lack, here: I'm not competitive enough. Perhaps it's foolish of me, and I've always thought the work would be discovered on its own merit.
I don't feel in competition with my artist friend; or with any other artist, for that matter. I like collaboration, perhaps because I've played chamber music and jazz for decades, and like the mutual support of collaboration that arises in those media. My competitive artist friend has been drawing for decades, and is very good at it. I own none of his work although there have been a few pieces I would love to have owned. Though some of our mutual friends do own his work. (I wonder if that's happened because of some previously existing silent layer of competitive awareness? A subconscious steering clear? Not on my part. I never had the cash to afford one of his drawings, although he's outright gifted some of our mutual friends a drawing.)
I love learning how to draw. I've enjoyed the process of teaching myself to draw. I find most of the how-to pencil drawing books to be of limited use, because they mostly emphasize photorealistic drawing; reproduction of lighting effects, of subject matter, of content, as realistically as possible. While I understand that, in the how-to manuals, this is in the service of learning technique, I have no interest whatsoever in drawing technically photorealistically. I'm already a good photographer: if I want to make an image that seems photorealistic, I'll make a photo. What I want to draw is more purely about graphic arrangement, about interpretation, about mood captured in a subject, if you will about expression. I'm interested in what I've called abstract realism: forms and shapes and patterns that are purely graphic albeit only one step removed from the natural world.
I admit I can be artistically impatient.
I want to finish a drawing and move on. I want to do the next thing. I saw a documentary this year about an artist who obsessively recreated a celebrity image in minute detail in pencil and charcoal, spending a dozen years on one drawing. The end result was technically amazing, but emotionally sterile. Why reproduce a photo on the pixel level like this? Why not just present the photo? Twelve years? If I can't get a drawing close to what I want to do, in my sketchbook, in a couple of hours at most, I stop.
I resist obsession. I know that falling over that edge into obsessing about detail is dangerous and unrewarding territory, and I steer clear of that edge whenever I approach it. This isn't self-sabotage, it's self-rescue. I understand how artists can obsess on their work; I know that temptation. But that's exactly what it is: a temptation towards (technical) perfectionism that serves neither the art nor the artist. Perfectionism is for me no less than a vice, a dangerous terrain, a door that tempts madness.
As a recovering perfectionist, I prefer my art to have flaws in the way nature always has flaws. Clouds are not spheres. Trees never grow identically on all sides. The natural world is uneven, varied, and rather than the ideal conception of a rock or tree we only encounter actual rocks and trees that do not match the Platonic ideal. Platonic ideals are not useful to us as artists. One reason I so enjoy exploring fractal mathematics is that it can closely model the natural world as it is. Fractals are not Platonic ideals; they are non-Platonic, and non-Euclidean, and therefore more realistic.
So if I can't capture a moment, an object, a scene, a graphic image, in an imperfect drawing made relatively quickly, then I will resist endlessly reworking the drawing in an obsessive spiral of diminishing perfectionist returns. I will abandon the imperfect drawing as more realistic than apparent photorealism ever could be. The important thing in drawing is what details to leave out. You can never get it all in, so what matters is the telling detail. Similarly, I will abandon a poem that doesn't quite work, rather than obsessively revise it. A dozen years spent on one poem? That's insane.
Some artistic critics argue that this level of obsessive application to detail is what makes for great art—but that's usually a critical tautology, because the only examples of great art made by obsessive attention to detail are those presented to argue the point. In other words, presented after the fact of their existence. All this proves is that for this artist, the method of obsession produced great art. But one cannot generalize the art made by a few insane obsessives to claim that all great art is made by obsessives. Some great art is made by slapdash quick-working anti-obsessives.
But there's a paradox in play: the paradox of seeming spontaneity while extensive rehearsal has gone on behind the scenes. Kerouac is often cited for his method of "spontaneous composition," which did produce good results in his novels (I am re-reading The Dharma Bums right now, which I put near the top of the heap). But Kerouac was also a notorious sketch artist, who practiced his craft in daily journals, in letter-writing, in other forms of writing all along, so that when he sat down to write a novel his gears were already oiled and his mind was already full of sharp, descriptive detail. He prepared hard before he got to work. He practiced daily, and he had a daily practice.
I learned about mental practice when studying martial arts. Mental practice can make a huge difference. It has been studied and shown to be true, at least in Ki Aikido, that mental practice—reviewing the arts in one's mind, meditating quietly when one can, practicing ki awareness and sensitivity for example when driving—all make for better skills when one is back on the mat. Maybe you only get on the mat once a week. But you can practice the Ki Aikido principals daily, continuously, and when you get back on the mat in the dojo, your skill with the arts is as though you were on the mat more than that once per week. Don't take my word for it; there's a lot of anecdotal literature about this practice effect.
Mental practice applies to music, too. You run things over in your head, maybe drum along to music on the steering wheel as you're driving along, and when you next sit down with your instrument, your time is better, and so is your self-confidence.
I don't pick up the pencils and draw every day. I don't make photos every day; although I do almost every day. When I'm not "working" I make snapshots of people, and of flowers in my garden. Photographic sketches. What I do do every day is a daily practice of visualization: looking at things as though I were to photograph them, or draw them. The mental practice of composing against the edges of the imaginary frame. A daily awareness of the changing of the light. It's all about light, and how it changes. I often sit on my porch at dusk and watch the sky change colors towards evening, towards night. Some days I might mentally sketch, but don't do anything literally. I find it useful to build up that urge in some kind of internal reservoir until it tips over and floods out of its own accord, under its own pathways of energetic pressure release. Let it build up, store it away, till just the right moment. Then when it comes flooding out, it can be at its most powerful.
So that when you pick up the pencil or the camera again, you may have been left out in the rain again, but you're not as rusty as others might expect you to have become.