“However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.”
“Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.” –The Book of Ecclesiastes
An innate relationship with loss. A desire to corral the darkness. Acceptance of the lifespan of my work. A hope to move forward with dignity. These are some of the concepts I have moved toward the past few months; I am in the middle of this lifetime query and I want to enjoy it.
Generosity is fertile, prolific– it flows outward, away from its source, without regard to its return. Artmaking can be just that kind of risk. How can we create it and send it out without the trappings of self-consciousness? It’s no small thing to send my work out without a sense of how it is received. Critical recognition opens the door to having that resting place for my work, and I want it to rest where it is wanted. The work of the artist career is not so easily disentangled from the artist ego. The ultimate and venerable action is for the artist to disentangle herself from these concerns and make the work, retaining value in herself & the work regardless of its final resting place.
“And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values… . The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation… The gifted cannot enter into the give-and-take that endures the livelihood of their spirit.” –The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, Lewis Hyde
The artist is spending spiritual, emotional, and monetary capital in the pursuit of her work. This kind of output doesn’t retreat into a safe place when the artist begins the mundane duties of the career. If the career is in service to the work (rather than ego, and– somehow– rather than money), the artist is in search of the cognizant recipient for her work. To what extent is an artist’s work-work similar to non-creatives, leaving those who struggle with it to be characterized as fun-addicts, because they cannot stomach the duties? And to what extent does it differ wildly, in that the persistent grind of inquiry/rejection wears on a person (formal applications, presentations, reception of shows, posting links to work not knowing if anyone noticed, emails not returned)? How can non-artists understand the burden? This work we do as artists isn’t merely a job, although the marketing aspects are a necessary duty. I don’t see this dislike of the job as solely the trait of a whiny artist (though complaining isn’t uncommon among workers of all kinds). It’s possible to carry oneself with integrity and still suffer the weight of the indignities of the career.
Ed Winkleman made a comment on his Facebook page (btw, his blog, his book and the keynote speech + post-conference seminar I attended– this work of his has been immensely helpful to me.) On that page, he was in dialogue about a blog post he wrote titled “A Conversation with William Powhida on the Contemporary Artist’s Narrative.” (I apologize ahead of time that I didn’t have clarity that day to add to that discussion. So I do it here, perhaps creepily)… Ed commented:
“When it comes to discussing the difference between the enjoyment of the play-work in the studio and the perhaps more tedious work-work of promoting one’s art, I personally find this distinction helpful in getting some artists to view the latter as something that I don’t care if it is fun for them… it’s the job.”
If only promoting one’s work was indeed just a job. There is a lot at stake. Still, Winkleman’s interview with Powhida was a really great read. I found a description of an artist’s career narrative that diverges from the typical understanding of success.
In that article, Powhida wrote:
“Of the relatively small number that do receive some recognition, even fewer will ever have anything remotely approximating the increasing levels of career spanning success. Missing from the two most likely narratives is an acknowledgement of the majority of artists working in relative anonymity. This isn’t a narrative that many artists aspire to, but one arrived at after years of working without making a splash or hitting any of the benchmarks you’ve described.”
What I find most difficult is failure to find recognition. I’m not referring to status recognition. I mean I-see-you recognition, I-see-what-you-have-done recognition. Even these must be weaned out in the pursuit of boldly valuing my own work, without regard to its placement in the world. When an invested artist takes a risk by sharing her work and it is not seen, she can choose to still acknowledge the value of what she is giving. Then, there is no ability to latch her value onto recognition. Conversely, even an artist who labors in service to her work can be wearied by a sudden clamor of recognition; it is its own kind of test. Every time I see an artist’s work life respected outside of established notions of success, it reminds me that the cacophony of the artworld doesn’t have to drown out the small voices. It helps me to move forward, since I work out of my non-descript studio rather anonymously (so to speak.) Come to think of it, the artist’s narrative has been an interesting concept to me for some time. I’ve made work with that in mind before.
Powhida also wrote:
“I think I can see what is missing in between the ‘splash’ (that may never come) and “living comfortably off your art” (which is lottery odds) is a vast, subtle landscape of adequacy and different measures of success other than art world MFA career ladder. I think this includes many components of that ladder, but not always in a forward trajectory to the International Art Event Circuit or blue-chip galleries. Success may be a well-received group show, an opportune residency, a long-sought after grant, the personal fulfillment of a practice, participation in an active, vital community, or long-deserved review.”
During the past four years, I worked at the marketing aspects of my work in addition to having a busy studio practice (and raising two small children!) It has been fascinating at times, and the thrill of the pursuit of a place for my artwork was something I was able to do without so much draining introspection. But when multiple losses hit, along with the understanding that more loss is to come, the business of it all gets scrutinized closely. This is not about retreat. I am culling the essential pieces of my practice, moving them to act in service to my work. Below, Virginia Woolf writes Lily Briscoe in the last words of To the Lighthouse as an artist who turns from the apprehension of obscurity to the ability to live in the crucial moment. It captures one stop in this understanding I have in my studio practice. She balked at the elusiveness of a sweet resting place for her work. Instead of getting lost in the question of what would happen to her painting in the future, she peered into it and claimed a triumph for herself. She owned the delight of discovery without the burden of placing her work in the context of its future. I want to labor over my work for the sake of the work.
“Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was–her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
I have been searching for understanding and acceptance of a future I cannot touch. Aging and the passing of time is a metamorphosis that I have resisted, not as a over-valuing of youth (certainly not!), but as a fear of even more loss. Instead I would like to look forward with curiosity and acceptance. Oliver Sacks wrote in the NY Times on the “Joy of Aging.” There is no foreboding. He wrote:
“I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”
If I can comprehend that I can live my artist life free from urgency, if I can see it, taste it– can’t I reach for it? Each time I take a risk to make work without knowing where it will go, or as I share my work without knowing what will happen, I have the chance to clarify the resolve I have to live this artist life in a genuine and intentional manner. I move forward with hopes that act as handholds in this monumental climb. I hang by a thread sometimes, and yet it seems to be enough. I want to live and work with value in the people around me, integrity in who I am, and the freedom to carry out what I need to do. I am getting to a place where I can make work without regard to its place in this world. I want to make it my own.
This is the conclusion of an essay I split into three parts, because it was too dang long. Part I: The Start of the End, Part II: The Middle of Somewhere, and this one, Part III: The End of Foreboding.