Stepping Off the Art World Hamster Wheel

In graduate school, I flirted with Hypercubes
Recently, someone asked me if I was an artist living in Bushwick. When I answered in the affirmative, they asked whether I had sold any art. No, I replied, I hadn't. The person laughed and walked away. To be fair, I had just called this person out for living a soulless life in a job he cared nothing for (albeit earning good money I can assure you). The dig was intentional. This person meant to hurt me just as I had inadvertently hurt him, but in doing so, actually confirmed my suspicions about his leading an inauthentic life. Such is the world and such is the two-faced nature of college reunions.

The encounter left me reeling for several days and I continue to ruminate upon it. What nerve had this person tapped in me that I should react the way I did, and vise versa? About ten years ago, my life goal was to become a college art professor and show my work in New York. I attended graduate school in the city (the New York Studio School, located in Greenwich Village) and showed what I could and when I could at bars, co-ops and student exhibitions. Like my favorite professors, I longed to have my work in collections, museums; I craved awards and scholarships such as the Fulbright, the Prixe de Rome, a McDowell Colony residency, and of course, gallery representation. Perhaps I would teach drawing and painting at community colleges in a small town to build a reputation and be picked up by a prestigious college, like the one I had attended.

My 15 minutes of art school fame!
While at NYSS, I worked side jobs, including work-study to lower my tuition and support myself through school. One of these jobs was hosting the twice-weekly lecture series wherein an artist, art-historian, critic or panel would discuss an art-related topic. My job was to show the speaker around and help coordinate the student-catered and waitered dinner following the lecture.

One evening's talk was given by a friend of Chuck Close. Because the lecture hall and most of the building is sadly not accessible for people with disabilities, the slide talk was given in the ground level sculpture studio. Mr. Close attended, along with his many friends. As it was my job to cordially socialize with the guests, I was privy to their confidential art world discussions. Just kidding. Nothing juicy to share. Mostly people spoke about themselves, the current art market status, galleries, museums and the lot. All of these people possessed the same art-world boons I have previously mentioned.

"And of course, I have a piece at the Guggenheim."

"You too?"

"Also at MoMA...."

"What year did you do your Fulbright?"

"89-90, in Rome."

"I did mine in 95 in Copenhagen. But didn't we meet at the McDowell Colony ten years ago?"

"Yes, I believe we did."

My thesis year studio at NYSS: Guston Kitchen
Who were these people? Did everyone have a Fulbright? How many of them taught at colleges or lived on their art alone? If these exclusive fellowships, gallery representation, museum purchases were the milestones of a successful art career, then why had I never heard of any of these people before?

Suddenly, I saw the banality of these external measures of artistic achievement. What was the point of suffering for a fellowship or a teaching career that a) wouldn't make me happy, b) wouldn't distinguish myself as an artist or intellectual  and, c) was common place!

Although I had rejected the "fail-proof" worlds of medicine, computer science and academia to pursue a riskier career as an artist, within the art world one could still fall into the trap of convention: collecting residencies, galleries and fellowships like Boy Scout's badges. And for what?

When I worked for a year at the Vermont Studio Center residency for artists and writers, some of the most
miserable, anxiety-ridden people I met were also the most famous in their circles. Several spent their whole residency researching other residencies to apply to, continually hopping from one safety nest to another, only making art in a binge-like fashion in the final hours before open studios. When I see them featured in a paragraph in Art In America, or glorified in a book review, all I can think of is their erratic behavior and the cyclone of chaos that gave birth to their art. Although I hope that these artists attain the recognition that they think will bring them peace, I doubt that their minds will allow this.

Sometimes I wonder about those artists at the New York Studio School dinner. Despite their art-world merit badges, how many are truly happy? How do they feel sitting at the same table as Chuck Close, whom history will
Playing with sticks at the Vermont Studio Center
remember while they will be forgotten, not even graced with a footnote in art history books? How do any of us feel about this? The oppression of obscurity. Some of us take it in stride, some of our egos cannot accept this, while others are grateful for the anonymity.

The irony of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter & Instagram is that although we feel as if we finally have a voice, this unique voice is lost in the shuffle of millions who share the desire to be heard. Meanwhile, celebrities, public figures  and gossip-tanks dominate the web, whether or not they contribute anything of note.

Could the same be said about the art world? Anyone who can pick up a brush or pencil can make art and

express him or herself. In the current world, you can even make art by voice command on the computer. But how many are noticed? Who is lauded and who is funded for their work? Only a chosen few. Does this mean that only they should make art? Is being an artist only worthwhile if one sells, shows and schmoozes? To answer this I must paraphrase what one wise friend to another: "If God wants you to make drawings in a book and never show them to anyone, then that's what you will do." In other words, make art for it's own sake. Tweet and post without expecting approval or fame. Return to the joy of making for making's sake alone.

So, no, I do not sell my art, but I make it anyway. I also cook for the love of cooking, garden for the love of gardening and hug my friends because it makes us both feel loved. If you want to buy a piece, go ahead, I won't stop you. Actually, I'd be flattered! But mind you, the sum total of my sales slips, my annual salary and my number of Twitter/Instagram followers will never determine my self-worth. This comes from within. Good luck to all of you, and happy MAKING.

More sticks on the Gihon River, Johnson VT


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