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The Cliché Isn’t the Definition

October 20, 2011

Photo by Peter Vahan, "It Takes All This to be Me" - Kenton Parker

I recently went to an art exhibition at a friend’s gallery. I’m a terrible conversation starter, sometimes slightly anti-social, and have trouble talking to people who I don’t know. Cue puppy-dog Starling. I was following my friend, Señorita*, around for most of the night. She was very gracious about her new anti-social puppy. One of her old friends from college was there, and she asked him how he liked the exhibition and about his own art. He expressed a general antipathy of late for the art world and a sense of boredom with his own art. He wasn’t feeling inspired and hadn’t created much in a while, he explained. After talking for a short while, I realized he wasn’t excited about much at all and came across as a snob. Look, I’m sure he’s a great guy and a great artist. He’s in a better position than I am to judge that the art world is not producing anything exciting. I have trouble believing that, to be honest. However, I don’t know him, and I’m not trying to say that I do after a five-minute conversation. This was just my first impression.

After the conversation, as Señorita and I were walking away, she explained that he was a very good photographer. While she hadn’t seen his latest work, he had previously done very exciting stuff. Then she said something that has stuck with me for well over a week. Something that I can’t get out of my head.

“He’s a real artist, you know. He’s a nice guy, but he’s that typical real artist,” she said. I think she said this in part to explain his attitude to me, because I was unimpressed with the guy. I’m sure it was written all over my face. In my defense, he brought up light and made what I felt was a very weak and poorly thought out argument concerning light. Also in my defense, he turned his entire body toward Señorita and spoke directly to her and addressed her when I asked a question. He cut me out of the conversation in the most physical way possible.

“He’s the stereotype, you mean,” I replied. I was uncomfortable with her use of the word real.

“Yes, exactly,” she agreed.  “You know, I say I’m an artist, but I’m not an artist like he’s an artist.”

I said that just because one is not a cliché doesn’t mean that one isn’t an artist. She agreed, but basically repeated what she had said, adding that her main job was outside of the art world. The conversation was mostly dropped at that point.

A few disclaimers before I continue:
1. I haven’t seen that much of Señorita’s art. And what I have seen was a long time ago – years ago in fact. I remember that her style is very precise. Her strokes were pencil thin, but each one had meaning and seemed intentional.
2. I’m not an art critic, and I’m in no position to say that one artist is better than another artist. Señorita and her husband are in a position to critique art like this. They own a gallery – critiquing art and determining its worth is their job. Whatever else I say here, I’m not claiming otherwise.

OK, now that that’s out of the way, I say, Bullshit. Bullshit to the idea that one is more of an artist because one acts in a certain way. I get the concept of ennui. I lived in Montreal, where ennui is a survival mechanism for a generation whose parents were screwed over by both the state and the Catholic Church and who consequently don’t give a damn about God or government. Then I moved to New York City, where ennui is a fracking art form. I tried my hand at it – put it on to see if it fit. I went to the ennui parties, where we discussed the ennui topics, and we all sounded very intelligent. Because that’s what intelligent people are supposed to be – bored. It’s like being bored is what you should be passionate about. Ennui was not for me. I’m too interested in exploring everything and anything, for better or worse.

I also understand why the stereotype of “the artist” is important to the art world. The idea that throwing one’s whole self into a single concept – the art – is the only true way to be a true artist facilitates a sense of mystery. That by throwing oneself into the art so completely, one is suddenly more enlightened, and (this is the important thing) more deserving of praise. This stereotype helps Señorita and her husband make a living. It separates the art world into the haves and have-nots. Those with money but no art want the art from those who have no money. The artist didn’t take the easy way out! He/she lives life on the edge! We reward that with praise, accolades, and money. Not undeservingly, either. There is honor in that, to some degree. But then there is the idea that if you do your passion as a side job – not your sole source of income or your sole purpose in life – then you are not a true artist. You aren’t committed; you don’t take this art thing seriously. You’re a have-not on the art side. Frankly, this goes for writing as well.

Here’s my opinion: A person who does their art and nothing but their art will be much better at it than one who doesn’t. This is the payoff for doing it full time. An author who makes sacrifices that I’m not willing to make is probably going to be a more successful writer than I am. I’m not trying to say that a part-timer like me or Señorita and a full-timer like Mr. Cynical are equal. What I am saying is that just because one doesn’t make the sacrifice of being a “real” artist, with their ennui and their hyper-critical eye and their all-consuming commitment, doesn’t mean that person isn’t committed to their own craft. It just means that they have both the luxury and the disadvantage of taking their time.

Just because I write part-time and I don’t do it for money doesn’t mean I’m not committed to writing properly and well. Just because Señorita is less free-for-all and go-with-the-flow with her art and doesn’t give it 100% of her time doesn’t mean that the time she does give to it is less important or less impassioned. It doesn’t mean she isn’t fully committed to doing things right and well, in her own way. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think that makes us equal to those who have made the sacrifice. But I also don’t like the idea that she and I are just putting a Band-Aid on a knee and calling ourselves doctor. That’s unfair. That implies a blatant flippancy that simply doesn’t exist when you have a passion for something. I know for a fact that she cares deeply about what she creates, just as I care deeply about getting better at this writing thing. She doesn’t just throw oil on a canvas and call herself an artist any more than a full-timer does. She has made the decision not to pursue that passion 24/7 and there is a price to pay for that decision. However, no one gets to tell her she isn’t an artist at all because of that decision. Maybe she isn’t an artist like Mr. Cynical is an artist. I hope not, frankly. Art should be original. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t a real artist. Whatever the hell that does mean.

*Not her real name. I almost always try to pick aliases here, since it’s just nicer for everyone.

Photo taken from Primary Flight’s website with permission. For more information on Kenton Parker and Primary Flight, click here.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2011 7:41 pm

    Well, he may be a great artist, but he sounds like a rude jerk.

    When I think of “stereotypical” artists I think of someone who is ADHD and bored with the nuts and bolts of business. I know several artists, professionals who make their living at it, and they fit this stereotype fairly well. They all have employees or family members to do the nuts and bolts and accounting stuff. But then I know some who seem VERY organized and not in the least ADHD. They have STEM backgrounds.

    And I know a lot of artists who have a day job that doesn’t involve art. They are still very accomplished artists. And they are all lacking in ennui. And rudeness. And jerkdom.

    Maybe Mr. Cynical is more of a jerk than an artist. Without seeing his work, I can’t tell. But then do I care? I know one thing–if you make connections to people you sell more. This won’t make you a better artist, but I bet it makes you a more successful one.

    • October 21, 2011 9:38 am

      Eh, he really wasn’t the point. I just think that Senorita can be hard on herself. It’s understandable because it’s a strong stereotype and it’s pervasive throughout all the creative fields. She’s awesome and passionate in her own way. Plus, passionate people are always hard on themselves. I know I am hard on myself – mega, mega hard on myself.

      I’m just kind of sick of the cliche. I was working in a creative field for over a decade, and yet still there was this idea that “this job is more creative than that job, and that makes this person better for some reason, etc, etc.” It got old real fast. I switched to a more business related job, and I’ve found that my creativity is way up. I don’t feel like I’m fighting to prove something anymore and it’s released me from a lot of the guilt I was harboring about 1) preferring writing to design and 2) not doing enough of either.

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