My life as an Artist…
A number of my friends and peers (some are even both!) have been telling me for some time that I should, “Get out there more.” They want my work to reach a wider audience, they want me to be recognised (by whom?) for my contribution to photography (however minor) and they also want me to be financially rewarded for that contribution.
Well, obviously, one doesn’t want to turn down money – as my mother in law says, “Refuse nothing but blows!” We all have to find a way to pay our own way in the modern world but picking the right path can be tricky for some ways of life and particularly for an artist.
The eternal economic question that the individual must ask himself or herself is does one work to live or live to work? For the aspiring artist there should be no doubt that one lives to work – lives to create works might be a better way of putting it. The economic realm should be but a minor consideration for the artist. Few of us, however, have the willpower to turn our backs on financial reward or, even if we are unaffected by the lure of Mammon, to deprive those we love and support of material goods. Of course in the West this is usually a question of picking which “wants” to fulfil rather than which “needs”. The spiritual and moral integrity of what they are doing should be of much more importance to the artist.
It also seems to me that one of the things that is incumbent upon artists is to dream for those trapped in the secular, capitalist world of “proper” jobs. And, by that dreaming, open the eyes of others to new possibilities. It’s perhaps harder to have those dreams when one is a wage slave oneself.
But, in the last half century the artist has moved from dreamer to professional maker in a kind of reversal of the process that occurred during the Renaissance. From prehistory through to the late Middle Ages the artist was usually anonymous. They were artisans rather than celebrities. Their job was to fashion the work in much the same spirit as a blacksmith fashioned metal. Their tools were different but the product, like a horseshoe, had an acknowledged purpose within society. In the case of Art its job was to be educative or transcendental. The artist’s imagination was applied within prescribed limits. There was a tacit awareness that if they made the work too personal its functionality might be compromised, rather like a horseshoe with unnecessary curlicue decorations!
The Renaissance saw the rise of artist as individual, the rise of Artist as Celebrity. The celebrity artist was supported by a system of patronage; they had to sing for their suppers. Artists forged or were more likely offered relationships with rich and powerful benefactors who saw the advantage of a visible association with the intellectual and aesthetic high ground. This was much more often a political move rather than an altruistic one. The patrons weren’t supporting Art for Art’s sake but rather for what it could do for their social standing – much in the same way that in recent years the large corporations have sought relationships with the Art world and museums as a kind of high-brow PR exercise: we might be raping the rain forest but hey, look, we think Picasso is really cool!
By the middle of the 20th Century patronage by individuals had all but disappeared. The artist was left to fend for themselves in the hard commercial world, their work vying for the buyers’ attention with other more prosaic wants. Whereas throughout history Art had served a social purpose, from spiritual or religious through to expounding the dominant ideology, it was now just product.
Which leaves the artist with a bit of a dilemma. What exactly is their job in the Modern world? It doesn’t seem to be expounding a dominant ideology as, beyond “The individual is king”, there doesn’t seem to be one in the West anymore. Is it, then, asking awkward questions of the viewer by making so-called “anxious objects” or is it simply making decorative products? The former was certainly the position adopted by the Modernist avant-garde but commercial pressure seems to be forcing the latter position on artists in the post-modern era.
Most have chosen to ignore the problem by treating Art as just another professional realm, like medicine or law: a task to be performed efficiently, thoroughly and perhaps a little soullessly. The professionalization of Art has meant that economic concerns have become as important, if not more important, to the artist as aesthetic or social ones. In an Art world where anything goes, and the individual artist is king, whose to say whether a particular work of art is “good”? The arbiter has become the market place. How much a particular artist’s work sells for, the works’ extrinsic value, becomes more important than its intrinsic worth. If enough noise is made about an artist, if enough canny marketing applied to their “brand” then chances are they will become “successful” – if the measure of success is purely financial. The gallery owners, even more than art critics, are now the market makers. But what’s more important: the work or the hype?
It seems to me that there’s a huge problem here. The gallery system drives the market and demands a flow of product in order to maintain the flow of cash. Huge pressure is then placed on the artist just to churn out product and the quality of the work invariably suffers as a result.
Despite what Andy Warhol thought, as far as I’m concerned Art isn’t the same as cans of soup and I don’t feel that it has to be sold in the same fashion. When Alfred Stieglitz opened his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York in the early years of the last century he put belief in the work above commercial value. He sometimes doubled a work’s price, or refused to sell it, if he felt the buyer were just acquiring it as an investment; sometimes, if he were impressed with the buyer’s passion but they didn’t have deep enough pockets, he even sold a work at half price. Can you imagine a gallery today doing that?
Another question is also apparent; what happens to the quiet voice? What happens to the artist who lives to work, who places spiritual, aesthetic or intellectual inquiry above economic reward? Do these people even still exist? Well I certainly hope so as I consider myself amongst their number.
How is all this reflected in my life? The work has always come first for me. I didn’t become a photographer for the glamorous high-flying lifestyle (which is lucky because I haven’t found one!) I’m motivated by a sense of photographic enquiry, both intellectual and aesthetic, rather than by the money – again, lucky! All I’ve ever wanted to be as a photographer was the best that I could possibly be at making images. My friend, and peer, Joe Cornish once said to me that if you truly apply yourself to your art then eventually you will be recognized and rewarded. I’m not sure that van Gogh would agree with him… Sadly for my heirs an imminent demise wouldn’t boost the value of my images particularly – if you’re looking to market a myth tragically middle-aged just doesn’t cut it!
In case you’re getting an impression of me as a tortured ascetic that’s absolutely not me. I love my Art but I also love life. There are just some things I won’t do in order to make a buck. What I won’t do is make images simply because they have earnings potential, this covers a spectrum that ranges from chocolate box to the passionless approach of someone like Andreas Gursky. I’m intent on taking my own journey and making my own discoveries rather than following a well-trodden path.
So, like many others I suspect, I’ve reached a compromise that has entailed a dilution of my artistic effort. I have throughout most of my photographic career produced two distinctly different threads of work: commercial and personal. The former might best be characterised as being purely illustrative and the latter images that, however imperfectly, seek a level of transcendence. But as I approach 50 I’ve become increasingly frustrated with this workaround. I now want my cake and I want to eat it too! So I’m faced with finding a solution to the dilemma outlined above. Do I continue to split my efforts between commercial and personal work or do I throw myself on the mercy of the gallery system with the consequent potentially damaging professionalization of my personal work? And, in any case, little prospect as a photographer of finding commercial success. Or do I find a third way? I’ll let you know how the search is going…
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.