Recently I wrote about the urge to be original, observing that young artists are especially concerned with making something absolutely “new”. I believe that research and study is an integral part of art-making. When artists have done thourough research, they almost always find artists who have made work similar to what they are making.
Indeed the point of research is to find the other artists, either historical or contemporary, whose work shares qualities with our own work. There are several reasons why this matters:
Most importantly, other artists will inspire us. We call this inspiration “influence”. We will see how other artists approached issues, materials, and expression and learn from their progress.
We are required to know who our influences are. Our first influences are usually our teachers, parents, or peers. As we develop the practice of research, our influences will grow and change. This is a valuable, even critical, part of artistic identity. We are all members of a continuum, it is important to remember that.
Also, from other artists with whom we share certain qualities, we will find out where our markets might be, who our audience is, and which galleries may like our work.
Ideally, when we connect with these artists we will find friendship and camaraderie. Trade secrets will be shared. We will know what to call our style or movement. Importantly, we will be able to put our practice into context.
Just as a singer needs to have musical knowledge, an artist must study art. Knowledge should be both broad and specific. A broad art historical education includes at least a basic knowledge of all major art movements in human history. Ideally this would include art from all continents and cultures on earth. Along the way, specific movements and genres intrugue us more than others and we naturally develop a deeper knowledge and affinity for those.
Regardless of our personal preference, it is also important to be aware of art hierarchies even if we choose to disregard them, which many contemporary practitioners do. We must familiarize ourselves with the arguments surrounding Art versus Craft, for instance. It is valuable to be able to differentiate between High Art and Popular Art, for example. These distinctions are becoming less and less relevant to artists, but the philosophies that form the basis of those arguments still effect us.
Fortunately there are many channels through which we can acquire this knowledge if we are motivated. While Art History courses at a college or university may be useful and enjoyable, they can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. With a little effort we can educate ourself with books and essays easily obtainable through libraries and reputable internet sources.
Do not avoid conversations about your artwork. When you are asked to explain your work to others it helps you to clarify and distill your ideas. you benefit from these interactions, especially when the people asking are truly interested in the work. When you are asked to defend your ideas, you define them, hone them, and invest in them. You may state your thoughts and opinions, but you wont truly know where you stand until you are asked to defend your position. This is why presidential debates, and debates in general are important. It’s great exercise to defend oneself. It makes you stronger. In art you will be asked to explain your choices, be it material, subject matter, or style. Embrace the opportunity to have conversations where you are asked to defend your position, or to justify your choices. See this not as criticism or evidence that your choices are wrong or invalid, but as an opportunity to be pushed further into your certainty.
In its most basic definition, Contemporary Art means art that is made today, by living artists. It may suffice to stop there because although there are many more detailed and specific definitions, there are often contradictory definitions as well. If contemporary art is distinguished by any one factor, it would be that it defies definition. Contemporary art can be made in any material or media. Contemporary art encompasses all current practices, cultures, methods, and technologies.
There are some common threads that run through most contemporary art practice. Contemporary art usually references culture. This can happen in a variety of ways. It can engage with its culture of origin, or offer commentary on world events. Sometimes the artwork will reference history. Sometimes popular culture is a latent or overt theme.
Contemporary artists are keenly versed in art history and the artwork reflects this through subtle references or direct quotations either in method or image.
Contemporary art practice is not necessarily materials based. Artists are free to use any media and technique and often use multiple media. The use of new technologies, or at least and awareness of new technologies is essential. There are as many ways of working as there are artists. Art materials vary widely from the traditional (paint, clay) to things not usually identified as art materials such as found objects and the human body. It’s the artists utilization of the media that makes it art.
The unifying factor, if there is one, in contemporary art, is the artist’s concern for meaning. To take it one step further, I would say that art, for the artist, is a way of interacting with the world that makes life more meaningful for the artist and uncovers meaningful truths about the human experience for both the artist and the viewer. While meaningful experience has always been the result of interaction with a successful artwork, the notion of meaning being primary to the artwork is a contemporary idea.
This a very exciting time to be an artist as there are no limitations to what or how art can be. While some artists find this liberating, the lack of parameters can seem overwhelming to others. Artists must decide what methods and materials to use to say what they need to say with their art.
Art is an open country. Everyone can stay. In a creative environment where everyone is welcome, there are bound to be differences of opinion, differences in modes of expression, and delivery systems.
Sometimes there is chaos in my classroom. I see it as controlled chaos, but some may see it as out of control. I am aware of that. It is ok. Some may think that I am lazy and that is why I do not take control of my class. Or perhaps I am inexperienced and lack the ability to deal with the disorder. It may be that I don’t notice it.
I assure you, none of those things is true. I see who gets annoyed, who sighs and judges and shakes their heads. I see you. I value your comfort, I do. But I value the chaos more. No one is getting hurt. No one feels threatened either physically or emotionally. It’s all ok.
Art is an open country. Everyone can stay.
Even the noisy ones. Even the ones who mutter to themselves. Even the ones who ask the same question over and over again. Even the ones who need a ton of extra help just to get through the day.
All opinions are valid. You get to have yours, I get to have mine. That guy who is going to vote for Donald Trump gets to have his. We all get to express ourselves in art class. That is why we are here. We may not love the chaos. We may prefer a more serene environment in which to practice our art. Sometimes I prefer that too.
If you want silence, go to a library. If you want an open forum for self-expression, come to my art class.
Music, theatre, literature, and visual art can all represent the highest form of human expression. In fact, entire ancient cultures are evaluated based solely on their artistic output. Perhaps art is not valued so much these days, but that’s a topic for another time. Art matters and always will, despite current fashion.
Human expression needs an open forum to grow. An open forum can, at times, be chaotic. Controlling that chaos could limit the potential for human expression to grow. I’m not willing to risk that.
So what if we are uncomfortable? Art thrives in discomfort. If it doesn’t, it should. Sustaining an artistic practice demands we be resilient. There will be many things in life that to try to distract us form our practice. Partners, kids, and jobs come to mind.
If we can learn to create within the chaos, we will be better artists. If we can accept and appreciate a variety of opinions, diverse manners of expression and different temperaments, we will be better spokespersons for our culture.
At the moment it’s very contemporary to be cross discipline, as an artist and an all around human. The changing economic situation for young people has caused them to focus on multiple income streams instead of just one job. As full-time, career path jobs with benefits such as health insurance and retirement, paid sick days, and vacation, dry up and a become memory of how previous generations lived, a paradigm shift has taken place. And young people do not seem to interpret this as a bad thing. Never having had job security, a salary, or employee benefits of any kind, they don’t miss them. Also, many young people witnessed older folks lose everything while focusing on just one job or career. Young people see no reward for loyalty.
We have a new generation of freelancers. The ones I know are very liberated by this. They follow their hearts. They do what they want to do and they do whatever they have to in order support that.
Choosing to do what you love is no longer a terrible career choice as “sure thing” careers no longer exist.
Artists have always been this way. Very few of us make our entire living from making and selling artwork. We have always had a bunch of other jobs, skills, and talents.
Just to sustain a career in as a visual artist, and not even fully support ourselves financially, we need many abilities. Obviously we must be disciplined, knowledgeable about our own art as well as the contemporary and historical context of our art. We must be experts at our chosen material, as well as many other materials. We write blogs, articles, statements and thesis. We lecture about our work, using presentations we create. We teach, and we handle the administrative duties related to teaching. We do our own marketing. We are able to interface with and charm gallerists, curators, journalists, the general art public and one another. The list goes on.
These are the things we do; in addition to the studio work that is the core of our practice, in order to be able to continue making our art. Even the most successful among us still need additional income to survive.
So we do the jobs that earn us a living. These other jobs require a host other skills. In this way we are like the youth of today, freelancers, multidisciplinary. Artists always have been. Artists have always found creative and individual solutions to the challenge of making a living and sustaining an art practice. Who is to say one way is more valuable than another? Now that other more stable career choices have lost their promise of security, we artists are more equipped than anyone to adapt. Just like the young people for whom security has never existed in their lifetimes, the same has always been true for many of us artists.
The youth of today are artists but they do not define themselves as such. It used to be that if you were a painter, you couldn’t be taken seriously if you also enjoyed fashion and beauty. If you were an actor, you wouldn’t also be a fashion designer. If you were a potter, you wouldn’t also direct music videos, or be a food stylist, or have a handbag line. As artists it was even worse if you had a professional career. Then you were a sellout, abandoning your art. Painting on the weekends was not good enough. It used to be that having multiple interests or a conflicting career defined you as a dilettante or a hobbyist. Not anymore.
There’s a reason freelancers are bright-eyed and bushy tailed. We have to hustle. We have to take the best/first offer instead of waiting for that contract that may never come. We don’t expect our tenured colleagues to understand, but we kind of wish they did. Our experience is different than theirs; it is in fact a lot more like the challenges that face their students. Tenured Faculty, there’s a benefit in making an effort to comprehend your freelancing/adjuncting brethren, you’ll understand your students a little better, too.