I am not very comfortable calling myself an artist but I do it because people understand the term and also because if I don’t I get challenged by well-meaning but patronising people who encourage me to claim my identity as an artist.
Really though, I am a painter. I paint because it is one of the few things I can do but mostly because when I am painting regularly I feel better and the black dog is kept at bay. I, like many other painters I know, find painting quite dull and in fact I think that creating paintings is quite a narrow way to express oneself.
Being an artist is, in fact, a drag. It’s a lonely occupation, it will lose you money more often than not. It will steal time that you could spend cultivating your relationships or making an actual living. But one of the hardest and incomprehensible things I find about being an artist is the amount of people also wanting to claim the title without doing any work or not respecting the actual work they do. I am not talking of the amateur here, rather dilettantes, those people for whom impression is all and quality is a type of sweet.
By quality I mean the quality Pirsig talked about in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It is that indefinable something, or even that place where artist and viewer meet, where the viewer just knows the artists heart.
This can only happen of course if the artist is being honest. Being honest is the constant battle. And this is the real reason I am not comfortable with the word artist, because you are only an artist when you hit that spot, you are only an artist sometimes. But often, even when you fail, the viewer, if primed properly by the culture she lives in, can see the struggle, the intention, whether liking the work or not, whether liking the genre or not(e.g. painting, sculpture, conceptual, installation etc.).This is what is missing in the dilettantes work but not necessarily missing in the amateurs.
So what is an amateur and what is a dilettante?To me an amateur is someone who does not define themselves by their craft or someone who is not driven to create in a particular way, their art practice is not their primary mode of expression. It also could be someone who is too modest or lacking in esteem or uninterested in having their voice heard to push themselves forward. Some amateurs are dilettantes though I suspect many are not.
A piece of art does not necessarily have to be good-as in skillful or accomplished-to show quality, something which you can see at many amateur shows. Yes there are bad paintings with no heart in them but there are “bad” paintings with lots of heart and life, paintings that often trump the work of more skilled practitioners. The very fact that many amateur artists by their nature are not too interested into taking their art into the wider world beyond the local amateur show, means that they care for the work they are doing, the work is the thing.
All dilettantes are dilettantes. Dilettantism as defined by Ben Shahn in The Shape of Content is “..the non serious dabbling within a presumably serious field by persons who are ill-equipped-and actually do not even want -to meet even the minimum standards of the field.”
The italics are mine.
Its the dilettante who make my blood boil while simultaneously breaking my heart and making me feel sick. To my mind a dilettante is someone who likes the idea of being something, in this case an artist, but is not interested or does not know that there is more to it that having exhibitions, drinking wine in the South of France or being a free spirit. Often in fact being an artist doesn’t involve any of these things.
The show is the biggest thing for the dilettante and the most dull and nerve-wracking thing for the artist. Showing is a necessary part of the process but only a part and a part that has become too big in recent times. Even genuine artists can get caught up in working to a show, instead of just creating. It is hard not to in this day and age where ego rules and impressions are all but we always come back to the work. Dilettantes love the show. The show is all.
The dilettante is on the rise and has been since the early part of the last century. Developments in materials and greater affluence, more spare time (both despite of and because recent recessions)have given rise to the dilettante.
The advent and continued development of the camera has to take the blame too. Previous to it’s invention being an artist was viewed as another craft like baking or carpentry. From the time the camera took over the job of recording people and events, art was set free to re-define itself.
At first this made artists undesirables, rebels and time wasters. Van Gogh was considered a loser in his time. Over time though, artists like Picasso, who became rich early on in his career, and then, in America, the Abstract Expressionists, made being an artist popular. Jackson Pollock (one of my favourite painters)being moody in LIFE magazine made people suddenly realise that an artist could be a celebrity. Enter the dilettante.
The camera was not finished though. With the rise of idiot-proof cameras at reasonable prices, many can point a camera these days and achieve relatively good results. (That is not to say there aren’t exceptional photographers anymore. There are, it just means their own perspective, their eye and the strength of it, comes into play a lot more. The good ones are truly exceptional.)
So the camera, like ready-made canvasses and student colours, makes it easy to have shows. Print out on work on buckled paper or slap some student quality paint on a ready-made canvas and hey presto you’re an artist. Easy isn’t it?
As a painter, when I work I try to produce the best that is within my means. I make and prime my own canvasses if I can, if not I buy good quality canvas. More often I paint on oil-primed board.(But dammit, even if you paint on a Rice Krispie packet you can present it well).
I use artist quality paint. I have met “professional” artists in this country who do not even know of the existence of this quality, assuming the flat student colour they use is the best. An artist or an amateur, whatever materials they choose or however much they can afford, at least choose with knowledge of what is available and what is suitable for what they are trying to say and that knowledge is visible in the finished product.
When I show if I can’t afford to frame I at least do a good job hanging, putting thought into how I am presenting my work, planning with intelligence and a feel for the space and doing the physical work myself. If I have an opening I produce the best invitations I can and so send out the message that I have respect for my work. If there is wine it has to be drinkable. The handouts should be informative and legible.
So when I see shows of pictures bunged into any old frame and slapped on the wall higgledy-piggledy without regard for lighting or the space, in short shows by those who have no respect for their own work and yet demand huge respect for themselves, those who place themselves on a par with all the artists I have known who are driven to paint but find it difficult, who struggle in poverty in order to cling to their honesty, it makes me ill, it breaks my heart.
The more of these shows there are the more the man on the street will accept shoddyness and soulessness as real art and something is lost. Real art throws light on you, on your life, even the art you don’t like. Not all have or want the ability to appreciate art but those who do should be given an opportunity to flex that muscle. Yes we need the crap for comparison but too much and everyone thinks crap is the norm. Crap should not be the norm.
Yet the dilettante will be with us as long as there is a ridiculous image of the artist as being cool.
People need to realise that there are billions of more interesting ways of expressing oneself, from tending a garden, cleaning a house, fixing a car, working out, wearing clothes, attending to relationships. To yearn after being seen as an artist as the dilettantes do is sad and foolish and worst of all destructive to the community at large.
Of course at the end of the day you could tell me to stuff it, people can do what they want and you are right. But, I too will do what I damn well want and mourn in writing the lack of standards(for both others and myself) and the lack of soul, the lack of quality in our lives today and on into the future.