Thursday, July 19, 2012

Art and Appreciation

I grew up in a household where one of my parents was self-employed.  My mother began a career at a magazine publisher when I was young.  Barring a few short stints in the late 70s and 80s when he worked as a full-time employee for various companies, my father has been a freelance sculptor for the entirety of my life.  He has sculpted belt buckles, busts, fountains, seals reading books on benches, giant flamingos, torch-bearing Sauks, lamp posts, Erté-inspired art deco female figurines, the Fonz, and myriad corporate doo-dads.  He also draws and paints.  In our house, there's a painting of me sitting on the steps of our old house in Caledonia, Wisconsin.  On another wall, there's a huge painting of some insane abstract whatever he made long ago.  And on his computer, he uses his Wacom tablet daily to make some of the most bizarre, Boschian, hellish landscapes I've ever seen.

I never really made a distinction between these things as "art" or "not art".  In my mind, I considered all of them to be art.  It never crossed my mind that the commercial pieces were less art than the personal pieces, or that the giant abstracts were more art than the portraits of family members and friends.  Many people attach personal drive and tenacity to artistic merit.  Surrender of drive, surrender of vision, surrender of principle -- that's selling out.  I never associated this with my father because, to be frank, in his professional dealings he's often been stubborn, hot-tempered, and implacable.  It didn't matter if he was working for a school district, the city of Milwaukee, or a self-made billionaire.  If you asked him to make a change that he thought was bad, the response was fast and often not diplomatic.

There is much to be admired in the attitude, if not always the ferocity of the response: the principle, the confidence, the determination.  It says, "I am the artist.  I am the one who makes the decision."  This attitude is not always rewarded, and it is typically not respected by the people who are likely to do the rewarding: the clients.  Throughout my life, I've watched my father sculpt many things for many clients.  I've seen him frustrated and triumphant as our family went through financial ups and downs.  I can't remember a time that I ever went hungry, that I ever felt poor, thanks to my parents, but I could tell that it troubled him.  To me, there was no importance on the labels: "art", "fine art", "commercial art".  The importance was the struggle.  How important is it to satisfy an audience?  Does your work need to have an audience?  Can you make a bad choice and fix it later?  Do you need to communicate something?  Do you need to pay the rent?  Do you give a shit if this person hates your guts?  Does it matter if you lose all future work with this client?  Are you willing to live or die on this one point?

After growing up with a sculptor; working with video game artists, writers, and musicians, for over a decade; and living with a traditional painter for almost as long, I developed a maxim for how I would approach creative work: Do anything you want to do in life. Just don't expect anyone to pay you or respect you for it.

This, to me, is the razor.  It's the distillation of any creative struggle with the audience: is the critical or financial approval of the audience worth making a creative choice you think is inferior?  The audience may change: your co-workers, your boss, your client, your lover, your mother, the critics, the public.  You give different audiences different weight, sometimes capriciously, sometimes rationally.  Different issues may weigh on you more heavily than others.  Sometimes it's easy to let go.  Sometimes it hurts like hell.  Sometimes you won't budge on principle.  Sometimes you won't budge because fuck you, idiot.

We often use art and the authority of the artist (or the author, or the director, etc.) as an abstract shield to justify choices we make contrary to the desires of an audience.  We make a choice, an audience complains, and sometimes -- all too often -- we say, "Sorry, but art."  This is unproductive deflection.  This is an absurd, conversation-ending non-argument.  It is presented as a wall that no criticism can breach.  How is the critic intended to respond?

Someone doesn't like how you portrayed a character.  Someone doesn't like how you ended a story.  Someone doesn't like how you framed your shots.  "Art" as defense is not a response to criticism, it is a hollow rejection of criticism.  It does not encourage dialogue, it does not promote introspection, and it does not (typically) ameliorate the audience's displeasure.  At its worst, such a defense encourages non-topical arguments about the nature of art itself.  These discussions, in which no parties are ever victorious, quickly spiral so far away from the actual point of criticism that they often never return.

When I see this, I ask myself: is this how authors and audiences should interact?  I don't think so.  I think both the author and the audience deserve, and can benefit, more from honest appraisals of why we make the choices we makes.  Stop talking about "art".  Stop talking about "entitlement".  How does casting blame elevate and advance conversation about the work?  This is about questioning our work, our choices, our relationship (or lack thereof) with the audience.

Ultimately, our works are our answers to those questions.  Implicitly, what we give to our audience is indicative of our values.  Everything that follows -- the sales, the reviews, the debates, the revisions, the re-releases -- should be viewed as tools for the authors and audience to reinforce or recalibrate those values for future work.  Unless an author plans on quitting creative endeavors after the next project he or she completes, this process is something all of us will go through for life.

If you want to end a conversation, to cut off communication, it's easy enough to deflect criticism.  Assuming you do make your work for an audience, you probably don't make it for all audiences.  Sometimes, the fuck you, idiot instinct is the right one.  If you don't want that audience to respect you or pay for your work, cut them loose; they're not worth your time and you're not worth theirs.  But most of us can also accept a certain amount of dissatisfaction within our target audience.  We make choices, some members of the audience are dissatisfied, but we still suspect they're the right choices.  For those people, and for the rest of the audience, we have the ability to engage them, to sincerely explain our values and hear theirs.

All people engaged in a life of creative work have to fight battles against their shifting priorities.  We all make trade-offs, one way or another. The more we illuminate the specific twists and turns of our own choices, and the struggles involved in making them, the more everyone can gain from the exchange.


BaronVonChateau said...

Reading this made me remember the time when I was a young little shit systematically worked-up by the word "art" when it came up, until I read an interview of one of my favorite comedian (French dude, Pierre Desproges.) He justified his work - which I held for sacred at the time, probably still do - as a simple mean to bring food to the table. I was shocked for a time by the apparent lack of consideration of the guy towards his own work, the guy was mostly serious during the interview so the chances he was actually joking was minimal. Some time later I wrapped my mind around it, I guess it's not that much how you consider your own work which matters, nor how others do for that matter, but the amount of (non-masturbatory) work and thoughts you put into it.

Anyway, thanks for the no-nonesense read.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thanks, Josh!

Gizmo said...

If one is hired to create for the client, then you are selling the use of your skill to them. Your job is to create what they want. You use your talent and ability, but if they want it changed then it's their call, their money.

It's the artist's job to give them the art as they would like it, and not leave to them with the frustration (and regret?) of dealing with a stubborn personality. If you have reasons against their changes, you can tell them about it, but it's still their call; the FU option in this situation is not really an option at all ~because to use it puts you in the wrong.

It's not the same arrangement if it's a customer looking to buy a piece of your art; where as the artist you have full control over your own artwork. In that arrangement they don't have any leverage to demand changes other than not to buy.

Toaster said...

Gizmo: Somehow though I doubt you'd use that defense if the client changed their brief midway through to include something you might object to on political, or moral, or religious grounds. If the commissioning agent thinks it's essential you change the hero from black to white, is it your duty to follow their wishes because they've paid for your services and you're essentially a tool they're using?

Then how about if it's Indonesian to Irish or something? That's something you might not be so sensitive about, but should you still bow to their pressure? At what point do you explicitly set the line, and say that "I'm willing to bend my principles to this point, and no further"- and can you justify setting that line for everyone, can you really declare what it's not valid to have deep opinions on that you refuse to change?

Really the only solution is to let everyone set that line themselves, and let them deal with the consequences.

The Grue said...

In the context of video games, how would you apply the third paragraph of your post? Let's say a video game has an ending that a customer believes is awful. Is the customer in the wrong for demanding that the ending be changed? How, having had no knowledge of the ending of the game prior to purchasing it, does that customer voice his dissatisfaction with the overall product? Un-buy it?

Gizmo said...

Toaster: This isn't a defense, it's playing fair with the client; you really are selling the use of your skill.

If they suddenly demand outrageous changes that require the reversal of completed work, then you charge them additionally (it's additional work).

If they want something changed that is so sensitive to you (or that you find repulsive), then you decline... but that should be the exception to the unruly.

I once created a sculptural entrance to a ballroom in the appearance of a Ford 'Model T'; patrons stepped through it's door to enter the party. The guy that commissioned it was the party decorator. He loved it. Once Installed and a half hour before the party, his client asked him to paint it a different color (and she meant right then, there in the ballroom). He declined (and stormed out cursing).

Grue:If you mean the end user, hell no.
If you mean the ones that commissioned the game and paid for it's development then yes, of course; so long as they alot more time and pay for the additional work.

The Grue said...

Is that a "hell no" as in "hell no the end user is not in the wrong" or a "hell no" as in "hell no the end user is in the wrong"?

If the latter, does the end user have any right to voice dissatisfaction with a product s/he purchased?

maya said...

@Gizmo I think this is where the difference between hiring a contractor and an artist lies. When you get a contractor he works from the outlines you have made (or have had an architect make for you) and follow those meticulously unless there is a structural fault.

When you hire an artist, you hire someone to interpret your idea, to give you their vision of it. You as a client will have to research the artist to see if his former works the sort you want and then you leave it in his hands. Of course it's a dialogue but since every work an artist does bears his name, the artist must decide whether he is willing to compromise if there are demands he isn't completely happy about making.

Gizmo said...

The Grue: 'Hell no', as in the end user never enters the equation unless the developer is being very nice at their option; (not even if the game was a kick starter project and the end users put up the initial money).

Maya:When you are hiring an artist you are very much hiring a contractor; and the artist's name is not always on the finished work.
(Sometimes the customer is glad for it, other times they don't care; and sometimes they don't want it there.)

Hiring and buying previous work are not the same thing. That's not to say that someone can't commission the artist to invent a work of art for them, but that's different from outlining a project for them to complete. Usually the dialog starts with concepts and progresses through milestones where they can (and often do) say, "Wait a minute... this won't do, it needs to be changed".

If I hire an artist to render an image that I outline and dictate the details of (and they accept the job); then I can say to them that their unasked for embellishments need to be removed; and/or any mistakes in the details be corrected.

I probably wouldn't choose to make that demand unless it was really very important to me, but I'd be within my rights to do so, and I would consider them unprofessional (and not someone to hire again) if the complained about it.

Or I could have asked them to paint a forest scene for me to put on the mantle ~minimal or no details, I just want them to do what they do...

But if I'd asked for a cardinals in the trees and they painted only bluejays, I'd think something was wrong with them.

Anonymous said...

I think you have it right. Unfortunately, art is left to people who are willing to make extreme financial and personal sacrifices. Or, they are born into households with enough cash reserves to support someone who may never make an income. Or a combination of both. (Or they use drugs and don't hardly sleep.)

It is uncommon to find a middle class artist who isn't scrounging to get by.

Do you think art flourishes in shit?

Anonymous said...

I've only experienced the creation of "art" through art classes, but I've never been personally objective to criticism (at least on work that I gave a damn about).

Ignoring the fact that exactly defining what is art and what isn't is such an arbitrary task bordering on the impossible, I think what's more important is just what the end product is. If you're someone who's looking to simply create something that you're satisfied with, then either take it as a hobby or let the client know before they pull out their wallets that you're going to tell them to fuck off if they don't like the color.

I'd just like to point out that I'm no expert on the subject matter, and this is just my perceived opinion.

If you're going to make a living off of art, receiving criticism and adapting it carefully into future work. You're getting paid not just to make art, but to make art that people enjoy. And if people don't enjoy it, you can't just pull the, "Oh, but it's ART." argument and expect to keep getting paid.

And since everybody's opinions tend to differ, as an artist you're going to receive some criticism. And since the chances are that you're not a perfect artist, you can't just shrug of criticism by hiding behind an ideal.

Just my personal thoughts.