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.