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Slow art, soul art

July 18, 2015

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Art holds time, oil pastel collage, S Zoutewelle-Morris

Who doesn’t have the ‘bread and butter’ part of their art practice? I sure did back in the 70’s when I made little landscape prints and calligraphy pieces to sell at art markets.

My husband told me of an artist who, a long time ago in Holland, was having trouble making ends meet. He set up a stand on the sidewalk and started making quick drawings of clowns for passersby. He did so well, he was able to finance his less saleable work.

Problem is when the clown drawings take over. When work made to sell becomes the focus, and not making work according to inner values, which then eventually may or may not sell.

Commodity art is a branch of business, like a supermarket or a clothing store. It operates on exactly the same principles- supply and demand, customer’s wishes are central, profit margins before quality. And virtually no ethical underpinning.

How does an artist let herself become part of this consumer chain? One current scenario is, the person has average or above average drawing talent and makes something which is trendy and appeals to a large public.

They have no trouble seeing their art as a product. For them, selling is just as exciting and challenging as making art. They are 100% dedicated to self-promotion.They are artists of business, rather than artists first. Mostly when they find something that sells, they keep working in that vein rather than taking risks and developing their art.

While they may start out making things that are connected to their own creative journey, they soon realise that to keep selling they have to make the kind of art their customers want. They’ve found that wholesale and licensing earn the most, and the fastest. Every piece of original art regardless of merit is unfailingly available as prints, phone skins, silk scarves, T-shirts, mouse pads etc..

Then they realize that they have now become administrators of a business, have to spend hours working the social media to keep up people’s interest in them and their products, and spend more hours (or hire someone) to package and post their work. They accept this and consider it the price needed to stay ‘on top’.

Eventually everything they do is in service to their career. As one artist put it, they have become walking infomercials.

Excuse me. But if an artist decides that this really isn’t what his heart was telling him when he first felt he gift of his art come through him, he’s the one that is supposed to be crazy???  I, and more than a few artist friends, when openly questioning this insanity have gotten flack for not being ‘realistic’ and realizing you have to have money to survive. But the core issues here aren’t just about money.

 continued in next post

 

 

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Slow art, soul art II

July 18, 2015

please read part one, previous post first

So what is going on here?
There is a book called, ‘The Gift ‘by Lewis Hyde which exhaustively explores why art belongs to the gift and not the commercial worlds, and what is lost when we enter the market with a gift (I’ve written a series of posts on the book.) Basically, in gift cultures, to give something away freely was to enrich the tribe/community. A gift actually increased in value when given, and perished when held on to. Gifts and art were linked to something bigger than the artist- to the ancestors, to the spirits of the land, to the gods.
And in engaging in gift exchange, these large forces were also invoked. So that when you gave or received a gift, it connected you to the larger powers in the universe. Money exchange is anonymous and impersonal. But gift exchange in a small community creates a connection, a web of relationships. If I give something away freely, I create an empty place in my own life that will automatically be filled by the community.

Compare this trust that my needs will be met, with the desperation that so often accompanies selling art for a living in the above model.

The thing is, if you reject the pressure to commoditise your art and yourself, you are rejecting the main paradigm, the actual foundations of reality nearly everyone in this society is being run by. You are stepping off the path. You are dangerous. that is why when you start to withdraw from the accepted ‘way it is done’ people will feel threatened and try to make you feel like a fool.

What is actually happening is that one by one, people are starting to question the usual way of doing and thinking about things. Charles Eisenstein calls this familiar way the ‘old story’ and says we are collectively moving toward a ‘new narrative’. This is true for the arts as well. He also says that it is almost impossible to hold the new story alone. If you try, you will be drawn back into the old way of seeing things, either by peer pressure or money issues. The only way to create and hold the new story is through community – one more reason to talk about these things together and support each other in making unconventional choices.

There are many, many artists looking for new ways of working with their gifts. These channels are not yet in place as  secure money generating structures, but they are coming. Actually, it is artists like us who are questioning the current paradigm who are creating the new forms.

What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.
-Robert Hughes

I would call this ‘soul art’. It has a lot to do with Hyde’s idea of art being a gift:

There are three aspects of a gift involved in creating a work of art:

  1. The inspiration, vision or idea that makes one want to create.
  2. The talent and skills to  bring that idea into tangible form. The artist creates something higher than herself and is
    enriched by doing so.
  3. The work of art is offered to something larger than the artist’s ego- the tribe, community, the muse ,whatever,
    there is an acknowledgement and gratitude and releasing of the art so that it can enrich others.

This kind of art takes time and belongs to other natural processes which are of value and take time; healing, nurturing, tending, growing, creating. It is made as a response to an inner intention and is deeply engaged with the artist’s growth and development both in his skills and as a person.

Soul art, when shared freely with the community, creates nourishing relationships. Coming from the heart, it is naturally sustainable and in harmony with nature. It is made from the sense that what we have is already enough, so there is trust that we’ll find what we need rather than trying to manipulate, control and compete for it.

Hyde, in his book, admitted that we live in a reality where an artist needs to sell to live. He offers one suggestion- make sure your art is created in service to your gifts, to the higher aspirations of your soul and heart- where you take risks, don’t think about the market, where there is a pure, gift sphere to create from. Then, after, you can see if it has market value, sometimes is does, sometimes it doesn’t.

The art that matters to us, which moves the heart or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living…that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price.
Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Nicholas Wilton’s most recent post gives food for thought, again. I find his sharings always thought provoking, and they definitely give me insights that help with my work. This one though, hit a nerve.

I happen to be wrestling just now with the part of my book in progress that is about art and livelihood. I’ve found a way to sidestep the money is good vs money is evil discussion by asking, ‘which story do I want my energy to contribute to ‘. It isn’t about money anyway, it is about creating meaning. What image of life do I want to strengthen by giving it my time and energy?’

If I jump whole hog into the art as commodity reality, then I am supporting an economy based on money as the bottom line for determining value. By proxy I am acquiescing to exploiting people and resources to get high profits. I am saying yes to non-ethical long-term negative consequences of short term thinking. I’m using my life to perpetrate a system I don’t stand behind in any way at all.

My heart, unlike Nicholas’s was never wholly into selling my art as a life goal. I wanted a more collaborative, connected, kind of art. I wanted to do good, add value to life, and there weren’t channels for that kind of socially engaged work until just recently.

What I get from Nicholas’s post and from his art, is that it isn’t a black and white thing. There are artists like him, who seem to be able to dance with the marketplace without losing the gift aspect of their art- the aspect connected to the muse, to the sacred, to the greater things. The kind of art that carries a connection with life’s mysteries and large questions, the kind of art that can soothe souls and inspire people to either make art themselves or make changes in their lives to let in more play, imagination, connection.

The danger in approaching art as commodity/product is that this aspect is too often lost in the fray to get the work seen and sold. An artist starting out with all her values intact can easily get overtaken by market values.

I guess this is the essence of my problem with saying ‘there is nothing BUT money in art’, it places art squarely in the marketplace. Seeing the world as it is now, in seeing old systems collapsing and creativity needed for renewal in every part of life, I would ask, do we need more art products? Or do we need artists leading authentic lives, creating from their heart and soul to bring these much needed values into the world? I learn from other artists all the time, that it isn’t either/or.

But I want to make a case for the alternative to seeing art, like everything else in this society, as a transaction.

 

 

 

 

 

An artist I respect recently thought of a scheme to get  people to buy her work. She sells inexpensive sweepstake tickets and has a draw, giving away several artworks a year this way.

It is clever. Artists need to be as creative in their promotion techniques as their work these days.

I am still enmeshed in an ongoing moral dilemma about doing the promotion needed to sell my art or not. Early in my career, selling went without effort. I had a show, I sold work. People came to visit, they saw something they liked they bought it. I had a stand at a quality juried art fair and sold work easily.

For some reason that all changed when I moved to another culture. Here in Holland, it was years before I created a good social network, but even then it couldn’t compare to being naturally embedded in my home town, Pittsburgh, where the people I and my parents knew, loved and valued art.

Here in the Netherlands, the shows I had sold little, people walked past my stands at the various mediocre standard fairs I did attempt to do (and then mercifully stopped with) , and there is only one friend of ours who, every few years, sees my work and falls hard for a piece and actually buys it.

Because I’ve known a modest degree of professional recognition and success, I refuse to take the low sales figures personally. My work, if anything is growing in quality and depth. The factors have more to do with a different mentality here in northern Holland about art, and buying art. And many artists I know are fighting an uphill battle with this and the fallout from an ongoing financial crisis here.

In the last years, I’ve argued that the path of selling  art was not for me, but it never really feels resolved. I hear about my friend and her sweepstakes tickets, putting in everything she has to be able to make her art, and I feel doubt about my own stubbornness in refusing to use the social media, in promoting my work more actively etc. One main difference is that strictly speaking, I don’t have to live from my art anymore. People who have chosen to survive from their art have harder decisions to make. But I do miss the feeling of having something the society values and will pay for. And it would certainly make my day if my work were to start selling again. Unlike most socially engaged artists, I still seriously paint and draw. And this creative work is the source I draw on to move out into the society and share my skills, and knowledge of the creative process. It is fundamental to it.

Yet writing this makes me realise that I’ve made a healthy decision for me-  I’ve stopped doing things which weren’t working, and which didn’t make my heart sing. But doing so also has severed me in some ways from my old tribe of struggling artists. It landed me in ‘the place between’- when the old wasn’t working and the new hasn’t yet materialised. But I think each of us who rejects a path that no longer fits us is forging a new way, for ourselves and for others to follow at some point. Each step on the invisible path creates a new way forward. But on days like today, it is lonely and uncomfortable.

Luckily there are artist friends I can still toss these dilemmas around with. And also people who have arrived in a similar place to me like Milenko Matanovic who says,

Long ago I decided that making art for galleries and museums was not going to serve my notion of making communities and society more meaningful, liveable, and beautiful.

 

I’ve been working on a book for the past years on and off. It is about why art is important and what its worth is outside of an economic one. Lots of the posts in this blog have been exploring this topic (see, for example the categories art and the market or art and healing).

The deeper I go into it, the more I see that it is not an isolated issue, that the changes needed and indeed happening in the arts are changes happening in every sector and will shake this whole society to its roots.

That is why it feels on topic to talk about an amazing TV program I saw here in Holland this week. Here is a link if you are Dutch. It was called ‘Transitions’ and addressed the present crisis and the creative initiatives happening at grass roots level to come out of it. Actually the projects in the program were not about ‘coming out of a crisis’ but creating a new way of living in society.

The main focus was on Jan Rotmans, professor of Transition studies in Rotterdam. He says that in Holland there are maybe 10,000 creative people who are thinking and acting in a completely new way,, outside the existing paradigm. They are the tippers (ie causing the society to tip into a new way of being),  and the thinkers so far outside of the box that the box doesn’t even exist.

Rotmans says we are in a crisis that is different from any before, that this sort of crisis happens once every 100-150 years, and

it isn’t that we’re living in an era of change, but in a change of eras.

Briefly, this is a deep  and far reaching systems crisis- we are in a transition period between a consumer society and a sharing society.

The program focused on 5 different projects each in a different sector- healthcare, energy, urban design, building, and mobility.  For example, the neighbourhood care project (Buurtzorg) now in every city in Holland and soon to be picked up by the US, Sweden, and Japan. Jos de Blok’s simple idea is to put the responsibility for care and the organisation of care  back into the hands of the professionals who do it,and cut out managers and middle managers. It is based on small local groups of nurses and social workers who hire and fire, manage their schedules, and pay system etc. This saves money and  improves care. And it works.

Another project brings people who want transport together with those who are offering it – a new kind of carpooling, but via internet. Poeple make a profile, there is a feedback system, the payment goes via the site. (Toogethr.nl  – founder Martin Voorzanger) Voorzanger says,

the trend is toward trust not only being a condition for a sharing economy, but the new currency as well.

If people increasingly barter, trade, rent- they take their consuming into their own hands instead of buying from big companies. then this will be the real economy and we’ll stop measuring in terms of economic growth.

The new values emerging in all these initiatives are trust, connection, community building, self sufficiency, sustainability.

So yes, it is crisis, and at the same time it is an incredible opportunity to build new ways of relating to each other, using energy, living in neighborhoods, taking care of each other, and getting what we need in terms of objects and services.

The arts too have a role to play in this transition-  as tools to assist and catalyse transformation in times of change.

So I’ll be writing more about this topic in future posts, and hopefully one day gather it all together in a book to give hope and inspiration to everyone whose heart has been touched by music, painting or other arts. And whose heart, like mine,  is breaking when they see how marginalised and commercialized the arts have become in this soulless society we’ve all created together.

We are capable of better, I know it.

 Book of Hours  Oil pastel collage SOLD

Book of Hours Oil   pastel collage SOLD

I’m feeling quite good because I’ve sold some of my art to a friend. Obviously it is heartening when someone likes your work enough to want to give it a place in their lives. But a lot of the satisfaction also comes from the fact that this has been accomplished without Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or any promotional effort at all.

Because, after a long career as an exhibiting artist, I have chosen to now work outside the gallery system, and i don’t make a big effort to profile as a selling artist on the web,  I don’t sell much art. But when I do, it is usually a rewarding personal contact that leaves me feeling valued, and the buyer feeling happy to be walking away with an original creation which somehow has connected with his/her soul.

The people who buy my work also pay 30-50% less for my art than comparable work by other professionals who do work with galleries.

You might think that artists sell their work for the gallery price only during the exhibition. But the gallery owner will usually ask you to agree to pay the same commission on work that they’ve shown, even if you sell it privately later. I suppose it is to prevent friends from waiting until the show is over so they can buy directly from the artist and avoid paying the commission. However, most exhibiting artists choose to sell at the gallery rate to avoid having different prices for the same work.

In a recent BrushBuzz ( a great source for painting tips and marketing for artists), was the post, ‘The myth that Good art sells itself’.  I would argue that good work, combined with several other factors, eventually finds its way to the people who will value it and pay for it.  It isn’t that you can sit back and wait for the work to sell itself, of course that isn’t effective. But I’ve found that there are rules operating far outside the normal ideas of promotion and selling which often work in my life. They aren’t linear-‘if you do A, then B will happen’,  but operate sort of sideways. For instance, when I am working hard and consistently on one area of my art like my painting, I’ll often get a commission or sale from another area like calligraphy or instrument decoration. It is as if all that energy being put out there by focused effort somehow calls forth a response, but don’t ask me how it works. 🙂

Tuscan landscape-  oil pastel  SOLD

Tuscan landscape- oil pastel SOLD

Friends at decor-artuk recently posted a helpful entry on marketing for artists. A short exchange between us followed, and I’d like to continue my  bit here – everyone is welcome to join in, of course.

As my oil paintings mount up here (and they are the first work in several years which I feel are worthy of exhibiting), I will soon be re-entering the marketing fray in some way or another.

So just a reminder that my ‘anti-marketing’ posts aren’t about not selling one’s work, they are about the other sides of art which are getting lost in the marketing discussion. These facets of art/the arts are essential to human spiritual and cultural life, I feel. So I’ll continute to write about them here, perhaps reminding us why we chose to be artists in the first place.

When a work of art, piece of music, phrase of literature, etc  connects straight to my soul I get launched out of my small life with its everyday cares. I get reconnected to the best in myself, and reminded of why I am here- even if I can’t express it in words. It is just a profound reassurance that life is fine as it is, warts and all, the larger wheel is turning in a beauty and order which is unfathomable to a human mind, and my small life is somehow held and counted in it. Those mysteries are what art touches.
A past post, Art’s worth, explores the issue further, with Rob Riemen, a Dutch publisher and writer who spoke eloquently of how art was a solace to him after a series of devastating personal losses.

In Kristina’s (decor-artuk) reply to me she says, ‘… it does seem that art has lost a lot of it’s true characteristics; it has become like everything around us – you can sell it and you can buy it, it’s that simple’. (See the full comment here. )

Yes, Kristina I think , you are perfectly right. This made me feel my age, because being part of an earlier generation than most of the avidly marketing 30 somethings, I feel that loss keenly.

For one instant I even wondered whether in advocating a more ethical, and connected art I was becoming dated, an art veteran holding on to a disappearing age. But actually I think what we see emerging in all kinds of wonderful quirky forms outside the established art world -this is the future of art.
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