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.






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.
Read the rest of this entry »

If everyone is an artist….?

December 15, 2011

There are several points of discussion ,’Making is Connecting’, brings up for me. The first one is:

if anyone can make and sell their work on (and off) line, is everyone, then an artist?

If everyone is an artist, then, of course, no one is.
Not in the same sense I’ve been brought up to believe; that an artist is someone with a calling who devotes his or her life to learning to express themselves in their chosen craft/discipline. This almost always involves a rigorous path of education and then the required 10,000 hours of practice before one can even begin to make work of stature and relevance.

I think, though, that the ways to discern people devoted to excellence in their calling from the dabbler have been blurred. James Krenov acknowledged this in the last century and suggested that keeping  professionalism and amateurs strictly separate was the best way to honour the artist and leave the hobbyist to putter in their own domain. I apologise for sounding harsh, but for many years this is how I felt about hobbyists, even though in some fields, I am one myself.


Things are radically changing, though. In his book, ‘The Element’, Sir Ken Robinson cites the rise of the so-called ‘Pro-Ams’.  (partially  paraphrased)

This is a kind of amateur who works at increasingly high standards…the Pro-Am pursues an activity as an amateur, mainly for the love of it, but sets a professional standard. The Pro-Am uses his leisure not for passive consumerism but is active and participatory involving knowledge built up over a long period of practice.

While no professional in any field enjoys being undercut by people offering lesser quality work at cheaper prices, I actually welcome this democratisation of art and creativity because it frees us all from some very confining boxes.  Creative people are finding channels, not previously available to non-professionals, for sharing their work.  And professionals,too, get a chance to let down their hair and try out some other areas without the constraints of having to be perfect first.

Real Artists

I think there will always be a place for excellence and authenticity. There are simply artists who either reach such high levels of their craft that it communicates to whoever is receptive to it. Or they touch a nerve which the whole society is poised to express but hasn’t yet realized. And  in so doing give it a voice and a face.

And reluctantly I must admit, that maybe the distinction of the Real Artist might be passé.  Or it is expanding to include various degrees of commitment and expertise.

There is to my eye definitely a distinction between the talented crafter who at this moment is flooding Etsy with (extremely popular) owls, birds and vintage. And the artist drawing from their own experience to give wings to a vision.

More about art vs craft another time.

In the commerce of gifts

September 30, 2011

This is the 4th post inspired by Lewis Hyde’s book,’The Gift’

When artists work to serve the demands of the market, they make commodities. Even though these products are made with the hands, because they are purely products of commerce, they carry no (or limited) spiritual and emotional worth, and serve no bonding function for the community.

When artists work to serve their gifts, they create gifts that flow back into society and transform it.

The artist receives an inspiration and as he labors to bring that vision into reality, he enters what Hyde calls a ‘gifted state’. This could be compared to ‘flow’, and is a condition where you go beyond your own ego and feel as if something larger than your self were helping birth the work.

‘Out of what the soul has offered him, the artist makes the work.   And the finished work is a return gift carried back into the world’s (or community’s or tribe’s) soul’.

A work of art that enters us to feed the soul lets us experience that gifted state. We feel gifted for awhile, and depending on our own abilities, we respond by creating new work (it doesn’t have to be art,  but inspired by the artist we may find we can suddenly make sense of our own experience). The greatest art offers us fresh images that light up our imaginations and open up alternatives for our own lives.

I’ve finished reading ‘The Gift’, and Hyde ends with the thought that perhaps gift – and market commerce are not as irreconcilable as he first thought. In his Afterword to the 25th anniversary edition of the book, he says that perhaps they can coexist if artists carefully interact with the market while still serving their gifts. Scroll down for the next post which deals with 3 ways modern artists have resolved the problem of livelihood.

Nicholas Roerich

This is the 3rd post based on Lewis Hyde’s book, ‘The Gift’.

Another insight brought by reading Hyde’s ‘The Gift’ is that we artists, by identifying solely with the market limit the circulation of the gift. I mean, that by painting with the idea of selling that painting solely in order to make an income we are limiting the nourishment and gifts that painting could bring us.

In Hyde’s discussion of gift exchange in tribal societies, there is always a greater force involved in the cycle of giving and receiving of gifts, it might be the gods, the ancestors, the spirits of the forest or rivers,  or the greater community.

He then makes the connection to an artist ‘labouring ‘with a gift. When we are deeply into our work, something happens- time evaporates, problems recede, all that exists is this sense of being at one with the work and with the world. This state is known in modern times as ‘flow’. At those times art reaches beyond the personal ego and touches something universal which is then embodied in the artwork.

For anyone who has experienced this, there seems to be a magic to it, as if ‘it wasn’t me who did the work’. The feeling is as if we have opened and received a gift.

What Hyde has made me think about is this: if, through my art making I have been blessed to touch on such a gift, then there is something bigger than me at work here. That means that if I work consciously with this gift element and am grateful and humble in its presence, I let this all expand beyond my own personal ego boundaries. It isn’t mine alone, and it doesn’t need to nourish me any more beyond the experience of the making.

If I don’t demand from my creative gift work that it also earn my living, I am not limiting it to being a mere product.I release it into the larger domain, and from that domain I will in turn be nourished.

I have experienced this countless times, when working on non remunerative art, suddenly a windfall will appear from an entirely unrelated area.  As if by putting clear and true energy out there in one form it almost always comes back in another.

Russian artists Nicholas Roerich said something to the effect of , ‘Create, create, create, and don’t worry about the bread for the morrow, in creating you will nourish and be nourished’.

I’m not saying it is easy or instant. It is never easy. But by using this philosophy as a point of departure for making art, I come into a state of trust rather than one of worry, stress, scarcity and competition.

Exploring the gift further

September 23, 2011

Painting by Elizabeth Blackadder

The destruction of the spirit of the gift is nothing new or  particular to capitalism. All cultures and all artists have felt the tension between gift exchange and the market, between the self-forgetfulness of art and the self-aggrandisement of the merchant, and how that tension is to be resolved has been a subject of debate since before Aristotle.   Lewis Hyde, ‘The Gift’

I realise that this is the central question up for me and informing this blog and most of what I do. So it is great to be able to muse on it and explore it further here. (See previous post for more about the book ‘The Gift’).

Hyde cites 3 aspects of the gift in relation to the creation of an artwork.

The first is the inspiration from a perception, or experience, intuition, a dream a vision, or another art work. It is rare for this initial vision to be the finished work of art, we have to labour with it.

The ability to apply our skills to do the labour is the second gift. The artist works from that part of our being which is a gift and not an acquisition. It can’t be acquired by will –  talents are gifts.

‘The artist’s gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed on him.. if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self’. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work is the third gift. It is offered to the world or directed back to the perceived source –  which could be the muse, tribe, the spirits, nature, homeland or the muse.

By this Hyde means that when the artist is aware of his work as a gift, there is always humility and gratitude present. And this prompts the artist to give back somehow.

I will be exploring how to preserve this gift element even in the midst of market exchange in future posts. Because it is not either gift or market, but how to exist authentically in the tension between the two.

The gift

September 19, 2011

I’m still little more than half way through Lewis Hyde’s ,’ The Gift’  but I want to write about my impressions so far.

Though I hadn’t read it before now, his book has been known to me for over 20 years. In the early ’80s I read an article excerpted from it called ‘The Gift must move’, and I have saved those brittle photocopied pages all this time.
His quote concerning art being a gift rather than a commodity opened Suzi Gablik’s, ‘Has Modernism Failed’, and has been a central question for me as ana rtist and for many thinkers on the dilemma of art vs market.

I bought the book hoping to find answers to the last part of this question, (paraphrased) ‘If art is a gift and not a commodity, then how are artists to survive in a primarily market oriented society?’  I admit that some passages are pretty tough going, dealing with subjects such as usury and philosophical meanings of interest on money exchange, nor are the answers to my questions presented on a silver platter. Read the rest of this entry »

Mahogany and cherry nesting tables with maple inlay by Rende Zoutewelle

As an artist/craftswoman, I’ve been watching sadly as craft skills disappear from normal life. Hand written, hand formed, hand stitched objects are the exception to the machine made things we surround ourselves with.  We are geared to  buying inexpensive quick fix products or highly priced design objects to fit with the latest consumer trends. Then we throw them out when the next fashion wave hits.

Handmade things take time to design and make. But they also get better with age and last longer. In his article, ‘Let the artisans craft our future’, (Resurgence Issue 263) artist Grayson Perry says (partly paraphrased):

‘Craftsmanship is no longer central to our quick fix service economy. Craft used to be integral to many walks of life.
People were proud of what they made- it was valued. To be a craftsman in Britain was to be working-class nobility.

 ‘Handmade’ is often  a byword for ‘pricey’ and  ‘local’ means unadventurous or a lack of choice. But what about when the oil runs out and the forests are all cut down and we can’t drive to Furniture Barn and buy a table designed in Scandinavia, made in China with wood from South America for the price of a round of drinks in the pub?’ 

‘Maybe in the future the distinctiveness that consumerism promises will be concentrated not on choice but on customisation’. 

‘Maybe ethical concerns will force us to turn to local craftsmen/women  to give added value to our status-defining objects’.

‘Maybe it will be all right again for local labour to be the major cost factor instead of importers, distributors, fuel and marketing. Read the rest of this entry »

Suzi Gablik nails it again

January 31, 2011

Regaled by marketing strategies for artists, websites for selling your work more effectively etc, I am always gratified to find some support for the view that this all leaves out a great portion of what art’s purpose is.  I have found staunch support for this view, once again from a long-standing heroine of mine, Suzi Gablik. I came across an article of hers recently which completely confirms my own take on the subject, so I’ll share some of it here, paraphrased.

There are two predominant schools of artists right now, the familiar autonomous artist, isolated from society, working with an art ‘in defiance of the social good and without any moral earnestness’. And secondly, artists who want art to have some socially worthy agenda outside of itself.

Old art systems and networks (dealer-curator-museum-critic) are not serving the new impulses in the arts, and they are showing signs of strain. New networks and collectives are emerging in the internet, creating a completely new context for art and artists. 

Gablik sees signs of art becoming ‘purposeful’ again. All her professional life she has been writing about alternatives to art as a commodity and has been considering art in the context of spiritual and moral values, not just commercial ones. 

Arts and ethics have been split for a long while, but now ‘a more ethical artistic vision is already functioning among us’.  She cites examples like Adbusters, and the Greenmuseum– artists who are taking a stance on some social or environmental problem and using their creativity to bring healing, understanding, and awareness into that area.

All of this clearly represents a critical shift in the definition of an art object. These networking social activities, which integrate complex strands from many disciplines into an open unity and bridge many different areas of knowledge, also require a real rewiring of institutional DNA. Specialization has been displaced by another organizing principle—decentralized creativity—in which the individual artist becomes a structural component in a society of selves that fit their contributions together in mutual enrichment.   

Gablik sees the period of ‘value free experiment coming to an end’. And that the overspecialisation and division of professional fields is being gradually absorbed by an intimate connection of all fields to each other. She sees us all moving toward an understanding that art is integrated into all aspects of life and all aspects of life are contained in art.

For the whole article click on this link  – Suzi Gablik   Beyond the Disciplines: Art without Borders.

Yes we can

September 24, 2009

I was thinking of the overuse of Obama’s campaign slogan; I just saw it as a heading on an article about creativity. It is , like the happy face, starting to get tiresome.

But no matter what anyone says about this man, he has done something miraculous, he’s rekindled hope.

So many of us, and not just my generation (babyboomer) have been hurt by life and have become cynical.  I was 13 when JFK was shot. My youth was also shadowed by the assasinations of Bobby and Martin Luther King.  And later, much later, like us all, I witnessed the horror of planes intentionally slamming into downtown New York’s buildings.

We’ve had our hopes dashed again and again by corrupted politicians. All of us have wanted to believe in a better world; I left my secure life and good career in the states to spend 6 years living in an international spiritual community, so high was my idealism. Especially my generation of idealists and new agers sincerely believed we could make a difference. ‘Yes we could’. And of course we’ve been disillusioned.

I have somehow found my way back to my early openhearted beliefs in an ensoulled caring world, albeit older and wiser. Granted,  I daren’t believe too much, too hard, too openly, that Obama is who he seems to be. But as he says, he is not going to save anyone, we all have to do it together.

One first step is to start daring to believe again and dropping our protective cynicism.

And I find that creativity is often the means to become engaged again, hopeful, playful and connected to the things that really matter.

LATER: I loved this synchronicity, a friend just mailed me this link to a speech Paul Hawken gave to University of Portland 2009 graduation class.  It is every bit as good as any Ted talk. I know Paul from my Findhorn days and he walks his talk.