Last weekend at the Adirondack Plein Air Festival in Saranac Lake, NY, I was able to remain in the hall as Juror Anne Diggory judged the entries from 2 days of plein air painting. Anne is one of my favorite landscape painters, so her judgement was especially interesting.
The artists ranged from upper level amateurs to mid level pros, many with extensive training and backgrounds. They came from all over the Northeast to this little enclave at the top of the country, including a group of 9 from the lower Hudson valley who were followers of the Hudson River School style of painting—a highly stylized, romanticized way of painting landscapes.
I watched as Anne selected out a group of finalists from which to choose the top awards, and then she narrowed it down again. Later I asked her if the submissions had been what she expected. “Yes and no,” she told me.
She had expected a broader range of skill levels, with some showing little skill and some others at the very top with exceptional ability, but she found instead a strong midrange of competence and ability. The paintings were all executed very well, but they didn’t cross over into that special area where an artist can truly stand out. They were still playing it safe, she said, and taking the contest too literally.
Anne was specifically looking for a unique take on one of the oldest subjects in painting: landscapes. She was hoping to find something other than the traditional blue/green/blue of water/land/sky paintings—and that was hard to come by in these entries. One of the paintings I liked which she had singled out for an award was a vibrant knife painting. I checked the price on the back which the artist, Bruce Thorne, had set at less than half that for his other, more traditional landscapes. When the hall opened, I asked him about it. He was embarrassed by that painting, he said, and hadn’t even planned to show it. It was just something quick he had done the afternoon before when the sun wouldn’t come out. Since that’s the essence of plein air painting—to capture in a single sitting the changing light of the landscape—it’s interesting that he was so uncomfortable with the result. And he was even more surprised when he took one of the top prizes for it, while his other two pieces were not singled out at all.
Artists who play it safe are just performing exercises. They are doing pushups on the diving board instead of jumping into the water. As I writer I have been guilty of it more times than I care to admit. I have softened characters because I worried people close to me might see themselves—and why wouldn’t they? We all write from inside ourselves and that experience is all we have to translate into our messages to the world. But when we back away, the message gets muddy, and begins to look like every other blue-green landscape.
Even more insidious than the fear of exposing too much is the unconscious desire to pander to what the public wants. Painters do it—they all talked last weekend about what sells, and whether they should do more of whatever that was. Photographers look for the popular shots, knowing what gets their work noticed. Writers tell the stories they think people want to hear.
It’s this midrange of artists that are particularly plagued by the success vs. individuality paradox. One of the truths in art is that you only get to be unique once you have succeeded, because that’s what separates you from the competition. But making your way up to that perch, you have to prove first that you are just like all the others—only different.
Pandering becomes the main skill set of the aspiring creative, and if you get too good at it, it can completely destroy your inner voice. Lady Gaga is a case in point. Now the hottest and most controversial recording artist in the world, this 24- year-old white-haired icon had a very different work ethic back when she was just brunette Stephanie Germanotta who sang like a bird and dressed in the same jeans and t-shirts every day. Now she eats like a bird and sings like an automaton, putting out beyond the edge music with “sick” lyrics and snaking her way through million dollar music videos in gynecologically-designed costumes. As they said about “Miami Vice,” a “triumph of style over substance.” The sad truth is Stephanie is probably much more talented than she will ever get to reveal—and she sits atop the pop music industry right now. How much great work are we missing out on because of misplaced artistic values?
You can’t blame the artists. Stephanie needs to pay the bills too, and it wasn’t happening when she was a barefoot brunette in blue jeans. So we are all drawn toward what works, what is popular, and what is profitable, diluting the quality of every piece we turn out and moving further away from the qualities that made us original in the first place.
The bane of my artistic existence was the type of rejection from editors or agents who liked my fiction, thought I was talented, but didn’t know if there was a market for my kind of writing. Now in retrospect I can see that I made the mistake of accepting the premise of the question. If there wasn’t a market, it didn’t mean there was something wrong with the work, it simply meant there wasn’t a market…And why did I even accept that notion without testing it. I should have learned marketing way back then, but instead I tried to become the writer they could market, which only taught me how to be a writer no one could recognize on paper—the ultimate sell out.
So the price of an artistic existence is that we give away precious time at loan sharking interest rates of 200 or 300 or 1000 percent of the little artistic slivers we are able to carve out of a week, a month, or a year to go back to art. Why then, would we spend any precious grain of that time on something that isn’t completely rich and artistically unique?
Individuality doesn’t sell itself, but eventually it does find a market, if only a small one. The problem is what the artist has to do to sustain even a modest lifestyle. The vast majority of painters, musicians, composers, writers, photographers, actors, filmmakers, etc, do not make enough money from their artistic work to devote themselves to it exclusively. So, given the premise that most of us will have to find some other way to derive a living, the question becomes which road will dilute the artistic work the least. Most of us resort to any combination of the following:
1) Marry well
2) Keep your day job
3) Take whatever freelance work comes along
Are these all sellouts? You bet. Life is a compromise—and most people can’t go home to the rich world we inhabit in our heads—they have to buy it from us.
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