In 1847, Karl Marx wrote that working for wages would be superseded by what he called “self-activity.” With the economy humming along, surplus time would free people to study, privately create and generally improve themselves. He suggested they might also hunt, fish, or even become critics in their spare time. This, of course, was to happen under the Communist system. It didn’t. But Marx’s prophetic vision continues to prove him right.
What Marx did not foresee was the remarkable variety of interests that folks would pursue. Only a few years ago a person who painted on the heads of pins would be considered an eccentric oddball. Today’s Internet can bring a world of pinhead painters together to share techniques, one-hair brushes, magnifying devices, exhibition ploys, pinhead history and pinhead lore. A pinhead society is formed and a pinhead president is elected.
Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail,” while essentially a book on economics, talks about these sorts of esoteric pursuits and issues that will affect the lives and livelihoods of artists. The long tail is a graph that describes the vast variety of niches now available beyond the more standard fare. Amazon, for example, by offering more than 800,000 CD titles as compared with the average Wal-Mart at 4500, is an example of the retail long tail in action. Without “the tyranny of the shelf,” and with its ability to tolerate a great deal of what they call “noise,” Amazon offers stuff that is otherwise hard to find. Niches rule. We’ve put long tail graphs and their implications at the top of the current clickback.
With the remarkable democratization of human activity, older attitudes of scarcity may be waning. The bonanza of choice is affecting the ways people buy art. The “Star system” may be on its way out. Not only will people make art for their own consumption and those of their friends, but they will buy locally and value individuality and connectivity rather than name. “Young people today,” says media mogul Rupert Murdoch, “don’t want to be told what’s good and bad, they want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it.” The growing presence of large Internet art sites where art is arranged by genre and niche is part of this phenomenon. “Are you looking for a pinhead landscape or a pinhead portrait?”
The creative life requires a steady progression of experimentation and discovery. While acquired wisdom is useful, your knowledge must work in tandem with the daily exercise of your curiosity. A life in art is more a working event than the application of prior knowledge. Further, as you paint, you are able to decide what to paint. Paintings come out of themselves. Prime your pump—your work goes viral.
There’s a pile of tricks you can pull to prime the pump. Go to your earlier inspiration—drawings, reference photos, field notes. Recall the direction this material took you in the past, and then go looking for a new angle. Don’t waste time. Commit yourself to the most humble application of paint. Get it through your system and out onto your reviewing easel. Perhaps reward it with a quick framing. Consider again the possibilities and commit once more, perhaps to a larger size. Don’t be precious. Try to think like Edison when he was trying different stuff that might do for filaments in light bulbs.
First thing you know you’ll feel refreshed and renewed rather than burdened with making a decision. Further, you will see a need for further refinement. Personal refinement of vision makes creativity worthwhile. What you do may not be unique in the greater world of art, but it’s the sweet ignorance of outcome that drives you on.
When artists see themselves inching forward with minor improvements, they begin a natural flow that becomes unstoppable. I formerly told artists who were unable to decide what to paint that they might not be cut out for the game. Then I realized that our very existence is based on ignorance of where we’re going. What’s important is having the fortitude and patience to dig around and try to find out. Actually, “having trouble deciding” is a good part of the fun. Accept the fun.
I always see ‘Original art only’ as a prerequisite to entering art shows. A definition is seldom forthcoming. Is this like one of those rooms you are not supposed to enter until the preacher comes to visit, or do you make your own rules and endure the consequences if you’re wrong?
It’s been my thought that some juried shows need an appointed ombudsman to draw a line between copying and research. This person needs to be knowledgeable, professional, impartial and accountable. Working with or without fellow jurors, his or her decision needs to be final. Some ombudsmen will be tougher than others. In throwing things out, there will be errors of both commission and omission. Entering artists need to understand it’s just a juried show. They need to know that juried shows generally reflect conventional wisdom and that long-term careers seldom hinge on them.
That being said, the history of copying has had its ups and downs. When it comes to loose definitions, ‘original art’ takes the cigar. Trouble is, copying other people’s work and other people’s subject matter is a traditional means of gaining proficiency. In the 15th Century, the granddaddy of all art teachers, Cennino Cennini, asked students to “Take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best works you can find.” Nowadays many instructors tell students to drag it out of the inner man at all costs, even if there’s not much of an inner man to drag it out of.
In 1890 Paul Gauguin noted, “Out in the sun, painters are lined up. The first is copying nature, the second is copying the first, the third is copying the second.” Nowadays painters actually take printed reference, even shaded laptops with popular images, out into the sun. The lines between copying and research lie in the shade. “Paintings are but research,” said Pablo Picasso. For both little and big name artists, research can turn into plagiarism. Andy Warhol made a big success of proliferating prints from someone else’s copyright photos of Marilyn. And Picasso had something to say about that too: “Success is dangerous,” he said. “One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”