Essays

Thinking About Art Practice and the Role of Compromise

What happens when an artist’s inclinations towards her/his work conflict with her/his ability to sell and keep making it?

My Dilemma

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I re-create memories in full scale with wax and found objects, some of which are on the verge of disintegrating. The fleeting and fragile quality of these materials is crucial to how my work deals with loss and the passing of time. But the evidence is stacking up that this approach is a hindrance, if not a barrier, to selling my work. I could make my pieces more wieldy and more archival. And I can justify these decisions with some verbosity in my artist statement. Would I be just pretending that this development is in line with the natural progression of my work? Or is it assumed that the natural progression of a practice succumbs to the conditions of practical life and the art market?

Artists Are Not Entrepreneurs

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I have heard (repeatedly), in seminars, lectures, and articles, that a contemporary artist is a “one-person enterprise”: “if you want to be a successful artist, you need to think like an entrepreneur!” This is a painfully TED talk kind of logic that has merit and sounds great but does not address the underlying complexity of the issue. Or should I say, it masks systematic contradictions and problems of the art world by presenting a simple solution to be performed by those with the least agency in the equation, artists. It is undeniable that I have benefited from being entrepreneurial by making a nice website, interfacing with people playing various roles in the art world, and actively pursuing potentially productive relationships. But as an unspoken rule, I am supposed to avoid something at the core of being an entrepreneur: informing production by perceived demand, aka making work that will sell for the sake of selling. In doing so, I would validate expectations and norms, demonstrating that what the market wants is what I want to make. But I need to sell my work.

The signs are everywhere as to what kind of work sells: stuff that looks good in a rich person’s pad, that combines well with opulence, and can be stored and assembled relatively easily. When art-fair season comes around, it always brings a WTF moment when I realize the actual state of the art market and how little it has to do with the kind of aspirations held by myself and my friends who are artists. And that nefarious question inevitably pops into my head: “What can I do to my work that would make it fit in here?”

The Real Nitty Gritty

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But of course, like many artists, my idealistic perspective of art is in an ongoing relationship with reality; most of the conversations I have with other artists are about navigating a complicated, murky world, where a series of negotiations take place with every opportunity that presents itself.

I find myself sniffing out a venue or someone interested in showing my work. “Do they get and respect my work? What will they pay for it? Who do they know? What is their reputation?” (The more cynical of these questions come from getting burned plenty.)

The answers to these questions will be weighed against each other and against something that could best be described as my integrity. On the production end, elements of my practice are also prioritized as I weigh the costs (of money and time), of producing different facets of my work according to their value to my practice and career. What emerges is a relationship to art-making and exhibiting that is a series of compromises in which the pull to make sellable work can gradually affect my practice without an ah-hah moment. I believe this is a common process for artists as we carve away from and hopefully refine something about our work that is uncompromising, that can survive the nuts and bolts of our real life circumstances and have a place in the art market. We then submit this work to some form of a white cube (or cubicle, as the case may be), describing it as though we have carved away less than we actually have, hopeful that something from the core of our process gets through to viewers.

Honest Art Speak

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I do not think that pushing back against this condition is something that I, or any artist, can do alone. Let’s imagine that artists were encouraged to compromise less in order to make overtly sellable objects and be more honest about the compromises we do make. Would that subtract from the viewing experience or add to it? Yes, it might deflate the experience in the gallery, museum, or fair cubicle. It would partially de-fetishize art objects, peeling back their veneer as conveniently decorative, culminations of artistic pursuits. It would leave viewers wanting more, encouraging them to venture to artist’s studios, get to know artists better and understand the true intentions behind and, more importantly, beyond our work. Wouldn’t that be a world with better art? For now, though, I, like many artists, am asking myself the question, “What can I do to make my work more sellable?” Whatever comes of it, surely will not be described as such in our artist statements, so get ready to keep reading between the lines.

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All images by the author for Hyperallergic

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