Sunday, December 21, 2008

The new subversives

I had a headache all day due to paint fumes, so comic work wasn't happening. I inked the dialog in the seven new strips, but that's it. Hell, I didn't even sketch today. The one you see above is the only thing I've created today. ("Today" being defined as the time from when I wake up to when I fall asleep.) Originally I was just happy to have an ok Tiffany sketch, and I was going to use it as impetus to scan and sort all the nice random character drawings I've had recently. But this sketch wasn't content with being a character drawing. While I didn't do any art today, art was clearly on my mind.

Art is a strange thing. No matter what you make, there is someone out there who will adore it... and someone who finds it stab-the-artist-in-the-face awful. It all depends on the crowd around the piece. What gets the highest praise in art school gets rejected from "local" art shows. What sells in said art show will depress every "contemporary" artist. What is an artist to do - find a new crowd or adapt to the environment?

I've sorta enjoyed Art at the Mill because it's a challenge to figure out what... um... "rural" people want in art. These people are not always art simpletons, but their art culture is wholly different than mine. They gasp at paintings of roosters. They shrug helplessly at the more interesting work. They organizers know enough about art to know quality, but they're also in the business to SELL. When push comes to shove, marketability beats merit every time.

My challenge was to find the line where a piece can have satisfying artistic merit AND sell. I have failed miserably. Sure, I could shun the world that values sunflowers and rooster paintings. Sure, I could move and find a nice, insular art community that has a deeper understanding of art. Problem is... would I fit with them any better?

I still remember the art opening I attended for students at the Corcoran. Every single one had dyed their hair black, with a pink accent for flavor. I'm sure they all think they are being individuals. Right. Being among my own art brethren, the star students were similarly identified via fashion.

Now, these mindsets are understandable for both groups. Most people only know mimetic art, so any art that doesn't look like something is a hit-or-miss unknown. You can call it ignorance, but that is a weighted term. You can't expect everyone to have a working knowledge of the concepts of design and art history. To be honest, my own art history knowledge is very weak. How can I judge if I'm ignorant as well? (Now, when ignorance turns into pride, that's where we have a problem - but that's for another post.)

Similarly, artists dress the way they do because they have the freedom to do so. It's the "subversive" move to flaunt society's norms and be free. After all, contemporary art is a very selfish thing when chosen as a career. Again, I've got pretentious blood of my hands. I have long hair and I dress too casual. I do this because I prefer the look, AND because it does play into people's first impressions of me. No generic MBA would wander into meetings with long hair and lounge pants. People who don't like my look are probably people I don't care to know. It's a social filtration system.

But here is where I stand out from the pack. I *like* to flirt with mass consumption. I want my name to be known outside of the wine and hummus circles! I also don't want to compromise. Instead, I use a keen marketing mind to carve out my own niche. One trick in advertising is to create a need the consumer didn't know they had. I'm not selling out, per se, but focusing instead on convincing others my work is mainstream.

I may have the hair, but I still don't look like any "normal" art student. A friend at school once pointed out that my argyle shirt made me the nicest-dressed person in the class. How awkward. The professor was a long-haired type who wore all black, and here I am in a decent shirt and corduroys! My assertion of individuality comes in my refusal to take on a style any more than my own. Lack of style makes me the real subversive in the room. That's how I stand out from the pack - by not being noticeable by looks alone.

The problem with being an outlier, of course, is that you are irrelevant UNLESS others start to follow you. That's where my plan comes crashing down. Ahh, but there's still time!

Anyway, what brought this on was my recent attempts to paint bowls of flowers. It's my most subversive work yet! I am using the visual language of the "common" art appreciator, but speaking with poetic quality of an artist. Will my assertive style overwhelm the bonds of familiarity? Will I finally make something accessible enough that someone might buy it? Best part: I've been painting PLASTIC plants! I'm gleefully artificial, but still joyously conceptual. I'm taunting both camps rather than playing their games. Leave it to me to go meta! (And leave it to meta to be off-putting to most everyone.)

To me, there is a story behind everything I do. There is something deeper, written in my personal language. To everyone looking at my pictures without reading my commentary, I'm just painting "interesting" things. If the viewer thinks it is the good implication of interesting, then he or she may be able to find a deeper level of enjoyment if they want to. If not, I'm still making someone happy.

I may never strike that perfect balance, and I will surely do work that is both selfish and sell-out now and then, but it's dancing on that line that drives me. That's why I do art.

I just hope I find that balance soon, because I have no intention of having a lonely life of self-satisfied poverty. Get with the program, people!

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