Not All Excellence Is Rewarded, Not All Who Excel Can Lead Others There

While I try to write posts about the arts in general, the fact is the content of my posts tends to orient toward performing arts rather visual arts. That said, there are a lot of parallel experiences that crop up across all disciplines. I caught a Hyperallergic post today by Paddy Johnson who was offering advice to visual artists about career viability if you don’t make art for art fairs and the value of insider/outsider feedback.

The first artist was concerned that by not participating/being invited to some of the big art fairs currently occurring, the opportunity for media coverage and recognition necessary to advance careers was being lost. I saw parallels with performing artists who don’t focus on musical theater/Broadway type content or popular trends in music in their practice and felt marginalized.

Johnson points out the oft stated sentiments about niche genres not representing the whole art world and bemoans the fact that such a narrow focus will end up stifling creativity:

The trouble, of course, is that fair art is only one form of art making, and within that environment, it’s pretty easy to forget that other types of art exist. If the main opportunities for visibility center on blockbuster events and sales, outrage, and influencer fodder, then yeah, the people forging unique paths will be perceived to have less value and fewer avenues for visibility.

And that has real consequences for art because it means less diversity, less experimentation, and ultimately a culture where innovation can’t flourish.

However, she also reminds us even outside the arts, performing at the highest level of excellence is not financially rewarded. While some have day jobs to support their creative lives, for some day jobs can preclude being able to attain the highest levels.

In professional distance running, even successful athletes often don’t earn enough from their work to make a living, and taking a job to pay the bills is discouraged. Most runners do not make enough money to cover health insurance and maintain a full-time job, despite running up to 130 miles a week. Most have little to no name recognition despite working at a level almost no other humans can match.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The exploitation of labor looks roughly the same in the arts, where most professional artists don’t make enough money to pay their bills and work in relative obscurity despite enormous talent and visibility within their field.

Johnson answers a second question in this post. I was almost going to omit it but I feel like it raises a common issues that doesn’t get a enough discussion in every creative discipline — whose opinion about the quality of your work should be trusted?

People without a lot of experience interacting with your discipline provide effusive feedback, but the artist doesn’t value it highly viewing the commenters are too inexperienced to provide insight. However, the highly informed insider just makes brief, vague, enigmatic comments that imply something but equally lack insight.

Johnson’s answer here suggests questions to use to draw out better feedback. But what I really liked was that she points out that just as not every highly accomplished person isn’t suited to teach excellence in their craft, every insider isn’t skilled at providing useful feedback.

If you want better feedback from your visits, you can ask questions like, “What is it about the red in this painting that works well for you?” or “What places are you thinking I should take this?” If your visitor is not a dealer or curator you want to show with, you can try inviting criticism. “Does [xyz thing about the art] seem like a problem to you?” A supportive studio visit isn’t defined by complimentary feedback so much as it is valuable feedback. If you have areas of an artwork you’re unsure about, this is an opportunity to discuss!

That said, potential collaborators who engage in your art superficially may not be good partners. When their responses bother you, don’t ask them back. Even bad work can evoke thoughtful feedback, so the art is not to blame!

Germany Gives 18 Year Olds The Gift of Culture

Over the years, I have written a fair bit on culture passes that various European countries have distributed to young people.  In addition to passes for cultural experiences and goods, some of the passes have been focused on facilitating rail travel so young people can experience a wider swath of national and international places and events.

According to a Guardian article from last week, Germany is the most recent country to tee up a program.   When Germans turn 18 they will receive a €200 Kulturpass. The goal is to not only get young people engaged with cultural activities, but to also inject some economic vitality post-Covid.

…has twin aims: to encourage young adults to experience live culture and drop stay-at-home pandemic habits; and give a financial boost to the arts scene, which has yet to recover from repeated lockdowns.

[….]

The finance minister, Christian Lindner, described the pass as “cultural start-up capital” that its recipients can use within a two-year period for everything from theatre and concert tickets to books or music. It will be managed via an app and a website that provides a direct connection to a virtual marketplace of everything from bookshops to theatres.

Perhaps most interesting is that the program is intentionally designed to have the 18 year olds “shop locally” as it were and excludes large online platforms and purchases.

Online platforms such as Amazon and Spotify have been excluded from the scheme, which places an emphasis on smaller, often local organisations, such as independent cinemas and bookshops. Individual purchases will be limited in value to prevent someone from using the voucher to buy, for example, a single concert ticket for €200.

I am curious to know if the German government analyzed the programs in places like Spain, France and Italy for design problems. The goals of these other countries were similar in terms of stimulating interest in in-person experiences. The German program seems to have more restrictions built in to achieve that.

Doesn’t It Need To Be *About* Something?

My nephew is in the throes of writing essays for college applications so perhaps that is why a Twitter thread by author Kelly Barnhill caught my attention a month ago. She talks about how neighborhood kids have been coming and asking her for help in writing the essay. She writes about all the writing exercises and ensuing conversations she has with them trying to draw information and realization out.

“I have them write jokes, treatises, manifestos. I have them make graphic essays. Comics. Yard signs. I have them make lists. We talk about verbs. We talk about how we know what we know.”

But the part I really honed in on was this one:

She goes on to talk about how people often don’t know themselves well enough to write about themselves and in fact other people might have greater insight about you than yourself. Which is probably why it is easier to write about your grandmother.

But this resonated with me on a more practical level because I feel like the college essay about how you overcame obstacles in your life was a new enough subject when I was applying to college that it was relevant to your admission. Now, decades later it is cliched and overdone making it all the more difficult for a person with 17 years of relatively unexamined life experience to set themselves apart from other applicants. (And it probably doesn’t help that college admission consultants are telling his parents he would have a better chance of gaining admission to his top choices if he lived in the Midwest rather than East Coast.)

While Barnhill doesn’t say how successful her essay writers are in getting into their top choices, I appreciate that she provides a rather detailed accounting of how she helps create an essay that better reflects their authentic self.  She is giving them the bones of a learning how to learn process that can serve them well throughout their lives if they pay close enough attention.

Also, it occurs to me that she is inadvertently giving an answer to the oft asked query regarding a work of art – “What’s it about??, What does it mean?” Art doesn’t always have to be about SOMETHING to be about something.

Quit Your Job, But Don’t Quit The Arts

Perusing my archives, I came across a post about something Adam Thurman of The Mission Paradox blog wrote regarding the poor work environment in the arts. While people, including myself, were talking about this issue long before Adam wrote his piece, it is kinda depressing to think that it really took the upheaval of a pandemic for the arts and culture industry to listen and respond seriously to the insistence that things must change.

The link to Thurman’s blog is no longer active, but it was mirrored on the Americans for the Arts site .

At the time I wrote it, I only quoted his third point:

3. Don’t let them use your passion against you. Consider this:

Imagine you were a lawyer. What if I told you that there were some law firms (not all, but absolutely some) that didn’t get a damn about their employees? What if I told you that some firms were designed to bring in people and get as much out of them as possible before they burned out?

Would you believe me?

Of course you would. Hell, because it’s the legal profession you would expect such behavior.

Here’s da rub:

Some arts organizations are the exact same way. Just because the end product is art and not a legal brief doesn’t mean the place automatically values their employees. Just because the place is a non-profit doesn’t automatically make it a nice place to work.

But I also wanted to excerpt from a couple other of his points:

1. It doesn’t have to be like that. I know you’ve probably convinced yourself that all the garbage you deal with is just the cost of being in the field.

It isn’t. If the group you work for is being run poorly it is because people are ACTIVELY making choices that allow that to happen. It isn’t just a matter of circumstance. It’s an outcome of choice…

2. You are not the savior.

You’re smart. You see the problems in the organization. You care. You want to play a part in fixing them.

Good.

But not everything wants to be fixed. Some organizations have been run so poorly, for so long that they really can’t fathom another way. Don’t make it your responsibility to save them for the path they have chosen….

Perhaps most importantly since people are seriously considering getting out of arts and culture altogether, and it is wise to make that a subject of serious thought:

5. But don’t quit the arts. Quit your job, that’s fine. Just don’t do it without a plan (use that Year in Step 4 to develop it)

If you can’t find a job as an arts administrator in a great organization . . . maybe you get out the field for a while. That’s ok. You can come back.

But the arts need you. They need your skill, your experience, your energy. So maybe you join a Board of an organization, maybe you volunteer. Maybe you start your own organization.

[…]

This thing you love, the arts . . . it is your world too. It’s your world just as much as it belongs to any poet, any dancer, any actor.

It’s vital you remember that because along your path you will be confronted by those who alternate between seeing you as completely irrelevant to the artistic process on one hand and the great oppressor of artistic ambitions on the other.

That’s garbage.

You belong. Find your place. Use your skills. Help get great art into the world. It can’t happen without you.