Being Authentic as an Artist (and Not Stressing About Selling)
The problem of selling art
Making art is difficult. Being an artist is difficult. Being authentic is difficult.
It sounds like an enviable, romantic, easy life and yes, making art does provide deep and important fulfillment. But believe me, it’s not all about wearing bandannas and dungarees, sipping wine during the day and flicking paint onto large canvases in spacious studios with lofty ceilings and 80’s rock blaring from the boombox.
In most cases, it’s really not a financially stable way of making a living. And constantly worrying about money can be a real drain on one’s motivation, mood and energy.
It takes a hell of a lot of faith. Being authentic is a whole other story.
And let’s face it. Most people I come across in contemporary middle-class culture don’t value art much, or even think it’s that necessary in schools. (Parents often try to dissuade their kids from being artists and push them to find ‘real’ jobs.)
Or they don’t have the financial inclination to spend money on art. Art is for rich people. It’s viewed as a luxury and not really necessary for survival in our recession-rife lives. And yet, instead of investing in original art, which will usually appreciate in value, most folks would sooner buy a bigger flatscreen TV, or the latest cellphone which will probably only last a max of 2 years before it’s out of fashion and the operating system is out of date.
If the materialistic bourgeoisie do buy art, it’s to go with their couch.
Hey, I’m sorry for sounding judgie, but I guess it is what it is. And I’m grateful for any collector who’s bought a painting of mine because it goes with their couch which has helped me to pay the month’s rent. Anyway, each to their own.
Is it really art? Or is everything just dumb-dumb stupid?
Art also has the stigma of often being beyond the understanding of the common person; wrapping around itself a blanket of elitism and BS that alienates people who are too afraid to ask questions for fear of looking dumb.
How often do we read in headlines about ridiculous art selling for millions of dollars? These indulgences by competitive billionaires serve only to obfuscate the rest of us. Sometimes the art market is the biggest crock of steaming you-know-what.
And then there are real artists who are interested in really trying to say something meaningful. Who spend decades of their lives developing their skills. Being authentic artists. Whatever that means.
You can’t just come out of art school thinking you’ve ‘made it’. That’s just the beginning.
Welcome to years of struggling, of honing, of finding your voice.
It takes a lifetime just to learn how to draw. Never mind finding something meaningful to say. Or being accepted into galleries or your work being found in all the noise online.
You could, if you wanted, be like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons and hire nameless assistants and sell ‘your work’ to super rich people. But I’m not sure if I’d consider that in anyway creative or fine art.
Art is a very subjective thing though. So 99% of people might think a painting is total rubbish, but one person may fall totally in love with it and would pay anything to have it.
But the reason why people don’t buy art is often because they don’t understand it or haven’t been exposed to art as a natural part of their lives growing up. Then again, many people in the world might want to buy art, but they simply can’t afford it. Or the art that’s available is pretty awful.
But making art is one thing. Selling art and the business of being an artist is a whole other skill set which also takes many years to learn.
Do people still buy art?
There are of course many factors why people don’t spend their hard-earn money on art, but there are a lot of people who DO buy art. And not just to go with the couch.
There are those who buy art for investment purposes and its commercial value, those who buy art for its status and social value, and those who buy art because it inspires and moves them (emotional value). Often a work of art is bought for all three reasons, although buying an artwork for only its commercial value is a pretty shallow reason, and there are less risky investments to be made than through art.
People aren’t just walking into galleries to buy art these days. (Sometimes people may feel intimidated buying art from galleries.)
In fact, the art market is steadily growing, with new up ‘n comer young’uns buying art through Instagram, Facebook, Etsy, Saatchi, and from a whole host of online galleries and platforms.
Art is not about functionality. It’s about desire. People don’t have to buy art; they want to buy art.
The stuff we buy; the car we drive, the clothes we wear, and especially the art we hang in our homes, is a reflection and a statement about ourselves.
There’s a lot of great and original art these days; some technically brilliant and mind-blowing artists across the world. And hunting for it is part of the excitement.
Boy, I wish I owned an impressive art collection and was able to support and collect other artists! But at this point in my life, I can’t afford it. So I know how hard it is to make a financial commitment to buy a painting. I’m still saving up for my flatscreen (LOL!).
Then there’s the issue of where to put it.
Anyway, I decided that I’m not interested in making art that is meant to go above someone’s couch. I want to make art that should go in front of someone’s couch!
Art is meant for contemplation. Not just decoration.
On being authentic because trying to decode the market is just a waste of time
There’s a certain maturation point in an artist’s journey (and not many professional artists ever reach this point), where they realise that painting to please the market doesn’t work.
And while artists who churn out these kitsch works may have even several years of financial success and recognition, ultimately the work they’ve produced falls out of fashion or esteem for not being authentic. It just feels shallow. It’s nearly always short-lived and meaningless.
As the saying goes, the cream always rises to the top eventually, even if it takes a hundred years. And while we may live in a shallow, commercialized world where people have lost the ability to have an original thought or even a conversation, there are still some intelligent, empathetic humans left, who are moved by authentic art and are capable of recognizing it.
Therefore, all an artist can do — their one job — is being authentic in their work, because people can tell when the work is real.
Though our stories may be individual, they are human stories, and since most of us are human, there is probably at least someone out there who is capable of relating to it in a profound way.
I’ve made many mistakes where I stressed and worried about the current art trends. Will the judges in the competition like this style of painting? Will the gallery want to work with me? Am I relevant enough? Will people get this? Should I do kitsch wildlife paintings for the tourists at the Waterfront because that’s what they seem to be going for? (Even though I really want to landscapes or nudes.)
There’s a lot of competition out there. But trying to get in front of everyone else and comparing yourself to them is more than a waste of time. It is dangerously blinding yourself to your own journey of self-discovery and expression.
How tempting it is to constantly scroll through Pinterest or Instagram looking for ‘inspiration’, seeing what’s popular and telling yourself you should be doing this or that, instead of just shutting everything out, going inward and creating your own thing.
It’s tempting to fall into the trap of wanting to feel safe; constantly worrying is someone going to buy this? Will it be accepted or not? Is there a market for what I’m doing?
All these fears detract from my own voice and the result is artwork made with anxiety, and is usually inferior in quality. Second guessing the process quickly kills it.
When you try to please everyone else, you usually just end up being boring.
I believe an artist should really follow their own vein, like a thread of gold in the rock. It’s very much a solitary journey. And those gifts mined from the soul and brought out into the light for others, is what makes an authentic work of art so special and so invaluable, because it is a gift to others.
A good way to know when you’re on the right journey is the feeling of goosebumps, or the sudden tears of inspiration. How do you quantify that?
One never knows who or how someone might resonate with a work of art. It is released from the artist and given over to the rest of humanity. At this point the artist is usually done with it, and is promptly distracted by the next urge to create something.
So an artwork can be incredibly powerful as an influencing force, even after the artist has long shuffled off this mortal coil.
And I think a work of art that has been made with integrity, with emotion, with great skill and without cutting corners in terms of quality of materials, effort, and personal convictions, is the kind of art which lives on forever and keeps on giving.
When the artist is too worried about making stuff specifically to sell, the work becomes a production line of soulless commercialism.
Artists need to have a thin skin in order to feel things, but a thick skin when it comes to being judged
My wife decided to change financial advisers because the one she had, was far too opinionated about my choice of career; he was always making snide comments that I should be making more money as a husband etc. It really pisses me off that he has the audacity to talk sh*t about me like that. And that he obviously subscribes to the idea that the man should be the breadwinner; that people who make more money are more important and have license to make arrogant remarks, people who make less are worth less, and artists are the biggest losers of all. Seems like a really nice guy.
That’s unfortunately a prime slice of the materialistic egocentric culture we live in. Where a person is not measured by their expression of the deeper life, the explorations of the creative human mysteries offered to others as a gift in the form of art, not by their talent, or having something profound to express, or by their depth of thought and insight, or caring for others and nature, but by the petty pecking order of how rich or poor you are. Of how much of a hotshot you are. Most people are still using their animal brain anyway. Particularly of the herd kind.
So it’s difficult when the world doesn’t ‘get’ you. I think artists are generally sensitive people. (I’m speaking about all artists of course: painters, writers, musicians etc.) They have to be, in order to express the deeper things that make art so fascinating and important to our human legacy. Art is a mirror of our humanity.
But sometimes that sensitivity can be your greatest weakness. Because the smallest thing can emotionally derail you.
Therefore it takes a lot of self-belief in what you are doing; a lot of dismissing of the unhelpful remarks and the really stupid critiques that don’t make any sense. Almost all artists have had to deal with them. It takes conviction to be authentic and forget the rest.
On the danger of caring too much what critics think, especially when it doesn’t help you.
If you’re always worried about what people say about you or your work, it can drive you insane. Here’s what the panel of judges said for my last competition entry:
‘Although a very strong painting, there is nothing setting it apart and placing it/making it relevant in 2019. The subdued colour palette demonstrates the serious topic and shows the influence of the Masters, but it is not contemporary in any way.’
‘The choice of framing distracts from an accomplished work.’
‘I like the fact that there is a backstory for each of the sitters painted, but I’m not feeling it strongly enough. He has a very good technical ability. I just feel that originality is lacking here. I’d like to see him push his materials into a new exciting space. That could give it an edge.’
I know these were subjective personal judgments based on the judge’s tastes at the show. But after much reflection and an animated discussion I had with my wife, who told me that I was just disappointed, being defensive, and that I should just let it go (*sigh), I still wasn’t satisfied.
I was thinking, ‘You know what? In 50 years time nobody is going to give a sh*t or even remember what happened in 2019! So if my work is not ‘contemporary in anyway’ according to these standards, then I really don’t care! I’m alive, therefore I’m a contemporary painter. And I believe in not following a fashion or a trend, but trying to make work that is more eternal to the human condition and our emotions. To what I, as the artist creating the painting, am feeling. Beethoven, Bob Dylan or Francis Bacon didn’t bother to care about what their audiences were feeling. They were focused on their own feelings to create their art.
And it begs the question: were they judging my painting, or my frame? Originality lacking? According to whom? Does anything exist which is original in this universe? I think not. I’m sorry that the judge likes my story, but not enough. I’m not feeling their argument strongly enough. Pushing my materials? I feel like the judge pushed out a turd of a stupid comment. It’s an oil painting, so that is as far as I wanted to push my materials without it cracking thank you!’
None of these criticisms were constructive to me or grounded in any way. None of them were particularly useful. Am I missing something?
So what can you do but laugh sometimes, forget about the noise and just go back to the studio doing what you do best — expressing yourself, because nobody else can express things for you.
Other people’s opinions of my art is none of my business. It’s easy to forget who you are and question your work or what you stand for when dealing with criticism. But it’s no one else’s responsibility to remind an artist of who they are. It’s theirs.
Why I stopped worrying about selling art and focused on being authentic
Everything in life is uncertain. The only certainty is the appreciation of beauty.
“Art is the highest form of hope” —Gerhard Richter
Art is comfortable with the question and doesn’t always need the answer. Sometimes it’s better to not over-explain things and just look.
And not over think things, but have faith in your own journey.
Just be. But most of all, be authentic (i.e. not the Facebook/Instagram version).
But that doesn’t mean not having a strategy or blithely farting around thinking you’ll be a rich, famous artist by chance, or worse yet, believing you deserve to be recognized. Or that as an entrepreneur (because a professional artist is an entrepreneur), your business doesn’t need daily upkeep, discipline and planning like any other business.
So what I’m trying to say is, that there is a time when things are not very certain, and you may feel a bit adrift. But that’s OK. That’s the fertile time when the creative stuff is updating and configuring in the background and your system may be running a bit sluggish.
The market may be a bit slow, or things are quietening down, galleries may be shutting down, or your exhibition turns out to be a flop, a commission doesn’t go through, people talk crap about your work, etc.
We all have those little downturns in our lives or in any business. But I’ve been trying to let go and stop trying to control everything.
My job starts in front of the canvas in the studio. Actually it starts by stopping everything, just looking, by just feeling, paying attention to dreams, by writing, by thinking long about things and by painting.
I don’t use the excuse of waiting for inspiration to strike. Mostly I’m editing all the inspiration I’m dealing with on a daily basis. I don’t care so much about what people say about my work anymore, or what I should or shouldn’t be doing.
And I’m constantly working at improving my artistic skills because that is a never-ending endeavour.
There are those artists who seemed to be wholly concerned with making money and those who seem to bulk at the commercialization of their ‘masterpiece’. Money is of course an important extension of our psyche, which I don’t want to go into now.
I think both are important: the money-making, and the art-making. But it all starts with the art-making. And being authentic in the art-making.
I’m one of the lucky ones. My wife is the big earner in our household and she wholly supports my artistic journey. She knows that art is as important to me as lungs are for breathing. And she knew that before she married me.
So she has given me some space to figure out where I’m going and how I’ll be building my career. And that has been the greatest gift possible, because it has allowed me to start seeing things more carefully and be a lot more patient with the process. Instead of bouncing from one stressful financial month to the next, trying to do random commissions which were taking time away from building a strong body of work, and coming up with a proper artistic strategy, instead of operating from a place of desperation and anxiety.
And the difference to the quality of my work in even one year has been massive.
(I’ve also been developing multiple sources of income, namely framing and teaching for now.)
Why I stopped giving a damn what people think and just make the art I wanna
So now I’m learning to walk my own path. Being authentic means I’m more focused. And I’m doing a lot of ignoring of the stuff and the people who don’t inspire me.
I’ve given up faith in the integrity and taste of the art ‘establishment’ in this country. I’m not interested in the kind of art where I’m looking and going ‘huh?’ — Where I need to read the essay pinned to the side of the object/installation/fabric and perspex/digital printout/artwork thingy/insert whatever the hell you want here because it’s very rarely a painting or sculpture these days, to be able to have some kind of understanding of the intellectual inanity of what I’m supposed to be regarding.
I feel like an artwork should be strong enough to speak for itself. It should speak at an emotional level. And having to read a piece of paper ‘explaining’ the artwork just seems a bit weak to me. (Yes an explanation of an artwork can add a lot in terms of appreciation, but if you really want a critique on an artwork, just ask a child and you’ll receive a very honest answer!)
And if the market for my style of painting doesn’t exist here in my country, then I damn well will try and create one. By continuing to do my best, most authentic work.
So I want to paint my life and my feelings. Not to impress the current establishment or be part of whatever bloody trend. I’m learning, exploring, pushing my art forward and looking for personal meaning in my paintings.
And remember, when it comes to selling a painting, only one person can own it at a time. Therefore it really does not have to resonate with everyone. So why paint to please the crowd? Try being authentic.
Check out my latest series of works The Sirens