In this article I discuss the areas of the art world, how to make a personal choice between them and discuss issues of making a transition from making one type of art to another.
So You Are Interested in Art?
You have arrived at the point where you are interested in making art. This might have been because you always had the urge to paint or draw, because you are passionate about photography and want to go to the next level or you have discovered the wonders of Photoshop and believe you have something valid to say or just enjoy the fun of manipulating images. What should you do now? Well, you have a number of options. You can keep it as a private hobby, shared with family and friends. You can move into commercial art. You can work at cracking the hobby level art show and decorator areas. Or lastly you can aim yourself at the high art world. All are valid. All have their pitfalls.
Developing your growing interest in art at a personal level has much to recommend it. By not endeavoring to push into more extreme territory you gain complete and utter freedom. You remain free from the judgments of others, free from having to work your work to other people’s standards and free from any of the stresses that go with the other areas. For many this is the perfect way to allow a creative outlet for the energies they have. Indeed it allows you to focus on the personal development aspects of making art. Topics like personal satisfaction, positive self image, having a constructive outlet for your creative urges, stress relief, personal expression and art as therapy start to come to the fore. It is so hard to over state the value of the above aspects of art making. It has been my observation from doing some counseling work with a lot of people that creative blockages, issues around expression, etc are almost universal and that most people could benefit in a personal or psychological way from some art work of any type.
There are some traps to the personal art approach. One of the biggest is that, because the work will rarely be kept purely personal but will be shared with family and friends who are likely to both have little understanding of art and often be more focused on providing encouragement than reasoned criticism, it is very easy for people to get an inflated opinion of the quality of the work they produce. You see this happen all the time at camera clubs, online groups and forums, art groups, etc. Such people can cause enormous damage by attracting followers, sending other people in wrong directions and act as a brake on other people’s development. Another danger, though this time a mainly personal one, is that the person will fail to push their work as far as their ability actually would allow. Often pushing ones work requires that you rub up against other people and ideas, and through that develop your own personal critic, as you should always be the greatest critic of your own work.
Commercial art provides an opportunity for you to exercise your create urges whilst making a living from it. Whether this is professional photography in all its forms, graphic design, commercial illustration, web design, etc. Now the big advantage of these areas is that you get paid to do what you like. Of course the down side is that you usually have to produce work to the client’s requirements and taste, rather than your own. For many this provides too big a stumbling block, for others it is much less of an issue. Again it is important not to allow the ego to run out of control and to lead you to believe that the work being produced is better than it is, or had crossed over into fine art or some other delusion. That said, this is also a fine solution for those also looking to establish a career that is closer to their true interests and values.
Cracking the semi-fine art scene, as I might call it, of weekend art shows and festivals, posters, greeting cards, café exhibitions or concentrating on the decorative arts and being happy to produce work that people love to have around their homes is a fine pursuit. It can be financially lucrative, personally rewarding and allow you to do your own thing. It allows you to dispense with the intellectual aspects of the next area, the high art world, and just concentrate on making art that you love. Yet again there is the risk of ego here, of believing that what you are doing is more than it is. But kept in balance, this can be a hugely rewarding area, as it offers the financial potential and personal expression aspects combined.
Lastly there is going the high art route. The rewards can be great if one makes it. Great financial benefits, travel, fame even. The risk is that you will not make it, despite talent and dedication, as few really get there. The price you pay for admission to this world is that one must engage with it at the intellectual level, since the contemporary art world places more emphasis on ideas than on virtuosity with your chosen medium. The price of admission probably also includes at least a Masters level fine art degree from a decent university, partly to check a box on the CV and partly for the opportunities for quality group shows it provides. You then need to carefully choreograph your art career and one needs to do work that will appeal to the critics, which might not necessarily be what you want to do.
So how do you choose?
As in all things, the old saying ‘know thyself’ applies. If you are not an intellectual sort, and can’t pretend, then a fine or high art route may be out. Note that I said May. If you have no need to make money from your art, then you might as well remain a hobbyist in attitude and have fun, even though your work may transcend that ‘level’. If you have a strong business sense then any except the hobbyist approach might suit, which depending on other issues. And of course you need to be honest with yourself about two things: the current quality of your art work and just how much work you are willing to put into it. There is absolutely no point in deciding you are aimed at high art but produce not very exciting work, do not have the art theory background and are not willing to do whatever work it takes to close those holes. You will just end up being bitter and hypercritical of the art world, whereas it is your own laziness or bad judgment you should blame.
Can you transition from one to the other? Well, partly. It is quite possible to go from hobbyist to commercial artist or to selling art at markets, etc. There is absolutely no real issue in doing this except for a change in thinking. That shift in thinking is from doing something for the pure pleasure to adding (hopefully rather than replacing it with) a business and professional focus. Make no mistake, the art world and the commercial art world are pure business. Hopefully a business that allows creative expression, but a business never the less. With no business focus you will likely fail. With a business focus there is the possibility of real success, though it is not guaranteed. The commercial art world of illustration, graphic design and photography is highly competitive and becoming more so as everyone diversifies and tries to poach each other’s business. The weekend market end of the art world is also hugely competitive, with price pressure from Chinese imports and from people who do not understand that pricing art is not a process of covering material costs only.
The big problem for people trying to make the transition is in understanding the real nature of what is required of you. The hobbyist aims to please themselves. The commercial artist aims to please the client and the weekend market artist falls between these two somewhere, depending on degree of cynicism and devotion. You can see that there is a fundamental difference in mindset between the hobby artist and the graphic designer, etc. This is not always obvious and because of this, I often see graphic design and professional photography students who do not really have the right client orientation to be as successful as their creativity alone would suggest.
Now transitioning into the high art worl
d is a very different issue. The thing that
one has to bear in mind is that the high art world is a very strange mix of business issues, academic processes and not a little snobbery, fashion, market manipulation and a self-referential intellectual system. The high art system is certainly not controlled by the artists. Rather power rests with the high end private gallery owners, institutional curators, academics and art historians, any of whom can make or break an artist’s career. The kiss of death in the high art world is any hint of amateurism or hobbyist attitudes. Yes, it is elitist and snobbish, but that is the way it is. The rules are set well outside the realm of the artist. You can play by the rules or sit on the sidelines while others play. That sounds harsh but it is the reality. One could redefine the rules, but the effort is massive and probably requires collective action to have any hope of success. Do not interpret the changes in the rules that happen occasionally as being due to artists. It is only by the actions of the ‘in crowd’, the curators, academics and art historians who have the ‘power’ to effect change, such as the acceptance of digital art, that change happens. And these areas tend to be closed shop too for people who aspire to influence.
So what is one to do? Well, that is up to you. Truly you make your own path in art, and you should not necessarily try to follow the same path others have taken. Only you know your intellectual orientation, your capacity for hard work, your willingness to produce to other’s tastes or the real reasons why you want to make art. Is it for the glory, the money, the fame, an excuse to lead a bohemian lifestyle, personal satisfaction, growth, the praise of others, an escape from a boring life or from something else, part of your spiritual path, to give back, to say what you wish to say, to bring beauty into the world or to share with others?