28 July 2008

An open letter to the good artists

People often complain about the ‘gatekeepers’ of the art world – major dealers, collectors, curators who supposedly decide who gets picked up and who doesn’t. Many artists structure their work and their career around getting into the right galleries, the right collections, and the right institutions. Some people worry about the amount of art school graduates there are nowadays, seeing them as competition.

This is completely wrong-headed. It is important to remember that we are the primary sources. Curators, collectors, dealers, and the like are parasites. It’s not a symbiotic relationship at all. They need us, but we don’t need them. We were around long before they existed, and we’ll still be around long after they’re gone.

What matters is the body of work you leave behind after you’re gone. With a bit of historical distance, it will be obvious who the good artists were. If history is anything to go by, it is the people who follow their own path, who stay true to themselves, and damn the short-term consequences. It is the people who have something to say. Now you may answer, ‘Ah, but David those future people need to have heard of you first, and for that you need to be in major museum collections.’ Bear with me, and I’ll get to that.

When was the last time you went to a show at a public institution that made you sit up and take notice? There is a reason that they only show mediocre work. Public institutions are accountable for the public funding they receive. They usually try to do this by using viewer figures. This means that they are risk-averse. They play it safe and go for crowd-pleasers every time.

Go along to the City Gallery in Wellington and do the survey they have at the front desk. The first thing you’ll notice is that it is a marketing exercise. Try the ‘customer’ survey at Te Papa. At least that actually asks what you got out of the show, buried somewhere in amongst all the questions about advertising and product ranges. That’s all they care about – getting people through the door. Your interests and their interests don’t coincide. You don’t need them.

I'd be wary of the big collectors as well. They're perfectly capable of dumping your work at low prices when fashions change. Some have even been known to do so while you have a show on, completely screwing you. If they've done it before, they can do it again.

I wouldn't worry about the hordes of recent art graduates. People who think they can screw you over cos they are plenty more where you came from haven't thought things through.

You’re artists, people, artists. You’re meant to be creative. You don’t need to follow the conventional career structure. Create your own methods of getting your work out there. You don’t need to be dependent on gatekeepers. Nothing will change unless we change it. Don’t play their game. Create your own game. Make up your own rules. This is what it means to be avant-garde: it’s not (just) what you do but the way that you do it. We change the rules of the game. All the tools are there. All you have to do is use them.

The crucial thing you do need is something to say, something that informs what you do. It also helps to have a good knowledge of art history and a good general knowledge. Art works by associations, and the more things you have to associate the better. Read widely and well. Anything and everything can be source material. Good ideas can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

That's my two cents worth. Now I'm going to go teach my grandmother how to suck eggs.


bestof3 said...

At the risk of raising your ire David, I have to say it sounds like you're channelling Rita Angus here ....

David Cauchi said...

Actually, that's pretty funny.

stephen said...

Nicely said.

AdeleJ said...

I have to agree with Stephen David - very nicely said.
But I wonder at your title referring to the 'good' artists- all well'n' good if you're thinking like 'my good man' but what about the 'bad' artists? or the bad-assed artists... Now I'd like to read what you have to say about the subjectiveness of'good' ... lol

visitors since 29 March 2004.