The next edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is going to include the new category of “Hoarding” — no longer just a branch of OCD, it seems, but a distinct malaise. We all know of someone whose home is clogged with old newspapers and other unusable detritus. We may also know of people with a buildup of clothes, books, animals, dolls or empty liquor bottles. Others we know suffer from the hoarding of stamps, old vehicles, money, information, and art. What I want to talk about here are artists who hoard their own artwork.
Without disclosing the names of friends and associates, some among us have a hard time letting go of work. Some have accumulated so much of their own art that they’ve built separate buildings to house it.
Psychiatrists suggest that even mild hoarding may be the result of a childhood trauma or a threatening event. In my case, I can identify the time and place. At age about four I was at the seashore playing with a box of chestnuts when they were all swept away by a rogue wave. I screamed my best primal scream and my mom had to swim out and rescue every last nut.
Since that day I’ve feared losing my stuff. However, with calculated self-delusion, I’ve been able to rationalize that while my work may be on someone else’s wall, it’s still mine.
Attitudes of preciousness and unwillingness to release are fairly common among artists, and this knowledge has helped me deal with my own problem. I’d appreciate if you didn’t mention my problem. My question is to what degree it may be a beneficial problem.
When we begin to see our work as the main currency of our lives, it becomes important that it be half-decent work — as high in quality as we are, at the time, capable. We may even feel the need to keep replacing our lesser work with what we perceive as better work. While we may forever be aware of our work’s shortcomings, we allow ourselves to fall just a bit in love with it. This commitment may go some distance in reconfirming self-love. “I am not a loser.” Is this a bad thing?
PS: “When a loss is significant, the person feels a stronger, deeper need to replace.” (Elaine Birchell, social worker)
Esoterica: There are several conditions that accompany hoarding in many, but not all, afflicted artists. One is a protective wall of self-importance and exceptionalism — a risky sentiment which, in some cases, is only modestly deserved. Another is blindness to possibilities of self-improvement. Growth atrophies as the artist operates from an ivory tower protected by a moat of his own fears. Another condition is the constant and perennial need to perfect the work. This can be simply an excuse not to let go of it. Thus, work is never delivered, and the relieved artist is never in any danger of loss.
Early art not precious
by Susie Cipolla, Whistler, BC, Canada
Three years ago I took my first art workshop with artist Brian Atyeo and I made my very first painting. At the end of day one Brian tactfully asked me if I was very attached to it and would I like him to show me what he would do with it. I said “No thank-you. I think I will take my masterpiece home and show it to my family”. Once home, I got a “hmmm” and a lacklustre “that’s nice honey” so I took it back to class on day two. I watched Brian cover it in transparent red oxide and then proceed to paint a lovely landscape over my previous efforts. I learned a valuable lesson on day 2 of my painting career and that is to let it go and not be attached to anything I make. I also have a lovely Brian Atyeo original covering my very first effort.
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Staying true to yourself
by Randy Davis, Killingworth, CT, USA
I feel the need to stay connected to myself is more important than to stay connected to anyone external to myself, especially anyone in the commerce end of art. Doing the work is for myself and is a concrete example of a “world” where no one else can influence me or where I am accountable to anyone. It is mine and mine alone. In this culture of social media and high external input, this is not only a luxury, but one of the most basic human needs I can think of. So, no, I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all to be partial to your own work. Who said successful art should be revealed to anyone else to begin with? The real necessity of doing it had nothing to do with the culture of market.
Continuing the adventure
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I never felt the need or desire to hoard or hold on to my paintings. I think it is because my love is for the adventure and process of painting. I am a compulsive learner. I love trying new palettes, technique and brushwork. The finished painting gives a sense of satisfaction, but I am anxious to find it a new home so I can continue my adventure again with the next painting.
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Donating to let go
by Dennis Koch, Dunnellon, FL, USA
Hoarding can be a problem for some of us artists. I have forced myself to donate to Habitat for Humanity in order to let go of some of my work. Recently, I was thinking about two pieces from a series I have worked on and, lo and behold, realized I had let them both go — to my chagrin. So letting go of “stuff” sometimes might be a good thing… but one has to be careful not to dump a fine work that is going to be missed. Thankfully, I can continue a series anytime I desire.
How to get rid of bad art?
by Marjorie Moeser, Toronto, ON, Canada
Hoarding brings to mind a constant dilemma of mine. When getting rid of a “failed” canvas or one that has simply outlived its prime, I have tried 2 methods: one, I paint right over the assumed poor canvas; secondly, I throw it out in the garbage (most often this takes the form of simply laying it on the sidewalk for all and sundry to walk by and take or simply ignore it). Since I deem this work not one of my finest, I am in a dilemma of knowing whether or not I should black out my signature. I lean towards doing just that. However, if I do that, chances of someone taking it away become next to nil. Who wants a painting with a big black mark at the bottom?
(RG note) Thanks, Marjorie. It’s most important that you don’t clutter up your neighbourhood sidewalks with substandard work, signed or unsigned. I’ve noticed that passersby will pick up and take away art left anywhere no matter how bad it is. Even high-class folks cannot resist such a bargain. Consider priming over and starting anew. If your primed-over supports seem permanently jinxed, and you feel you just can’t work on them, my choice would be to save them for the winter and slip them into the fireplace.
Changing your attitude
by Joseph Jahn, Nibe, Denmark
Thanks for the food for thought, and I’ll not mention your problem. Funny thing is I used your thought to my advantage by turning it into a positive view of my own work. Lately I’ve been a bit stuck and then I read your letter and turned it into “why not paint this one as if I’m going to keep it, and not send it to the gallery for sale?” And, to my surprise that changed the direction of the present work on the easel in a positive way. BTW my wife and I occasionally watch the TV series “Hoarders” and are pleased to report that our not-so-minimalistic lifestyle has not reached that level.
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by Diane Doerr-Mitchell, Clintonville ,West Virginia, USA
Hoarding — not me. I have been doing watercolors for maybe 4 years now. I belong to a great Art group locally and they keep telling me my stuff is getting better and better. Great support but they are always so…. nice. I haven’t gotten to a hoarding stage — I am so happy when my stuff sells. It is that final validation and keeps me going. The colors on the paper and the end result are also a major influence of course! But when a piece sells it means someone else — a total stranger — saw what I meant, got what I was saying, therefore validating — me. An artist. Something I always wanted since I was a kid.
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The Unknown Masterpiece
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
“Another condition is the constant and perennial need to perfect the work.” This reminds me of Giacometti‘s obsessive feeling that it was impossible ever to finish a work, and Balzac’s story The Unknown Masterpiece.
It’s set in Paris in the time of Poussin, who is a character in the story. The painter Frenhofer had been working on a painting for a decade, letting no one see it until now:
“The two painters left the old man to his ecstasy, and tried to ascertain whether the light that fell full upon the canvas had in some way neutralized all the effect for them. They moved to the right and left of the picture; they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns…
‘The old lansquenet is laughing at us,’ said Poussin, coming once more toward the supposed picture. ‘I can see nothing there but confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.’
‘We are mistaken, look!’ said Porbus.
In a corner of the canvas as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog….
Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back.
‘Nothing! Nothing! After ten years of work…’
He sat down and wept.”