“Virtuous circle” is a term used mainly in economics. It refers to a chain of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop with positive results. When results are negative it’s called a “vicious circle.” In both systems each iteration of the circle reinforces the previous one. When the circles are extreme in either direction they may have the prefix “hyper,” as in hyperinflation.
These circles can also be applied in sociology, warfare, politics and art.
A typical virtuous circle in the art vocation is (1) quality work, (2) proper marketing and distribution, (3) collectorship, acceptance and recognition, (4) artist happiness and productivity, and (5) quality work. Get the idea?
On the other hand, many artists are stuck in a vicious circle: (1) substandard work, (2) inadequate, local or inconsequential distribution, (3) poor collectorship and recognition, (4) artist disappointment, frustration and torpor, and (5) substandard work.
Widely available programs offer systems and information to build artistic success. Well-meaning non-artist counsellors can omit or gloss over the part of the virtuous circle that deals with product quality. While art is one of the few vocations where it’s possible to successfully market incompetence, our vocation is rendered more fulfilling when the product being marketed is of esteemed value and perceived quality.
Seeing as I’ve identified quality work as the frequent weak link in the circle, I’d better give you some definitions: Competence and ability, consistent or periodic style, unique sensibility, first-class materials, facility in composition, drawing, colour and form are all certainly part of what many of us mean by quality. Other factors might include sufficient volume of work brought about by regular effort and stubborn persistence. Artist agreeability, perennial studenthood, interesting lifestyle and an exploratory personality might also be part of it. Fact is, the quality of the work often depends on what dealers, galleries and curators see as the total package. In my experience, competence is very often at the top of that package.
Often mistaken for genius, self-education and hard work can cause one to flourish. A few of the ultra-dedicated may find themselves in a state of hyper-flourish.
PS: “Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality.” (Charles Eames)
Esoterica: Everything hinges on the quality of one’s working. This means the total personality — attitude, knowledge, passion, work habits, and the resulting work. It is indeed a package. Is there one thing that leads to this broader understanding of quality? As far as I can see, it’s the acquired habit of studenthood — the simple need for learning. “There are no absolutes in painting,” said the American painter and demonstrator Rex Brandt. “All is measured by that relative term, quality. It is in this search for quality that the artist is, of necessity, the eternal student.” A genius may find this an easy job, but most of us have to work at it. “Quality,” said John Ruskin, “is always the result of intelligent effort.”
Another vicious circle
Another vicious circle is the grant machine. Artist needs money. Artist prepares a plan and a project to get the money and makes a grant application. Waits a long time in self-doubt and disillusionment for the powers-that-be to pass on his project. After finally taking a day job, artist gets some but not enough money. Blows money mostly on project. Artist needs money.
by Art Gallery Owner
As a gallery owner, our public stance is, “We are not taking on any new artists right now.” This is mainly our ploy to reduce the five to ten artists who, unannounced, bring their work into our gallery every week, and others who phone and email. Quality is often hard to detect in these artists who come by, although while they are all on their way and sometimes produce interesting work, quality and finish is often lacking. We actually look for many of the kind of “qualities” that Robert is talking about. In truth, we are always on the lookout for work that will make our life easier. If you think that means sitting back and letting the work sell itself, you’d be wrong. We spend a lot on advertising our artists and we keep the gallery open for long hours, are warm and receptive and try hard to service well the people who pass through our doors.
by Frustrated artist
High priced art mentioned several times in the forum is a function of the collecting of “scarcity” and “story” (part of the “package” Robert is talking about). These days “High priced art” has little to do with connoisseurship but rather a lot to do with boosterism, investment, and conspicuous consumption. I have several galleries that have my work but my paintings are seldom taken out of the back room because other more packaged higher priced artists are out front and center all the time. What do I do? Cut off my ear?
by June Rose, Bowling Green, KY, USA
Long have I been convinced that almost everything said or written about composition in one field applies with almost equal force to composition in other fields. Many of the terms which you employ regarding quality in the painterly arts I have always aimed to employ and to demonstrate regarding quality in the fields of research, reviewing, and writing in several genre: quality work, ability and confidence, first-class materials, facility in composition and (appropriate) forms, sufficient volume of work brought about by regular effort and stubborn persistence, and perennial studenthood.
Regarding “perennial studenthood,” I read decades ago that Abraham Lincoln had said that no one should consider any day well spent unless that person had helped someone else or had learned something new. Mr. Lincoln was a wise man, one whose counsel about effective, worthwhile living I have endeavored to follow.
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by Nyla Witmore, Boulder, CO, USA
I smiled as I realized when reading the list of five characteristics of a “Virtuous Cycle” that the first and the fifth were the same. Quality Work! Artists who get there are not lucky — they worked at it.
The majority of us would be termed “self-taught.” So, what makes the difference in becoming part of that positive cycle? It is not because we are lucky. It is not just having hope that we will get better. I got a late start in my 50’s. Having the drive to learn as much as I could from the best teachers I could afford, was also key. The biggest thing was showing up at my easel more than 4 days a week for starters. (Now I paint 6 or 7 days because it is good medicine for the soul as well as satisfying. I can hardly wait each day to see what is going to come out of me.)
Robert, your topic made me analyze why I have been so successful. First because I showed up in the learning phases even though teachers initially praised others’ work far more than they praised mine. (Face it — the ego is what causes most of us to give up.) Speaking of teachers, seeking out teachers who could do things I did not know how to do, teachers who could take me to the next step was key — not just sticking with the same teacher forever. Seek out the teachers who have the reputation for being really GOOD at teaching and inspiring students. Just ask around, or find artists whose work you admire in galleries and ask whether they teach. Buy your teacher’s work if you can afford it, to keep on your walls to learn from now and in the future. There are secrets imbedded in their work.
Just don’t give up… and as they used to say in my grade school… “Good, Better, Best…. never let it rest… till your GOOD is BETTER… and your BETTER is you BEST.” Now go for it!
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Quality is an expression of soul
by Robert Sesco, Charlottesville, VA, USA
All my life I have enjoyed learning, mostly about what makes humans different from animals, or what makes me different from a jungle beast, but also how an engine works or how to use a new software program and on and on. Painting provides me with an avenue for exhaustless learning; moreover, I indulge myself with the idea of making a living selling my increasingly quality paintings, using my brain to decipher marketing, but truth be told that is merely an indulgence, a sidebar, to what is really going on: my soul enjoys the creativity. Whoever I am decides what is quality work and what is not. The public convention of signing one’s work is an act in which I frankly have no emotional investment. I do it because that is what we seem to do. I would paint likely for the sheer challenge and enjoyment of it, and in fact this is exactly what I did when a small child. Perhaps I got a lot of encouragement from my parents with each crayon on newsprint submission, but perhaps there were many scribblings that were wadded up and tossed as I experimented with color and composition. The Buddhists spend many hours creating beautiful colored sand mandalas, exacting work that requires concentration, only to blow the work into oblivion and start another. Goldsworthy creates from nature, has a photo taken, and leaves the work in the deep woods, or by the seashore, to an unknown, but inexorable, fate. Our works, regardless of quality, will return eventually to a state of potential. Quality is an aspect of the expression of one’s soul. And I’m told that the soul is perfect.
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The satisfaction of dogged persistence
by Tom Henderson Smith, Penzance, Cornwall, UK
While there is pleasing logic to the virtuous / vicious circle way of seeing artistic success that you write about, aren’t there some well known examples of success in spite of lack of recognition. Some of the best known come from the beginnings of the modern movement i.e., the work of Van Gogh, Cezanne and many others of their generation.
Wasn’t the ability, certainly in Vincent’s case, to persist in his unique vision, in spite of being largely ignored by established galleries in his lifetime, part of his greatness?
Commercial and critical success can sometimes be driven by fashion so that a sense of alienation is hard to resist among those of us for whom fashion is not a major consideration. Perhaps we have to content ourselves with the satisfactions that come from dogged persistence. Then the appreciation of a relatively small audience becomes all the more encouraging to us. Yes, there’s certainly value in that!
(RG note) Thanks, Tom. Vincent was one of the most successful painters of all time. Trouble is, all of his success came after he turned in his brushes. Unless he has a way of peeking back at all the coffee cups that are being sold in Gallery gift shops, his current high approval rating doesn’t do him much good.
Enjoy the past comments below for The weak link in the virtuous circle…
Marsh at Dusk
acrylic painting, 20 x 30 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Julian Kirstiuk of Vancouver, BC, Canada, who wrote, “The virtuous and the vicious circle apply to so many other aspects of life.”
And also Han Xeno who wrote, “There is not room for anything but intelligent application now.”
And also Sarah Townes Godfrey of Facebook who wrote, “No art is bad art, IMO, if it makes the artist and his audience happy.”