My late friend Egbert Oudendag used to say, “The best way to help artists is to hinder them.” He had the idea that being tough was the way to bring out their gumption. It was also the key to finding voice, style, and the ego-force to get noticed. “You need to struggle on your own,” he used to say. “No one can help you.”
In many ways I’ve agreed with him. But over the years I’ve also flirted with the idea that the only input an artist really needs is approval. That concept has its disadvantages too. When you are asked and when in your opinion someone’s work is truly lousy, it’s dishonest to sit there and say, “Wow, go for it.” For those who might offer help to others, here are a few ideas that sometimes produce results:
Think empathetically about where the artist is coming from and try to identify no more than three needs. Predicate your input with the caveat, “It’s only an opinion.” Sandwich these needs, as you see them, between two genuine compliments, no matter how minor. Don’t be afraid to be straight up and honest. In some ways Egbert had the “tough love” idea right — if they can’t take it, they’re not on a growth path and need to be abandoned anyway. If possible, give specific suggestions — take this course, go to this school, join this group, go to your room, phone the Guggenheim. Better still, phone the Guggenheim for them. Offering up-and-coming artists a simple connection with a public, commercial or educational venue is one of the best things a helper can do. Then the rejection or acceptance is in someone else’s hands, and they begin to get a feel for the sweet-and-sour nature of the real world.
Having said that, many artists need to drop, at least for the time being, notions of commercial or fame-oriented exposure. Premature articulation is a main cause of disappointment. Artists often need to be gently told to get a daily life inside their own processes. They need to know that in the long run there is no silver bullet — no school, no club, no gallery. Robert Henri, one of the greatest helpers of all time, used to repeat to his students, “All education is self-education.” We owe it to everyone, including those who might eventually support us, the thought that there’s nothing more sacred and beautiful than the private business of trying to get good on our own terms.
PS: “Every artist ought to be an exhibitionist.” (Egbert Oudendag)
Esoterica: Just as the doctor says, “Take this and call me in the morning,” the artist-to-artist exchange can be similar: “Paint a hundred paintings and tell me when you’re done.” Some folks move right on to pharmacy or accounting and are never seen again. But those who respond to this rigorous request are generally the serious ones. They intuitively know that the need to work in series and toward set goals is the main game. The wise learn to set goals for themselves. There’s no other word for it but “character.” In a demanding world where many are fighting for survival, the real goal is “thrival.”
This letter was originally published as “How to help other artists” on November 7, 2006.
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“Do not make the mistake of asking me my particularities.” (Egbert Oudendag)
We live in a fractured world. Wars, famine and power games are forcing people to abandon their homes and their way of life in hopes of finding peace. For lack of education or specialized skills, the poor are not accepted into our northern communities. They stay in the camps on the borders of turmoil, separated from local community. Animals are caught in the crossfire. Even the trees and the rocks suffer the agony of imbalance. This chaos is evident in my work. In between the rivulets of paint and the textural accidents I choose colours and forms to suggest a landscape where beauty continues to reign. We can still change the tide and build a new world harmony. Certainly, contemporary will focuses on gold instead of beauty. Yet, beauty is essential to the wellbeing of the planet. She is essential to the survival of humanity.