This morning, a reader (who asked to remain anonymous) posed several tough questions: “Why,” he asked, “do so many artists think they’re hot stuff when they’re not? How does this self-delusion occur? As an art instructor I’m daily confronted with it. Where do these folks get the authority to think they’re competent when they’re on page 4 of a 300 page book? What moxie do you have for pushing these folks to raise their standards?”
I confided to the strongly-worded Anonymous that my own moxie was annoyingly intermittent. But we agreed that it would be valuable to ask our readers what they thought.
It could be all about “Misguided Inner Authority.”
These days, The Tools authors and Hollywood’s favourite shrinks, Phil Stutz and Barry Michels, are promoting “Inner Authority.” One of their tools for overcoming inferiority and generating superior accomplishment is to stand tall with your “Shadow” (everything that’s bad about yourself) in front of a tough, imaginary audience. It’s like “facing your fear with a friend.”
This preconditioning is all very well if you’re asking a boss for a raise or taking a casting call. The concept begins to crumble when standards are hard. Like, for example, running a mile in under four minutes. All the tall-standing gumptioning while leaning on your shadow in front of imaginary people won’t get you in shape for the run. Performance in running is measurable.
Some observers claim that over the last hundred years fine art standards have diminished. This condition, if true, gives heart to beginning artists to whom it all looks so easy. Add to this the epidemic of entitlement and “me-too-ism” running like flu through Western populations and what have we got? When the need for personal joy comes ahead of the obligation for skillful craft, mediocrity nods her head and smiles in satisfaction.
For those many among us who would aim toward quality, there are standards. Performance in fine art is also measurable. For what it’s worth, here’s some moxie: Be a perennial student. Know what “brilliant” looks like. Be a discriminating connoisseur. Be both passionate and particular. Destroy your substandard work. Determine your own laws. Give up sleep.
PS: “Those who are too lazy and comfortable to think for themselves and be their own judges obey the laws. Others sense their own laws within.” (Hermann Hesse)
Esoterica: Much of the “self-delusion” Anonymous is talking about can be linked to exposure. Because so many these days are trying their hand at art, poor quality actually overwhelms quality. Developing the inner authority to see and understand standards is key to developing and managing our own. Artists who would thrive and excel need to watch what they look at, analyze and understand the effective work of others, choose their teachers well, become attentive students and dedicate themselves to the mastery of their chosen processes.
Humility is truth
by Ines Epperson, Vancouver, WA, USA
Having received most of my Art education in Europe, where strict discipline and intensive classical study was a must, I found this letter particularly fascinating. My simple answer is that it takes humility to see one’s art in its true light. Saint Teresa of Avila once said “Humility is truth.” In this society, although low self-esteem is rampant, humility is not. Just watch “reality shows” like Survivor, or the try-outs for “American Idol.” The more mediocre a person’s abilities (or character), the louder he/she boasts. I often wonder if people can be that delusional… I believe this is due to the sort of education children receive in America, which is more geared towards “building up self-esteem” than towards education, self-control and moral direction. Meanwhile, at home, children are either neglected or coddled. Any wonder they live in self-defense mode or total delusion?
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What constitutes good art?
by Paul Fayard, Clinton, MS, USA
As an art educator, I sympathize with Anonymous. The problem with teaching the Arts as opposed to science and math is that they are difficult if not impossible to measure. Man has been struggling to determine what is good, what is quality, what is excellence, what is talent, what is art, way before Plato put his two cents in. Because something is marketed and sold successfully does not mean that it has value. Money and value can be mutually exclusive. This applies to all things, not just art of course. Edgar Degas said that he created his art for himself and a few close friends. Voltaire said that we must all tend our own garden. Good advice. What constitutes good art? Like the definition for something else we all know, we may not be able to define it, but we all think we know it when we see it.
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by Gilda Pontbriand, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Years ago I had a neighbour who used to tell the entire world that she was an architect, but nobody understood why she could never get a job. A couple of months ago I saw her at an art show and without hesitation she said, “I am a painter, too. Here is my card. Visit my website and tell me what you think. I visited her website thinking that because she was an architect she would have an idea of drawing, perspective, composition, etc. but I was in shock. I had never seen anything like it. I felt like crying for her, for me and for art in general. I agree with some observers that fine art standards have diminished, but when standards go that low, it is scary. However, she is convinced that her 11 x 14” pieces are worth $450 dollars and more. The architect, now painter, is on page 2 of a 500 page book and now I am afraid to see her again.
by Bobbi Dunlop, Calgary, AB, Canada
Apropos of significant things being marginalized in our society — the standing ovation for example has come from offering true heart-felt accolades for magnificent performance and delivery to a meaningless leg-stretch at the end of every mediocre performance. And to avoid all the derriere views, everyone else is compelled to stand and join the crowd.
Significant in the art world, the ocean wave of self-important, inner-authoritative, yet inexperienced artists has built to a tidal wave in numbers that overwhelm the tiny boats of the artists who have exemplified/personified true mastery of their creations with multi-levels of education and application/sweat equity over many hard years.
As the expression goes, “Things come full-circle” — hopefully and thankfully we can look forward to the restoration of important values.
A writer’s perspective
by Ann Hite, Smyrna, GA, USA
As an author I see “so many these days are trying their hand at art, poor quality actually overwhelms quality” firsthand. With self-publishing and tiny presses popping up everywhere, is it any wonder we lose readers? I’m fortunate to be with a larger publisher, who still has high expectations for their authors. But I have set high standards for my art. I’m sorry I can’t lean into my shadow. I have to write everyday and study other forms of art, whether it is the written word or visual, to set my bar. Being a ‘real’ artist takes a lifetime of work and dedication. I’m always learning and thank goodness I will never stop.
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Growth needs change
by Bill Hogue, Dallas, TX, USA
I’ve always thought that art is more about passion than instruction and I can’t imagine an artist questioning what he does if he has that passion. I have a very tongue-in-cheek website, but it’s obvious that’s what it is. But I have never done a painting that I didn’t enjoy doing. If they didn’t turn out satisfactorily, well, that’s why God gave us gesso. My wife and I travel quite a bit and we always go the art museums and outdoor fairs when we do and I can tell you there is no shortage of living fine artists. I believe in change and have been changing how and what I paint from the time I started painting. I use the word “change” and not “evolve” because evolving indicates improvement, and improvement is not the point. I have a friend who paints in the nostalgic tradition and has done quite well and has a following and even gets commissions for painting court houses and such. That is not the type of painting I enjoy but there’s nothing wrong with it. My friend has neither evolved nor changed since selling his first painting. As an artist, I have to ask the question, how can you grow if you continually do the same thing? Maybe growth is not the point.
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by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Anonymous has a point. It goes hand in hand with being politically correct. Nowadays teachers can’t tell a new student “not to quit their day job.” You can’t tell anyone they are mediocre anymore without incurring the wrath of those who think everyone is entitled to be whatever they set their mind to even if they have no aptitude for art. It’s a dilemma that won’t go away soon. Given the state of much of the contemporary art being made today, you can understand why everyone thinks with a week’s study they, too, can be an artist. There are good painters out there doing great work, but they will never be seen because their work is representational and painted in a style that requires years of study. No one wants to put in the time it takes to learn to paint. And it takes a lifetime.
Being self-delusional to an extent is necessary for a successful career. But you also have to back it up with quality work and inventory. You also have to dedicate yourself to a life of strife and turmoil and understand that even when you produce a “work of art,” you may still go unnoticed. When do you throw in the towel and surrender? Today we are told to follow our dreams, keep at it and we will get there. Not so! It helps if you have talent, but talent alone will not keep your boat afloat. Too many waste their lives thinking they can do anything they put their mind to; again, it will probably not happen. Self help books help only one person – the author. Will we ever stop believing we are the greatest? Probably not!
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by Jon Rader Jarvis, Vashon Island, WA, USA
As a beginning painting student I encountered several teachers who thought it was their job to reduce the seemingly endless tide of art students. They were hyper-critical and cynical about any student’s sign of ego or self-satisfaction. As a result, the more faint-of-heart changed majors or migrated to less competitive disciplines, like architecture, music, ceramics, political science, or even the law. I had a friend who decided to go into medicine because it had to be easier just working hard but out of the blinding glare of art criticism. For me I had changed majors several times finally choosing painting (we didn’t call ourselves artists), because it fit all my interests and I realized that I could keep doing it after everyone else had retired from their jobs or professions. I chose it because it was what was left when all else fell away. I became a lifelong art student, accumulating 2 BFA degrees at the beginning and an MFA later, when I realized teaching art classes in college was better than the alternatives I had used to support my painting habit. I had acquired a thoughtful supportive painting instructor who told us that he preferred to tell what was right with the work because we could see what was wrong on our own. Knowing what was right could positively affect future work, so he would not provide negative criticism. I adopted that philosophy in my own teaching, always looking for the good in the student work, and recommending positive criticism in all their comments about fellow students. Occasionally, too much good news would cause a student to ask what I really thought of the student work. I told the story of one instructor who travelled to New York every year so he could see some ‘good’ art, after a year of total immersion in student work. But for my part I tell students, “I consider the work a success, if I can look directly at it and my eyes didn’t water.” They usually chuckle at the obvious avoidance. If pressed I will state that students may determine what I like by looking at my work. I paint what I like.
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Painting in metaphors
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Somehow, your last two letters, “So, what?” and, “Inner Authority” seem to suggest a similar problem or theme. In “So, what?” the situation seems to be that a certain something is missing in the work. Anonymous alludes to same issue and, presumably, if all of these self-deluded artists created paintings with that certain something, they wouldn’t be quite so self-deluded. I have come to believe that this certain something is metaphorically powerful content. Great paintings always have such content. Mundane paintings, regardless of the technical skills demonstrated, seldom do. This holds true for works of art in any medium. A skillful painter remains a technician until he or she breaks the metaphor barrier. Two disparate examples illustrate my point: Jackson Pollock, with splatters of dripped paint, created an amazing, but subtle metaphor of the Cold War — 1950’s — mindset. Without depicting a mushroom-shaped cloud, his work suggests that unthinkable explosion, the atomic bomb. His paintings place the viewer inside the blast itself at ground zero. It doesn’t matter if he did this intentionally, the metaphor is still there. Rembrandt with his consummate brushwork and seemingly super-human skills never lets us down as a master painter. But if he had merely painted commissioned portraits of Netherlandish patricians, I do not think we would still be talking about him. His true supremacy emerged most obviously when he was working for himself. There are many examples. My favorites, packed with emotional power, are the self-portraits, and the portraits of Titus and Saskia. These paintings are magical, and I think the magic is in the universality of the metaphors he created. That old guy wearing a turban suggests volumes about the human experience. You can read lots of books about aging and learn little more than the Master gave us in that one single image.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Inner Authority…
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 Suzy Morgan of Southern Pines, NC, USA, who wrote, “A student isn’t a doctor just because he has enrolled in Med School. In the world of art the roads to the title, “Artist” are varied — just as strenuous, faster for some, slower for others, none the less the work has to be done and is way harder than it looks. There seems to me to be a gross misuse of the language. I think this also stems from today’s culture being obsessed with labels, whether it be Polo, Barbie, Coke, BMW, Apple & iPhone or Artist.”
And also Ann Hardy of Colleyville, TX, USA, who wrote, “If we want to keep growing and become “our best,” then we develop the ability to look at our work objectively and be good self-connoisseurs and be the eternal student with some sleep deprivation. I’m going to use this subject in my art classes where I am the student. Thanks, Roberto. I laugh and cry with you as a distant friend.”