In 1995, Stanford University psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson coined the term “Stereotype threat.” At the time, they were dealing with such stereotypes as “Girls do poorly in math” and “African Americans are challenged in higher education.” Their idea was that the mere knowledge of expectations affected performance. Conversely, such stereotypes as “Jews are smart” seemed to have a positive effect on Jewish academic performance. Prophesies and indigenous myths can be self-fulfilling.
As artists, one of our frequently heard stereotypes is “Painters are poor.” A more gentle variation is “While painters may live enriched lives, they suffer a lifetime of having no money.” Funnily, this stereotype hasn’t been around long — mainly since Paul Gauguin deserted his wife and kids and tried to live cheaply among the brown ladies of Tahiti. Somerset Maugham wrote a play about it: “The Moon and Sixpence.”
These days, the poor-artist stereotype is sometimes reinforced in art schools where instructors advise students on the thrills of their impending poverty.
In the Stanford psychologist’s theory, the most recent or oft-repeated stereotype has the most potent influence. Students who were issued a written test, for example, tended to do better when asked for their personal details at the end, rather than at the beginning, of the test.
When I was about ten years old, my dad took me to visit a couple of Fine Artists. Both these painters seemed to me to lead enriched lives, working with integrity and to be anything but poor. They had no day jobs and, apparently, no inheritance to keep their families comfortable. They worked long hours and sent excellent art to distant dealers. The penny dropped in my bony little head that an artist could prosper, and the penny has been lodged there ever since.
Popping the festering bubble of stereotype ought to be part of our job description. Here are a few more to think about: “Collectors prefer their artists to be male,” “Art is what you can get away with,” and “Painters are flogging a dead horse.”
PS: “Some members of stigmatized groups lag behind others because they have internalized the stereotypes.” (John Cloud, Time Magazine)
Esoterica: One of those artists my dad and I visited was quite elderly. We bought his old, much-sanded drawing table, which I still treasure. It was this sort of experience that gave me the idea of the Eternal Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Artists. While we tend to be solitary, we are part of a greater movement that spans generations. And while misery, poverty and poisonous pedagogy lurk beside our paths, we can take power from the positive in one another.
Don’t snow us out here
by Allan O’Marra, Ajax, ON, Canada
You make it sound so easy. Simply surmount stereotype threats, be positive, focus on your muse, work hard, find a good dealer and presto; a solid and highly remunerative art career. Well, maybe for you, with the style of work you turn out, the undeniable hard work you practice and some magic with dealers and clients. However, it’s hugely unrealistic of you to suggest it’s a really simple formula that needs to be followed and then you’re on your way to the Big Time.
I’ve been painting professionally for 38 years in the biggest population centre of Canada, the Greater Toronto area. Out of necessity of paying my basic living expenses, I’ve had to maintain a parallel career with various positions in advertising. Throughout all that time, I kept my muse alive, showed as often as I could and tried on different dealers (who always promised the moon and came up with nothing). Two years ago, my corporate marketing job was eliminated at a major financial institution and I was turned out to make a living as best I could. Since then, I have been beating the bushes, in the Durham Region of Ontario, promoting myself, submitting to every juried show possible and turning out paintings at an aggressive rate. And, I still only get a paltry amount of return for all my efforts with no dealers lining up to be my champion. It’s not as easy as you make it out to be. Please don’t snow us out here.
(RG note) Thanks, Allan. I didn’t promise you a rose garden. Through more than a thousand letters I’ve tried to touch on technique, attitude, motivation, colour theory, composition, dealer relations, psychology and dozens of other considerations, many of which I don’t fully understand myself. While there are things about our game that are mighty simple and straightforward, there are still puzzling mysteries, including the business of achieving success. As I’ve said in a half dozen places before, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
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Where there’s a will, there is a way
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA
I’m one of those who went for it all with the belief that I could make it no matter what. That is, as long as I did the best work possible. As well, to increase those possibilities by yet ever working to be the best I can be. I too had a friend and mentor of over thirty years now, Dan McCaw, who had meager beginnings along with a large family to care for. I saw him making it as he did, big time. As I followed him and his career, I just knew I too could do it. Unfortunately, I had a period of time with some disabling health problems which caused me to lose all progress on a career that was on the edge of true success. Fortunately, I overcame my illness and hardships and with a new outlook on life, I forged on. It took the consciousness of having to live a more meager lifestyle and for a while a part time job in an art supply store. These days I’m living in a place by myself with a workable makeshift studio. Furthermore, I have four great high end galleries who appreciate my work and do their level best to connect collectors with my work. I’m now painting full time, living off my art work, and traveling to those wonderful places that inspire my work. I’m so very grateful.
The bottom line here is if you have a will, there is a way. If you want it bad enough, if you have a strong belief in your abilities and, if need be, have the willingness to tighten your belt, you can and will make it. I still believe my time is yet to come, and I’m sixty four years young.
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Sharing mutual encouragement
by Janice Slattery
Artists work in solitude. Due to the fact that encouragement is an essential element (other than just spite) to bring us out, to experiment and jump to the next tier, I met and consoled with two artists who live and work in my community, Larry Hart and Veronica Kortz, about how much I needed encouragement. Less than three years ago, we started a small group of three to lift each other up. Larry has since passed away after having completed an array of incredible wood turnings. Veronica and I are still in the mode of encouraging each other, along with 40 other artists in our very small community.
Our group has the following structure; there never will be a group president, leader or boss. Our main purpose is encouraging each other. At each monthly meeting, show or party, our goal is to have fun, to enjoy each other’s company, to share our works and to share food. Everything is voluntary as we have no dues or requirements outside of good behavior. Simple? Yes. We have already had two major shows and have been invited to be a part of other events. We have become in essence a family, tribe or colony working together and independently. Although, we have not decided on what to call our type of group, we are the La Habra Heights Fine Artists and Artisans _____________.
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Good for the soul
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I was recently visited by a sculptor named Jake Webster. Even though I am not a close friend of Jake’s, I always enjoyed chatting with him when I see him at art events. This time his conversation included bits about the African American Art Community, which he is a part of. He told me how closely knit this group of artists are and how he knows other black artists from large cities who would welcome him any time day or night to stay at their studio if he was in the area and needed a place to stay. He went on to say that several of them have dropped by his studio several times. As he talked I felt like he was talking about a family. In a very real sense he was. While Jake has not received an easy ticket to instant riches from living off of his art, I do believe that he has gained the respect of many, many other artists. That fellowship and respect doesn’t pay the bills necessarily, but it does do a lot of good for the soul!
Artistic temperament stereotype
by Scott Murkin, Asheboro, NC, USA
Another similar stereotype that many artists internalize and that threatens their sustainability is that of the ‘artistic temperament.’ This beast is used to excuse all types of behavior. This especially includes the failure to meet deadlines, requirements of exhibitions or competitions and poor social skills. Ironically, the stereotype is so pervasive that often artists who fail to exhibit the ‘artistic temperament’ aren’t taken seriously. They simply aren’t flighty enough to be ‘real’ artists. When artists do succumb to the stereotype, they are often seen as unreliable. The stereotype does indirectly serve to keep expectations low, so that when the artist does come through, it is seen as a major accomplishment. The stereotype probably also gives some artists permission (both internally and externally) to ‘be themselves’ and to experiment with their work. But it seems easily possible to do this without the stereotype as well.
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Cultural values play a role
by Ruth Howard
Is the fact that Jewish families value education a stereotype? And are “prophesies and indigenous myths” to be equated with stereotypes? My having been a school teacher for thirty-three years in the public school system, I come to the conclusion that, on the average, Jewish children seem to do well in school. This is because they come from a background where education is highly valued, encouraged and expected by their immediate family and their cultural milieu at large. I give full credit for the academic success of Jewish people as a whole to their home and cultural environment. And that is not a stereotype. It is a fact. As for studies of psychology, it is easy to extrapolate conclusions by looking at bits of data. I disagree with the broad brush that the mere knowledge of expectations affected performance, unless the “mere knowledge” is bolstered by the immediate family.
King and Rowling’s slow road to success
by Rev. Sedgwick Heskett, Racine, WI, USA
Yes, this letter indeed applies to writers too. One of the most frequently given pieces of advice is that most writers don’t sell very much, or anything, and that most writers can’t dream of supporting themselves with their work. Except, of course, for the superstars like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling. Therefore, it’s useful to remember that King placed his typewriter on his trailer’s washing machine and wrote Carrie at night after teaching high school. Furthermore, the first Harry Potter book was rejected by publisher after publisher before becoming an international sensation. Also remember that not every writer, or painter, needs to be a multi-millionaire. That might be as unhelpful as poverty. It would certainly be as time-consuming.
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Your father showed great wisdom by introducing you to artists whose lives, attitudes and ethics were excellent role models for the successful artistic career. We need more of this sort of interaction in any trade. Young people need to be connected to the wisdom and knowledge of the veteran. They need to know that, yes; art is a serious career for serious minded people. “The Painter’s Key’s” is playing out this valuable interchange. You are passing out your knowledge and wisdom and inspiring others to join the great game of painting. Problematically, the media seems fixated on the misfit painters like Gauguin and Van Gogh whose lives make for good movie fare. You don’t hear as much about the Robert Henri’s and John Singer Sargent’s or Ingres’ or Delacroix’s. We all need clear-headed heroes and mentors.
100% financial loss
by Betty Billups, Sandpoint, ID, USA
In 2007 I had a major exhibition of over 150 framed originals at a college in southern California as a result of a mural I had created for the campus. Framing 150 paintings was one major expense. Add making crates and shipping and it cost me over $4000 to participate. Because the curator did not want to lose any government grants, she refused to put any prices on my work or make a price list available to ensure that there would be no sales! To date, not one contact has resulted because of this exhibition. I’m not too sure what kind of message this is sending to their students as far as encouraging them to pursue an artistic career. Although the exhibition was gorgeously hung and I thought it was a very powerful show; it was a 100% financial loss.
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Stereotypes in the family
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
This reminds me of what my father said to me upon my acceptance to the Parsons School of Design. I wanted to go into the Fine Arts department, but he insisted I take Graphics instead because (imagine derisory inflections), “Everyone knows you’re just a girl and you’re just going to get married and give it all up to make babies anyway. You might as well train in a profession where you can make some money in the mean time.” If he only knew, I’ve made more on my sculpture than I ever did as an art director!
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by Helen Opie, Granville Ferry, NS, Canada
This has given me another occasion to chase down “controlling statements.” That is, things we were told and took in as the gospel truth and have controlled our behavior and attitudes from then on. My mother gave me the idea that if you didn’t hang in the National Gallery you weren’t a ‘real artist.’ I then discovered that there are thousands of us out here who don’t hang there, may never hang there. Yet we still derive great satisfaction from our work; demonstrate devotion to art and continuing learning. As well, we are at least known in the puddles in which we live. Then there’s my high school English teacher who used to rant at us about the dangers of getting into a rut. “You know what a rut is, don’t you?” he thundered before dropping his voice to a fierce-sounding hiss, “It’s a grave with both ends open.” At least the other end is open too, so we can drive ourselves on out if we so choose.
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Summer in Provence
acrylic painting, 48 x 48 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 Charlene Marsh of Nashville, IA, USA who wrote, “People love to repeat the stereotype when they hear I am an artist. I don’t allow it. I say to them (usually with crossed fingers), ‘Cancel that. I am a healthy, wealthy, well fed artist.’ ”
And also John Crowther of Los Angeles, CA, USA who wrote, “On the subject of the ‘starving artist’ stereotype, it’s worth remembering that it is a relatively recent one. Before the advent of galleries and agents (starting in the 19th century) artists had to be shrewd entrepreneurs to survive.”
And also CJ Chapel of Corvallis, OR, USA who wrote, “I would like to add another stereotype that I think we should contradict whenever we can. That artist’s are irresponsible, wacky and/or eccentric. Oh, and that they’re alcoholics.”
And also Heidi McCurdy of White Rock, BC, Canada who wrote, “Yes, I agree that the ‘starving artist’ stereotype is really destructive. Not just for painters, but for performing artists as well. Likely it’s hard to be motivated to keep at it if you have been trained to have low expectations for financial success. We need to avidly encourage, not discourage, ourselves and each other.”
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