Application Sunday, Part VI: When the gatekeepers are wrong

Eugène_Delacroix_-_The_Barque_of_Dante

Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I submitted work to the General Open Call of the No Man’s Art Gallery.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part VI
When the Gatekeepers are Wrong

An application portfolio contains mandatorily: ………. a letter of recommendation (e.g. from a university institution, an art college, a gallery or other institution related to art and culture etc.) _Part of an organization’s awarding residencies to artists official application call

Whenever I failed to provide a letter of recommendation to authorities in the art world, I felt inadequate, even ashamed. I have been experiencing this as a failing, a black whole in my practice. Could it be that I should be wearing this inadequacy proudly instead?

    Being a Fatherless Child

In the article The Death of Mentors I explain that it is not the death of the Mentor per se I am proclaiming, but rather the gradual extinction of a particular kind of mentor, one that used to be taken for granted in the course of an artist’s development, and that was for the him/her (but usually him) an invaluable Guide into Art. This Mentor was generally to be found in institutions the aspiring artist would turn to in order to learn his trade (the fact that once art began to no longer be considered a trade, the mentors became scarce calls for closer inspection). As I go on to say in that same article I myself in fact do know what a real mentor in the broader sense is because I had the fortune to meet one in the person of my father. That in turn goes to say you shouldn’t take the term “fatherless child” literally either: Fatherless here means with no mentor in one’s trade.

But what does that mean exactly? There are books (nowadays there is also the internet) and there is the history of art, accessible now more than ever. Furthermore, if we agree that a mentor is essentially a guide and a mystagogue in one’s art, it is no secret that artists could always choose their mentors among the legions of the dead. Dante never met Virgil in person, in fact the latter lived over 1000 years before him, nevertheless, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the ancient Roman poet is awarded the role of the young poet’s guide across the dark waters of Art and life. Dante’s infernal journey that ended with his triumphant vision of God is one in which Virgil as his guide helped him take.

Not having a real life mentor doesn’t mean that you are left with no guidance in your quest to meet your vision in art and life. Given this, one might ask, why is being a fatherless child even an issue? Having no guidance seems to have never really been an inescapable situation (except for extreme cases defined by much serious problems than not having a mentor), but rather one that an artist might find him/herself in voluntarily (although, everyone, whether they choose to admit it or not had at some point some spiritual guidance). Maybe I should add something to my previous definition: A fatherless child has no real life mentor to guide or protect him/her. The mentor here needs to be among the living and therefore be able to protect in a certain way.

But let me clarify this, again with Dante’s help:

In Canto XIII of Divine Comedy when the young poet and his Master are about to enter Hell’s eighth circle they are stopped by “more than a thousand” that inquire who might this man be daring to enter the gates into the regions of the dead “without death first felt”. Virgil is urged to enter alone and leave Dante behind to return on his own “by his witless way”.

At which point Dante extends a plea:

O my lov’d guide! who more than seven times
Security hast render’d me, and drawn
From peril deep, whereto I stood expos’d,
Desert me not,” I cried, “in this extreme.
And if our onward going be denied,
Together trace we back our steps with speed.

His guide replying:

Fear not: for of our passage none
Hath power to disappoint us, by such high
Authority permitted. But do thou
Expect me here; meanwhile thy wearied spirit
Comfort, and feed with kindly hope, assur’d
I will not leave thee in this lower world.

Dante’s guide was able to protect him. Nevertheless, he wasn’t alive. Actually the fact that he was among the dead made it possible for him to guide him in this infernal journey.

Things in today’s art world are rather measured by different standards. The divine guidance of the dead may at times not make the cut. In order for one to not become disheartened or loose faith in one’s art, he/she should be able to discern when they are being judged for their work and when for something entirely different. And to know that being a fatherless child can be enough for the gates to remain shut: Because, getting closer to a more complete definition, being a fatherless child in art today means starting out with no real life mentors (not the kind that officially counts anyway) to protect you in the face of the gatekeepers.

The gatekeepers are important here, because, like in the case of Dante attempting to enter inferno’s eighth circle, they are the ones that will judge you. And if you happen to even remotely be interested in engaging with the official world of art it doesn’t take long to find, gatekeepers are everywhere;

Taking all the possible forms of authority, from artist residency directors to grant awarding committees, to heads of post graduate studies departments, they, never mind their proclamations of nothing being more important than your work itself, request, or rather require that you do nevertheless have a protector, a real life one, that is ready to vouch for you (usually in the form of a letter of recommendation) if you are ever to be let in through those gates.

As I mentioned in the beginning, whenever faced with a gatekeeper’s request that I was not able – or not willing – to satisfy, I felt inadequate. At some point this question set in: What if not having protectors was to a degree the inevitable outcome of my actions? And what if it had been who I was ultimately that had led to my present “predicament”? To the degree that I still recognized myself gladly in the actions and choices that made me who I was, could it be that my predicament was just how things were meant to be? This realization, one that can be considered as a kind of realization of the self, made the regret, the shame, the feeling of inadequacy to seize to have any power over me.

This inadequacy was part of me, and one that was welcome, since it came as a result of a series of choices I recognized myself in. Still, somehow I wasn’t good enough for the gatekeepers. Could my inadequacy be just a reflection of the gatekeepers’ own failings?

How one ends up being a fatherless child in art anyway? For one, there is the death of mentors, then there is the element of chance (not everyone is fortunate enough to have real life guidance in art), and ultimately, leaving out the case of one not being worthy enough to be awarded a guide, there is the kind, not so rare in the ranks of the artists, that doesn’t make friends with flattery, nor so much with authority. And the sad truth is that most “mentors” today, require something in return. That something not being solely respect or gratitude but rather an acknowledgment of their complete authority, that is, the student’s humiliation.

Gatekeepers were always used by authority to control behavior. By rewarding a certain kind and punishing another they participated in the kind of social engineering we are familiar with since our childhood.

Some of the brightest kids I met when teaching art in public schools were also the ones being “punished”, either by low grades, or by actual means of punishment by the school’s “gatekeepers”, the teachers. These kids were guilty of being too free in the face of authority.

So even though the gatekeepers may be wrong in demanding that a young artist provides them with proof of an authority figure’s support, they are also right: One must expect this from the gatekeepers, at least on occasion, and not be surprised when allegiance to authority is considered a requirement.

So let the gatekeepers do their job while we entertain this thought: If Dante felt in any way obliged to meet such demands in order to enter the infernal gates would he ever reach the vision that awaited him at the end of his journey? Maybe the gatekeepers of the art world aren’t always the ones we should keep our sights on.

Were you ever discouraged by a gatekeeper’s demands you weren’t able to meet? Did you ever feel that the standards by which you were judged as an artist were not the ones they should be? How did you overcome this obstacle, and if it is one you are still facing have you changed the way you view it over time?

The excerpts from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Canto VIII, are translated by the Rev. H. F. Cary, M.A.

Featured image: The Barque of Dante, detail, 189 cm × 246 cm, oil on canvas, Eugène Delacroix, 1822

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The death of mentors

The story is all too familiar: Whenever there is scarcity in something, whenever a need once met through the crafting of genuine relationships can no longer be satisfied, its satisfaction is catered to a product.

This is so evident, and has come to be so much our civilization’s reflex, one can argue that when the sirens of the market begin to sound, this is the lament for something that is dead.

Only that here, the dead are not buried and lamented properly, in the way all passing people and ideas should: By putting them underground, remembering them for what they were, keeping the good they gave to us, using it to create something new. The sirens’ song is a false lament, one seeking to mask the sad, disheartening reality of the event with noise, confusion, and by stirring up a longing that can no longer be satisfied. There is no catharsis, the loss cannot be fully realized, understood and overcome. Instead, it turns into profit.

Among our unburied dead there lies the corpse of the mentor. Fortunately, not the Mentor per se, as meaning and possibility. I was lucky enough to find this in my father and know that Mentors do exist. The mentors in question are the ones traditionally found in establishments meant to perpetuate the practice and ways of a craft or profession. And what signals among other symptoms their death is the sudden surge of “mentors” we see recently, in art, as well as in other professions, usually offered for a price.

The mentor-apprentice relationship, no longer emerging naturally, as a social phenomenon engendered within institutions related to a profession, exists only as an anomaly, or as the vampire version of the mentor-protege framework that is force-fed (in lack of the real thing) to potential clients.

The end of mentors_linkedin

The death of mentors started dawning on me early on, but, I am afraid, not soon enough. The joy I experienced, about fifteen years ago, when I succeeded in entering the Athens School of Fine Arts, that was, entering the school of my dreams, offered a first row seat to that reality. This success, that came after years of longing and trying, after a series of rejections, led to my encounter with this object of desire having the taste of rejection as well: This time served cold, by the School of Fine Arts priesthood, the artists/professors I wished to be a pupil of.

An anatomy (or should I say post postmortem?) of that first encounter could be this: In theory, each “successful applicant” was to choose the workshop they wished to attend during their years of study, choose, in essence, their teacher. Only, in reality, it was the other way around. The professor chose the student, and in a way that was quite humiliating and disheartening, for the aspiring artist. After years of apprenticeship, most of them spent within institutions where one was taught “the right way to draw” (a process that came with a price tag and a hefty time and temporal investment), now the “successful applicant” had to line up his/her drawings before the School’s professors in order for them to determine (once more) whether he/she was worthy of being their apprentice.

One was either chosen or rejected on the basis of a handful of more or less institutional drawings, during a procedure that resembled a parody of the initial, already insufficient, method of determining the applicant’s value. But, more importantly, this ritual was performing, a second, informal and essentially illegitimate judgment. In one of these five minute judgments -there I was, having spread what it felt to be some kind of merchandise in front of the master’s feet- the professor, after glancing at my drawings hastily, uttered “there are weaknesses”, to which I answered, “but this is why I am here”. Note that one was not always lucky enough to get to this informal showing, instead was rejected from first glance.

This first encounter confused me but my gut saw this exactly for what it was, an injustice. I didn’t let this initial bad taste get to me though, instead I kept on hoping that somehow I could be part of a workshop as I imagined it, a structure where I could learn, be challenged and grow.

The experience of the subsequent five years failed to justify the hope. In hindsight I realized that everything was structured in order to make the experience as painless as possible. Painless for the teachers as well as the students. One thus could easily reach graduation without really having been challenged, at least not due to a rigid and structured academic regimen. One would reach the end, the purpose, without really having been tested. Whatever gain one would obtain over these years would come in principle as a result of some kind of structure the “pupil” would succeed in imposing on him/herself, or merely as a result of more or less chance events of self discovery.

Where were the teachers, you might ask? Where were the mentors? Those that know how to respect and receive respect in return and give for the sake of giving.

It was a truth everyone seemed to avert their eyes from that our teachers had given up on their apprentices, before even trying. Looking back, it seems like they had decided early on not to engage. The students were left more or less to their own devices (there must have been some anomalies, some rare professor-specimens I wasn’t lucky enough to come across).

And even when I came close to believing I had found one who seemed to be present, eventually, when the need of a deeper understanding emerged, the relationship crumbled; it wasn’t based on mutual respect and understanding, but on feeding the “mentor’s” need for power and establishing her undisputed authority. The mentor-apprentice relationship was but a bubble meant to be popped.

Why, is the natural question that comes to the inquisitive mind. Why are mentors dead? How and when did this happen? As important as this is to resolve, it is necessarily part of a different discussion. Louis Aragon, the Surrealist poet, once stated: “All that is fragile must be broken”. And as much as I don’t see this dictum as being legitimate in every single case, I do see the point here. Given the urgency of shattering our illusions and whatever feeds on them, what we are called upon to do now is to bury our dead.

Image: Screenshot from the website of the brand “Rolex”, on the page of their “Mentors & Protégés” program.