Happiness is of two sorts, though, of course, there are intermediate degrees. The two sorts I mean might be distinguished as plain and fancy, or animal and spiritual, or of the heart and of the head. ............................... Perhaps the simplest way to describe the difference between the two sorts of happiness is to say that one sort is open to any human being, and the other only to those who can read and write. ............................... The happiness of my gardener is of the same species*; he wages a perennial war against rabbits, of which he speaks exactly as Scotland Yard speaks of Bolsheviks; he considers them dark, designing and ferocious, and is of opinion that they can only be met by means of a cunning equal to their own. Like the heroes of Valhalla who spent every day hunting a certain wild boar, which they killed every evening but which miraculously came to life again in the morning, my gardener can slay his enemy one day without any fear that the enemy will have disappeared the next day. Although well over seventy, he works all day and bicycles sixteen hilly miles to and from his work, but the fount of joy is inexhaustible, and it is "they rabbits" that supply it. -The Conquest of Happiness (1930), Bertrand Russell *of the sort open to any human being Featured image: "Russell in 1938" by Unknown - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
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 my work to the magazine Beautiful Decay.
What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part VII:
There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. _Epictetus (A.D. c. 55 – 135)
The taste of rejection and what is really at steak
If you have ever submitted your work to any kind of outside official judgment, and done it more than once, then you must have seen your work being rejected as well. Odds are, if you happen to have submitted your work many times over a certain period of time, in response to exhibition open calls, calls for artist residencies, grants, etc., you tasted rejection many times as well, and with it one or more of the following: Self doubt, confusion, anger, frustration, withdrawal from submitting any more work, symptoms of depression, feelings of hostility towards the “unjust” outside world and the kind of overall anxiety you cannot put your finger on and effectively deal with. Oh, did I mention envy towards other artists’ successes? Needless to say that what all these maladies have in common, is their ability to drain you from your energy, deprive you of your focus, sink you in negativity and ultimately incapacitate you in regard to the single thing most valuable for an artist: his/her ability to work.
What is known as an artist block can often be the result of a loosing battle with rejection. How then can we beat rejection?
Since the outcome here is one that is out of our control, we cannot beat rejection itself, that is, prevent it from happening. We can however overcome it, that is, rise above it and prevent it from destroying what we value most. The desired here is to render rejection powerless in inflicting us any kind of pain, psychological or other, and compromising our creativity.
Fixing our relationship with rejection
Like most problems of this nature, that is, of the kind that lie outside of our control, the solution lies mostly in our perception of rejection. To bring Epictetus, who opens the debate of this article, some fitting company, here is a dictum by Seneca: We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.
What is imagined here is that rejection is indeed in and of itself an evil. Regarding rejection as a bad in and of itself we ourselves award it the ability to hurt us.
But how does rejection ends up being considered a bad in and of itself? A series of misconceptions seem to be lying on the basis of our distorted relation with rejection. Seeing rejection for what it is would require that we identify these misconceptions one by one and neutralize them:
- Mistaking rejection within a certain institutional framework for rejection of the work per se. Juries and committees of organizations, judge in reference to that organizations’ particular set of values and criteria. The rejection therefore is relative and should not be perceived as a rejection neither of a specific work’s value, nor of one’s entire artistic practice.
- Ignorance about the real odds of succeeding. If there is one lesson I learned from my first year of rigorously applying to artist calls is that rejection should come as no surprise. Instead, it should rather be expected as the rule: 18 out of my 28 applications were rejected. That is, there was an actual verdict communicated to me, that usually went like this: “…I regret to inform you that your application has not been selected….” (this is actually from a fresh one received today in my mailbox!). From the 10 applications out of 28 that were not met with a rejection, 3 were never answered (these calls never materialized into something), 1 fell through because of an application error on my part, and only 6 were met with success. It took 28 submissions for 6 successful outcomes. That represents a 21% success rate coupled by a 64% rejection rate. Which means that the no’s I received were 3 times more than the yeses. Still, it seems I did pretty well: In “How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul”, a book that contains quite a good amount of practical advice directed to artists, the success rates that should be expected from such a procedure are quite a lot slimmer. Which goes to say that the disappointment that many artists feel after applying to only a handful of artist calls and been rejected is unsubstantiated.
- Overestimating the actual authority of authorities: Disregarding that often the gatekeepers are wrong.
- Lending the application venture itself more value and importance than it actually has. If, when served with a rejection, it is the actual value of our work we are agonizing over, and not the loss of certain honors or benefits, then our agony is simply not justified. As I already tried to demonstrate, more often than not success is determined by the institution’s agenda rather than the work’s actual value.
Since rejection is outside of our control, and since it cannot be considered a determining factor of our work’s inherent value, it should be regarded as being indifferent.
This, essentially stoic, view may seem as an impossible one to adopt or even one not befitting to humans: Artists, after all, like everyone else, have the desire and the need to succeed in their careers. Therefore it is somewhat natural that every rejection would feel like a failure to march in that direction (of success).
Nevertheless, it is also valid to maintain that if an artist is to achieve any real greatness, he/she should also be able to view the judgments about his/her work coldly and as being irrelevant to the work and to oneself in order to be able to continue with his/her mission. This must be almost impossible for someone that has made his/herself dependent on outside approval.
Having said that, the opinion of the environment is indeed a legitimate concern, especially when one is interested in impacting society in some way. But the usual place we look for approval is not always the right one.
An effective strategy in dealing with rejection
The pressures that are applied today on the artist from all sides, to a large extent due to the incompatibility in nature and objectives between the artist and the societal structure, are so great that a broader strategy is needed in order to deal with rejection. Seeing rejection for what it is is an essential first step of freeing oneself from its effects but it can’t be enough to triumph over it.
Rising above success and rejection (the former often being more harmful than the latter) especially when one happens to be particularly vulnerable to their influence, requires a positive set of actions as well the negative affirmation of what rejection is not. Here is a list of things I consider to be valuable:
- Working on one’s projects with single mindedness, bringing them to an end undisturbed, and only then subjecting them to outside judgment.
The Other’s view on an artist’s process should not get in the way or predetermine the creative process itself. This can be especially disorienting if this Other represents the art market.
- Having said that, one should have people around them they trust, in their opinion and judgment. It is they who will provide him/her with the necessary outside support and reality check an artist often needs, especially when rejections seem to be falling down like rain.
- Don’t let anxiety turn a waiting period into a dead period. One shouldn’t just wait for the results of an application to come in, especially if they are anxious. This will sink them deeper in their imaginary quicksand and make them a victim of something over which they have no control. I don’t usually quote Andy Warhol but here is something of his touching on the matter, that I like: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art”.No matter the verdict, you know that at least you are safeguarding your creativity and advancing in your work. This possibly sets the scene for a future success, even if all you get now is rejection.
- Make the best of the successes you do have, no matter how scarce. You can find creative ways to use these successes as an opportunity to communicate your work and reach more people, in a more regular/consistent manner.
Some hands-on practical methods against rejection
Whether you are in the process of sending out applications and are finding yourself overwhelmed from the answers you receive, or are trying to bring yourself to start submitting work and are paralyzed at the prospect of rejection, here is an actionable set of methods you can start applying today that can make a difference in how you deal with rejection next time around:
- If you aren’t already sending one, start sending out an artist newsletter. When I started having some few but nevertheless consistent application successes, I began sending out a newsletter through e-mail to a list of contacts. This newsletter is now a standard, trusted, and personalized means of communicating my news in the workshop and my accomplishments and keeping my audience updated on my course. Also, it is a means of broadening this audience. And even though this method of communication would have never been initiated if I wasn’t doing work I felt confident about and wanted to share, the extra bit of wind behind my sails for the first newsletter to be composed was probably these first successes: They lifted my morale and gave me one more newsworthy element to share. There is a lot to be said about learning how to see the glass half-full instead of half-empty and leveraging your successes even if they come few and far in between.
You are the one that can give courage to yourself by not letting your successes, no matter how scarce, run through your fingers like water. Turn them into something concrete instead.
- Document your application process and its results. Create a document in Google Drive, Evernote, or some other application and each time you send out a submission, note the date and the other basic information regarding the application. When the result comes in seal the respective application report with this final piece of information. This way you will be able to have an objective record of this process that over time will provide you with essential information about your actual success rates, and about whether or not your application frequency justifies feelings of disappointment.
- If you want to become immune to rejection, or the closest to that you can be, apply often. The fewer the applications, the more their importance gets blown up in our imagination. The more frequent the applications, the easier it becomes to complete them, and the smaller the perceived importance of each individual one. Simply put, by applying often we become better in it and we also mathematically increase our chances of success.
- Spare yourself from any unnecessary pain early on by choosing the right kind of artist opportunities.
Closing this report of what I consider to be effective when dealing with rejection I ‘d like to add: No matter how important it may be for an artist to have some successes of the kind discussed here, no submission goes to waste regardless of its outcome. The process one undergoes because of it and the particular kind of work involved always adds something valuable to his/her practice.
How do you deal with rejection? Is it something that can get in the way of your creativity? Do you have any strategies of your own or practical methods you would recommend to other artists?
Robert Hughes, The Shock of The New, Episode 2, excerpt
Origin of the World, oil on canvas, 46 cm × 55 cm (18 in × 22 in), 1886, Gustave Courbet – Photography, Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
I sincerely doubt that Courbet intended to make a “feminist” work when he painted this, at least not in the sense we understand the term today. But if we agree that a work can be deemed feminist when challenging a current predominant and limited view on women, then “the Origin of the world” is certainly one.
Until Courbet’s time women in erotic paintings would be portrayed symbolically and within a mythological framework. Gustave Courbet brought the real woman in the forefront therefore creating one of the greatest feminist artworks in the history of art.
Ironically enough, and in a very “un-feminist” way, as many modern day feminists would view it, the work is believed to have been commissioned by an Ottoman diplomat as an addition to his personal collection of erotic pictures. This close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman, would indeed meet the commission’s requirements, but do it in a very realist manner (honoring Courbet’s notoriety as one of the leaders of the Realist painters): This realist nature of the work is exactly where its subversiveness, or, to use a more fashionable term, disruptiveness lies. As mentioned above, erotic painting to that day portrayed women with a mythological pretext, that is, any allusion to the erotic was made in a symbolic, therefore indirect way. Courbet rendered these mythological garments useless, directly challenging the social hypocrisy they represented: Eroticism and even pornography were accepted in the framework of mythological or oneiric paintings but not in the framework of reality.
Through its title and also the unusual angle of the subject the work also serves as a direct affirmation or rather declaration of woman’s ability to bring life. To the observation that the connection between woman and fertility is nothing new in art, one could retort that what is new here would, again, be that we are confronted by a real woman and not a woman-symbol of fertility, or a woman-mythological creature: One can maintain that “The Origin of the world” is a tribute to woman, not only because it shifts the focus in the female nude from the erotic in a banal way to the erotic in a deeper sense connected to nature’s plan, but also because the female body here appears to be something even more than “the origin of the world”. Being presented outside the hypocritical social conventions, the female body can now be for and in itself. And so can woman.
Not surprisingly, the work was viewed as overly crude and daring by its contemporaries, creating an uproar in the art circles of the day. More than that, it seems to be generating controversy again and again to this day, in a way proving that if a declaration lives on in it, it is one our society is not yet ready to accept.
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
Art that is feminist in a way that matters
Artist Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was born 89 years ago today. Remembering her I am starting this series, every Monday presenting an artwork, feminist in a way that matters. At least in a way that matters to me.
The term “feminist” never really sat well with me. I find it is usually employed to describe things, actions or situations that don’t do us (women) much honor. Most of the “feminist” points of view seem to lack any sense of dialectic quality and appear to be driven by a monomaniacal black & white perspective. Fighting against female oppression and for actual equality demands a much more nuanced and meaningful approach than merely stating the obvious (the domination of patriarchal values and structures) or, repeating slogans with no real meaning or usefulness (when not accompanied by a call for action or an empowering piece of knowledge). The worse kind of feminism being the patriarchal point of view in reverse, that is, a campaign promoting that women are superior to men. And let’s not forget about this most insulting kind of feminism: One that masquerades as such but in reality perpetuates the use of women as circus freaks. This is usually achieved through the use of flattery (directed to the female audience). Headlines such as “The first woman president” or “Women artists are presented in their studios” (here is something along these lines) may seem at first glance to honor and celebrate women but a closer inspection reveals the actual ideological backwardness that they express and perpetuate: Instead of focusing on the woman on the basis of her accomplishments,, they shift the attention to her sex therefore in essence nullifying her actual value. This last kind of approach to “feminism” is actually especially popular among those wishing to promote an agenda essentially hostile to women. One example, taken from the political field, is the promotion of a female candidate by a reactionary political entity, that is certain to enforce under the party’s agenda the worst possible policies for women as soon as she occupies office (Clinton voters consider yourselves warned!).
Moreover most modern day feminists are possessed by the desire to shock. I find this a mediocre ambition, for any woman as well as man.
So, to prove a point, say it like it is (feminism that is), and be inspired, in memory of a true feminist (because she was a humanist), this Monday and every Monday, I will be presenting an artwork or a series of works of an artist that defended (or defends) the right of women to be considered human.
Notes in Time (1979), Nancy Spero (1926-2009)
Cut-and-pasted painted paper, gouache, and pencil on joined sheets of paper
24 sheets Overall: 20 x 210′ (50.8 x
6400.8 cm) 22 frames at 25 x 116 x
1 15/16″ 1 frame at 25 x 61 x 1 15/16″
1 frame at 25 x 88 x 1 15/16″
*from the website of the Museum of Modern Art
Notes in Time is one of Nancy Spero’s most ambitious and iconic works. A scroll of monumental dimensions, it narrates the history of the female condition, starting from the beginning of time. In the work figures and text are interwoven in Spero’s characteristic way resulting in an evocative visual language full of movement.
The work consists of 24 horizontal panels, each approximately 9 feet (2.74 m) long.
One year after the artist’s death, in 2010, the online magazine Triple Canopy reanimated the work as a digital scroll and made it available for online viewing, thus in a way restoring the work itself: The artist had conceived of it as circular and continuous. Those two conditions are for the first time met in this digital reanimation that allows for the uninterrupted viewing of Notes in Time as a continuous scroll.
The work as digital scroll can be viewed on the Triple Canopy online magazine, here.
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 Open Call of the Looking at Painting journal.
What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part V:
The good, the bad and the ugly of a London show
December 25th, 2013 found me in the intensive care unit of a hospital in my home city of Athens, Greece. It was Christmas Day and there I was, instead of celebrating with my family and enjoying one of my mother’s delicacies, I was lying in one of the beds of the respiratory ward. How did I get there? The answer may not be what you expect: Art.
Sure, if I wanted to be more literal I should perhaps refrain from blaming art and instead blame it all on my frivolous behavior. But the fact of the matter is that it was indeed my precarious involvement with art that landed me this Christmas gift.
A recently adopted drawing method in combination with my failure to take all the necessary protective measures it called for brought this on me. Thankfully I came out of it unscathed (and wiser); What’s more, I had a “trophy” to show for what I’d been through: What I was working on when I got sick: Thirty-six blue moons.
This was the last work I finished in the year 2013, but it felt as if it were the first one in a long time, maybe because its creation coincided with a newly acquired sense of self-coherence that came after a long period of confusion (see part II). It was also the first work I submitted in response to an artist call after my 2014 new year’s resolution to get my work out there. My desire to take this particular work out of the workshop was probably what gave the final push for that first application to happen.
Not very long after the submission I received the news that it was successful. The opportunity had been posted by an independent curator and it involved participating in a group show in London.
When the news came I was overwhelmed. This was a huge morale booster, especially following a lengthy “exhibition drought”, and was interpreted as an early confirmation of my newly implemented strategy.
I found it kind of entertaining, and not lacking a generous dose of refreshing irony: The work that not so long ago had landed me in a hospital bed was now landing me an exhibition abroad. Things did come at a price, it seemed.
But, as I would find out, refreshing irony aside, I was also in for a generous dose of disenchantment.
This was the kind of artist opportunity that had all three: The good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s take it one by one because valuable lessons were learned from all three:
The good: My work was benefited in unexpected ways and, as often happens, the blessing came disguised as an insurmountable difficulty: Thirty-six blue moons, a work playing with the concept and form of the calendar, consisted of 36 drawings set in calendar structure. When news of its success came in, the individual drawings weren’t yet mounted on the surface that would carry them. The work was more or less still open. This proved to be a good thing. Faced with the logistics and considerations of transporting a 1.5 x 1 m frame to the UK from Greece I realized this was out of the question. The cost of transportation, all of which had to be covered by me, not to mention the potential cost of damage (it was certainly possible that the glass would break in transport), also to be covered by myself, all these added to the costs of travel and subsistence for over a week (thankfully a friend living in London had graciously offered to be my host) was turning the whole enterprise into a science fiction scenario. Where is the “good” in all that, you might ask. The good was that being faced with what seemed to be an impasse in the beginning forced me to find a solution that eventually led to the work itself evolving.
I finally flew to London with the work securely packed in my carry on. In the days preceding the exhibition, Thirty-six blue moons evolved into an artist book in a process that not only didn’t compromise the vision I had for the work but proved to be the continuation of its creative process. If one comes to think of it, there are always rules and limitations in the workshop, often set by us to function as catalysts during the creative process. In this instance it was this logistical problem playing the role of this limitation that had to be overcome creatively. The challenge was met not only by harnessing the best possible results for the work but also with the best possible outcome for my budget.
The bad: This was an international call for an exhibition held in London. Meaning that the artworks would come from all over the world. Therefore shipping the selected works to London and back was a logistical prerequisite for the exhibition to be held. This in turn makes the works’ shipping costs by nature an integral part of the exhibition’s budget. However, these expenses, which are considerable, were to be paid by the artists themselves.
When asked whether the works would be covered by an insurance the curator gave me no clear answer, other than that once she received them the works would be “under her care” and while in the gallery they would have “public liability insurance”. Reading the terms stated in the contract between the gallery and the organizers, I understood that this didn’t amount to much. There was no guarantee whatsoever that the artist would be compensated in the event of damage or loss of his/her work. The Liability section of the contract read: “…the Gallery shall have no liability whatsoever for any theft, loss, damage or destruction (including incidental losses) to or relating to, artwork, exhibition elements and personal property”. Doing some research I found out that the lack of insurance coverage in international exhibitions was not an uncommon occurrence at all. Quite the contrary, at times even prestigious venues left that aspect unfulfilled. This realization served as a kind of perverse reassurance for me to put this issue aside and go on with the show.
The ugly: I think one of the worst scenarios for an artist when his/her work is shown in a group show is for that show to take the form of something that doesn’t represent him/her.
Sometime after I learned my work had been selected I found out that the number of participants was no less that sixty. No indication of the show’s scale was given in the initial call, and combined with the fact that there was an exhibition fee of 60 GBP ($100) to be paid in order for the successful applicant to be included in the exhibition, that didn’t have a good ring to it at all: Was this some kind of predatory “opportunity” luring artists, eager to participate in a London show, into an exhibition that provided them with no essential career value, while incurring high costs that they would be called on to cover? I wanted to show this work and looked forward to experiencing this to the end regardless – this would be the first time I’d travel abroad on such an occasion after all – so I didn’t let these doubts deter me. Unfortunately, they were confirmed.
Walking in the gallery for the first time, when the works were being set up, was when I received the first actual confirmation of the negative signs I had been getting. There was no coherence in this assortment of works, no apparent connection between them or between them and my work.
I was under the impression I had walked into the wrong gallery, until I spotted the curator, whom I recognized from a photo posted in the initial artist call. I wondered if the other artists stood frozen like me when they first walked in. I snapped out of this pretty quick. I was there after all, Thirty-six blue moons was there, and I had to get to work. Plus, deep down I knew that what I was facing at that moment could in fact have been foreseen.
So I decided not to worry too much about the incoherence I found from that point on. But at the same time I knew that this was an indicator of the show’s questionable value and it also posed questions about the motivation behind it. I would have to be on my toes until this was over, since failure to provide for the show’s aesthetic and conceptual coherence made me think that a lack of professionalism would be demonstrated throughout.
And yet the lack of aesthetic quality, and the poor taste that was eventually demonstrated in all aspects of the exhibition, was something that had manifested itself months before I took my moons and flew to London. Early on, yet over a month after the fee to participate in the exhibition had been paid, a new element about the show emerged. The exhibition press release sent to us by the curator read that the show was being held “in aid of OCD UK”, meaning that somehow (it wasn’t disclosed how exactly) the show was connected to a charity organization. This alone should have probably sufficed for me to up and walk away from the event since it revealed the utter disregard of the organizers for the participating artists: It was obviously considered to not be their business to know about the exhibition’s profile and be able to make an informed decision about whether its overall profile suited them before they opted in. Adding insult to injury, this news was followed by an e-mail inquiring whether any of the participating artists who may have suffered in the past (or still did) from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (the condition connected to the charity), would be interested in providing a radio interview in the days leading up to the exhibition to talk about their condition. This I leave up to the reader to assess…
Regardless of the fact that this venture provided me with little to no value professionally, I do believe its overall effect at that time was constructive: I gained indispensable experience just when I needed it, I did something new that pushed my practice further leading to a breakthrough in my work, and, maybe most importantly, I met a couple of fellow artists with whom I have a valuable exchange to this day.
Lessons from this I will keep:
– When something looks unprofessional it usually is all the way through. If the person in charge of the “opportunity” can’t use language correctly or is vague on essential issues, odds are there will be larger and more serious failures in their performance along the way.
– Be skeptical, if not dismissive from the get go, of “opportunities” essentially funded by the artist. As I realized the fee the artists were paying for their participation was going to cover the gallery’s rent. One can’t expect any real career boost from these kinds of setups.
– There are two kinds of opportunities: One-sided “opportunities” tailored to serve the organizers’ agenda, and true opportunities that benefit both parties. When the artist feels like he/she is only a means to an end, his/her opinion is not respected or even taken into account, or that they are part of something they didn’t opt in to, they should leave early and cut their losses.
If you are starting out, trust your instincts and read the signs. If you find yourself at the receiving end of this kind of opportunity, make some friends along the way, because this is one of the few valuable things that remains from any venture. And in the end, look back on the experience and evaluate.
Do you have the experience of a similar kind of opportunity? When was the moment you realized it wasn’t going to provide you with the value you expected? Was anything gained from this regardless?
Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Thirty-six blue moons, detail, Artist’s book/installation, accordion book in case, powdered pigment, handmade paper, abaca paper, 139 x 93.5 cm (open accordion dimensions), edition, unique, 2014
The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.
—Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle