Does Anyone Out There Really Take Art Seriously?
ART AS A CAREER
During my many years as an artist, a commentator, an activist, and even as an administrator I have listened to so many arguments and words and read so many articles and letters on the subject, but the visual arts as a career still seems to be an enigma. An unknown quantity of major proportions to the majority of people.
Any career requires an intense period of learning, and then years of deep thought and fine tuning to maximise one’s skills. It appears this is not so in art. With rudimentary skills and training, almost anyone now calls themselves a “professional artist”.
Most kids entering art schools seem to go there believing they cannot/will not make it as a career artist, and are already settling for a career as a teacher, academic or administrator from day one. Who do they intend to administrate when they finally get there? Amateurs?
If they do believe they will be trained to make a career of making art when they get to art school their erroneous beliefs are soon modified.
As we look around this is the scene we find now. Art in its many facets is fast becoming if it is not already there, the domain of the part-timer and amateur artist. Few today can claim to earn their livelihood by means of a brush or chisel, or even hand me down video machine.
They go into art expecting hand-outs. Believing that being funded is their indisputable right.
AN ART EDUCATION
Being a full time professional artist, that being an artist who is fully committed to art and who is prepared to make a career of MAKING art and earning their living by it, is hardly an option any longer. Most of those that work in visual arts education cannot even imagine what being a professional artist is. And why should they understand that to be an option? Society and education denigrates the very idea and everyone claims the title of professional or career artist by decree e.g. “I’ve had ten lessons with private teacher and sold a few paintings in a group show in a mall, or cry out with great pride “I am self-taught!” (Being self-taught seems to give some people some kind of special status or advantage). I am happy to say I had lots of help from those more advanced than I was at certain stages. One also hears “I am a school art teacher so I too am a professional artist!” Is that professional artist or professional teacher? There is great confusion and obfuscation. It is like a nurse claiming the title of brain-surgeon. To me a professional artist is one who derives their livelihood from the sale of their art work.
The galleries too (Of course with some exceptions) no longer have any real concern about the commitment, quality or track record of their artists, and are far more interested in wide choice than creativity , expertise or excellence. In a way you can’t blame them because their customers now are seldom art collectors but interior decorators, and art is paying the price! At one time artists, curators and the gallerists were seen as the art experts and the place to go for information and expert advice. Today it is the interior decorator that is seen to know all about art and is the advisor. Art has become an ancillary to furniture and curtains. It is no longer seen to be one of the noblest of human enterprises. A sad, depressing, and even terrifying thought.
One cannot altogether blame the public for choosing those most accessible (decorators) as their advisors, because there are so few truly professional artists left, and galleries have essentially sold their souls to fashion and bling furnishings.
The art school and what they teach and stand for is also so far removed from a career in making art one can only wonder how it reached this point. Their gospel and even the language they speak are indecipherable to ordinary people. We cannot really then blame the public for having little or no respect for art and artists or for turning to those who are perhaps easier to understand –even if misguidedly so.
The result of all of this is that art and artists are seen to be of little consequence any longer. They are seen as mere providers of a commodity or product. They are seen as no more than manufacturers and so demand little respect from the public, the decorators, and the galleries or in fact the art schools.
As a result of all of this, the time may come when we have no more fully committed artists who dedicate their lives to creating art, and with them will go the skills and knowledge passed down for centuries. It is quite possible then that the visual arts industry will have no use for highly skilled artists and anything and everything will be acceptable. Can you imagine what the world would be like without those artists and their creations and when the only art left being made is so banal or far removed from what the world has been familiar with and comforted or dazzled by? With all the money in the world it would not be worth living without that contribution.
IN THE BEGINNING
I tend to think the problem starts with parents and junior school teachers. No matter how skilled little Annie or Jimmy are, parents will throw their hands up in horror if their children even consider making their life’s work making art. “Get a decent job first” they always wail, “and then perhaps you can have art as a hobby”. Even those who teach them are horrified at the prospect of those in their care considering doing art as a career rather than as a teacher or administrator or something quite divorced from their first love. That is great then, we’ll all be teachers, and spend years honing people’s skills they will never use. “It may be a nice pastime” they chant, “but rather study to be a teacher like us”. What is the use of teaching skills in art that they more than likely will never use other than in a part time capacity? Why teach people to be art teachers when there is little likelihood of them ever teaching anyone to become an artist? Why not identify future artists, teach and channel those with exceptional skills?
I remember once asking someone quite high-up in the art education sector how they identified future artists, and how they channeled them after identifying them. He seemed quite bemused that I should even imagine that they did that. I was told “That is not our job. Not our role” “Whose is it I asked?” “Not ours!” was the reply. O.K! So then whose is it? We have to ask the question, whose job is it to identify our future master artists. Is it the parents’ duty to identify artistic talent? I rather doubt that is the solution, as every parent believes that little Johnny or Mary are God’s gift to the art world and most suffer from extreme bias towards their progeny.
It will be too late by the time they get to art school. So the sad fact is that it is no-one’s responsibility. It must follow then that most or all of our potential art prodigies are slipping through the much damaged net. Does it matter though? Who cares? We should care! As is the case with numerous animal species becoming extinct, it may seem to be of little consequence when our primary role is to make money and own the latest available cars, fashionable clothes and furniture, as well as technological gizmos. The time will come when our descendants are going to curse the very ground we walk on. Again who cares? We will not be there to hear their cries. Are we really that ignorant and uncaring? I certainly hope not.
Somehow as a species we seem to have many rather myopic tendencies. Some time back I was talking to my son who designs cars, about a future without petrol and oil for our cars. His response was that we can find other ways of propelling our vehicles but what about all the other essentials we derive from oil, some of those being waxes, pharmaceuticals and plastics –that includes commercial paint and some of the pigments and dyes used in the paint industry. Things that we as artists use too. What Ryan said stuck in my mind and I tried to imagine what this world would be without these things. Imagine no plastic! Sounds great but what will replace it? I remember there were very few plastic items when I was a small boy, but since then the world population has gone out of control and it is hopelessly overpopulated now. The things we used forty years ago are no longer available, suitable or are now too expensive to use. Almost everything we have and desire is made out of plastic in one form or another, even paint and film.
Let us ignore this though. We all seem to believe someone out there somewhere will find a way out for us. But will they? So too with art and artists. The way the art market and art education is limping along now, within a few generations there will no longer be such a thing as a career in making art or professional artists. There will no longer be those who will make the kind of sacrifices necessary to make their life’s work perpetuating art. With them too will go secrets and skills that you can only learn by years of commitment to a single profession?
What I have described above may be part of the problem and if so what is/are the rest of the problem or problems, and what is the solution or solutions?
ARE CURRENT ART INSTITUTIONS AND SOCIETIES THE SOLUTION?
Let us assume that if the public and education were more accepting of people becoming artists as a preferred choice, and if there was some kind of mechanism for screening and channeling these individuals, what would become of them once they arrived at the Academic Art Schools?
As things stand now as a student, you either buy into the ethos and rules of the art institution available, or you pack your bags and go. Normally that would be fair enough but not when there aren’t any real alternatives to the current system. You cannot enroll at the school of your choice and tell them that your passion in life is to become a portrait painter. If you did that you would be received as if you’d walked in with a dog turd stuck to your shoe. You will be told that that notion is ridiculous, and that they are there to open your mind. Then they would IMPOSE on you what THEY believe art is, or should be, and trash whatever you believe is the art-form you’d prefer to pursue. They would immediately squash your passion to be the greatest portrait painter ever, and impose something in its place which would at best only allow you to do making art on a part time basis. You would however still be allowed to call yourself a ‘professional artist’ and in fact you can even take a six-week course in ‘professional art practice’ moderated by someone who has not the faintest clue as to what being a professional artist is all about or what the essential requirements are to survive in that profession. You will be instructed by someone who has never earned their keep by being a professional artist and who has possibly been trained by other non-selling “artists”. The graduates then walk away with the notion that by attending and participating in the course that they emerge at the other end as a ‘Professional Artist’ Just like that…easy!
Is there any surprise then that no-one takes art and artists seriously any longer?
A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
I honestly and passionately believe that what is required is an ALTERNATIVE form of art school or colleges that work closely with secondary schools. As with sport now, the schools identify young talent and then train and channel those who have the skills and are passionate about their chosen careers, to dedicated colleges where they can maximise their talent and hone the required skills, and become the best sportsman possible. Why should this not be done for our art and artists? This rather than to spend time and money on something they do not want or may never have any need of, or use, other than as an academic or administrator.
I am not for one moment advocating that these alternative colleges replace the traditional art school but would give so many people a choice. In fact if we had such an alternative college it would not be at all adventurous to hazard a guess as to which would be favoured by many aspiring career artists. There would also be no surprises at who would veto this suggestion.
Besides making art and preparing students for a career in making art, these alternative art colleges could offer courses such as gallery ownership and curatorship, as well as art writing and journalism. There could be marketing and accountancy for artists too as well as part time and top-up courses for those requiring them.
A course for galleries and the marketing of art I believe is essential. It is no secret that even rudimentary knowledge of art is so low amongst gallerists in this country that it is in only a few of these establishments that one can have even a moderately intelligent conversation on the topic of art and artists.
Art writing also has hit an all-time low with very few newspapers and magazines allotting any real space for matters art. They certainly are loath to pay money for arts related articles, and when they do include them they are of such low quality and misinformation they are often unreadable. Then at the other end of the scale many of the articles written are so couched in art-speak that they are unintelligible to many of the artists that try to read them. How the public are expected to read and understand these things is a perplexing question. One can only wonder who the audience is these writers are targeting. When they are read by only a handful who can understand their articles, they then howl their indignation to the skies because of poor response. This of course calls for workshops and symposiums to get to the bottom of the problem. Surely it’s obvious?
Just a week or so ago a major art-writer’s conference was held in Johannesburg, and many questions were asked and submissions made. One of these submissions asked ‘if art writing was still relevant, and were the readers at all interested, or could they in fact understand what was currently being written’. Is this possibly one of the reasons for art and artists not to be taken seriously? Is it that the media that once informed and educated the public and potential art audiences have now lost the plot, and are writing no more than little self-indulgent essays to themselves and a few groupies, that no longer fulfil the original requirements?
It is almost a chicken and egg situation. Does the problem start at school or is it more to do with reporting and publicising art? It is probably all of the things mentioned.
It does seem strange that something so connected with the very fabric of society is so totally ignored and in itself is so ignorant of its own social needs and requirements.
We are also being ignored by the electronic media. In all the millions of rubbishy programs aired by DSTV and SABC there is not one channel that even remotely covers art –not even art in its entirety. Not locally and not nationally. To me this has to be a serious sickness. One that is not even being recognised by the media itself, not by education, and not by the government. It could be that it is not understood by the visual arts community.
In a recent survey ordered and published by the Department of Arts and Culture, it was stated that the arts generates R2 billion rand per annum as well as R1 billion rand in peripheral arts spin-offs. 17,000 jobs were created. Not bad, but this could very easily be more than doubled if it was taken seriously. Yet we are ignored? How very macabre. How very weird. How very sick!
There is little doubt that we have become a nation who in the main embraces mediocrity. Look at just about everything we do (Except perhaps soccer and even maybe even that too) Our T.V. The state of our cities. Our roads. Our integrity. Our choices. Our education (we no longer read books or want to learn). Our art! We only want instant gratification. Many of us only want quick, easy and non-thought provoking literature, films, music and art. Thinking or learning is not cool. Being mediocre is REALLY cool it seems. Sadly it is not the kids alone; the parents equally fall into this niche. We too are not alone; it seems this is a world-wide phenomenon.
Do we really want to it to be this way? I wonder?
Perhaps it is time there was a referendum on this subject. Do the people of South Africa or the world want to be mediocre? Would people like alternatives? Would our kids and even adults like to learn more and be better at the choices they make? Do we want an alternative type of Art College and do we want art taken seriously? I cannot speak for you but I definitely without any doubt know what my choice would be.
Till next time….
Written: July 2011