Perennial Questions

When you have worked in a studio and been involved with the visual arts and have written about it for many years you will find that there are certain questions that never go away. They are perennial. They keep coming up.


Among those are things like “After a lifetime of work why are so many artists poor?”  Why is there this perception that artists must ‘starve in a garret’ and why do so many people (and this includes some galleries) believe  that artists can live off air and do not have to feed families, pay taxes and school fees etc.


Other such recurring posers are “What is art?” “What is a professional artist?” “Is an art teacher a professional artist or professional teacher?” and “Who has the authority to call themselves an artist?” These are things that have been asked consistently and are difficult to answer, and when they are answered the suggestions are not heeded or are just ignored, particularly when the answers and suggestions are contrary to platitudes.


The last question above led me to thinking about a fairly new phenomenon and that is about visual artists and Facebook.


In many ways the internet and Facebook are the answer to many artists’ prayers. Here is a vehicle which can propel an unknown painter or sculptor into the homes of thousands or millions of people all around the globe in the wink of an eye. What a miracle! What a magical tool to inform and educate! The question one has to ask though, is this what it is being used for? In most cases the answer has to be a resounding NO!


It is essentially being used as a tool for casual social communication, and this is fine and I understand that this is most likely what it was created for. Still, would it not be wonderful if in the first place it was used as a tool for teaching and learning and gathering essential information?


It certainly has been embraced as a self-promotional tool and here all sorts of incongruences appear. This being that people (and in this case artists), seem to seek and find a somewhat distorted self-image of themselves and of their work. This phenomenon is now known as the IKEA effect. IKEA being a Scandinavian company that sells knock-down furniture which the purchaser plays a small participatory roll by assembling the said piece of furniture. It seems many people find they get a boost to their self-image and a kind of high by ‘making’ these items. In truth they have very little to do with making the pieces but none-the-less it gives them a kind of artificial sense of elevated self-worth.


How can this be compared to artists posting their paintings on Facebook? Well just this, that so many artists/painters post their work to Facebook with the sole intention of getting a response, (ego stroking) and it seems that by the nature of Facebook friends this response is almost, or in fact always positive. In fact I have only twice ever seen a negative response to a painting, and in one the artist had asked people to give an ‘honest’ opinion.. and they did…which seemed almost out of character. In the first incident an artist had posted a painting which had a great number of technical faults and one of ‘the Facebook friends’ pointed these out ( I would have imagined that getting honest feedback  would be the main reason for posting a picture but evidently not). I would have thought others would have commented on the painting both positive and negative, but no.  There was not word said, not about the painting or the obviously unwanted assessment nor anything about the assessor. The painting soon disappeared and no more was said. This event was extremely unusual. In almost every case the painting or paintings would be posted and immediately the praise-singers would come out in force. The extreme talents and ‘blessings’ of the ‘postee’ would then be emblazoned down the page – one ‘friend’ trying to outdo the previous one. Obviously this leaves the artist on an extreme high and so they immediately post more of the same, generally with the same outcome. The Ikea effect is that very often the artist posting the work is getting a false sense of their ability.


What I also find interesting is that more often than not religion is somehow brought into the equation, and rather than the artist being praised for years (at least 10,000 hours according to Malcolm Gladwell) of tireless striving for perfection (and if that is in fact the case) their success and talent (and never the lack of it) is attributed to another power. In over forty years of being in the visual arts I have never yet come across a single artist that was born with the talents that made them great. They no doubt had great interest in their chosen subject and definitely inherited raw (or God-given talent) but then to achieve any kind of greatness it took total commitment, dedication and many years of hard slog.


It does not matter in what field one excels the requirement is always the same. That is a definite objective, years of study, hard work and more than a bit of luck. Art is no different.


I have no problem with people showing off their cleverness or being praised for their efforts. It does worry me a bit though when very average works are hailed as the benchmark or norm, or people who have put in very little effort are hailed as great masters.


I never knew there was a name for this till I read about the ‘Ikea effect’ and became quite excited when I saw that Robert Genn had also written about it in one of his articles, and here this effect had been  staring me in the face on Facebook. I just had to write about it.


What I also find rather interesting is how seldom the great masters of this time post their work onto  this facility – If they did we could draw our own conclusions about what is good and what is average or even bad, but they seldom do and why would this be? It is a pity that they do not. Could it be that they are confident in what they do and do not need the Hallelujah Chorus. Perhaps they have just not thought of posting their work on Facebook, or does it perhaps embarrass them. Why would that be?


I do not have the answers to these questions but do often think about them. I am a naturally curious person and do not think this is a bad thing as Albert Einstein said that part of his success was due to his curious nature.  If it’s good enough for Albert it’s good enough for me. I feel though that I do not have the need for people to pour praise on me to function although like everyone it’s is nice to receive a compliment from time to time. We are all different and have our particular needs, but should there be a balance?


If you the reader have answers to these questions or any of your own thoughts relating to this article and its contents and the IKEA phenomenon, perhaps you’d like to post them to the South African Artist magazine Webpage.


Written: March / April 2013