By Bernard Poulin
As visual art practitioners, we are often asked (or ask ourselves) whether we are successful or not. But then, of what success do we speak?
If success in the visual arts is creating, i.e.: “making”... then, with or without the status of “artist”, most of us can claim to be successful. If, as the marketplace implies, success is in the selling... then most of us are not.
Creative success is in the process, in the making of things, the manufacturing (in the purest sense) of objects whose goal it is to eventually stand on their own. But, ironically, that type of success needs no branding of ourselves, no marketing of how grand "we" are - unless that is the goal: i.e.: to be seen to be an artist rather than to free our work to speak for itself.
In essence, it is only in the marketplace parameter of things (in the arena of buying and selling) that this other success: i.e.: “the financial one, with all of its gizmos”, exists. And despite any personal opinions, the end product of selling becomes not so much the thing made but rather the $, Yen, Euro, Rupee gained - through "ridding ourselves" of a product.
That being said, I am not implying that achievement in the market arena (i.e.: earning a living), is a "bad thing". I do it daily. I am simply stating that "success" in this realm does not give it a status, or higher calling, as the root essence of creative success. Though selling a product plays a role in feeding one's belly and paying the rent... professional recognition (fame?), achieved at this end of the "success" spectrum, remains ephemeral.
That being said, selling means knowing one's buyer demographic...
Artworks, as end products in the life of a professional visual artist, are “out there” to get bought and sold. So who's out there to buy? The variety of purchasers interested in the visual arts is as “coloured” as the artworks being offered. But basically, they fall into 3 categories. The standard consumer is the first of these. He or she buys artwork in safe colours and safe subject matter and, oftentimes, depicts skillfully copied imagery of anything which evokes nostalgia, romanticism, whimsy, or decor, i.e.: anything which makes a living room or bedroom colour scheme pop.
Collectors are those who prefer greater depth and wonder in their artwork acquisitions. Their need may be the purchase of one artwork only, or they may want many more over time. But their main goal is the same: to be "awed" rather than consider everything "awesome".
Finally, there are those whose primary concern is collecting for investment. Investors purchase what is expensive or may be considered to, "one day" be of "value". This breed of buyers is more closely associated with the concept of marketing since its interest is in brand recognition - i.e.: in the artist's name more than in the creativity aspect of an output that may or may not have art residing within it. In this case, the artwork itself is not so much the focus as it is the commodity of it, the bartering chip aspect of it - the financial investment "thing" in a "transaction".
Artwork, purchased in the first and last categories described, more easily fits into marketing concept expectations and $ prognostications. Its existence in this forum has a rather less than an esoteric reason for being there. It’s simple: 1) be available for sale, 2) get noticed through promotion, and 3) get bought. In essence, at its most essential beingness in our times, artwork is a commodity, an available object like any other product.
Artwork? Art? What’s the difference?
In our times, the word, the moniker, the definition of “art” is often bandied about as being anything that any Tom, Dick or Harriet, calling themselves an artist, creates. From the onset, this supposition is false. Though artwork is a product. "Art" is definitely not. It’s not even a thing. It cannot be bartered, bought or sold. In fact, art belongs to everyone - gratis.
Uhm....... explain, please!
For all intents and purposes, art is like a story "living within" a book - the artwork being the book cover and the art being the content. On its own, art mysteriously emerges from artwork to connect with whoever is sensitive enough to “feel” its existence. Essentially, all we have to do, metaphorically, is to open the “book” and visit the “pages”. Art is what speaks to us from within a painting, a sculpture, a dance, or a song. It is, in fact, the mystery, the enigma, the wonder we discover in a piece. Its purpose in life is simple - to reach out, touch, and move us.
Does art reside in all artworks?
In a visual-art sense, art is born of the capacity of an individual (a creative person) to invent an environment (an artwork) that skillfully, or not, describes a thought, a feeling, an experience. Each brush, pen, pencil or chisel stroke is laid down for the sole purpose of combining with many other similar "actions" to create a composition that "hits the mark". To use the book analogy once more... Basically, a good cover (artwork) is not only created to be “attractive” but it also must hint at “more”. This “more” is experienced when we (the viewer) begin to feel the mystery within, being touched by the story within. But, to answer the question... No. Not every artwork is a successful book cover design or hints at a compelling story within... Art, therefore, does not necessarily reside within all artwork.
So, how do we create "art"?
We don't. We can't. Simple as that.
Artwork creation is about a painter, a sculptor, a dancer, a writer, a composer, etc. speaking to us, and saying: "I saw this, I experienced this in my particular way of taking-in life, I felt this. AND, I thought that it just might be of interest to you. And so I created this “artwork” which would bring this "to be shared message" to you, dear viewer. What do you think?...”
Artwork creation, therefore, is simply an expressed wish to be shared, to make a connection with others. And, in that moment of sharing become discovery, just maybe art will be discovered - if it is actually there to be felt (not understood, but felt...). When artwork has the wondrous enigma of art within it, it soon makes its way to the viewer, the appreciator of it.
Since the very beginning of the creative expression, this mystery has occurred and continues to happen to this day. It is in those wondrous “things” we call masterpieces that we discover and feel, and are able to immerse ourselves in the warmest embraces of the greatest gift some of us will ever receive: the capacity to be awed.
Much like the Mona Lisa has moved millions since her features were revealed in the early 16th century, most of us still have no idea why she is so fascinating. After 400 years and more, she continues with no hiatus, to elicit still more questions than she hands out pat answers. Wondrously, she speaks to us individually rather than collectively, thus becoming "ours" for a while. And this, she does freely. She charges no fee to share with us, to tease us, to create questions in our minds about her and ourselves. Such is the make-up of art. Art is the enigma of wonder. But without this mystery in the acts of connection and sharing, it sadly fades... and when that happens, we are the less for it.
All this to say: though the physical property of her (the artwork) belongs to the Louvre and can be bought or sold for multi-millions, what she was created for: "the art of her" is this capacity to freely reach out, and this, always as a without reservation gift.
And this is the magic, the wonder of "art" - that aspect of artwork which (when it is actually there) is like the genie in Aladdin's lamp. In that story, we came to understand that though the lamp from which the genie emerges maybe just a physical object, it nonetheless has within it the capacity to "attract", to lure us in through its seeming wish to be with us. And when we react to this connection, we become one with the genie that is the "art" within that lamp.
But what of the creator of an artwork? Where do they fit in, where art is concerned?
Most of us don’t know who painted Mona Lisa anymore than whose gnarled hands built a rocking chair mysteriously sitting on the porch of an abandoned farmhouse. But that doesn’t stop us from wondering about who may have sat in her as we “feel” the breeze which still rocks that chair... At their best, artworks convey such sensuality, not logic. Their purpose is not to get us to say how great the author, the skill or even the finished product is. The reason for artworks is the promise of hopefully there being soul within this thing made - depth into which we can immerse ourselves in order to discover the greatness in the ordinariness of being alive.
At its most eloquent, the making of an artwork is in actual fact the designing of an altar - the creating of a mystical place-object which we hope will house the art we wish to share with viewers.
But... Today's obsession with marketing, selling and acquisition has taken us away from life's "knowing" that to behold something wondrous is more precious to our well-being than holding onto, possessing.... or owning something.
If this is so, the fundamentals of universal marketing are not only tainting the worth and value of our very existence, they have come to dictate its norms and those of our personal exercise of the creative gifts we have been given. Not only does marketing speak authoritatively to us, it is, in actual fact, dictatorially determining how we react, or not, to the essentials of our very being and doing. And by doing so, awe before the most wondrous of things becomes the “ubiquitous and meaningless “awesome”. Making us now, more ordinary than the extraordinary that we are
Contemporary marketing has duped us into believing that what we hold in our hands is the zenith prize; that the "possession of things" awards us the ultimate feeling of happiness as dictated by the getting, the acquiring, the accumulation, the "owning" of things as per our collective environments endless quest: to have it all.
Perhaps it's time to opt for joy - that created-from-within feeling which is not dependent upon the accumulation of objects to give us a voice and sharings worthy of awe.