Tag archive for » creativity «

Oh, I See What You Did There

Monday, 29. October 2018 0:39

Earlier this week, I watched the last episode of the third season of The Man in the High Castle. Immediately I thought of what a good job they did setting up Season 4, which will undoubtedly begin with explanations of some of the questions raised by this episode. A bit later I realized that the writers and showrunners had also set up an ending that could also serve as an ending of the series if that should be the way the winds blew at Amazon Studios. Somehow these artists had managed to wrap up Season 3 with an all-purpose ending, which only speaks to their level of skill and artistry.

Much the same sort of thing could be said about the very last episode of The Americans, which I watched earlier this year. While the episode was decidedly the end of the series and nearly a perfect ending at that, there were enough questions left unanswered that could be developed into at least three spin-offs. Again, the artistry and skill levels were of the highest.

Then I began to wonder how these shows impacted their intended audiences. What I mean is that I, like all artists trained in the US, and unlike the intended audience for these television shows, have spent hours analyzing works of art. It’s something I teach my students to do. We dissect plays to see how they work, how the characters are constructed, how the plot is put together, why the ending works—or doesn’t.

As far as I know, other arts do the same. Visual artists analyze the work of older artists to determine exactly what it is that causes them to be great. Musicians learn much the same thing—how the structure of a musical piece works, how the melody resolves itself to lead to listener satisfaction. Photographers certainly do it, eager to determine the lighting and composition plans, determined to understand why a photograph works on the emotional level that it does. We want to know not only what the artist did but how s/he achieved whatever it was that s/he achieved.

And then it becomes habit. We cannot experience a work of art without analyzing. And this is particularly true if the work is not of the highest quality. Even the smallest interruption to engagement causes those of us who are trained to start wondering why we are disengaged, and from that point on we shift into full analysis mode. The outstanding production values and quality of acting in the two television shows mentioned allowed me to hold my analysis until those episodes were over. Otherwise, I would have begun evaluation while the show was going on, further distancing myself from the work.

The point of this, you ask? The point is the acknowledgement that we will never view art in the same way as our audience, who, for the most part, are not trained to analyze and evaluate art the same way we are. Absent training in appreciation, analysis et al, they are likely to see something far different from what we see. Knowing this, we must be very careful in evaluating our own work and establishing the criteria we use to judge what pieces we put before an audience.

Because we know what we did and how we did it, we must return to the piece again and again with new eyes, delaying analysis so we can see what the audience is likely to see thereby to better judge the audience’s reaction. Then we can use that information to make our work even better.

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Ambiguity in Art, Part 2*

Monday, 15. October 2018 1:12

In his book, Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that at the end of the silent era, successful American movies followed six rules, one of which was that movies should be comprehensible and unambiguous. But times change. Now we have sound, and color, and more than a handful of ambiguous movie endings. And if you look at any of the lists, you will discover that these are very well-known and respected movies. Things seem to have changed.

And this change is not just a recent phenomenon. Many critics consider the ending of Casablanca to be at least a little ambiguous. Going even farther back, the enigmatic and ambiguous smile in the 515-year–old Mona Lisa still intrigues scholars and critics today. As a matter of fact, the more we look, the more ambiguity we find in art. For example, most of the paintings of Edward Hopper and Jack Vettriano rely on ambiguity, as do the sculptures of John Chamberlain. Sally Mann’s photography can be ambiguous, and so can the work of Edward Albee and Sam Shepherd. The lyrics and poems of Leonard Cohen can be filled with ambiguity.

So while ambiguity exists in much art and has for centuries, it certainly isn’t found in all art, probably not in a majority of art. My guess would be that ambiguity would found in only a small minority of art works. (Look at how few movies endings are marked as “ambiguous.”) One can speculate that there are two reasons for this: (1) the majority of audience members still expect art to follow Robert Henry Stanley’s rule and be “comprehensible and unambiguous.” Things are easier that way: the audience members know exactly what the artist means and often express their appreciation with their pocketbooks.

(2) The other reason that ambiguity is found in a minority of art works is that ambiguity is difficult to do and must be controlled. If the artist is not careful, ambiguity can easily slip into vagueness and confusion, which is not at all appealing. So ambiguity in art must be handled delicately so that just enough comes through to the audience members to make them think and talk about the work, but not so much that the work becomes obscure.

Am I suggesting that we find a way to introduce ambiguity into our art (if it isn’t already there)? I think that depends on the artist’s goals. If the artist is interested in selling as many pieces as possible or making a very strong statement, perhaps not. Americans seem to spend more for art that is unambiguous. Clint Eastwood’s movies are not ambiguous. Banksy is not ambiguous, nor is Neil Simon. These artists are very direct and do very good work. They have been rewarded by their audiences.

If, on the other hand, the artist wants to let the audience member participate a little more, s/he might be less direct, perhaps leave things in the gray rather than black and white by introducing some controlled ambiguity. It may not make the work better, but it will make it start different sorts of conversations and appeal to a different audience, albeit a minority.

So it comes down to how the artist wants his/her work perceived and to which audience s/he want to appeal. And while I am a fan of ambiguity in art, I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t work for all sorts of art or in all situations. So I think the artist must take into consideration the sort of art he is making and the audience for whom s/he is making it.

 

*”Part 1” was entitled “Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art” and can be found here.

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Maybe It’s Not All About Process

Monday, 24. September 2018 0:58

“It’s all about the process.” We hear that over and over again when we ask artists about process and product. When artists talk to each other, it’s all about the process. Want to discuss creativity? Plan to talk about process. It’s almost as if the product is forgotten when we talk about art and creativity. I have written about it before (here, here, here, and here, for example). And if we are involved in teaching any of the arts, what we teach is process—how to develop it, how to solidify it, how to refine it. It’s almost as if all art is about is process.

This, however, is not the case. The audience could care less about the process. What the audience is interested in is the product, the artifact. Here I must acknowledge that some art processes do not produce artifacts, but these are limited to live performing arts, and while they do not produce physical artifacts, there is a sort of product in the performance experience—that which the audience will (hopefully) talk about when the production is over.

The audience cares only that the product of whatever our processes might be speaks to them, that the artifact somehow enhances their existence. What they do not care about is what we went through to make the product happen, to produce the artifact they can see and touch and appreciate.

Arts marketers might disagree and say that the story of the process is of great interests to potential buyers and will often help make a sale. That is only partially true. What really makes a sale of an artifact is a story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is about the creative process, or about how the artist came to write, sculpt, paint, photograph the subject and produce the artifact in question. And it doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not. The fact is that some kind of story about the artifact came to be is a very useful sales tool because it provides more insight into the work and somehow connects the artist and the audience member and personalizes the work for the potential collector, thus improving sales potential.

This is certainly not to say that process is unimportant. Rather it is to force us to look at process from a different point of view, that of the audience. If we do that we find that there is far less interest in process and far more interest in artifact. This might lead us to think differently about our approach to the work. From that altered viewpoint, it is clear that process is simply a means to realizing the artifact, and perhaps can be completely invisible to the audience. Looking at the process/product dichotomy in this fashion helps us realize that process is nothing more than the methodology we use to create the product, and, as such, might deserve less emphasis in our minds than the artifact.

My point is that while it seems that “it’s all about the process,” perhaps it shouldn’t be. Certainly the process is enjoyable, absorbing, and even addictive, but it is, after all, just a creative methodology. Without the target of a product, an artifact, process is pointless. Perhaps it’s time that we shifted our emphasis a bit more away from process and a bit more toward product.

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Art—It’s not for the Weak

Monday, 10. September 2018 2:08

You Don’t Choose Art; It Chooses You” is the title of a post from several years ago. In it are several supporting quotes and a number of very brief case histories. All of these come to much the same thing: most artists had no choice in selecting their vocations.  For example, author Paul Auster says, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.

First, what Auster says not only applies to writers but to other artists as well. Second, the last part of his statement warrants a bit more discussion: that long hard road that the chosen have to walk for the rest of their days. (For discussion purposes, we will divide artists into three categories: “professional” artists are those who make over 50% of their income from their art. “Semi-pros” who charge for their work but make less than 50% of their income from art. “Amateurs” are people who make art but do not regularly offer it for sale.)

No matter which category an artist happens to be in, the road is long and hard. For example, Actor’s Equity Association, the union which represents stage actors, estimates that the unemployment rate for actors “hovers around 90 percent.” These are professional actors who have invested the time and money to join a union (and it’s not cheap). Statistics are much the same for those in other arts, except very few professional artist have unions to join. The fact is that while  non-union professional artists work a lot, sales are sporadic and the artist has to spend a good deal of time marketing his/her work. Income is similar to the union artist who is unemployed a good deal of the time. And for that tiny percentage who are wildly successful, who become stars in whatever areas they work, there are a whole set of other difficulties.

The semi-pro artist’s path is no less hard, just different: this artist has a day job, but would rather be making a living from art. S/he thinks it is more realistic to use the day job for primary income and probably use any income from art to purchase more art materials and tools. This is definitely a person with divided loyalties, and that creates its own special kinds of problems, the chief of which is finding enough time in the schedule to make art sufficient to enter into significant shows and offer pieces for sale.

The amateur artist shares the problem of time. Since this artist is not necessarily making art to sell, s/he still has to find the time to create his/her art. This means taking time away from the family and friends, finding enough quiet time to write or paint or sculpt, or dealing with the demands of evening rehearsals at a community, or other non-paying theatre. Just because there is no money involved doesn’t mean that the conflicts and difficulties are less significant.

Regardless of the level at which an artist works, s/he does have a long, hard road. S/he has a life of erratic artistic income (if any) as well as an ongoing gluttonous need for materials, time, and energy, all coupled with an obsession for creation. Once art chooses a person, and that person accepts the choice, his/her life becomes tough—because art is hard. Most artists, however, wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Blocked? Make the Problem the Subject

Monday, 13. August 2018 1:53

Blogging and making art are not the same, but they are similar. The core procedures are nearly identical. The artist/blogger has ideas; s/he has to translate those ideas into some communicable form and send it into the world. Sometimes the artist/blogger has a notion as to whether the product is good or not; sometimes s/he doesn’t. The problem is, of course, that the artist/blogger has no idea what the audience is going to see in the product or say about what they see.

When everything is working properly, the artist and blogger have similar processes. S/he gets an idea, develops that idea, communicates the idea, edits the communication, and moves on to the next project. Regardless of how the audience might or might not respond, there is a feeling of accomplishment, of closure that makes moving forward easier.

And when everything is not working properly, the problems are similar. Creative block preys on both the artist and the blogger. There are just times when the painter has no idea what to paint, when no new ideas come to the choreographer, when the playwright stares past the screen, not knowing where the plot is going. The same holds true for bloggers; ideas don’t come, and for most bloggers the problem is exacerbated by deadlines, since bloggers often work on a schedule.

A problem comparable to creative block is the problem of too many ideas at once. Ideas come to the artist/blogger quickly and s/he has no opportunity to develop one fully before another arises and fights for attention. The net result is that no idea gets full development and the artist/blogger feels that s/he is running in circles. And there is no product.

What to do?  There are literally thousands of articles dealing with creative block and how to overcome it. So the how is fairly well documented; all the artist or the blogger needs to do is pick one or more of those methods which s/he thinks will work for him/her.

Dealing with too many ideas or the inability to fully develop ideas is more complex. The first step is to record the ideas as they appear, lest some of them get away. Just because they are recorded does not mean that the artist/blogger has to use them, but it does preserve them. And the act of recording can sometimes suggest a pattern of development or a reason to hold off developing that particular idea at this particular time. After that, it becomes a matter of scanning the recorded ideas to see what engages.

If that doesn’t work, the artist/blogger can always doodle or outline or sketch or involve him/herself in whatever form preliminary development takes. Sometimes that can get the mind working and development can proceed.

And if that doesn’t work, the artist/blogger can always make the project about the problem. Thus we have movies, plays, even musicals about creative block, for example Barton Fink, , and Nine. We have blogs such as this. The problem becomes the subject matter of the piece. It may not be the best solution, but it does break the cycle and allow the artist/blogger to actually create something, to produce, and to move on to the next project.

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Standard Sizes

Sunday, 1. July 2018 23:12

In case you haven’t noticed, the internet is rife with advice for artists. For instance, a Google search yields 71.5 million articles. Some of the articles are nothing more than common sense; others border on the surprising. Some seem useful and others no so much. Occasionally, I will read advice articles, particularly if they have something to do with theatre or photography. One can never have too many insights.

Recently, I ran across one that was purported to be necessary tips for photographers. There was one on this particular list that I had not run across before, so it stuck out: “Make standard size images.” It’s very practical advice, particularly if the photographer is doing commercial work. Off-site printers usually price by standard sizes. In-house printing benefits from standard sizes in that (a) those are the sizes in which paper comes, and (b) printing to those sizes eliminates time-consuming trimming. Image-processing software facilitates cropping to standard sizes. Even mats come precut to standard sizes, as do frames. Printing standard sizes makes everything cheaper and easier.

Standard sizes do, however, introduce a restriction into the creative process. Some artists welcome restrictions and boundaries because they have been shown to enhance the creative process. Some photographers take this into account in their workflow. For example, there are photographers who know when they take the picture what formats the prints will be. Indeed, a number of photographers shoot with specific formats in mind for a series they are developing. Some photographers intend to use 100% of the negative or capture in the print.

My experience, however, has been that no matter how much planning goes into a shoot, there will always be images that cry out for cropping, and that, once done, actually “makes” the image. Conscientious cropping can establish the organic boundaries that allow the image to be all that it can be; such boundaries have little to do with standard formats.

And if the boundaries are organic the image will naturally look better. Why? Because the edges are part of the picture. Where the photographer draws the boundaries defines the image. The distance of elements in the picture from an edge contributes to the composition, modifying the image’s impact, and probably its meaning.

So it turns out that perfect cropping often results in a nonstandard-size print. Sometimes it’s off by a little; sometimes a lot. But it almost certainly will be off. Then the photographer has to decide whether or how to massage this perfectly-cropped image into a standard size. If the photographer decides on standardizing the size, the question becomes how much of a compromise is s/he is willing to make.

One photographer I know has five different scalable “standard sizes,” four of which are based on height-width ratios. The last is a variable size for long, skinny pieces. The rationale is that given that many “standard” possibilities, one would come close enough to the perfect crop that any compromise would be minimal. He says, however, that even with all those choices, he still occasionally has a crop that just won’t work with any of his standard sizes. What does he do? He prints a custom size.

There are circumstances which dictate that standard sizes are the proper choice. My vote, however goes to the photographer mentioned above. Art is not meant to be fitted into standard-size boxes. Think about novelists or poets or composers or choreographers or directors having their work confined to “standard sizes.”

Selecting an artistic form is far more complex than selecting which standard-size box it fits in. One of the goals in creating is, I think, to allow the artifact to reach its full potential. And whatever size that turns out to be is, by definition, the perfect size for the piece, whether it is standard or not. This is true not only for photography, but for all the arts.

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Trust Your Gut

Monday, 4. June 2018 0:15

Photographers spend hours deciding which prints are worth showing and which prints are not. Likewise, artists in all genres try to decide whether this choice or that choice will work the best. Countless hours are devoted to making these decisions. Several artists I know actually agonize over the choices they have to make.

Many thinkers would tell those of us who are fretting and worrying over artistic choices that we are wasting our time. We already know the right choices; we are just hesitant to act on them, and have to go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to come to the same conclusion that we had the first time we looked at the images.

Theories abound about how we are able to make choices so quickly. For example, Author Malcolm Gladwell says that we decide things in an instant through a process that he calls “thin-slicing,” or making a decision based on instantaneously gathered information.  His book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, provides numerous examples and explanation of the process of making snap decisions—that usually turn out to be valid.

Osho, in his book Intuition: Knowing beyond Logic, says that both instinct and intuition work without consciousness or intellect and tell us things that are true without any thought or reasoning.

And now there is scientific evidence that shows that we actually do have a “second brain” in our gut that not only controls digestion but influences our mood and well-being. It’s called the enteric nervous system (ENS) and “goes far beyond just processing the food we eat.” There are evidently significant links between the ENS and the brain.

Even the old folk advice to trust our gut instincts has been proven true. Whether it comes from the “second brain” in the physical gut or the subconscious, the first decision or choice is usually the right one.

The problem then is not in knowing the correct choice; evidently that comes instinctively—regardless of which school of thought we follow. The problem is in accepting that that instinctive choice as valid. It happens too fast. How could we possibly trust it? Is it really the gut or the subconscious or some other mental skill?

Exactly how it happens doesn’t matter. Our body/brain tells us the correct choices—almost instantaneously, and we, for the most part, ignore them. We insist on examining the product for balance, unity, and any other principle we can think of; we apply analysis and logic in extended internal dialogs—when the correct answer has been in our heads from the very beginning.

The problem is that we don’t trust our own instincts. Instead of accepting the answer that came to mind immediately, we argue and apply artistic principles and find rationales and play all sorts of intellectual games rather than accept the answer that we knew all along—the answer we got instinctively, simply by looking at the work.

We waste a lot of time in needlessly justifying our choices. Just think of how much time and aggravation we could save if only we would recognize that our instincts are indeed valid. We need to trust our guts.

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“That Works” Is Insufficient

Monday, 23. April 2018 0:34

Years ago, if memory serves, Jack Lemmon on Inside the Actors Studio expressed an intense dislike for the phrase, “that works.” He did not explain. At the time, I thought it was a curious comment since it’s a phrase that is heard constantly in artistic endeavors. It is applied to not only acting, but also to painting, composition, sculpture, directing, photography, and many other art genres. What could be wrong with that phrase? It indicates when things “click,” when they mesh, when parts come together and make a whole. Generally, the phrase is used to indicate acceptability or success.

In the last post I discussed John Chamberlain’s 1982 artist statement, wherein he says that his artistic decision-making has to do with “primarily sexual and intuitive thinking.”  Chamberlain initially seems to equate intuitive thinking or intuition with editing ability: “I’ve done pieces, for example, on which were piled as many as 40 to 50 parts, but none was totally interlocked, or welded. That is the sexual fit. Intuition, however, may have made me remove some, or many, of the parts.”

But for Chamberlain intuition is more than just editing; he goes on to say, “Intuition will indicate when something is not acceptable, even though it might work. That it works is not necessarily enough. It can be acceptable, but something more is needed. The fine line is that it is either junk, or art materials, or, it is a piece of work. “

So for Chamberlain, and I expect for Lemmon, “that works” is insufficient. It is that something beyond acceptability which makes a piece into a work of art instead of being just materials, or in some cases junk. The problem is that we have no name for that something. It is certainly not perfection. Hardly anyone who is a serious artist expects perfection. If not perfection, then what?

How about excellence? “That works” does imply success or acceptability. However, excellence goes beyond mere success or acceptability. Excellence means “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” So Chamberlain, and one assumes Lemmon, expected to produce work that was not acceptable, but work that was excellent. That’s a pretty high bar.

And it’s a bar that is being met only part of the time by a portion of artists. If you attend any art show or theatre performance you may see work that is excellent, but you are very likely to see work that is just acceptable. The reasons, I think, are many: a de-emphasis on excellence in artist training, the pressure to put work out in order to be seen and known, the emphasis on showing rather than on working. Chamberlain resisted the impulse to produce work quickly, or at least so he says: “If I were zippy and worked hard all the time, what I’d create would be of little value; I’d make too many mistakes.”

Perhaps we should adopt Chamberlain’s attitude and resist the impulse to “get the work out.” If producing is our goal, we are more likely to create work that is merely acceptable, about which we can say only “that works.” Perhaps instead we should take a little more time and a little more care and refuse to settle for work that is less than excellent.

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Do Your Chores

Monday, 26. March 2018 1:14

Last week a commencement address by Admiral William H. McRaven appeared on my Facebook feed. The sound was off but I did watch the closed captions for a few moments. McRaven suggested that we should begin every day by making our beds. His reasons were many and included accomplishing the first task of the day which sets us up to accomplish even more during the day; he also talked about the feeling of satisfaction when you come back to the made bed at the end of the day.

Some of what McRaven had to say resonated with me; I am a bed-maker, but not necessarily for the same reasons. I have not always been a bed-maker; it is something I evolved into. And certainly I would cast no disrespect on those who are not bed-makers; in fact, some of my best friends are not bed-makers. They just don’t see the importance of it.

For me, it’s just one of the many chores I do during the week. It goes along with vacuuming, and cleaning the kitchen and working in the yard and all those mindless tasks that one does during to week to “keep things up.” Those chores have value, and not just the value of “accomplishing a task” or making the environment a little neater. The value is in the mindlessness of these tasks.

It’s essentially down time, a time when the mind can run free, a time when creativity can happen. Like many who work in the arts, down time is when ideas appear. It’s a time when the conscious mind is occupied on the—usually manual—task at hand; occupied, but not very deeply. It’s a perfect time for the subconscious to whisper ideas and suggestions to that consciousness. The things that get whispered might be solutions to ongoing creative conundrums, or “brand new” ideas, or new approaches to older problems.

And those of us who make no room for down time are likely to find ourselves burned out. Down time is necessary. Every artist needs some down time, usually every day.

Some artists have found a variety of ways to create down time. For example, some artists walk; this is true of Wallace Stevens, Thoreau, Ingmar Bergman, Austin Kleon, just to mention a few. Some artists get their ideas from dreams. Some meditate. Others find that the shower it the place where ideas can be found. The list could go on, but what all of these things have in common is that the artist is occupied doing something, usually physical, and the artist is not actively creating or developing ideas. Given the importance of downtime, many artists try to make such time a part of their daily routine.

But some of us have very little time in our schedules for meditation or walking. But how can we possibly work that into our schedules? Well, there are also showers and dreams, but dreams have proven unreliable and showers don’t work for everyone.

There is yet one other solution: we can do our chores. This (usually) makes our environment just a little more pleasant, and at the same time provides time for our creative minds to idle and listen to what’s going on subconsciously. And if new ideas don’t come every time, we will at least have given our creative minds a little rest, which can only make our work better.

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We’re All Commercial Artists

Monday, 12. February 2018 2:31

In his review of Phillip Boehm’s Alma en venta (Soul on Sale), D. L. Groover proclaims, “I guess Arcadio [the protagonist] never heard of a professional artist. Isn’t that their calling? You paint and people buy. Van Gogh wanted to sell his work, Rembrandt wanted to sell, Picasso wanted to sell. I don’t think they were troubled by their soul being appropriated.” All artists want to sell what they do.

The commercial nature of the practice of making art is not readily apparent. Most of us got into the arts world because it satisfied some need. We did not think about bringing in money when we first picked up a pencil or a paintbrush or a camera or a hammer and chisel. We talk about process and creation; we talk about technique; occasionally we talk about artifact. But we don’t talk about selling.

Except for those of us who choose to study “commercial art,” a specialized field which freely admits that talents and skills can be used to make bespoke art in exchange for money. Other arts that freely admit that a box office is part of the equation are theatre and film, but even then there is the division between art that sells well and readily (musical theatre and adventure films) and “serious art,” which sells far less well and for which there “should” be an audience, but sometimes isn’t. It’s still all about selling.

The only difference is whether an artist is tailoring his/her product [artifact] to a specific audience or whether s/he is making it for other reasons and tailoring it only to artistic and aesthetic needs, hoping that someone will like it enough to pay money for it. The second type of artist would say that the first type is commercial and pandering; the first type would say that the second type is being snobbish and unrealistic. No matter what you call it, the bottom line is that ultimately it’s still all about selling.

And there are, of course, artists who take positions all along the line from one of the above extremes to the other. Some artists take the “fine arts” approach and enter show after show, trying to gain recognition, increase their exposure, find their tribe, and ultimately sell, whether it be to individual or institutional collectors. Some show their work in online arts communities. Some narrow their work to specific niches, trying to find an audience. Some broaden their subject matter, trying for the same thing.

Other artists take a more direct commercial approach. They shift their focus from “fine art” to commodity art, creating wearable art which is often shown and sold at street festivals. Some make their work available in prints, posters and household decorative pieces sold directly to consumers through internet storefronts. Some hang out shingles and do wedding photography or commissioned work. The goal is the same: sell.

We all make art for different reasons, and we all have something to say with our art. And regardless of how significant or trivial our message, we all want our art to communicate, to be accepted, and ultimately to sell. We take many different paths, and money may not be the most important outcome, but it surely is one of the outcomes we seek—either directly or indirectly. At the bottom of it we’re really all commercial artists.

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