Exhibit of My Art at The Guggenheim


I did this exhibit in 2010.

mjr, 2010, exhibit of ‘column 5’

I used to know another amateur photographer who was constantly emailing around “I have a gallery opening!” invitations. I’m not sure how this particular idea popped into my head, but once I had the idea, it had to happen. I was going to be in NYC to speak at a conference, so I took the easel and one of my prints along and banged this off really quickly.

Most photographers have a “big one that got away” story, and this was one of them. About 20 seconds after this was taken, as I was putting my camera back in my bag, an elderly New York Lady walked into the picture from camera left – designer handbag, high heels, pearls, gloves, two little white dogs on leashes – the whole bit, stopped and looked closely at my print, sniffed loudly, and walked on. It would have been a perfect moment and the composition was just right, but I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to get the shot.

I had another project I was toying with, which was to produce a few of my best works and set up on a blanket down in SoHo with a sign, “fine art, $5” and see if I could sell any of it. To me, selling an artwork doesn’t make me feel vindicated or better; it’s confirmation of a sort that someone else saw what I saw, and that’s about it. But: I lived through the transition-period where photography went from ‘silver gelatine baryta prints’ to ‘giclee’ (inkjet) and there was a pretty radical re-adjustment of the dynamics of supply and demand; people seemed to think that a silver print was more special because it was harder to produce (not much, once you’re geared for it) and there were occasional sniffs of derision when someone tried to charge $500 for an inkjet print instead of a silver print. My feeling is that a great deal of art is ridiculously over-priced, and I resent the artificiality of scarcity-based pricing. At the time, photographers I knew were hanging prints for sale at $500 a print and selling none – I was thinking it’d be fun to be able to report, “I did a show in SoHo over the weekend and sold half of the plates I took.”

The question, to me, is one of “victory conditions.” I think we need to be brutally honest with ourselves, as artists, and ask ourselves how we define success and then be ruthlessly honest with ourselves as to whether or not we have contradictory goals. If my goal is to “have lots of people hang my art” then I should give it away. If my goal is “make lots of money” then I should do crowd-pleasers and market myself to the most receptive market/price-point. If my goal is to “never sell out” then I should do whatever I want to do and not care about what’s popular. I believe that there are many artists whose personal power flows from their understanding exactly what it is that they want to do. Then, they do it.

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Terms like “giclee” or “silver gelatine print” make the art-work sound fancier than it is, if we just call it “photograph.” The word “pretension” literally applies: the artist is trying to pretend that their work is harder to do/more important/more significant/whatever than it is. Saying that a particular print was shown at The Guggenheim is also arguing that it’s more popular or has had better critical reception. A few years ago I got an email from someone who said that a certain wet plate I had done was exactly what they wanted for their bathroom. Unfortunately, I had already disposed of that plate, but I set up another one that was very similar (all plates are unique) and, in due course, sent it along. My victory conditions are that I am happy when other people like my stuff. I feel the same way about my soap: it makes me happy if someone says they like it.

Comments

  1. says

    Marcus:

    I believe that there are many artists whose personal power flows from their understanding exactly what it is that they want to do. Then, they do it.

    For many artists, that’s true. The Guardian had a recent feature, asking artists what the biggest question facing them was. Many of them dwelled on the age old problem, the gallery system, and how fucked up it is, and it’s even worse now, given a corporate stranglehold.

    From where I sit, all art is communication; even if that communication is from yourself to yourself. Mostly though, art is a communication which longs to speak to others, and hear back. Being unable to share your art, to speak to others, can lead to a great deal of bitterness and hurt, which is why I think the ‘net is one of the best possible things for all manner of artists, artisans, and craftspeople. People can share their work, they can sell it, and they can control how all that goes too, without having to go through the agent/lawyer/gallery system stuff.

    I’ve written enough about that, you know my views as to the art world.

  2. says

    Caine@#1:
    he Guardian had a recent feature, asking artists what the biggest question facing them was. Many of them dwelled on the age old problem, the gallery system, and how fucked up it is, and it’s even worse now, given a corporate stranglehold.

    Yes! It’s interesting that art is one area where the internet hasn’t disintermediated the forces that control the market. I suspect it’s simply because the gallery system has never been anything but trading access for reputation – they’ve had a long time to practice creating their value proposition. It mostly applies in the case where people want art from well-known artists, which is a special case to me, because those people don’t actually want the art for its own sake: they’re either insecure poseurs or they’re investors. The investors are in the position of manipulating the poseurs and vice-versa – they’re welcome to eachother as far as I am concerned!

    I’d rather have something beautiful from an unknown I stumbled across on Etsy than something ugly from someone famous (unless the famous ugly thing could be quickly flipped so I could use the money to buy something beautiful!)

    From where I sit, all art is communication; even if that communication is from yourself to yourself.

    Yes. This.

  3. kestrel says

    Love the photo.

    For me, I’ve had to try and at least make enough money that I can keep eating. I try and do what I love because I find that if I love it, generally someone else will too.

    I ran across someone who sold paintings by the square inch. An interesting approach; the point was, you had to cover your costs in materials so you could keep painting, and it stopped you from making a value judgement on the piece.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Marcus:

    If my goal is “make lots of money” then I should do crowd-pleasers and market myself to the most receptive market/price-point. If my goal is to “never sell out” then I should do whatever I want to do and not care about what’s popular. I believe that there are many artists whose personal power flows from their understanding exactly what it is that they want to do. Then, they do it

    That can be difficult when one of the goals is something as simple as “make enough to have a stable career.” I think in a lot of cases — artists, actors, musicians, athletes, chess pros, apparently doesn’t matter what — we all conspire to create a handful of superstars who make the big bucks, at the expense of thousands of people who would/could be paid reasonable amounts to do whatever it is they happen to do. (There’s certainly no shortage of people who’d do the work, in any of these cases, if that were actually the situation.) I guess the attitude is that we’ve got to have “the best” right now, so those people get all the money/fame/etc., until next month when somebody else grabs our attention and is the best — that couldn’t make sense of the history of art/music/etc. but it is how we tend to behave at least in the modern world. It’s pretty sickening to watch what some (for example) actors apparently need to do to keep their careers chugging along for more than a couple of years — understandable, but hard to watch nonetheless.

    Caine:

    From where I sit, all art is communication; even if that communication is from yourself to yourself.

    I don’t agree. It’s all something that someone made. I make sounds (and other stuff of course), and it’s just not true that it’s all communication. If it’s an artform like writing, then sure, I’m definitely communicating with that, essentially every single time I do it (now, for instance). But that isn’t generally true. You make stuff, which is thus artificial a.k.a. art, and that can just be the end of the story. It’s not a terribly fascinating story, I’ll grant you that, but that’s how it goes.

  5. Ice Swimmer says

    Art being communication is IMHO a truth it’s hard to escape from. Even Olavi Lanu, who did (among other things) sculpture out of natural materials in the forest and left it there, was communicating with someone (himself and any potential mushroom hunter or berry-picker who happened to discover his works). Of course, the message to be communicated may not be easily expressed as words (the message in visual art or music), images/sculpture (the message in writing, music) or music (writing, visual art).

  6. says

    It’s all communication but it’s similar to an “essentially contested concept” – what the sender and recipient are communicating is not necessarily agreed and understood.

    I am not sure if the term “essentially contested concept” is the right one, but it’s close. There are some things that require a sender/receiver agreement that may or may not work to a certain degree. So maybe it’s not “a communication” so much as “an attempt to communicate”

  7. says

    My feeling is that a great deal of art is ridiculously over-priced, and I resent the artificiality of scarcity-based pricing.

    Some buyers care for scarcity. They see a limited edition print as more valuable. Personally I disagree. I don’t care whether the stuff I own is unique or whether there are thousands of other identical copies. But each person is free to spend their money in whatever way they want, so it’s not my business to criticize their choices.

    Personally I’m more concerned with artists selling originals for very low prices. I see this on DeviantArt every now and then. Detailed paintings/drawings, which must have taken hours to make, are sold for such cheap prices that I assume the artist could have earned more income by cooking burgers for a fast food restaurant. On multiple occasions I have bought these paintings. It’s not that I mind getting other artists’ paintings cheaply (everybody loves buying stuff cheaply), but I do mind that whenever a lot of artists start selling their works cheaply, potential buyers get an impression that artworks must be cheap and start complaining whenever I choose to sell my artworks for a lot higher prices. I have had a lot of people contacting me asking for a commission only to decide that my prices are too expensive. Apparently they expected me to expect to earn less than uneducated burger cooks.

    By the way, the prices of my artworks depend on how many hours it took me to make them. And my hourly rate is above average salary where I live. I have put a lot of time and effort into learning to draw, so I’m not fine with minimum wage.

    I think we need to be brutally honest with ourselves, as artists, and ask ourselves how we define success and then be ruthlessly honest with ourselves as to whether or not we have contradictory goals. If my goal is to “have lots of people hang my art” then I should give it away. If my goal is “make lots of money” then I should do crowd-pleasers and market myself to the most receptive market/price-point. If my goal is to “never sell out” then I should do whatever I want to do and not care about what’s popular.

    Wanting it all is a very human thing to do. We want good salary, great career, happy family life, good relationships with family members, lots of friends, lots of free time for hobbies — and all of that simultaneously. In our misogynistic society men are expected to get everything, while woman openly talk about how one cannot have both career and babies, because there is simply too little time. So I’d say that it’s perfectly normal for an artist to want to earn lots of money while having lots of people hang their art while never selling out. We cannot stop wanting it all, so, in my opinion, the key is to decide upon priorities and make compromises. Moreover, I don’t think that what you called “contradictory goals” must be mutually exclusive. Reconciling “making as much money as possible” and “making art you yourself like” might be hard. Reconciling “making a decent living to get by” and “making art you yourself like” is pretty doable. If you want to add “have as many people as possible hang my art”, then you should give art away for free (meaning: no income). But once you reduce it to “have some people hang my art”, you can sell your works for an affordable price while still making a decent living.

    My victory conditions are that I am happy when other people like my stuff.

    In that case I’d say that you are doing very well, because plenty of people like what you make (myself included).

    For me it’s a lot more complicated than that. My reasons for making artworks have changed over time. And by now I have multiple goals.

    I’d rather have something beautiful from an unknown I stumbled across on Etsy than something ugly from someone famous

    It’s the same for me. I have my own criteria for deciding whether I like an artwork. There are many famous artists whose works I dislike just like there are unknown artists whose works I love.

    The idea that all art is communication is, in my opinion, very tricky to defend. Let’s say that I’m in a university sitting somewhere and waiting for the next lecture to start. Out of boredom I make a sketch of a fluffy cat. Nobody else besides me ever sees the drawing. If you want to defend the idea that by making this artwork I was communicating with myself, then you are bound to get some problematic implications. 1. Every alternative action I could have done instead to ease my boredom also must be labeled as me communicating with myself. Instead of sketching a fluffy cat I could have gone for a walk. That also would be me communicating with myself. 2. The meaning of the word “communicating” gets stretched ridiculously far and the word ends up meaning every single action I can possibly do. Thus this word ends up becoming useless (a word which means everything imaginable becomes impractical to use in a conversation where we need words to mean specific things so that others can understand us).

    If I draw a picture that is intended to mock Christians and I upload the drawing online, then, yes, that’s my attempt to communicate with others. But more often than that I draw out of boredom. Or because I just happen to enjoy drawing. And I’m not buying the idea that every time I sketch something I’m communicating with myself (majority of my drawings are never seen by any other person).

  8. consciousness razor says

    The idea that all art is communication is, in my opinion, very tricky to defend.

    Seriously. Imagine making something — that’s the only criterion to be satisfied. Why is it the only one? First, because that’s a feature which isn’t in dispute. Second, because we’re not going to put “communicating” or “sending of messages” in at the start, because we’re going to see (in a non-question-begging way) whether that really does naturally appear in the analysis, as something that comes along for the ride with making stuff (which definitely isn’t going away, no matter what). Or we may find that this just isn’t so. In any case, try to get yourself into that mood first, before you think you’ve settled the issue in your mind.

    Then we can ask some pertinent questions…. Is it only a contingent fact about what all humans are observed to do, or is it necessary logically or metaphysically? Precisely what sort of conclusion should we think we’ve reached here? If the former, where did you get this evidence about all human behavior; and if the latter, how was this derived from some other abstract principle? In what sense is it supposed to be an inescapable fact about the real world (not just an intuition or assumption), and why should we believe this highly implausible claim?

    I also have no clue what “communicating with myself” might mean. If all it does mean is that I’m thinking about what I’m doing (or how/where/when/why), then it sounds like you have a general theory of how all thinking works — it consists of “communication,” presumably messages sent between different parts of my brain since that is physically what is happening. But in that case, neurons sending messages to each other are not doing anything like communication in the ordinary sense of the word, which we use at a human scale to describe people using natural language and so forth. And at that point, it’s become watered down to effectively saying “physical processes happen,” just as they do when people actually talk to each other, which of course has nothing to do with what seems to have been important/interesting/remarkable about the original claim. It’s a deepity, to use Dennett’s term, like the phrase “love is just a word.” If that were taken literally, love would be communication as well, and for that matter identical to art. But this whole tangle of logic is just a big mess, definitely not something we could take as self-evident.

  9. says

    kestrel@#3:
    I try and do what I love because I find that if I love it, generally someone else will too.

    That’s exactly what I am talking about: “know your victory conditions.” Either way, you’re going to be happy!

    I ran across someone who sold paintings by the square inch. An interesting approach; the point was, you had to cover your costs in materials so you could keep painting, and it stopped you from making a value judgement on the piece.

    Interesting idea!
    “Why do you charge that price for this painting?”
    “Oh, because it’s all shades of gray. I only used 2 colors, so it’s much cheaper than that one over there.”

  10. says

    Ice Swimmer@#5:
    Art being communication is IMHO a truth it’s hard to escape from. Even Olavi Lanu, who did (among other things) sculpture out of natural materials in the forest and left it there, was communicating with someone (himself and any potential mushroom hunter or berry-picker who happened to discover his works).

    See my comment@#6:

    I think that one of the most interesting things about art is that it’s asynchronous communication. The viewer may or may not be able to figure out what the artist meant; the artist may or may not have meant anything in the first place; the viewer might see something completely different from what the artist saw.

    I’ve stopped trying to figure these things about, but: if I paint a painting and show it to a blind person, without letting them touch it or know it’s there, is it ‘art’?

    Hm. Now I can imagine an installation consisting of an utterly dark room with some paintings on the wall. If someone sneaks a light in, the paintings turn out to be scrawled “you just ruined my art” in black paint on bare white canvas. Or something. Or maybe there’s a photocell that turns on a sprinkler system if someone makes light in the room.

  11. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#7:
    Some buyers care for scarcity. They see a limited edition print as more valuable. Personally I disagree. I don’t care whether the stuff I own is unique or whether there are thousands of other identical copies. But each person is free to spend their money in whatever way they want, so it’s not my business to criticize their choices.

    I agree, except with the proviso that – since this is art – I am completely welcome to criticize their choices, as long as I acknowledge that there is no right or wrong choice. I think that, since art is the realm of personal opinion, we ought to feel invited to share it if we want. I guess I am offering the view that criticism of art is part of the communication we expect from an artwork.

    By the way, the prices of my artworks depend on how many hours it took me to make them. And my hourly rate is above average salary where I live. I have put a lot of time and effort into learning to draw, so I’m not fine with minimum wage.

    I agree with that, but that’s an economic problem you encounter in many places. For example, if you have an “open source” software programmer who is giving away the results of their hard work, it impacts the value proposition of corporate-developed products. Pretty much the same scenario – in corporate markets we’d say that someone was deliberately undercutting the market value, and that was unfair trade practice.

    In that case I’d say that you are doing very well, because plenty of people like what you make (myself included).

    As Ray Wylie Hubbard says: “the key to happiness is low expectations.”
    I set my bar very low, so it’s easy for me to achieve success.

    For me it’s a lot more complicated than that. My reasons for making artworks have changed over time. And by now I have multiple goals.

    It’s only a problem when they are contradictory. E.g.: if an artists wants their work to hang in every house, but they simultaneously want it to be exclusive and not to “sell out.” I don’t know how an artist could resolve such a problem. I have seen artists adopt completely contradictory victory conditions that are that bad, though. Oops!

    The idea that all art is communication is, in my opinion, very tricky to defend.

    It is. No question there. I probably shouldn’t have said anything, since that puts me in the position of defending it. Your example is good, though I’d factor out “communicating with myself” as something to worry about, I’d say that’s implicit in the creating of it: you’re thinking about what you’re doing and that’s the communication.

  12. says

    consciousness razor@#8:
    Seriously. Imagine making something — that’s the only criterion to be satisfied.

    Usually when I step into the “what is art?” quagmire, that’s my opening position – that “art” is short for “artifact” and anything we do with intent to create art, is art – and anything someone else sees and interprets as art, is art.

    That’s a huge fudge, though. It does appear to me that art is a contested concept (or something like it). It’s an interpretation – a label.

    Is it only a contingent fact about what all humans are observed to do, or is it necessary logically or metaphysically? Precisely what sort of conclusion should we think we’ve reached here? If the former, where did you get this evidence about all human behavior; and if the latter, how was this derived from some other abstract principle? In what sense is it supposed to be an inescapable fact about the real world (not just an intuition or assumption), and why should we believe this highly implausible claim?

    /me waves a white flag

    I also have no clue what “communicating with myself” might mean. If all it does mean is that I’m thinking about what I’m doing (or how/where/when/why), then it sounds like you have a general theory of how all thinking works — it consists of “communication,

    It’s horribly circular, isn’t it? But I do think that’s a fair characterization of what I meant – if I’m making a work of art, I’m thinking about it: I’m enjoying it or I’m not, I’m involved in what I’m doing; there is presumably some kind of creative intent. I think where I got to “communicating with myself” is from the creative intent. Basically, I said to myself, “self: I’m going to make a fingerpainting!” It may be more or less specific, “self: I am goin gto make a fingerpainting of Donald Trump!”

    I can see I am walking right into the Cartesian trap that I laid out on the floor. I’m not a dualist (I’m not sure what I am) so I am not trying to argue that there is a “self” that is separate from “me” that I am “talking” to. So I would accept your characterizing that as “how thinking works.”

    Do you think thinking is communication?

    But this whole tangle of logic is just a big mess, definitely not something we could take as self-evident.

    Agreed.

    What happens to me, when I start trying to avoid “deepities” (I see them as circular or failed definitions) I feel like I am starting to lose my vocabulary and I can’t even talk anymore – I don’t know what “is” is. I hope that’s just an emotional problem that is particular to me and that everyone else feels their use of language is on some solid basis.

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