State of the Arts – the ballad of the mid career artist

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

 Mid career artists actually know what they are doing

On a very hot afternoon in Cape Breton I sat with a young, recent art undergraduate from a nationally respected school. She was lamenting the fact that one of her professors was a very fine print maker. She loved his work. He was however no longer interested in the medium and trying desperately to make work using Adobe products on a computer. He felt this was the future and he should adapt to it but adapting was proving a lot harder than he had figured and his struggle was palpable. My young friend found this deeply depressing. She didn’t understand why someone with decades of experience felt the need to squeeze themselves through a high tech vortex in order to remain relevant.

I said to her, “he is scared.” And I meant it. Middle aged artists are very afraid. They have seen their livelihood disappear, their peers move into teaching positions or become academic candidates in order to do so, quit and generally feel that the world has passed them by. They try to understand Lightroom, use Twitter and make their work seem relevant to today’s tech obsessed institutions but their attempts can sometimes seem sad since in reality they are not really interested and feigning an enthusiasm that is in fact masking anger.

Making art is really different when you are no longer a high energy sprite with loads of friends, no dependants or mortgages and able to text while also talking. When all these mod cons depress you as opposed to excite you; it is very difficult to make work. And make work for what? If you are painting it is highly unlikely you will get an exhibition in any major gallery in the country. If you are making highly representational work or landscapes then you are all but shut out of any major art festival or activity that now gets funding. Unless you are able to make your work 3D, performance oriented or on a mobile device it is likely you are having a very hard time finding places to exhibit and sell your work.

A fitting tribute to the late Robin Williams by a younger, inspired comic.  Giving up or giving in are not the only options in art once you feel at a loss with your life or craft.
A fitting tribute to the late Robin Williams by a younger, inspired comic. Giving up or giving in are not the only options in art once you feel at a loss with your life or craft. Be careful, you might be some young artist’s hero.

But there is a silver lining to this somewhat humdrum situation. Without the careerist peer ambush that seems to define our ‘life as artist’ here in Canada, where being a ruthless self promoter with loads of capital backing you up is now almost the only way to succeed, without that pressure you are now free to make any kind of work you want. You aren’t selling or getting exhibitions anyway, so now why not use your decades of experience to experiment and find joy again in what you are doing? Let go as eastern philosophers would tell you, let go of the usual reasons you were trying to get somewhere with your artistic practice. Let go because you are probably already here.

If you’ve been at it for awhile and have held your integrity in tact then you KNOW what you are doing. You know what works and how much it costs, and how it can be made and whether or not it means anything to your own canon of work. You KNOW these things because you are in your late 30’s,or your 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and you have been at it for a long time. Why are you listening to the noise of social media and little plastic devices that are amazing but also hindering your work? Take some me time as a recent article in the New York Times noted, contemplation makes us smarter. You need to think about what you want and this era we are in today is perfect because no one is getting anywhere except a very few. There is no chase or competition any more; it’s all rigged anyway and you should just step out of it.

How do I make a living you may ask? Take a long look at what brings money into your home. Then take a long realistic look at what you are trying to make. You may be surprised at what you find. More importantly you will be setting the terms of your life and not having them set by a curator or a trend. What I am suggesting isn’t easy but is banging your head against a very hard wall and having no one notice any easier? Maybe, just maybe your enduring spirit will inspire a young promising artist as opposed to having them cringe when they see you force your round self into the current art world’s very square hole.

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5 thoughts on “State of the Arts – the ballad of the mid career artist”

  1. btw – I’ve been using the computer and photoshop as a medium for several years now with great success (I’m 65). A teacher once told me that an artist should be able to make art with a potato if need be. Not having to rent a studio and purchase expensive art supplies is a real bonus. I think of layers in photoshop as litho plates and controlling the transparencies of color is so much easier and precise than inking up a roller. Zero waste and no solvents, too. images at http://billroseberry.wordpress.com/

  2. Hi Victoria: had a bit of an epiphany today while commenting on Michael Sacasas’s latest post ( http://thefrailestthing.com/2014/08/22/our-little-apocalypses/#comment-54643 ) which touches, tangentially, on some of your ideas here, and some of our previous conversations, particularly the sad state of true creativity in the arts these days. Here’s an excerpt — you can find the whole discussion in the comments section of Sacasas’s post,if you are so inclined.

    “As a teacher, I have, for the last ten years, had to adapt to a never ending parade of new technology — at least one new program, system, or new piece of hardware a year, if not a semester. Occasionally, as a result of some department hopping, I have managed to miss a new technology altogether — it having flashed in and out of vogue in my absence. Each has been a powerful and to a greater or lesser extent, useful tool whose potential may have been intuited, but never plumbed — basic competence being all that could be hoped for in the time allotted for its ascendance. I am often plagued and frustrated by new, creative ideas which occur to me, but in terms of the no-longer-available technology, and which can never be realized because even the current technology will have changed before I can master it to the depth required for the project. Constantly occupied with adaptation, I can never truly USE the technology — i.e. experience/comprehend/plumb it and then bend it to my own imaginative, creative ends. Might it be the same with life? Might one important thing that is lost be the permanence required for a deep, comprehensive relationship with one’s own times, and the ability to then creatively and imaginatively mine the potential of one’s particular time and place? Could this be what the younger generation, constantly skimming life’s surfaces, a-surf on the wave of technological change, constantly adapting, is missing?”

    Could this also be contributing to the “fatuosity” of much of current art, the “cultural desert,” noted in the Kirby article?

    Just thinkin….

    Kerry

    1. A great comment Kerry and such a good point. I agree that we are always in a state of adapting to technology and I think it is due to corporate capitalism left unfettered & out of control. Is not because we build these extraordinary things but because we are brainwashed into consuming them. The young artist I mentioned told me she got off the tech thing at art school because she realized that in order to make the work she was being taught she would have to pay a not so small monthly fee to own Adobe Pro for as long as she was going to use the program. And it wasn’t so much the money as the feeling of being a slave to something that she was iffy about.

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