STARVIN' ARTIST

Everybody has heard of "the starving artist" - the struggling artist who is finding it hard to sell enough of his art to put food on his table. Occasionally, you'll see an ad in the paper or see a commercial on television announcing a "Starving Artists Sale."  They're usually held in the ballroom of some outdated hotel and feature a lot of paintings of flowers, still-lifes and seascapes.  If you've ever been to A Starving Artists Sale, you might be tempted to think there's a reason why some of these people are going hungry.

I know it is extremely delicate and potentially offensive to evaluate other people's artwork. There's this whole politically-correct, "who's-to-say" sensitivity to critiquing another person's art. Lord knows Americans have had to scratch their heads on more than one occasion and wonder at some artist's work, "What is THAT and how did she get a federal grant to produce it?!"

I visited the Guggenheim in New York City a few years ago and viewed the solo work of one renowned artist that was being featured at the time.  I hadn't gone there to see her work. I was in New York with my family on vacation and stole away for a first visit to this world famous art museum. This woman's work was being featured at the time of my visit.  I walked the entire length of the Guggenheim's iconic spiral walkway thinking thoughts like, "Maybe this will get better as I move later into her development as an artist" or "I am really not getting any of this" and "I am sorry, but this stuff is crap!" (In fact, there were a few shapes of mixed media included in this woman's work that actually took on the appearance of this very thing. I kept thinking, "Did she intend that to look like something my dog leaves in my neighbor's yard or was she cluelessly aloof to what she had created?")

I'm just sayin'.

It left me disappointed in the Guggenheim ("I paid money to see THAT?").  I also felt a bit disenchanted with what is so often recognized as art only because it makes no sense. If it was created by some artist who has been applauded by "the establishment" it seems just about anything goes.

Some intellectual elitists think all art is good just because of the imagination, creativity and talent it takes to produce it - regardless of what it looks like.  As an artist, I too might be able to appreciate the work it takes to create artwork.  But that doesn't mean the final product is actually any good. To which The National Endowment for the Arts asks, "And who decides what is good?"  

Yeah, well anyways...

There has to be a reason why some art sells and other art doesn't.  There has to be an explanation for why some artists have plenty of food on the table while other artists are starving.

Of course, the phrase "starving artist" is a metaphor for an artist who isn't making much money from sales of their work.  It may have roots in the real-life experiences of many artists throughout history who set out to support themselves with their artistic talents and struggled to put food on their table due to a severe lack of income.  These artists are often the ones with business cards that read: Artist, Waiter, Bartender, Model, Mason and Handyman.

I have been thinking about why some artist might be starving.  I have come with three or four possible explanations. There may be other explanations, but these are the most obvious to me.

1.  Lack of discipline.
It is possible that the reason why some artists don't sell a lot of work is because they don't have a lot of work to sell. They just don't put the time and energy into starting and completing more and more works of art. They have such a small portfolio they limit the number of potential buyers who would take notice of their art.

There are a number of reasons why an artist doesn't produce a lot of new work.  Those reasons may range from creative burnout to physical illness. Of course, the reason may also be nothing more than a severe lack of discipline. In other words, they are lazy about starting and finishing work. They just don't have the creative stamina to keep themselves in their studio and churn out fresh pieces of art.

Their lack of artistic discipline eventually leads to financial hardship because they have little or nothing to sell.

2.  Lack of appeal.
Some artists have a very odd or eccentric style.  Because their work is so "different" they have a very small audience of potential buyers.  There are only a few people as eccentric as the art. For that reason, there just aren't many people looking for art like this to display in their favorite settings. 

Whether displayed at outdoor art fairs or acclaimed galleries, a lot of people will walk right by some art because the artist's style just doesn't appeal to them.  Oh sure, they may stop and stare, try to see its beauty and appreciate what it took to create it, but they're just not going to buy it for themselves. They find it hideous, offensive or both.

I've seen some very "curious" art along the way.  I have spent hours in galleries throughout the world showcasing all kinds of art.  I have forced myself to look at all of it and really try to understand or interpret its contribution. I remember one particular artist's collection in a Santa Fe gallery was extremely intriguing from a "how in the world did he do that?" perspective, but I wouldn't have spent a nickel to have it in my possession.

Some artists don't have many customers because the work they create is so "unique" there just aren't many people out there who would buy it.  These artists are often found waiting tables too.

3.  Lack of promotion.
One thing I am coming to grips with about my own attempts at being a artist is that there's art and there's the business of art.  What it takes to get your work in front of people can be a full-time job in and of itself. Throw in the realities of paying bills, serving clients, juggling finances, directing vendors, cultivating contacts, pursuing leads along with a host of other administrative obligations and next thing you know there's very little time left to actually create art.

These challenges are especially acute among "avocational/part-time" artists whose lives are consumed by a full-time career. It is possible to have a studio full of work that nobody knows is there. For that reason, the chances of selling any of it are pretty slim.

The fourth and final reason that I have come up with as an explanation for why some artist "starve" is the most potent for misunderstanding and offense.

4. Lack of talent.
Some art is lousy art precisely because it was done by a lousy artist.

Let me explain.

If you have ever watched the early stages of the television show American Idol, you see this dilemma in vivid color.  An aspiring singer with dreams of greatness walks into their audition convinced they are about to wow the judges with their musical giftedness. They have no sooner opened their mouth and they proceed to completely embarrass everybody but themselves.  They sing off tune, have no rhythm, forget the words and make a complete fool of themselves.  And then when the judges break the news to them, they are completely shocked. They stand there stunned that Randy Jackson just told them "No dawg, you just don't have what it takes." They ask for the chance to sing another song.  

The problem here is not nerves.  The problem is a lack of talent. They leave the audition room flabbergasted, shouting profanities, making obscene gestures and feeling very violated.  You get the impression they are truly convinced they are great singers.

I find myself wondering if this is just an act. Is it just showbiz and somebody is paying them to go out there and make a fool of themselves?  Maybe their mother led them to believe they really were a talented vocalist.  Some of these contestants leave me thinking, "Can they really not see how awful they are at singing?"

I have seen a few paintings and sculptures just like this.

Lousy art is particularly painful when the artist fails to see it for himself.  I have been in a few sculpting classes with individuals convinced they were quite the artist when everybody else in the class had a very different opinion.  I am not talking about jealous competition among fellow artists. I am talking about Randy Jackson saying, "No dawg, you just don't have what it takes."

I remember one very awkward moment in a sculpting workshop I was taking when another student brought a couple of her sculptures to show to the instructor. There was no reason why anybody would show up with their portfolio let alone actual pieces of their work. She came into class with three or four of her sculptures for no apparent reason other than to impress the instructor and her classmates that she was a legitimate sculptor.

Her pieces were realistic figurative works where facial features and body parts were suppose to be in proportion and a relative likeness of what they were intended to portray.  These were not Picasso style works of art with exaggerated features and garish interpretations of the human body. From proportion to features, this woman's work was really bad.  The biggest problem, however, was that she was completely clueless to it. Everybody else in the class nervously busied themselves with the work in front of them waiting to see what the instructor, himself an accomplish sculptor of local renown, would say to her. He punted and deftly avoided ever saying what he really thought.  Everybody in the room knew it but the woman to whom he was speaking.  

I guess this is how some people end up with a show of their own at the Guggenheim. Their instructors just keep dodging the responsibility of saying, "Your horse looks a lot more like a three-legged pig than a thoroughbred." Everybody wants to be nice and avoid hurting anybody's feelings. It's the politically-correct thing to do nowadays.

There's a difference between being a fledgling artist in the process of developing necessary skills and being a lousy artist whose arrogance just doesn't allow you to see the truth about your work.

I love it when a artist can judge their skill level with sincere honesty. They are comfortable admitting their work still has a lot of room for improvement.  It's the artist who has some serious talent issues and can't quite see it for themselves that really confuses me.  Whose responsibility is it to break the bad news to them?

Maybe we need a show like American Idol for artists. Maybe we could get Randy Jackson to break the news to them. 

Or better yet, Simon Cowell.