Two souls alas!
Are dwelling in my breast.
There is no denying: whenever we publicly show our work, we also seek recognition. For artists trying to make a living, a certain amount of recognition is even a must.
One should, however, realize that there is potential for conflict between this desire, or requirement, for recognition and the creative process.
In a recent interview, Catherine Edelman, an experienced gallerist from Chicago, took up the very question.
She said there: “I look for people who are passionate, who make work because they have to, not because they’re thinking about sales. Sometimes, I think, the sales mentality gets in the way. If you’re too focused on the money, it dilutes the core of what makes your art powerful.” I think this applies not only to sales and money, but to all forms of craving for recognition. Do we try to please fashion (and we all notice that the art world is rife with fashions) or do we choose to be proud and poor?
A possible solution is to take recognition and sales as one form of feedback (which they are) and treat them, as all feedback should be treated, by critical analysis. With that I mean that others are neither always wrong nor are they always right. In order to evaluate feedback, one needs to have an own, informed judgement. “Informed” means here to develop our own taste and the ability to distinguish strong from weak art. This involves life-long learning about art in general. Based on that foundation we can improve our ability to judge the quality of our own efforts. And we have to ask ourselves “What do I want to say?” and “Do I say it well enough?”. Especially the latter point seems to me important. There is nothing to be said that couldn’t be said better. You can test this: just try to make a witty statement and think about how Mark Twain might have phrased it… While visual art doesn’t need to have extractable meanings, it is still a form of communication. From that derives that the way it communicates can always be clearer and more stringent – and sometimes: more honest.
But then, once we have such an own foundation for our judgement and we try to create our best work, we should also believe in what we do – even if others don’t immediately understand us.
One not so often discussed aspect of Ansel Adams’ career comes to my mind. Ansel made his break-through once the New York art guru Alfred Stieglitz praised his work and gave Ansel a solo exhibition (in 1936). After that, one can notice a tendency in Adam’s work to please Stieglitz (see e.g. the Taos Pueblo work from 1942). While Adams did great work also then, it is not the work for which he is most loved today. Stieglitz, however, is reported to have favored Ansel’s most conceptual, modernist and abstract work over works like Clearing Winter Storm. To me the latter work (together with so much of the Yosemite work of Ansel Adams) seems “truer” and more heartfelt and convincing. In that sense, I think, Stieglitz was wrong and Adams was right. Given that Clearing Winter Storm was already taken in 1937, I am not even sure whether Adams’ later struggle to please Stieglitz was productive at all.
What is the takeaway from this? I think we have to learn to harshly review and criticize our own work. Our work always could be better. In that process, I think, feedback from others is useful, even necessary. But beyond that, we should not allow the hunger for recognition or sales let dilute the power of our work – we shouldn’t even bow to what is popular with gallery owners at a time.