5 Things I Learned From Artists That Help My Writing
The art world is one of the most frustrating marketplaces imaginable. For artists, gallerists, curators, and collectors. Inflated values, nonsensical hero worship, what sells versus what doesn’t, collective pandering. It’s a mess.
But art, in and of itself, is beautiful. Visual artists — painters, drawers, sculptors, installation artists, photographers, video artists — are amazing makers. Sometimes crazy. Sometimes beyond genius. Always an adventure to work with. But always attempting to make their work better.
My Background in the Art World
I actually learned these 5 things directly from artists. I didn’t look this stuff up in art quotes online and artist biographies. If you don’t care why I know this stuff and just want to get to the list, skip down to the next heading.
I had four of my own contemporary galleries — Metamorphosis, Etc. and Greene Contemporary in Sarasota, Florida. I moved Greene Contemporary in 2007 from Sarasota to the Lower East Side of NYC, to Clinton Street. I lasted one year there.
I worked as the Head of Business Development at Collectrium for a short time. I worked at Nicholas Robinson Gallery in Chelsea as the gallery manager. And then I was the curator at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey.
I also spent three years as an adjunct faculty at Montclair State University, teaching Exhibition Design to undergraduates and managing a Museum Management Masters program while teaching Art and Law, The Business of Art and several other independent studies.
All that to say, I know A LOT of artists, gallerists, curators and art aficionados. Most of my memories are of the frustrating variety about my time involved in art, but I also learned so much from artists. And those lessons are directly transferable to my writing.
1. Everything Can Be Redone
I learned this from so many painters. I would be in their studio looking at what I thought was a beautiful work of art. But they hated it. Something about it p*ssed them off.
Before I could convince them to save this wonder, they would poke a hole in the canvas. Or throw a bucket of paint on it. Or light it on fire. Or shoot it with a real bullet. All of these things happened more than once.
But the amazing thing was — they weren’t ruining the art. They were adding to it. The strict regulations that we have in much of the working world do not apply to art. Artists don’t give a sh*t about convention.
And neither should we as writers.
You spent a week on a piece and you still hate it? Leave it for a week. Then trash it. Rework it. Destroy part of it. But use it. And turn it into something that does work.
True artists never settle on a work. It’s what drives them so crazy. The thirst for perfection. But the best artists also understand:
What makes great art is the imperfection itself.
It’s what makes great writing. Perfect is boring. Imperfect is honest. So the next time you publish a story and hate it, just remember you can pull it back. You can have your dog take a crap on it. You can move things around. You can do whatever you want. Because it’s your art.
But don’t wait for it to be perfect. Because it never will be.
Think of your favorite piece of art in the world. It’s not perfect. That’s why it’s perfect to you.
That’s what your raving fans want.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” — Scott Adams
2. Everything In Your Life is Part of Your Art
Have you ever seen an artist’s work change dramatically? It usually coincides with something that happens in their life. Relationships, death, mental illness — this is life and life is always a part of their art.
Visual artists have trouble separating work from life because true artists have no barrier there. Their life is their art. When things are macabre, their work feels that way. When things in life are happy, sometimes artists are still macabre, but often the work is brighter in content.
If you are a non-fiction writer or blogger, life is usually your art. But even for fiction writers, the fictionalized life of a story or book becomes their life. Like a method actor, a writer lives inside the fictional domain until it is complete.
Visual artists can’t tell you in a drawing that they felt debilitatingly sad when they drew a work. But if you know their work, you can tell. Writers have a leg up on connecting with their readers. Because they can write it. And someone can read it.
You can describe painstaking melancholy without saying it. It’s why we have words. It’s why artists have canvases. The more that life is allowed to intersect with art, the more likely someone can connect to it.
3. Commissioned Work Takes the Art Out Of It
This one was very hard for me to get. Collectors would come to me and ask if one of my artists would do a commissioned work for them. I had a very strict policy on commissioned work to protect the artist, but it was very hard to implement.
I wouldn’t allow the collector and future buyer to participate at all in the process. They could tell me which works of the artist they liked and why and I would give that information to the artist. The rest is artistic latitude.
The collector would pay a non-refundable fee for the artist to start. Halfway they would get to see an image of it and decide if they want to proceed. Most did, but not all.
I was shocked when artists told me they didn’t do commissions. I would tell them how much money the collector was willing to pay, but they didn’t care. Because they knew that it was an impossible equation.
Since they didn’t want to buy a piece already created, they wanted something of them in the work. And that’s where it goes sideways for an artist and ruins the process. Artists hate being beholden to anyone. Especially when it plays with the content of their work.
I find that writers can have the same feeling. The second someone wants to pay a writer to write something for their publication, we lose editorial control. We may do it to get paid, but it’s not the same.
Writing for a paycheck is wholly different than writing for one’s self. Or for one’s audience. Artists (writers included) don’t like to feel restricted. We don’t like to feel meddled with. But we need to get paid sometimes.
“Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” — Andy Warhol
4. The More You Appreciate Art, The More You Learn About Your Own Art
Every artist I ever worked with knew everything about art. They knew the classics. They knew the contemporaries. They knew their peers. They were thunderstruck at all times with art. Art was their life.
Artists love art because it helps them learn more about their own art. It’s very hard to rip off another artist’s technique because you only see the final product. But you can appreciate it. And with appreciation comes self-reflection and sometimes for artists, verbal self-mutilation.
But to see great art is to see your future. It’s a goal. Whether it be close or far. It can be done. Amazing art is inspiring to artists for different reasons than a viewer. A viewer is aesthetically moved. An artist is moved in his or her soul.
A writer who doesn’t read is not honing his or her craft. The more you read, the more you can learn about your own writing. The more you can admire. The more you can beat yourself up. But for growth.
Artists are notorious for showing up at art openings of other artists. Because that is their community. Sometimes derisive, but supportive. Because they are in it together.
Writers don’t have this type of offline community. Bloggers even less. But that’s what the writing community is. It’s a widespread community. We are in it together. The more I read, the more I learn. The more I appreciate, the more I will be appreciated.
“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” — Pablo Picasso
5. There is Only a Great Idea Until the Next One Comes Along
Artists sometimes toil with this notion and spend years working to perfect one piece of art. But the most productive artists can move on. Sometimes that great idea is gone. It didn’t work in practice. And now there is a new idea.
Ideas are the framework for art. Taking what is inside your head and translating it to a painting, drawing, installation, or sculpture. Framing a photograph in different ways until your vision is achieved. Or until a better idea comes up.
Creation of art is a lesson in imagination and deep thought. And sometimes epiphany. But some ideas are only just that. An idea. An idle thought that goes nowhere. Until the next one comes along.
Writers need this advice just as much as artists. The more you bang your head against one idea, the more time you are wasting when you could be using one of your other ideas. Maybe this one just needs a break or maybe it’s sh*t. But if it’s not going anywhere, move on to the next one.
That’s why keeping track of your ideas is so important. So for that time when one stumps you or goes off the rails, you can easily flip the page. And marinate on something new. Something better.
Appreciating Those That Opened My Eyes
You spoke to me when I wasn’t truly listening. I am listening now.
You taught me when I didn’t know I needed to know. Now I need to know.
You believed in your art. You pained for your art. I understand this now.