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Artists Are As Important As Their Art

Often, artists are drawn to art as if it were a calling or a suitor.


There was a novel in here somewhere. The saga of the journeyman artist, male or female, set in Chicago. Where the glory of the well-deserved accolades still hang on the distant horizon while the daily tasks methodically measure the incremental wisdom that comes with age.

Often, artists are drawn to art as if it were a calling or a suitor; the perceived freedom, the appreciation of nonconformity and the dominance of questions over answers. The urban renegade.

Short novel. Replaced by a do-it-yourself guide. Art becomes a business. Self-sufficiency, exposure, integrity, vision, statement, career, rent, boyfriend girlfriend, marriage, whose career comes first, forego children, forego marriage, where to spend time: in the studio, with another artist and a beer, talking up a collector, at an opening, shall I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled?

The decisions don't come easy. Not choosing is still choosing. Most artists don't make the cut. (I used to think this was a bad thing -- all that "failure." Only recently did I realize that having a segment of our society art school-educated is a good thing even if they don't make "art.")

Foolishly, waves of artists avoid mentors. The cadence of the same mistakes parade past. No, good art will not get you there all by itself. No, you cannot bask in the studio all day. Yes, some people get lucky. A strategy helps. So does implementing it.

Over a decade the labile whims of the art world average out. The highs and lows become cyclical. Success can't even be measured yearly. Larger issues loom: the relationship of one's studio to one's art -- both ways. The bigger picture gets bigger.

Staying the course normally mandates adjunct activity. Whether that activity is organizing jpegs, making appointments with dealers or prospective client/collectors or working for a salary, it is a damned relevant consideration with layered implications, including whether that work should be teaching art or something entirely not art related. What is better for the art?

Is it about the art? Should the art become master? Should the art dictate the large and not just the small? Probably not. Better a collaboration. Art and artist.

Art has history. Art has baggage. Artists can play into or off of that history. Knowing it matters.

After two decades, if you're still in, you've learned the history and lived a lot of it. And the issues have changed again. High art doesn't need high drama. It needs methodology. One artist recently said, "This is about being alive and being free to struggle to death." Another responded, "Let me emphasize practicality over romance." I think so.

These artists who have stayed the course, the lifers if you will, have become pragmatic. Many believe their good years are ahead and bide their time. Some actively work to bring that day closer. And others have given up.

There really isn't very much glory. There's not even adequate recognition. Validation must come from within. Critics rarely really get it, and when they do their appreciation is invariably tame. Unfortunately, artists who spend many more hours making art decisions and garnering art knowledge and know-how are appealing to an audience that cannot know as much about the subject as its creator.

It doesn't help that America as a whole has a suspect opinion of art and artists, nor that our government follows suit with its global bottom-of-the-rung support. It is hard to function as an artist. The conditioning is such that businesses are prone to take legitimate requests for materials or collaboration as folly. Being made to feel like a pariah is not conducive to good art.

Artists are as important as their art. They stand for freedom of speech and our right to the open exchange of ideas. They protect our flanks, from the scurrilous attacks of those who would restrict our rights. (Politically, sociologically speaking, there is no real center. It is constantly moving, from one administration to another, from one event to another.) If we don't protect our flanks we will all be vulnerable. The trees at the edge of the forest, though more frail, are no less important than the rest of us wood.

To affect the most good we are all better served by purchasing, supporting and encouraging art within our own communities. Let me explain. In many ways it is much like a grass roots campaign. We need to raise the level of consciousness within our community.

The point is not to say that we must spend more money on art. The point is that by spending our art money at home, in our own communities, we can parlay the power of our dollar to generate more good.

How? Because, with a clear conscience, you can be proud. You can say to you neighbor "Howdy Neighbor. I supported my community by buying a work of art from an artist in town. What have you done?" You can share your enthusiasm where it can make the most difference. And others will catch on.

Most American artists -- let's go with around 90 percent -- have a "straight" job to make ends meet, rather than compromise the integrity of their vision. That is how important art is to them. Because art is their priority their jobs are not normally careers, and their income reflects this choice. If an artist sells 10 works of art a year, they may be doing pretty well.

Acquiring art locally increases the benefit to the artist, keeps the money in town for multiple benefits and grows your community. The ramifications are significant. The impact on the community multiplies. The benefit you generate comes back to serve you, your home, your schools and your quality of life.

Art not only documents the heights of our very existence, it is a bellwether preparing us, enabling us and teaching us about what lies ahead. Art needs us because we need art. The more we nurture art, the more we improve our community, the more we benefit ourselves.

Come. Let us cultivate our gardens.

Paul Klein closed his gallery in May 2004 to take on other challenges. He supports his community.

Published: December 01, 2004
Issue: Holiday 2004