Give or take a few days here and there, I have been making art every day for the past 20 years. I am now currently on my first proper vacation from art-making. This wasn’t a planned thing, though I did give myself a return ticket. My perspective as an artist has naturally changed over time. Now I’d rather hang out at a family barbecue, instead of standing around at an art opening. Maybe that’s not an artist thing, just a living life thing. This time off has made me think about what it looks like being a working artist.
Like any practice, it takes a lot of confidence, good timing and hard work to maintain an income in the arts. I used to think artists complained too much, but now I see the sacrifice it takes. For me, a life in art is like a deconstruction and recreation of the self. It’s all so personal.
I’m grateful I have been paid to make art. I’m sure to count my blessings; or is it the blessing I count on? At times I question the necessity of commerce. I like it when I’m making money from art, as opposed to making art for money. Some gigs are about hiring you as an individual, but others are just interested in filling a spot. I say no to jobs I don’t agree with, yet I’m still grateful when people express an interest in my work.
Earlier in my art practice I was offered a proposal to illustrate a billboard for the biggest soft drink company in the world. You know the one. I felt like I could see a little devil on my shoulder saying, “If you don’t do this, someone else will anyway.” The payment was $50,000, which is more money than I have ever come close to. The ad had to include some slogan about happiness, depict a bunch of cars in a traffic jam, and convey the idea that drinking a bottle of soda would help you forget about your troubles. The company wanted to target highways in developing countries. I decided to have a try, rationalizing that I could use the money to fund Islands Fold, a free artist residency I was operating with my wife.
I soon realized the project wasn’t going to support my story as an artist. The company just wanted a hired hand to create exactly what they wanted, but they didn’t totally know what they wanted. It’s a weird position any freelancer can relate to. In the end I didn’t finalize the job. I couldn’t figure out a way to separate myself and consider it as a straight illustration gig. That, or I was unable to bend to corporate control.
I understand people’s motivation when the money is that good. Michelangelo was backed by the church. Alexander Calder painted a BMW. Artists get corporate sponsorships, and I’m not naïve as to why this is. I recently read an article of Werner Herzog referencing a German proverb: “The Devil always shits on the biggest heap.” It’s funny, but seems so true.
People make their own choices and deserve the rewards they work hard for. Money does make big projects happen. A rocket to the moon isn’t financed on high fives. Money can help artists better themselves, their family, the community, or help support a cause or charity. It’s not so much the money I take into question, but more so the companies that provide the money. Cadillac has sponsored street art projects, but it just makes me think of Wall Street. I support artists getting paid for doing what they love to do, and maybe I’d rather see artists signing on for projects funded by such companies, as opposed to making $10 an hour working for them on the floor. It’s all so personal and everyone has different circumstances.
I grew up listening to Bob Dylan. Seeing his ad for Cadillac doesn’t stop me from loving his lyrics and music. Challenges arise when separating the art from the artist, especially when the art is personally meaningful. It’s the disconnect between the artist and their commercialized version that bums me out.
I think art may be getting more appreciation and exposure, but it’s becoming undervalued and homogenized because of it.
I think art may be getting more appreciation and exposure, but it’s becoming undervalued and homogenized because of it. I see a lot of online posts about artists being plagiarized and taken advantage of. It’s not pleasant, but capitalism is built on exploitation. We can sugarcoat it with pink ribbons and tote bags, but it’s all exploitation.
Unfortunately, artists also exploit themselves by undervaluing their work in the first place. I know I have undervalued my own work at times. I want to believe that art is truly free, but at what price? It’s a different mindset when you want to make a living from art-making. I see how being protective isn’t just for people’s ego; it’s for survival.
Over the years I have been reluctant to compromise my art, but I still make compromises in my life, we all do. I try to not let compromise affect my art too much. For the most part, I feel proud of things I’ve done with my creativity. My selectiveness and questioning of art gigs has a lot to do with being in punk rock bands when I was a teenager – listening to Fugazi and so on. When I was 16 I met Tom Morello (the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine). He gave my friends and me passes to his sold-out concert. While eating backstage finger foods, I asked Mr. Morello why his band was on a corporate music label. He said it was so they could share their message to the masses. Later that night I saw an ambulance take away an injured fan from the mosh pit. Too much rage maybe? This world has many shades of grey.
This push and pull is nothing new to anyone in the arts. We all play this game in some way. While most get destroyed by it, some define themselves with it. I don’t feel arrogant in saying I’ve defined myself in it, but I do admit insecurity in redefining it. Redefining it is so important if one wants to have longevity in the arts. This is another reason why I’m currently on a vacation from art-making. It’s been five weeks and I haven’t made a thing. Nothing, except taking a few photos on my phone. It feels good to take this break. I feel like I’ll get back to it with fresh eyes. To move forward by looking back.
I do think a lot about the purpose and meaning of art. Even if art means nothing it still means something. My wife and I went to the new Douglas Coupland exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It knocked my socks off. It was brilliant. I investigated every inch of that show and loved how obvious and accessible it was to me. I didn’t need to be too perplexed by it. I enjoy that.
Obviously it’s nice to be exposed to abstract ideas. Much of my art plays in that realm, but I think it takes a lot to perfect visual communication. I once read that a hallucination is something only an individual can see, and a vision is something others can see. There are some significant artists making great strides in redefining reality; or they’re people creating incredible illusions. I wouldn’t be into art if it wasn’t for such individuals and movements. I appreciate that an artist like Marina Abramović can push boundaries with the human experience. Christo wraps up an island. Andy Goldsworthy builds beautiful sculptures with sticks and stones. Burners burn at Burning Man. It’s all so remarkable, but sometimes I just want a break from the human expression in art.
There are some significant artists making great strides in redefining reality; or they’re people creating incredible illusions.
I spend a lot of time admiring art, and I guess I need a vacation from looking at it as well. When I spend time in nature, it expresses an art-form that moves me like no other. I know there are no rules in art, because it’s about liberation, not control. Discipline and practice creates great art too. I do however see that man-made art can be very exclusive. Nature’s art seems more inclusive, but hey, humans are nature, plastic is nature, everything is natural. It’s all relative. I think of the comic George Carlin when I express such things.
I do wonder how art is being used to distract and condition people. Screens and devices are very prominent these days. It will be interesting to see if we’ll continue to rejoice or reject such things. In 1984, William Gibson wrote in Neuromancer, “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” I grew up in the pre-internet, pre-smart-phone generation, so I feel compelled to comment on such topics. I was drawing on a ferryboat a few months ago, and a boy started showing interest. He then got out his iPad and showed me how he makes super hero characters with an app that lets the user choose body parts, colors, capes, etc. It was cool to see this kid using this device creatively, but it seemed like the device was getting in the way of direct imagination. It’s like the tool is becoming the conductor. I don’t want to close myself from tools that can help create amazing things, but I do favor straight pen to paper. It’s a combination that continues to stand the test of time.
Taking a vacation from art has been a nice opportunity for rejuvenation and reflection. It’s nice to know where I came from to help me know where I’m going. Where am I going? I don’t totally know yet. French philosopher Albert Camus said, “One recognizes one’s course by discovering the paths that stray from it.” This is why I’m on this vacation from art, to recognize my course in this manner. Pablo Picasso talked about inspiration coming from working. I share that sentiment as well. It’s also nice to climb the mountain, if you can stop and enjoy the view while you’re hiking up it.
I spent the past five years living in an idyllic cottage in the forest, working on a mountain of my own. I just completed Intelligent Sentient? – an illustrated science-fiction book that is being published by Drawn & Quarterly for release in January 2015. It feels rewarding to be able to share this project with people. It will allow me to move forward with new ideas. This book sums up my perspectives from the past decade. It feels good to close that chapter so I can make room for another. I’ve also just moved. Having spent the past nine years living in the same community, it does feel good to welcome change, to see how it inspires my art practice. Does all this writing sound like a proper vacation from art? I guess it sounds like I took my work with me.
Alan Watts said, “A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. So he loses touch with reality, and lives in a world of illusion.” It’s so humbling to acknowledge this. Instead of self-editing this writing, I want to jump in a lake, and stare at some real mountains. I’ll conclude with another quote by Alan Watts. “This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” Perhaps when I get back from this vacation, my artwork will give way to art-play.