Artists behaving badly: In today's Internet world, do you have to be nice to getyour work recognized?
“…all the bad ones got ahead. All the apple-for-the-teacher lightweights. The ones who are really great have a sense of madness and can’t hold it together.” — Saxophonist, composer and painter John Lurie
Most of the artists I admire and, in some cases, take direct inspiration from for my own work, were not what you'd call the most friendly or by societal standards well-adjusted people. I’m thinking of artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joseph Cornell, choreographer Martha Graham, jazz musician Miles Davis and many, many others.
Graham in her time was referred to by dancer Doris Humphrey as "a snake."
Davis has been called "the demon Miles Davis" by Cecil Taylor who, to be fair, has named him as having a profound influence upon his own music.
Basquiat was called "the world's worst dead artist" by the always lovable art critic Robert Hughes and Cornell was nearly arrested for bringing a bouquet of flowers to a hapless young woman selling tickets at a movie theater.
If Graham and Davis were able to engage with the wider world perhaps at the cost of smooth and loving personal relationships, Cornell in contrast lived an almost hermetic existence, letting few people into the sanctum of his house on Utopia Parkway in Queens, N.Y. Regarding her visits to that house, writer Susan Sontag said, "I certainly was not relaxed or comfortable in (Cornell's) presence, but why should I be? That's hardly a complaint...one went there to see his world."
During his short life, Basquiat presented himself as a savvy figure in the '80s New York "downtown" scene, skillfully playing with people’s preconceptions of race and sexuality. But he suffered as well, losing control of his own image or, rather, investing too much in what he thought other people thought of him instead of finding peace with the person he really was deep inside.
Good days and bad
Like all of these artists, I too have my good days and my bad days when it comes to interpersonal and professional relationships. I am a composer. But I also work in public relations and am paid to write weekly about art and culture.
My job as an artist requires I not censor myself. But when it comes to public relations, I often have to do the opposite. And when writing for publication, I hover somewhere in the middle. Navigating all of this, wearing three or more hats at any given moment on any given day, can be tiring and a little confusing. And I'd be surprised if I was the only creative person out there who feels this way.
A while back, a New York Times music writer lauded a young composer for her ability to “balance well-honed do-it-yourself skills with (their) upward career trajectory.” The composer in question is indeed a serious artist and produces good work. But when I read praise in the form of copy like that, I wonder what a true eccentric like Joseph Cornell did in his time to further his “upward career trajectory”? Would he, in our century, have honed his “do-it-yourself” skills not to build better boxes but to instead build a good (as opposed to “terrible”) website?
Does friendly behavior on the part of the artist equal an upward career trajectory?
And if you are an artist and are reading this, did that last sentence make you throw up in your mouth?
BAD Artist! No! No! No! BAD!!!
About 10 years ago, with the advent of the Internet, blogging and social networking, a sea change occurred in the arts world that is rarely discussed public, even though artists gripe about it in private all the time. The change, birthed out of the relative ease at communicating and promoting one's self across the ether that is the Internet, was a revised and intensified set of expectations that artists must acknowledge and embrace if they want to get press for their work, opportunities to show or perform and/or funding for their projects.
That set of expectations can be summarized thusly: ARTISTS MUST BEHAVE!
Publicists, critics and funders (Editor's note: God bless them! They do incredible work!) do not want to know about the bad and the ugly. Only the good. And the good — and this is important — must be shared, shared, and shared again. Shared with the ENTIRE world, in a manner that is non-confrontational, welcoming and easily navigated.
Being pleasant 24-7, of course, is impossible. So the real goal of this set of expectations, perpetuated by arts writers, critics and funders, is to imply no matter what you the artist do, it will never be good enough. But do it anyway. Share, but don't share anything unpleasant. If you're willing to put in the extra hours and weekends, don’t complain, and always laugh at the boss’s jokes then maybe, maybe, we won’t lay you off. Yet.
Share, share, tweet, tweet, and blog, blog. Otherwise, how will people be able to form a relationship to and feel invested in your work? Don't you care about your imaginary audience of complete strangers? Here's three steps you can follow:
Step one: Think of an idea.
Step two: Share, tweet and blog about that idea.
Step three: Repeat steps one and two. And go make a YouTube video.
Now where are those damn jpegs I need for my write up? Are you or are you not serious about your work?
Sharing Is S(c)aring
I truly believe artists are naturally inclined to share, and that this characteristic comes from a place of humility and love.
Artists can be selfless to a fault. I think that’s why so many artists actually love platforms like Facebook and Twitter; these social networking tools gives an artist a way to immediately share something with the world. And not just with their friends and family, but with whoever stumbles across the photo or inspiring piece of writing they’ve posted, tweeted or whatever. In that sense, uploading a photo or video isn’t all that different from hanging a painting in a gallery or performing with a band in a club.
However, creating something new requires that you take time to stop, shut out the world and look inside yourself. Creating is a personal and sacred process, and I think this is where writers, critics and funders as well as artists get mixed up when it comes to the behavior we expect of a “good” artist.
Consider this quote from an editorial Dance Magazine’s Wendy Perron wrote about blogging during about the creation of a new work:
You have to be willing to sink into that layer of not knowing in order to come up with something you’ve never seen or done before. During that beginning period, putting it into words denies the groping phase. You should be utterly at a loss for words, just feeling your way. After a while, you can start to justify your decisions to yourself, to your dancers, or to your audience if your presenter so wishes. But first, you have to be willing to be lost in that pre-verbal place. What if you’re in the studio working on a piece, and you’re thinking about what you’re going to say about it in your blog? Wouldn’t that compromise your process?”
Apparently, she took a lot of heat for writing this. But I know exactly what she’s talking about. It's not just all the sharing we're expected to do that concerns me, it's the behavior that we are supposed to adopt as a result.
I think artists should give themselves a break from sharing what is a false image of themselves and their process 24-7.
If I, as a fan, music critic or public relatioins guy, have to follow an artist's inconsistent trail of crumbs leading me to a painting, dance performance or piece of music, that changes my life, I am willing to take that trip. And even get a lost once or twice on the way.
In fact, I welcome the experience.