Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Ying and Yang of the Artist’s Ego

I just finished marking thirty papersby my students, most of who are mature people (I teach in the ContinuingStudies program). Their assignment was to write a short explanation of thefunction “display” plays in their residence—they were to explain why thethings displayed on the walls and shelves were there, focusing on the reasonthey were displayed, not the items themselves.

When the marking was over, itstruck me that no one had referenced the needs of anyone but themselves inaddressing the assignment. So I took a piece of paper and I wrote “me” at thetop of one column, and “viewer” on the top of the other and started to re-readthe thirty artist statement submitted earlier in the term by the same students.Under the “me” column, I put a check every time I read words such as “me,” “I,”or “my,” and under “viewer” column I put a check every time the writer/artistreverenced those of us for whom, presumably, the work was created—theirpatrons, customers and viewers. Final score: 87:2.

There were 87 self-referencesand the statistic is a dramatic illustration of one of my greatest challengesof teaching CEPD 190: Getting the consciousness and understanding of artistsout of “self” and into the minds, hearts and souls of the people who they wantto buy/see their work.

I ran an art gallery forseveral years and organized several exhibitions independently during my career.Consequently, I spent a lot of time reading cover letters, artist statements,biographies and resumes from artists seeking my cooperation. As with the recentassignments, all the text screamed: “me,” “me,” “me.” Rarely did an applicantaddress my needs or demonstrate an awareness of my needs or objectives.

The “ying” of our profession asvisual artists, is that our ego plays a fundamental role in the creationprocess; the “yang” requires that we “be” the customer and egoless to beeffective when marketing. We must be able to turn our ego off and on. Troubleoften happens, however, when we have to approach the gatekeepers of ourprofession—curators, gallery owners, and grant or residency officers. On theseoccasions we understandably become focused on ourselves because we are excited,nervous, hopeful and aware of the competitive nature of the process in which weare engaged.

But the artist who earns theinterest and respect of people in authority, is the artist who brings the otherparty into the conversation. I often cringe when I hear artists explain atlength about themselves and their art when they are asked, “What is thatabout?” It is the artist who wisely turns the question back on the questionerwho earns my admiration, asking the questioner: “What do you think it isabout?” then, you aim to sincerely find a way to praise whatever is said.

Perhaps youare more on the other end of the ego spectrum—one aspect of personality that isprevalent in the visual arts world is the absence of a healthy ego. When itcomes to being appropriately and compellingly persuasive with gatekeepers andcustomers, you will sell yourself short if you demure when self-assertion isnecessary. You must be able to be your own champion at the right time and inthe right language.

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