Do Anything

Tracey Emin’s My Bed
 
If you’re currently lying in a pool of bodily fluids on your unmade bed, alongside the attractive model you sketched last night before gorging, drinking and other things you can’t recall, then you don’t have to read this post. However, if you’re like me, a person who tries hard to do what’s right and feels guilty way too much…read on.

I’m currently reading the book, Antifragile, Things That Gain from Disorderby Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And by read, I mean that I read a section, reread it, think about whether I get it or not, and then usually read it again. It’s not that the book is difficult to understand, but more that it’s stuffed with ideas which he builds upon, and I want to keep up.  At this rate, I figure I’ll be finished the book by the end of the year.

But it doesn’t matter when I’m done, because I have already read the section that set me free. As an author, Taleb discusses the effect of criticism on a book, “Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it’s not boring; and boring is the only very bad thing for a book.” He adds that nothing could be better for a book than being banned, as people will then go out of their way to find it and read it. The greater the energy that is used to discredit the author, the great the resulting fame. He adds “it is not possible to stamp out criticism; if it harms you, get out. It is easier to change jobs than control your reputation or public perception.” Taleb, who has a rather violent streak for a university professor, fantasizes about punching out an economist with whom he disagrees. He uses this fantasy to demonstrate to his publisher what “antifragile” means: that certain professions cannot be harmed by disorder. If he punched out the economist, sales of his book would probably rise due to his new notoriety. Taleb concludes with these life-changing words: “Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer.”

Wait, what? Can this be true? Is there no horrible thing I could do that would cause sales of my paintings to fall? Let’s say I committed some heinous crime, like having an affair with a sheep. (Please note: I personally know no sheep, and no sheep were harmed in the making of this post. I don’t even know if female/ovine relations are possible.) When my crime was discovered, I would be infamous immediately. Sure, some people who already own my art might become outraged and burn the works on principle. But there would also be people who would want to buy my paintings, just to say that they were done by that woman who went baaaad. (Sorry.) Critics who looked into my work, could look for hints of mental illness and depravity. In any case, the number of people who knew my name and my artwork would vastly increase.

Think of the artwork that shocks or is banned. Chris Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, caused great controversy for its use of elephant dung as a medium. When, years later, I read an article about how Ofili paints delicate watercolour portraits as a warm-up exercise each day, I knew his name immediately. He was not an artist who courted controversy, like Damian Hirst, but nevertheless, he was famous due to controversy. And I would expect that after the initial backlash, all the negativity had a positive effect on his career.

But luckily for sheep, there’s no need to go to extremes. The main takeaway for me to be braver and more daring in my art and my life. To quiet the little voices in my head that worry about whether a painting is consistent with my style, whether it will sell, whether a wider audience will “like” them. I say to my art, and to all the safe art I see, go for it! Why not do something daring? Be bold and different, try new methods and make rash decisions in the studio. Wreck things, spray-paint over them, waste expensive materials…just try to do something bigger than what’s been done before. Artists are superheroes, we’re antifragile, and we can do anything.

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Artists

What limits artists from reaching their full potential? Here’s my list of the seven deadly sins of artists, because everyone likes lists, right?
1. Envy
This is the number one sin in the minds of many artists. They envy something about other artists: income, fame, representation or even talent. A little envy can be motivating if it kicks your butt into working harder or doing something new. But too much envy is paralyzing, it eats away at you like evil moths on your favourite cashmere sweater. Art is subjective in many ways, so while you create work that you love, it can stay undiscovered for a multitude of reasons. If you feel the envy, try to imitate rather than compete. I don’t mean imitate someone else’s art, but rather imitate the ways they get their art out there because exposure is the only way that people will find your work. When I find an artist whose work parallels mine, I look at the galleries or online sites they use as potential venues for me.

2. Greed
Most of the original sins have to with excess. It’s good to desire to have one easel, but wanting 12 is greedy. (Although can you apply that to paint? I always seem to need and want more paint.) I would twist greed around a little and say that you really need to develop a style of painting, and not hop onto every new trend you see. Painters can paint still lifes/landscapes/portraits/abstracts in watercolour/oil/acrylic/encaustics/pastels, the permutations are endless. But if you hop onto every new trend that catches your eye, are you really getting better? Are you developing your own style? Many beginning artists come into my studio and say immediately, “I want to do abstracts too! I want to use resin too!” My process came out of years of experimentation. At first I copied styles I liked, but eventually my interest in layering and transparency brought me to the place I’m at now. And while I still experiment, I do try to focus on the same ideas that brought me here.
3. Pride
After you’ve worked as an artist for a while, you begin to take pride in your practice. You’ve accomplished things, you’ve had career success, you have technical expertise, you may even start teaching others. Now what are you? An emerging artist? A mid-career artist? An established artist?
In Buddhism, there is a concept called Beginner’s Mind, where you have to empty your mind so you can learn more. I think it’s important to have Beginner’s Mind, to continue to take classes, to ask questions either of other artists or on artist forums. While it’s satisfying to give advice, once you become “an expert” you’re painted into a corner where you have to know everything. You want to keep evolving your art, not become one of those artists whose work looks exactly the same as it did 20 years ago. Keep seeking your painting nirvana.
I do see the irony in the fact that I’m writing an advice post and saying I’m no expert, and later this week I’ll write more about Beginner’s Mind. Also, since I certainly don’t know everything, I do welcome any comments and advice you have. Feel free to add your own advice to the comments section, the more minds the better.

4.  Wrath
Honestly, I don’t know if wrath can apply to artists. Most are so delighted to be able to pursue a profession of autonomy and creativity, that they don’t need to rage. But do know that if you’re filled with negativity it will come out in your paintings, paintings really are the mirror of our emotions as we create them. I’ve had so many people say that my art is happy, and some even suggest that I must be a happy person. Although I don’t consider myself particularly sunny, I guess I am pretty optimistic, and I’m always happiest when I’m painting.

5.  Lust
Thankfully for this list, lust does not apply only to sex, according to Wikipedia it can also be “the intense desire of money, fame or power,” So let’s examine that, let’s say you do want money, fame and power, gulp, all of it. The art world has a hierarchy and you have to learn it to climb it. So while working hard in the studio is important, you also have to get connected to the art world. This means going to openings, meeting other artists, collaborating with other artists, reading art publications and blogs, in general becoming a bigger part of the world around you. Also working on projects that are larger scale is good, like public art installations or international artist calls. Publicity is important too, as is winning awards. Of course all of this is easier said than done.
Of all the sins, this area is my biggest weakness. I love to go the studio and put the hours in, but then I want to go home and be with my family. And when I do go to openings, I’d rather look at the art than network. So how can I give advice? I recently read an interview with NYC artist, Will Cotton, who tells how he got connected and he makes it sound so easy! Plus his paintings look delicious.
6. Gluttony
I don’t know what to say about this except if you eat a big lunch then sometimes you fall asleep in the afternoon. And if your face lands on your paint palette or a painting, that would be bad. Not that I know personally of course.

7.  Sloth
When I went to art school, almost everyone was talented…duh, that’s how they got admitted to a competitive art school. However in every painting class there were one or two people who were transcendently gifted, they painted stuff that made me go “Wow!” or “Holy @$&#!” Sometimes it was work I didn’t even like, like fleshy portraits or muddy landscapes of skateparks, but anyone could tell it was good. What is interesting though, is that those really great painters had a good work ethic. They painted and painted, they had their assignments done, and they had time for exploration as well. I would have predicted that these students would be successful artists.
(As an aside, my predictions were only 50% right. Out of all the people in my painting classes, two are now fairly successful artists, one I would have predicted and the other never impressed me yet I saw his work at the VAG last week. The one guy I thought was the best painter, I’ve never heard of him again, he may be in the States somewhere but he’s never shown in Vancouver.) 
It’s a chicken and egg situation. Are they talented first and work hard because it comes naturally, or are they good painters because they’ve already worked so hard? The answer doesn’t really matter because either way, they’re a good bet for greatness in the art world. The corollary is also true: the lazy art students are never heard from again. If you can’t even finish your assignments, what are the chances you’ll be ready for a big show?
So that’s it, the seven deadly sins of artists. What’s your weakness? Attack it today.