Here is a pitch for artists to write their own stories, their autobiographies, because there aren't many fine artists who have done so. A handful have -- including Thomas Hart Benton, Man Ray, James Rosenquist, Leroy Neiman, Larry Rivers, Margaret Bourke-White, Eric Fischl, Anne Truitt (if you count her published diary entries), Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali (neither of whose books were intended to be revealing, so they hardly count at all) -- and occasionally some artists have written essays for catalogues (usually about their art). However, the most important artists of the past century or so have been content to let others write about them. Why does that matter? A couple of reasons: First, it seems to me that artists talk about different things when describing themselves than do their biographers and commentators. Biographers focus almost exclusively on the artwork, who taught and influenced the artist, changes in the artist's work, an estimation of the artist's work. Who the artist knew and spent time with, as well as notable events in the artist's life, are detailed to the degree that they explain the evolution of the artwork.
Biographers often find it amusing to note the job an artist had before becoming able to live off the sales of their artwork, but for artists those jobs are not just anecdotes. Should the day job be art-related or not? Does the job take up so much time that little energy remains to create art? How do artists develop a presence in the art world while maintaining a job? What factors determine when an artist decides that he or she can quit to create art full-time?
The second reason is that art students need role models for their own careers. (The artists may not be people art students want to emulate morally, but they do offer at least their own story of how they went from unknown to known, met people, sold artwork, began to support themselves from the sale of their work and became the type of artist that a biographer might want to write about.) Quite a few independent art colleges offer Business of Art courses for their students, but not so many of them describe the real world experiences of artists, because most artists haven't told their stories and art critics and historians aren't interested in how a career actually happens How does that first exhibition come about? How does that first show lead to others? How did Artist X get into that gallery? When did sales starting taking place? When did sales reach a certain plateau enabling the artist to pursue art full-time?. Young artists always seem to have to reinvent the wheel, because they haven't a clear idea how this or that artist got from there to here. Autobiographies aren't how-to manuals, but they help artists understand ways in which a career may come about, which is helpful.
In all of the artist autobiographies I have read (cited above), the artists have a much easier time describing their backgrounds and the early parts of their years better than when all the success came. Pop Artist James Rosenquist claimed that he was drunk for much of the 1970s, and painter Eric Fischl -- whose Bad Boy was just published in May -- notes that alcohol and cocaine were fixtures in his life for a number of years. Neither of them were able to analyze in their books why they turned to drugs and alcohol (did it help them deal with success and expectations? did it make seeing others assuming the spotlight that once was theirs easier to bear?). What they don't say can be as telling as what they do, but art students can see that success can be as difficult to deal with as the struggles to become successful.
Artists start out liking to create art, then wanting to create art full-time, then wanting to make a good living from their art: We see their expectations and how those ideas of what they want change as success reaches various milestones. Fischl earned plaudits for his eye-catching work, drawing the attention of one gallery owner and later more prestigious dealers, selling internationally and becoming the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986. After that, his expectations for his career continued to increase, although his career arc began to plateau. He was a name, but less and less a name on everyone's lips. Fischl discusses the problem of wanting to win his own sense of the competition (for prestige, for prices) with other artists of his own generation and then the next generation and how bitter the sting can be when hopes are dashed.
About ten years ago while I was in Aspen for a show, [longtime collector Stefan Edlis] and I were having one of our customary conversations about art. Stefan was reviewing the market's latest ups and downs while I bitched and moaned about the obscene prices being paid for work by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, then the darlings of the art world "Why would anyone choose a ten-million-dollar shiny balloon bunny over one of my paintings?" I asked.
Stefan shot me a leveling look. "You've got to face it, man," he said. "You didn't make the cut."
"You didn't make the cut" may have been the most devastating critique that Fischl (or any artist) had ever received in his life and career, but the artist seems to take a deep breath and continues telling his story, sadder but wiser. There is a similar moment of bitterness in the second edition (1951) of Thomas Hart Benton's An Artist in America, in which he visits Regionalist rival John Curry shortly before that artist's death in the mid-1940s. Benton sought to cheer up his dying colleague,
"John," I ventured, "You must feel pretty good now, after all your struggles, to know that you have come to a permanent place in American art. It's a long way from a Kansas farm to fame like yours."
"I don't know about that," he replied, "Maybe I'd have done better to stay on the farm. No one seems interested in my pictures. Nobody thinks I can paint. If I am any good, I lived at the wrong time."
Benton undoubtedly was reflecting on his own career at that time. It wouldn't be until the third edition of his book was published, in 1969, that Benton could bring himself to offer any words of praise for his former student and friend Jackson Pollock or see that he now belonged to American art history, as both influence and teacher, rather than to the forefront of American art.
In the years between the first and third editions of his autobiography, Benton learned about the vicissitudes of art world acclaim, writing about his experience of denying and then accepting his changed place in American art. Few other artists have allowed their own lives to serve as a lesson to other artists, and for that Benton, Fischl, Rosenquist and a few others are owed a deep measure of gratitude. Again, I wish more artists would tell their own stories.
By Daniel Grant for The Huffington Post
Click here to learn more about telling your own stories
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson