Be it online or in person, there’s a lot of competition in the arts. And the fact that the art world is much smaller compared to the world of business, law or medicine, only makes it harder for any one artist to succeed. While everybody online is telling us to “niche down”, and explaining why it’s so important, usually no specific tactics are disclosed, and the how is left for us to figure out for ourselves.
This blunder is intended for anyone who wishes to find their focus and stand out in today’s oversaturated creative market by understanding the immense power of storytelling — especially when positioning ones creative skill and aspirations in the market.
Regardless if you paint, sculpt, make experimental video installations or are a political performance artist, the main goal for all of us is to express ourselves.
We do so not because it’s the quickest or easiest way of making a living, but because it’s who we
are. Most of us love our craft in some form or another and follow some internal aspirations that guide our interest and consequently the kind of art we make.
But while creativity is a general term, it could not be describing a more colourful and rich abundance of personal motifs and ambitions of why we do what we do.
For example, I could be selling skilfully crafted portraits because of my passion for creating narratives about beauty, intimacy and connection. But it could also be that I just really enjoy painting figures and fabric and am good enough at it to charge for my work.
Both are great reasons to make a portrait and market ones skill, but even if the end product looks similar in both cases, their target audience couldn’t be more different.
So, let’s put the “art” in artwork.
I’d like to open this conversation with one of the hardest, but probably the simplest of all questions to answer, because we need to get it out of our way to really get the point of why story matters so much. But to find the answer we will have to go all in and drop the proverbial A-bomb.
We’ll have to ask the big question. The one you can read about in 50€+ books, written by prominent and knowledgeable art historians and theoreticians, whose answers are mostly written so thoroughly, so extensively, that one needs a dictionary to find their point.
What is Art?
Unlike most other questions like: “What is carpentry?”, “What is music?”, even “What is philosophy?”, we artists and other creative souls appear to have an enormous problem — none of us really seem to know what the heck we are doing in our lives. Not because we are confused, undisciplined or too spontaneous, but because no-one actually seems to know what art is.
If you ask most academic professors, they will usually give you an academic answer. If they’re more on the liberal side, it will surely have to do with the freedom of expression and the lyrical power of images in the fight against social injustice.
Ask a person in the street — anyone you want really — and they might tell you it’s something pretty, something that looks good. And probably also something that is quite expensive. For a wealthy collector it might be freedom; a way of expressing themselves without the need to actually learn how to paint or draw or sculpt.
A tattoo artist will tell you it’s tattoos. A barber will tell you it’s an exquisite haircut. An IT technician might even tell you it’s a perfectly sorted and laid out collection of ethernet and electrical cables in the server room.
Just don’t ask an aesthetician — the branch of philosophy that researches art — and they might tell you a lot. Truth be told, they might tell you too much while saying very little. A wonderful example is Tiziana Andina’s prominently titled book: “The Philosophy of Art: The Question of Definition: From Hegel to Post-Dantian Theories”. Read at your own peril.
Art seems to be everything. And we all know that something that is everything is consequently nothing at all.
We have to take a closer look into the production of art; the making of paintings, sculptures, videos and maybe even haircuts and tackle the question by investigating the process of making something an art piece.
So, let’s see if we can’t fix this mess of tattoos, pretty pictures and ethernet cables into a more workable definition by asking a better question: What makes something art?
In the 1960s the art world had a small crisis, caused by none other than the famous pop artist Andy Warhol. The root of the crisis was his artwork, titled simply: Brillo Box.
It looked exactly the same as a normal Brillo soap pad box, albeit being made out of wood. The question: What made Andy’s Brillo boxes art, but at the same time dismissed the original boxes made by James Harvey (the creator of the design) as mere industrial design?
Surely it wasn’t looks, and it couldn’t have been materials — the prestige of using silkscreen on wood instead of printing on cardboard was not the deciding factor after all. The only real difference that one could discern was the name associated with either product.
You had Andy Warhol superstar and the other guy.
Apart from being a marvellous posh object to own, Andy’s Brillo box shines light onto an immensely important topic in art, namely that when push comes to shove, the classification of an artistic piece does not have anything to do with its physical composition — be it medium, motif, size, you name it…
This is immensely important, because if we distill the factors that make up art, we can get a pretty rough, yet quite precise equation, that looks a bit like this:
ART = Viewer + Art Piece + Artist
But why does it now seem like the art piece, the central point of the equation isn’t really important? Well, there’s another surprise coming up.
The artist has been regarded as a genius ever since the invention of the cave painting about 40.000 years ago. The master painter, listening to the whispers of his or her muses and transcribing the messages of the gods into reality, for all of humanity to experience the righteous powers of the divine.
As humans, we couldn’t have been more proud of the lineage of artistic mastery that our planet had created over the years, and we had every reason for it. From the Ancient Greeks to Giotto and Titian, then Caravaggio, Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso … all geniuses in the craft, that shaped how we perceive reality itself.
But then came the trickster. The black sheep, the snake, the devil himself. Then, came Duchamp.
In 1917 as part of The Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition at the The Grand Central Palace, he unveiled his biggest joke of all — a urinal. And even though the organisation of the exhibition had promised that each and every art piece that was entered in the application stage would be shown, they decided to remove The Fountain (as Duchamp named his vertical toilet) from the exhibition.
It was serious.
But the problem that Duchamp’s art piece created was minuscule compared to the big issue that was yet to come. His simple question : “Is this art?” didn’t just create a revolt inside The Society of Independent Artists, it started a revolution.
Thus, conceptualism was born.
The point he was trying to make was simple: Art is an internal human experience, not an invisible aura imbued into an object by some artistic genius.
The art world though, instead of getting his point, concluded that Nietzsche was indeed correct; the gods of art, beauty and aesthetics truly did perish. The murderer’s weapon was finally found — fully drenched in nothing but bloody ideology, the Fountain stood as proof.
Now, more than 100 years later, this narrative is still the bedrock of many institutions, both commercial and educational. And I feel it is about time we change this.
Not only could more people start to appreciate art — instead of thinking of it as a pretentious playground for the rich, filled with expensive junk and weird intellectuals — but by removing some of the misconceptions that either artist or artwork are the origin of the artistic experience, we could actually improve the status of us artists in society.
By educating the viewer. By making our artistic process visible to all via social media and other means. By not trying to overcomplicate our work descriptions and artist statements and ending the need to feel like we have to defend our right to paint, sculpt, dance or make videos, with big words and complex explanations.
By connecting with our audience and being strong, sincere and genuine people. And with social media exploding in a constantly connected world, the timing just couldn’t be better.
Art is a multitude of stories, each different from another and all created by every one of our viewers.
And like good spelling and a decent vocabulary are the bedrock for any novel, we visual artists have a bunch of tools that we can use to build our narratives too.CREATING YOUR STORY (CONTEXT AND CONTENT)
In 1976, artist and critic Brian O’Doherty published his essay Inside the White Cube, that not only created lots of buzz in the art world, but gave this popular mode of displaying art in museums and commercial galleries a catchy new name.
While his wonderful critique of the White Cube is better to read in the original form, I would like to focus on one psychological factor that made his essay become so well known.
People experience things instantly and as a whole, rather than a collection of individual parts. When looking at a red triangle, we can’t just decide to see it as a triangle or just as something red — we always see both of its features at the same time.
Similarly with music; we can’t decide to hear just the tone of a note, while zoning out the colour of the sound (for example hearing the same note being played on a drum compared to a double bass or saxophone).
We as beings need context for just about everything in our lives — even our ability for differentiating object sizes and various temperatures is done by creating context from the surrounding environment.
Ok, but what does this have to do with art? Truth be told — everything.
As art is subjective, we can never really take full control over how a viewer of our show or a customer who bought one of our pieces will understand the work’s narrative.
A description of the work might help, but some actually prefer to make up their own mind about what a particular art piece means to them on a strictly personal level, rather than listening to the artist describe what it should mean. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that in my opinion.
But, while we aren’t able to control everything our viewer will experience, there are many aspects of our work that we absolutely can and should be thinking about. Because understanding them makes our job of finding potential buyers or getting a place in an exhibition incredibly easier.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Choose materials carefully, not just as a means to an end but as building blocks of your work’s narrative.
A marble sculpture and a wood carving of the same motif tell different stories. Both may be a portrait of someone, but marble will always communicate prestige, longevity and may form subconscious connections to Ancient Greek and Roman statues of prominent individuals, making the portrayed look even more respectable and important. Wood on the other hand is softer and warmer in appearance and more suitable for creating intimate portraits emphasising emotion rather than status.
Evoke emotions, then seal the deal with a well prepared concept.
Nothing is worse than a conceptual piece that doesn’t also work on an emotional level. The appearance of your work will make or break its ability to convey your message, so regardless of how brilliant your idea may be, if your work doesn’t first captivate your viewer and make them curious enough to step closer, all is lost.
Presentation is really important when exhibiting your work.
Adjust lighting, surrounding objects like tables, chairs, plants … to compliment your work, or at least not to distract your viewers attention.
Impressionists used a lot of green leafy plants to compliment the vibe of their paintings, modernists decided to completely remove everything (including the frame of a painting or plinth of a sculpture) to maximise emphasis on their work — hence the White Cube principle.
When showing work online, it is imperative to get it right.
Show your work not just as a clean, shadowless and speckless photograph with good colour correction (because the images should look identical to the real thing), but incorporate it into an environment — even a generic architectural shot of a living room will be better than nothing.
Give your online images enough context and help your visitors understand the colours, size, textures and other features of your work by providing enough visual information; a few detail shots, a side view and maybe even the back of the work (if it’s 2D). For spatial works, maybe make a 360° GIF by stitching together multiple angles — nobody wants to buy a sculpture only to find that they don’t like the rear end of it.
The venue is a big part of your exhibition.
If you paint a picture of an apple being picked by a woman somewhere in a forest and hang it in an office of a juice company, people will probably see a nice lady picking apples. But hang it in a church community centre and people might see the highly complex concept of Ancestral Sin.
Same painting, same communication, immensely different results — just by changing the context.
So whenever you have the chance — for example if you are invited to create a show in a certain gallery from scratch — work with the space in mind, or change it if you can to make it a better fit for your work.
Regardless of what kind of art you create, if you make a thorough examination of the materials you use, the message you are trying to tell and the environment you are telling it in, you can use all of this information to reverse-engineer your work to find your target audience.
It should never be the other way around.