A few days ago I had the great pleasure to interview Amy Whitaker, an associate professor at NYU and author of two very interesting books: Museum Legs and Art Thinking. Our conversations and her writing got me thinking about my own exploration of both worlds and the ever-present question of economics in art.
Amy speaks of two inherently different but incredibly interconnected ways of thinking and experiencing the world. The first kind she calls Art Thinking; this is the process of letting go, of giving ones mind the time and space to wander, explore, and get excited about the world.
The other kind is Design Thinking; the analytical evaluation of things, where not much energy and attention is given to questions like: “What if?” or “Is this possible?”, but ones focus is directed into managerial and operational questions like: “How can I do this?” and “What do I need to complete this job?”.
Both are incredibly important and neither of them should be given priority in our lives — even though artists might tend to overemphasise the former, while letting (or wishing that) others (would) handle the bureaucratic managerial decisions that are just plain boring (like budgets, schedules and logistics).
The issue really only comes if we decide to prioritise one over the other. And you might have already guessed it: most of us do.
A lot of us dream of making that one project that we have always fantasised about doing, but the scope of the artwork exceeded both our finances and the time we have on hand.
And often limitations like these make us give up on such ventures and many even decide that society just doesn’t value their art enough to see the importance of it and go on to blame others for their lack of funding and other resources.
Or they blame themselves for being either incompetent, lazy or, god forbid, stupid.
But it’s not that we are any of the above (unless we really are lazy, then there’s no theory that can help — only a nice, well-meant kick in the posterior or ass whooping, as it is called in some places, can really do the job).
The only real reason why such grander plans never come to be is a lack of planing and broader understanding of the system(s) we live in. And all we have to do is open up our minds to the notion that we actually can do anything we want to, if (and this “if” is imperative) we plan the whole thing out accordingly and take our time to first create a system that could fund our project.
Amy uses a neat metaphor for this issue: She speaks about the difference between writing a letter and making the envelope for that letter. The letter in her example is our art, our creative product, that we would like to make. The envelope is the ecosystem, the space in which our art can actually be created, shared and eventually (if we did a good job and have a bit of luck on our side) sold to an excited collector.
The letter part is maybe the easiest to do — but don’t get me wrong, making art is not easy, I just want to emphasise that making art is almost entirely dependant upon us and our will to create. The envelope is the real culprit of a lot of problems in the art world.
Let me explain.
A lot of us artists are either born (this usually depends on the factors of our mother’s environment, when she was carrying us — anxious and stressful environments tend to produce anxious and conservative babies, calm environments produce curious ones), or we are raised to be investigative and constantly hungry for something new.
A good mix of freedom and control that the parents give to their child, tends to create curious individuals — having overly caring parents usually annihilates curiosity, self-sufficiency and even the belief in oneself in the long run!
But, be it a novel experience or the search for knowledge and understanding, people who grew up with the right mix of genetic and environmental circumstances, operate quite differently from others, that could be described as being more conservative. Maybe not in their thinking — albeit usually such things are connected — but a strong division can be drawn on the merit of people’s ability to handle and bear the chaos in their lives.
Just think about an anxious and stressed-out pregnant woman; during her pregnancy, about 9 months of biological programming will happen to the foetus and when born, that baby will have been primed for the same kind of hectic, stressful environment as its mother — and the last thing such a being wants (putting this into an evolutionary perspective), is to feel a deep urge to go out and explore the world, that made its mother so anxious.
The imprint then, burned into the depths of that child’s inner being, creates a simple but profound rule: “Don’t be curious. You’ll get hurt or even die if you do.”
Such people tend to get anxious in larger crowds, feel a constant stress towards the unknown and crave nothing more than the safe heaven of their home, where they can weather the constant storm of social interaction when their (quite low) limits are reached.
Or, if after a stressful pregnancy, they are then raised in a completely contrasting environment, where they are thought to be curious and such behaviour is strongly rewarded and nurtured (usually by the other parent), they end up confused:
Wanting to make a stand in the world and assert themselves as a strong and independent individual, but at the same time feeling deep inside of them the heavily contrasted urge to stay down and blend with the crowd.
Confusion galore, but if you find yourself relating to either (I was an incredibly introverted kid, but that changed because I changed), everything can be altered with deliberate practice and introspection — it just takes time.
Artists on the other hand like to get lost, sometimes even to the point of complete insanity (probably not the end goal, more a side effect that should be evaded if possible).
While more conservative people thrive in managerial positions, because they love order and are incredibly attuned to preserving it, we love to walk the line between order and pure chaos and not just dip our toes in the dark and fuzzy waters of the unknown, but sometimes even go skinny dipping.
And this process is what art really is all about; a trace or document that is created while the curious by nature go bungee jumping into the darkest abysses of life — all while making selfies to share their experience with their friends.
Just think about all the troubled artists and the stereotype embodied so eloquently but the wordplay of erasing the “T” in “Paint” (spelling the word Pain) that proclaims there is no painting without pain. Bollocks if meant like most people that use this expression mean it, but still true in a way.
All it is, is a trace. A glimpse into the real and profound nature of making art; the interrelation of chaos and order and the people that are either courageous or ignorant enough to venture into the no-mans land that exists between the two.
And yes, the courageous can become the new Picasso or Koons. The ignorant ones, those that are unaware of the real forces at play and what is at stake (their own sanity) on the other hand, they tend to end up the Van Goghs, Modiglianis and Basquiats of the art world.
The real point here is to understand what the process of making art really is, and to not just “go with the flow” of ones curious inner drives, but to take good care in creating the envelope, prior to writing the whole letter.
The envelope is the system, the lifeline that attaches our physical selves to the “real world”; for example being part of an economical system, that can provide us with resources for our work (like paint, clay, camera equipment and the like).
It also connects us to various social systems and gives us the ability to communicate our views, ideas and creations with others (for example marketing, social media and gallery structures provide us with such tools).
But there is also another kind of connection that such systems form: a mental connection to the outside world. Without a strong link to “reality”, we can quickly end up disconnected, even completely dislocated from the rest of the world, and if you have ever been depressed (the real kind of depression, not the vague notion of being “a bit sad”), you know exactly how incredibly horrendous such a state is.
The envelope therefore is imperative. Without it we risk not only failing to create our art, but can even risk putting our physical and mental wellbeing on the line.