How can one create their own system? Or better yet: How can we find already created ones, that we can reappropriate and reuse to fit our own needs?
First, we need to look at a basic way of understanding how systems work, because this is the first and biggest problem that all of us face and many of us fail to spot — consequently making us unable to ever really start building our own systems and achieving our own state of control over the forces that are at play in our lives.
There really are only two types of systems that we need to understand: natural and designed systems.
Natural systems are all combinations of relations that exist in nature (are not man-made). Such systems operate by rules that, contrary to common belief, not even Chuck Norris could change.
They include the way certain materials behave under various conditions; how long a certain type of paint like linen oil and pure pigment for example needs to dry, how vivid the colours are after it has fully dried and how long they stay as vibrant as they were at the beginning — especially under direct sunlight exposure.
These systems cannot be changed; we can’t just decide to create day in the middle of the night and we can’t decide that oil colours will dry as fast as acrylics or that marble will behave the same way as a block of soft cedar wood when chiseled. They operate by rules that we must take for granted and learn fully in order to be able to operate inside of them.
Then you have designed systems: relations of rules that — unlike naturally occurring forces like the speed of oil drying under certain conditions, the mass of stone and the density of wood — can be moulded and changed — albeit slowly, depending on their complexity and how many forces are at play.
For example: adding paint-thinner to our linen oil and pigment mixture would create a designed system that would dry the oil faster as paint-thinner evaporates quicker.
And these are the systems that we need to take great care in studying, because even though it might seem impossible to anyone born after 2000, there actually was a time when flowing water, electricity and even WI-FI weren’t a casual part of society — most systems we know today didn’t even exist in the past.
Almost everything we encounter during our lives when going to and from work or school, buying groceries, exercising in fitness and yoga classes and disposing our trash has once been designed from the ground up and over time developed into what we know today.
And don’t get me wrong, this matters little as some glorified history hour about the importance of sewage systems in ancient Rome, the point to take home is: If it was made — even though some of these systems seem unchangeable — they can actually be changed, altered and even completely abolished.
And that’s what we artists are best at: revolting against the current systems of power (apart from drinking wine and questioning our life choices that is).
It is in a way and unwritten part of our job description — imagine, if one actually existed! — to adapt the current systems of the world to better fit our wishes and views of how society should operate.
From making healthcare free for all citizens and even non-citizens of any country to creating new technology to sell art online — everything can be achieved with the right amount of energy and drive and enough people to propagate it into the world.
But unlike making one painting (quite an easy and individualistic approach to changing the world), creating the system to make art for the long run and sustain ones career is much more complex — and making changes to the entire system of production (the art world), well, that takes a bit more effort, too.
Because either of the latter aren’t just a onetime operation, we need to create a reliable and long-lasting machine that is able to provide us with everything we need to make our art, show it and sell it; from materials, logistics, marketing, budgets, planning and schedules to storage, sales and everything in between — nothing can be left to chance.
This may be easier for those of you that, like me, have a mild or at least manageable amount of OCD, where such systems are subconsciously enforced by just existing as a person and not having things in their right places makes you giddy and a bit anxious.
But even those that like things to be messy can and should take their time and energy, and create structures in their lives — in the end, the only real thing that can functionally propagate our careers is a good foundation on which to stand.
And again, we need to look at how systems operate and behave.
Most of the systems we encounter in life are semi-closed systems, that are kept “behind bars” by their gatekeepers. These are the types of groups, of which only a certain kind of person with a special set of knowledge and skill can become part of.
Doctors need to get their medical licence, lawyers need to pass the bar and so do architects and others, where regulation is enforced to protect the quality of any system’s operation. And it’s similar if one wishes to become a professional artist (that is an artist, whose art can sustain them financially).
If we want to start our professional careers, we need to get through the gatekeepers of the “classical” art world (usually with the help of a gallery or agent), but we can also decide to forgo this system completely and focus on social media and have a go at the markets directly.
For the sake of this blunder, it actually matters very little which route we decide to take, I only wish to emphasise one crucial point, that pertains to any one of them.
In order to understand a system, one must not only learn its inner-workings attentively, but also take good care in understanding similar and even at first glance unrelated systems. Because in the grander scheme of things, all designed systems are human creations and as such operate under similar rules.
To learn how to paint, we first have to learn how to draw. Then we learn colour theory and how to prepare our colours (unless you buy them), how to prime our canvas and how long to let the paint dry before reapplying the next coat.
But after all these systems have been mastered, we can then decide to learn about other kinds of art and about art history — providing us with more context and a broader understanding of all subsystems of art (graphics, painting, sculpture …).
Then we can go into pure theory and understand the driving forces behind the human urge to make art, and we can study economics to understand the structures and systems in which art practice operates and how it compares to other types of productions.
The real point is to never forget to step outside any one of the areas we are studying, especially after a while, and take a look at it from the outside. Because only then do we even have the ability to judge the purpose of any particular system.
In the end, art is always in part about penetrating the norms and reevaluating questions of justice, purpose and equality. And only those that create a strong foundation, a strong system of support (be it monetary, societal or even spiritual), persevere long enough to actually even get to the point of understanding the question, let alone answering any one part of it.