LivingArts: Comparisons


Late December is typically the time I have an annual ‘state of the union’ discussion with myself, trying to re-calibrate my priorities as an artist, taking stock of both the year behind and ahead of me.  It’s grueling work, and if I’ve been through a hard year financially or creatively, it can be obliterating to my sense of self-worth.  It has in the past even caused me to question the whole notion of ‘artist’ as any sort of viable label for a person over 30.

Luckily, this year my novelist sister, Krista Foss (read ‘ Smoke River’ and you will know how talented she is) suggested I look over a free downloadable PDF called “Making Your Life As An Artist” written by Andrew Simonet, an American dance choreographer and co-founder of a thing called Artists U, an initiative dedicated to solidifying the vocation of ‘artist’.

It’s one of those books where the ever-changing font sizes and barrage of affirming sentiments makes it initially a little hard to trust. Nevertheless I found it fascinating for how it detailed anxieties I thought were mine alone, and useful for how it laid out a plan to transition ‘artist’ from something nervous and unstable into something sustainable, even comfortable.

It is also a book that gleefully uses comparison to argue its point.  If you don’t know this already, artists consistently use comparative language to jog both themselves and the surrounding citizenry into an appreciation of what they do.  Art is like food!  If you do not have it you will starve and die!  Art is a science!  If we don’t have it things will not get better, questions will not get asked, problems will not get fixed!  Artists are shamans!  You will not go to heaven if you do not support and/or pay attention to us!

The reason we use these similies/metaphors I suppose is because our society is still not comfortable with the word ‘artist’.  ‘Artist’ is not automatically understood as an essential part of human life; therefore we have to use comparatives to remind ourselves that it is.

I like telling the story of why my friend, metal sculptor Dave Hind, chooses the label ‘maker’ over ‘artist’.  It allows him to maintain a practice wherein on any particular day he can alternate from building a set of stairs, repairing a weld on a neighbour’s trailer, tending his bees, and inventing a towering found metal sculpture, all without contradicting his self-identity.  The word ‘maker’ removes an otherwise uncomfortable pretense from his vocation; it makes him decidedly more functional, approachable even.

Here’s another example.  On my Facebook feed I attentively look forward to Andrew McPhail’s ongoing photo-documents of our city; they are built around queries such as how reflected light and shadow change architecture, or how text in the public sphere becomes subtly absurd.  I have no idea how McPhail’s explorations are a commodifiable part of his artistic practice; perhaps they don’t need to be.  They are components of McPhail’s own ongoing mode of inquiry.  As such, it puts him into some sort of ‘artist as historian/researcher/explorer’ pocket. 

I also look forward of Facebook to the sequence of collages Lisa Pijuan-Nomura posts along with details of the time it took her to make and the price it sold for (a collage that takes 47 minutes to piece together sells for 47$ for example).  This premise for making art is also a subtle bit of provocation that puts her into a slightly different ‘artist as worker/activist’ category.

In the last couple of years I have toyed with the comparison: ‘artist as fraud/charlatan/pretender/huckster’, not just because it exposes a common accusation, but also because I think it can be a useful exercise in redemption.  Reclaiming the word ‘charlatan’ requires you to believe in lying, pretending, fakery, as valid tools of an exploration.   More than any of the aforementioned comparisons, this is the one that puts me most at ease.

It’s unsettling to think of ‘artist’ as being such an amorphous label.  But as Simonet’s argues in his book, ‘artist’ is not a job, or even a specific set of skills.  Rather it’s a kooky mission, a bigger purpose that attaches to you and refuses to let go.   It’s good to have language on your side for that kind of journey.

Happy Holidays.

If you are interested: