“Nobody likes your work…when are you going to do something different? It’s too inaccessible. Nobody can understand it.” (“So what,” would be a bit too glib in response.)
“So…when you say ‘nobody’ who exactly do you mean?” I wondered aloud.
“All those people who never buy your paintings…that’s who I mean.”
Well, fair enough I guess. If they’re not buying because they don’t like what they see, then I should make something different, something they like and “get,” right?
Problem is, I never considered painting for people who don’t like what I do. And, truth be told, I never considered becoming a decorator. Sure, it might be nice to have an audience so enthusiastic and intrigued that they just have to have one of my paintings. But do I paint to be ‘liked’? I hope not. And then, is being purchased the measure of success? I guess it could be…if you need to eat…or if you need the social appeal sales afford. Real needs to be sure, but they can also be pretty suffocating.
Is it any consolation to claim the company of numerous artists who are now recognized as accomplished or whose work is now deemed important but who failed to sell in their lifetime or who sold only late in their career? What I share with those artists is not their accomplishment, their genius, nor even potential significance in the history of art. I share their lack of success impressing the ordinary buyer of my day. In theirs they too did work “nobody liked,” work that one might say could not be seen—perhaps because it was “inaccessible” to an audience that could not “understand” it. Barnett Newman for example, who nobody liked or purchased for most of his artistic career, suggested that when art follows familiar themes or conventional manners of depiction, no matter how likable or reassuring it becomes, it lacks meaning and fails to produce a subject that matters.
This is a dilemma—for both the artist and the audience. More so in a culture of capitalist thinking, values and behavior, engulfed by an environment rooted in mass appeal and monetization. To make art with a subject that matters and meaning worthy of the effort it takes to discern, an artist must somehow find the means requisite to resist the pressures of dilution & commodification so that value in one’s work is not measured in sales & trendiness. Nothing new here….
Thoreau begins Walden, appropriately, by discussing “Economy” and acknowledging that the “business” he was minding would not provide him “a sinecure with [even] a moderate allowance.” But, he continues, “I have not set my heart on that…I did not think it worth my while studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my [work], instead I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling [it]. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but of one kind.” There are others. Here’s one of those others from Kurt Vonnegut: “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” That’s all. Just do it. Don’t set your heart on being liked, understood, or provided with a sinecure. Keep it where it belongs, in your art.