Navigating Artistic Dissonance
For an up-and-coming artist, there is usually little harmony between inner and outer pressure. Within, she is a bubbling whirl of new ideas and perspectives. Outside, popular opinion pushes and pulls her artistic independence from one wall of doubt to the other. She wants to experiment and grow; yet she also wants to please and make a living. What noise should she listen to? How can she make sense of this dissonance?
I recently began working for (what I consider to be) the best gallery in my city. The owner markets art effortlessly because she genuinely enjoys the beauty of every painting she owns. The paintings on her walls are far from being interchangeable. Some are bursting with vivid colors; some exhibit a monochromatic sarcasm. Yet, it is through their mutual dance with reality that they form a coherent whole.
One day, being curious by nature, she asked me about my own latest works. Reluctantly, I typed my URL into the web browser. As I expected, she observed my embryonic departure from academic art with a respectful impassivity. As she got to my “Academic Works’’ section she exclaimed: “See! I like this. Oh! And this one too’’ while pointing at a decent oil still life and a classical chiaroscuro portrait. Those works were indeed crafted with most of the technical tricks I was lucky enough to learn at the Florence Academy of Art. However, in situ, those paintings were hardly distinguishable from the works of any other student. As I explained this to her, she gave me a glance of embryonic hope.
Art is one of the few professions where rules are learned in order to be selectively broken. Those who follow the rules at 100% do not create anything of merit and can hardly be considered artists. The others choose the percentage they are willing to bend. In this matter, we are instantly reminded of the modern iconoclasts: Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Picasso and even Duchamp. Yet, old masters such as Giotto, Caravaggio and Velazquez did a fair amount of selective rule bending as well. Unfortunately for 21st century artists, there are hardly any rules left to dismantle or exaggerate. However, originality is still expected.
The idea of releasing the anchor as soon as people respond positively to what you create is a tempting one. At first sight, people will always love well-drawn things and especially well-drawn people. Their validation will be a friendly pat on the ego. The other seductive idea is to never listen to anyone, think of yourself as a misunderstood genius, throw all the standards out the window and just create. Thus, you might become the fox who stops jumping for the grapes by concluding that they are undesirable. This imagined self-importance is just another warm pat on the ego. The most rewarding path resides between those extremes. True art is a balancing act. You want to course correct without dissolving in the sea of opinion.
Therefore, I have my navigating tools in hand and my stem is pointed towards the unknown horizon. I don’t know if I will discover a new continent but I know for sure that I won’t fall from the edge of the Earth. Once I reach the shore, I just might say “See! I like this.” and hear it echo.