Trapped in an Artist Cage

I have built myself an Artist cage with my interpretation and subsequent conformation to the term Artist.

In 1993 I was working as a sheet metal worker, Sign Division, in New York City. At Serota Signs, we had a contract to fabricate works for artists such as Bruce Nauman and Stephen Antonakos. These works were mostly neon pieces of art. The artists would come to the shop with ideas which we would then figure out how to make and create, and the artists would then exhibit the finished pieces.

As usual I was working on my personal projects on the boss’s time and had them stashed under the bench. Stephen Antonakos spotted one of them and asked to see it. It was a mockup in copper and wood for a neon sculpture I had intended for my living room. Mr. Antonakos told me I was wasting my time as a fabricator because I was an artist and should be making my own art.

I had an opportunity years later to run in to him at a photo shop in the village. We were both picking up slides of our art and I thanked him for the words of encouragement which had served me well after I got laid off as a sheet metal worker. Now, thinking back I am not so sure it was a service.

I was making art for me, my family and friends. I was outside the art world and quite content. There were no thoughts of galleries, pricing, career, or market. Sure I was an artist. I was born with the desire to create order out of chaos; to find patterns and to highlight them; to tell stories and share discoveries. It is often said that it takes years to recover from art school, and I am wondering if it is not so much the school as the title and its cultural perception.

Artist as Capitalist

There is nothing wrong with making money in a capitalist environment but the artist as capitalist is a rarified role. If my perception of my role as an artist involves an ever increasing market value and a constant maintenance of my public perception then I have become a business entity. That is not a role I was born to inhabit. In fact, it is a role I have come to despise. Nothing new here. An artist who isn’t a good business person is something I hear about a lot from my fellows. I don’t even know where I am going with this. It is nothing new to me or to you. I just miss making art for art’s sake.

I belong to an artist group in a relatively small community in Southern California. We have a gallery, contests, and an opportunity to display and sell our art. There are some retired business people finding their creativity and some lifelong artists enjoying their talents. I envy the freedom I see here to try new mediums to spend months on a landscape painting and to sell it for next to nothing.

Art World Mentality

I am stuck in this New York City art world mentality of art as a business and artist as a personality. There are hundreds of thousands of artists for whom this is never a consideration and they are free to do what they want for fun, family and friends. How did I get myself in to this headspace? It keeps me from painting and I certainly don’t make sculpture anymore.

I am looking to sell work to make room for new work. I have told myself if I can do that I will feel like making more but it’s a limitation, a boundary that serves to keep me blocked. I have a host of such stories I have heard and adopted which serve to keep me in a little box I call artist. I have a friend who calls herself a maker. A new term to free herself from the mental chains of artist. It’s not a bad idea considering my interpretation of the role has become so narrow and includes so many young people for whom the term is another lifestyle choice.

So maybe I’ll become a maker. I don’t really like the sound of it though. It sounds a lot like work, and I didn’t get into this to have to go back to work. Fabricator? Hmmm, sounds like a visual cover band. Journeyman has a nice socialist ring to it.

Artist of the Future

Assemble, the British design and architecture collective, just won the Turner prize and they don’t even think of themselves as artists. I admire the community-oriented work they do which has now been co-opted by the art world in the form of a Turner prize. Will this have the same effect as Mr. Antonakos’ blessing on my sculpture mock up? Will they start showing up at parties and having unintelligible installations at art fairs? It remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure and that is the term artist is expanding so maybe there is hope for my constrictive definition and therefore hope for my creativity.

detail from a 4k video prepared for viewing using the Depict system.

detail from a 4k video prepared for viewing using the Depict system.

Leave a Reply