how to be a contemporary artist

Tuesday 30 September 2008

Before you make or do any art, you must think alot about stuff… and perhaps read some books by notable philosophers such as Baudrillard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Bataille, Heidegger, Foucault… These writers will change your view of the world. It will not be enough to say I am inspired by… or want to encapsulate so-and-so quality…

It is much more academic to explore themes such as the human condition, communication, personal identity, gender, society, religion, politics, culture, technology, science and nature, the planet, the universe. Your perceived or intended audience is always paramount – to whom are you communicating and why? You will need to challenge accepted notions or perceptions of seemingly ordinary happenings or mundane objects for it to be received as high art. For instance, to create art within an architectural space, you could reinvent or redefine it using a range of non-traditional media, such as video projections, suspended objects, sound, anything which alters or distorts reality and brings into question the relevance of past, present or future events.

Artworks which are time-based, either through a series of moving images or performance-related or re-enacted (preferably through a willing public engagement) are good visitor attractors. Deconstructing, recycling or simply re-siting found objects is also a very good idea as the physical, tactile quality of materials reflect a sense of the cultural or historical perspective you wish to convey.

Light, ambient sound, layers of transparency or the invisibility of materials will project ideas of fragility, stillness or transience, and can also draw attention to the surrounding space (the context). Solid-type objects act as deliberate obstructions or interventions within the enclosed space, instigating a much-needed critical debate between the viewer(s), the artist’s intentions and the physical artwork, which is a core principle in site-specific, installation art. However, absurd juxtaposition, overblown kitsch, horror and vulgarity should be used with the utmost care; if it’s not Duchampian, Koonsish, or made by a couple (same or other), then it’s quite likely to be viewed as art for art’s sake, simply masquerading as risque, thought-provoking art.

A supporting artist statement for your work acts as a press release, editorial and exhibition review material for the (sometimes lazy) art media, so use communicative, dynamic words such as: subvert, intervene, integrate, interrogate, challenge, alter, extend, locate, dislocate, unauthorised, re-enacted, absence, presence, liminality, boundaries, thematic, critical, enquiry, investigation, systems. Highlighting historical references are very good for contextualising your ideas and authenticating the overall purpose of the work.

The use of graphical maps, charts, diagrams, linked events, repetitive processes or controlled systems of making, taxonomies, collections or categorisations are all very good methods and strategies to give a deeper sense of narrative (and deep meaning) in the artworks. You could also refer to the work of other respected artists, key thinkers or writers, but only back this up with a quote if it acts as the starting point or departure for your own work – you do not want to be narrowly defined by their work, unless appropriation is a key aspect of your practice.

Your current strategy or approach to your work (art) defines your artistic practice, so always begin an artist’s statement by stating this body/collection/series of work questions assumptions, highlights differences, challenges preconceptions, etc. Other words to convey an element of astute professionalism in your art/work include: engagement, debate, transfer, examine, authorship, ownership, relationship, establishment, globalisation, issues, quasi, methodology, schema, phenomenological.

Paid projects are sometimes referred to as artist commissions, whether for permanent public display or a private gallery space. Unpaid or unfunded series of works could be process or concept-based and this can usefully be referred to as thematic research and development, so include it in your resume for any future artist funding proposals, international art competitions, conventions, symposia, events or exhibition submissions.

So, to summarise; identify an interesting context, location or past event in which to develop or produce your artwork – this could be in response to a call for interest in a public art commission, a themed exhibition or an application to a major funding organisation such as the Arts Council. Research the history and culture of the location or event. Find and make new connections between that event and your own history or life experiences. Perhaps combine some ready-made or unconventional materials in your proposed artwork to convey a particular perspective or message – this need not be the answer or the resolution of an idea as art is much more tantalising to its audience when it subtly questions things or contains some deliberate ambiguity.

It will be important to build a network of associated technical specialists in which to call upon to make the actual artwork – after all, you are not a qualified or experienced cinematographer, electrician, architect or engineer (yet). Acknowledge that the artwork will have to be validated by some form of public response or engagement. Perhaps make it with many miniscule or moving parts or construct it incredibly large in scale and site it somewhere quite desolate but potentially open to the public and arts media, as anything that fits snugly in an A4 envelope or the back of a volvo estate will only be seen as sold-out commercial art, of little interest to serious commentators, critics or curators of art.

Lastly, if you can do all of the above within a practice-based PhD, then you’re really cooking on creative gas!

P.s. Of course, this has been a gentle satire on the making of contemporary art, but much of it actually holds true. Artists should not be just defined by their chosen method of work (so, an artist likes to use paint, the vehicle of painting is vacuous without a purpose). The reason to make work is what defines and shapes artists, who we are and how we see things – agents of change perhaps not, but artists should seek to continually explore ideas both within and beyond the immediate context in which they live and work. Materials or processes are chosen as the most appropriate concrete, visual language in which to realise the original intentions…

This thesis is still a work in progress, I am still learning….