I mentioned in a previous post that I've been following the Mark Kostabi Method for the past three years. I decided recently that it was taking too long, or maybe that I'm not applying the Method properly. I decided I should do what people always advise when trying to break into any business: Be methodical and persistent.
So I've taken it upon myself to visit every gallery I can, starting with Chelsea and then moving on to the Lower East Side and maybe Williamsburg. And I'm only limiting myself to those areas because I have to draw the line somewhere. I went to Chelsea Art Galleries Dot Com where you can helpfully find a list of every art gallery in New York City, just about, and get the list by street address.
It's a very long list. There are over three hundred listed galleries in Chelsea alone.
I started going down the list last Tuesday. It is with a heavy heart and very weary feet (to say nothing of calves, knees, thighs, ass and back) that I type this on a rainy Thursday. (I was supposed to go back out today but I'm really too tired. Also, it's raining. Did I mention that?)
My heart is heavy because I visited somewhere around forty galleries in one day and I realized something: There are a lot of galleries showing a lot of art.
When I said this to my long-suffering wife Dawn, she said, "But isn't that a good thing? Doesn't that mean there are plenty of places to show your art?"
Maybe. But what it means to me is this: The art world is enormous. Absolutely burgeoning with artists being shown by galleries. And in all of that I'm supposed to think I can find a dealer who can somehow convince enough buyers to purchase my art so I can make a living. How is that even possible? There simply cannot be enough art customers to make a dent in the market. There's simply too much supply and it's impossible there's enough demand. Impossible.
Even if I were confident that I'm the world's greatest artist, I'd have to be daunted by the numbers. And I'm not confident in that. There's no way for me to be confident in that. In fact I'm fairly sure now that I will never be confident in that. Because how can one tell if one's a good artist?
How do you determine if an artist is any good? Over at Franklin's Art Blog the commenters all seem pretty clear on this, but to me they're all ultimately dancing around the final analysis. Because they talk about humbling yourself to the demands of your medium, they talk about work and discipline. Work hard and you will be rewarded.
But what's working hard in art, in painting? What's it look like? When I was a computer programmer, I knew what working hard was like in my profession. You tried to take what my professor Derek Morris called the customer's "mumble mumble" and turn it into logical structures. You guessed at how long it would take you to figure out what the customer wanted and make it for them. You wrote code and designed data structures and you made sure you had it done by the date you promised it. If your programs didn't work, if you were late, if your work was unsatisfactory, you tried harder next time.
Likewise, when my father was an auto mechanic, I saw what hard work was. You figured out what was wrong with something and you fixed it. In a way, that was a lot like computer programming. But you also pulled wrenches and lifted heavy things and stretched and squeezed and banged your knuckles a lot. You finished jobs by the date you'd promised. You stayed late if you had to and you went in early to get the work done. Working hard had a pretty clear definition.
But what's working hard in painting? Everyone agrees you can go to the studio every day and paint a painting and spend months and months on just one and still end up with a crappy painting. You can practice and gain skills, maybe, but even those are questionable: What's skill in painting? Color matching? Representation? Grasp of the Munsell value scale? Composition?
My old Glee Club director, Professor William F. Ondrick, always liked to say to us during practice, "There's no substitute for the work, not even genius." The work there was clear, too: Come in on time, follow the director, get the notes right. Practice pracitce practice. We'd spend hours plugging, going over tricky phrases to make sure we had the timing and inflection just right.
I won't dispute the value of practice. Of work in that sense. But it doesn't lead inexorably to goodness, does it? To quality? No, it doesn't. You can get better but are you really good? If you're a computer programmer or an auto mechanic, you can answer that question. If you're a singer in a Glee Club, well, it's harder but there's still not much wiggle room (I was never very good myself). But if you're an artist?
The only real way to tell if you're any good as an artist is to have lots of people see your work and decide, for themselves, if it's any good. If enough people think you're good, then you are. How many is enough? My thinking: More than will see it in your lifetime. The culture decides what's valuable, what isn't, and it takes a long time for those decisions to be made. In the meantime, though, you can get an idea, maybe. Maybe enough of an idea to sustain you while you're alive. Maybe not. But it's all there is.
So the main thing, for an artist, is to find an audience. To get people to look at your work and decide for themselves if you're any good. That's what it's all about, then: Finding that audience. Getting the work out there. Getting it seen. Communication.
And how is that possible today?
It works for some artists. What makes them different? Which is like asking,
what's success? Just a few quick names off the top of my head, living artists who are well known: Chuck Close, Elizabeth Peyton, Eric Fischl. Why them and not anyone else?
Do they work harder than other artists?
Are they better than other artists?
Is it luck? Is it persistence? Is it consistency? Happenstance? Magic?
Out of the masses they emerge. They've been chosen. By whom? In what way? Is there something to be done here? Is it all just arbitrary?
With all that's going on how could I possibly get noticed?
I've been going to galleries in Chelsea for three years and I haven't even set foot in a third of them. My journey on Tuesday made it clear to me it's going to be extremely difficult for one person even briefly to visit every single gallery. And that's just one neighborhood in one city on the planet. There are only about 2 million households in the United States with an annual income over $250,000. That's approximately the fine art market right there. You do the math.