C’est La Vie

By John Stillmunks in Misc > Art Opinion

I had to run back into the house last Friday to get another tourniquet.

As I raced back out I passed the open laptop in the kitchen and saw about 20 messages with the name of this essay I had recently written in the subject line.

It appeared to me that someone had taken exception to something that I wrote about art fairs, juries, and the current art market at the shows and festivals.

The essay I wrote was entitled “Not Everyone is an Artist” and was posted on steinsalon.com along with some other sites under that title. The title on EmptyEasel was changed by a well-intentioned editor to “No, Not Everybody’s an Artist (despite what they may think).”

It is not my readers’ fault for appearing to not understand what I wrote, it is my fault for not writing it well enough. I am going to try to right my wrong and I beg forgiveness from my reader(s) for my demonstrated inability to communicate my thoughts effectively in my essay.

I began the essay with two arguably unpleasant images created by two recently deceased phenomenal painters. Any two artists could have been chosen, but the idea was to show two compositions by established artists that are rather difficult to appreciate. I chose work painted by people that are equally difficult to understand because they functioned on a level different than many of us currently are acquainted with in our work and experience.

My question to the readers was: Would these images be accepted by a Zapplication jury into a show? Does the fact that these two artists are accepted in the art world by learned critics, academia, colleagues, aficionados, writers, and most importantly, collectors and patrons, (i.e. buyers) matter? Is the fact that both of these artists lived tormented (albeit self-imposed but, difficult) lives—does it matter what they sacrificed in order to push the envelope further for painting itself—art for art’s sake?

These are difficult questions that rise to a whole different level when it comes to the current jury system for shows:

What if Freud or Twombly did not have professionally made images at 1920×1920 pixels saved as .jpg with RGB and no “hot spots”? What if they did not learn or hire someone who knew the system—shouldn’t an intelligent, art-savvy jury pool be able to know what they are seeing?

What if they did not have that “wow” factor in the booth shot? Isn’t the painting the “wow”?

What if they don’t have a booth shot? Is a good retail display indicative of an artist—the final determination of what is and is not an artist?

What if they use an EZ-Up instead of a Trimline? Propanels instead of mesh walls? The display matters more than the work, the art itself?

What if six months before the show their paintings are judged by a panel of experts and/or a promoter/director as just simply not good enough for a show vis-a-vis very nice technical paintings that would look just fabulous in someone’s kitchen or perhaps fourteen booths of $20 yard art assembled from found objects by any number of back yard tinker-ers who managed to each get a hold of an acetylene torch without burning their houses down?

How about if their work was rejected in favor of a potter with a really well-worn set of molds that “people come to the show just to see” every year after year after year after year?

These are important questions. Would Lucian Freud be juried out of an art show in favor of imported copies from China? Would Cy Twombly lose a spot to a buy/sell operator or importer?

Maybe more importantly, I asked—“Would they care?” Do artists care about the current art fair situation with vanilla booths, stamped out displays, and standardized shows with fewer and fewer sales, less and less interest by patrons, and more and more distractions like stilt-walkers, fireworks, carnival food booths, and corporate booths hawking everything from dog treats to window treatments?

Should an artist even apply to be part of what the art shows have become? At anywhere between $25-$50 for a “Jury Fee”—a non-refundable fee charged by shows just to apply—and booth fees anywhere between about $250-$850 if accepted, I would certainly want to know who else is in the show – artists or craftspeople? This is especially important if travel and hotel expenses are involved because that all keeps the meter running.

Is my neighbor at the show going to be a sculptor who can turn a piece of exotic wood into jaw-dropping sea grass sculpture that not only appears to be dancing underwater, but is dancing underwater, or a salesman hawking some wooden puzzles with fancy veneers and mother-of-pearl insets made by some studio in upstate New York as his own work, his own vision, his own artistic expression? Maybe it doesn’t matter, because the people coming to the show buy not only his “product” but his line of bull as well.


It matters.

These questions are more important to artists than whether or not someone feels slighted or offended by an essay. In my first piece, I asked if everyone gets to be an artist—if everyone is an artist. The question was roundabout, rhetorical, and answered in the essay itself when I cited examples of non-artists exhibiting their wares at the art fairs and festivals.

It’s all too easy to call oneself or someone else an “artist” in our current society. For so many years in human history being an artist was one step laterally and literally from being homeless and decrepit. It rarely, if ever, rose above that level. Now, to call someone an artist is often synonymous with being called a “master” or “wizard” or an “expert.”

Is an artist actually an “expert”?


Frank Zappa said something to the effect of: “being an artist means making something out of nothing and selling it.” But it means much more and always has—Freud and Twombly were two examples I used.

An artist takes something out of his or her heart and soul and places it on that page, canvas, song, or whatever. Technique may or may not play a part in the expression of an artist. Many artists throughout history had a horribly difficult time understanding or accepting what it means to be an artist—the ups, downs, benefits, and sacrifices—often with dire consequences.

Anyone can be taught technique. There are many more technical writers, painters, sculptors, singers, actors, photographers, artisans, craftsmen, etc. than artists—there always will be. Similarly, there will always be a place in the market for imported prints, painted lightbulbs, crafted aprons, puppets, and various/sundry craft items. These are honest and noble ways for merchants, craftsmen, and honest business people to earn a living. But it does not mean they are artists.

A person cannot be taught to be an artist. Not everyone is an artist. An artist takes the camera, brush, voice or pen to an entirely different level—not always a better level from an esthetic perspective, but a unique place . . . . a place only Cy Twombly or Lucian Freud could take us for example.

Not everyone is an artist.

Is there a place for artists in the art shows as they have devolved? Will the less-than-pleasing esthetic be allowed into the show under the current system in favor of “what sells best is best” or “whoever sells it best is best” mentality?

How many Freud’s and Twombly’s are being juried out in favor of a “product” that might sell well at the show? What is the jury’s role in an art fair and are they competent, capable, and willing to do it?

I maintained in my first essay there are people in the market that know art when they see it. Somehow, some way—the artists and the patrons manage to get together. If we are going to call them art shows, how can we encouraged more artists and patrons to participate?

Or should we call the art shows something else so we can understand the difference between artist and artisan in terms what is available for the patrons at an art show or festival?

Until some answers start becoming apparent, I believe there is but one constant in the world of art: not everyone is an artist.

C’est la vie.

To learn more about John and his art, please visit his website at johnstillmunks.com.


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