I was recently asked at the last moment to judge a local art show and I was happy to help out. I am always interested in supporting any gallery or artist-group that offers an opportunity to people who don’t pursue art full-time. Or who wants to stay local with their work.
I drove up to the gallery and spent about three hours going over the work on the wall. It was hung well and with care and I did my best to indicate the paintings which called out for some sort of recognition. (And as per norm, there was more paintings owed respect than I had been given awards for…) It wasn’t an easy process, it never is, for these kind of exhibitions generally encompass a wide range of experience, skill, technical ability, media, and subject matter. There is always some exceptional work intermixed with the interesting, and the — ummm well, the less interesting. Which is great. For again, I believe any venue willing to offer an artist an opportunity to show work is good. Plus, it was obvious this was a community of artists, people who knew each other. Also a fine thing.
So I drove up to judge the work and at the end of the three hours offered to come back again to talk to the group as a whole, and perhaps share the process I used to critically evaluate the art.
However, the day before doing so I received an odd and slightly disturbing email. Anonymously of course, as such things are, from a person who felt their work, or the work of another person, had been unfairly passed over. Even diss’ed.
The subject line of the email read: “FROM: Your worst nightmare [email redacted]” And as you can guess, it immediately went downhill from there, accusing me of accusing one of the artists in the show of being a fraud, excoriating me for my lack of artistic discrimination, and ending with the threat, they’d make sure I’d never judge another show in [city name redacted] again!!!! (I was so impressed with the number of exclamation marks it felt necessary to include them.)
The most curious part of the email to me was the accusation of fraud. A thing I would never say even if I had thought it. It indicated one of two things: either the mysterious sender of the email had been in the room with me (creepy, but unlikely), or something I had actually said while I was there had become conflated beyond recognition. Or amp’ed with several heaping doses of “I’ve got a chip on the shoulder”. Dunno.
My first reaction to the email was to lean back in my chair and silently think “Wow”, followed by the question of whether or not I should show up as agreed. After all, the sender of the email might be present, yes?
But I decided to follow through anyway, and when I walked into the exhibition space I saw a good turnout. On the drive up I’d spent some time mulling over what to open with, and decided upon my stock “You can never second-guess what the judge will pick so don’t even try” speech. But no. Not that one.
(It’s true that you can’t second-guess a judge. You might spend a little time on the internet, but you’ll rarely find enough information about what the judge might be looking for — and even if you do — he or she may still surprise you. But hey, I’ve now veered off-topic for this post…)
So, after quickly scanning the crowd for signs of Squeaky From, Valerie Solanas, or John Hinckley, I dropped my prepared opener and launched into something else entirely. The “It’s essential to be able to separate yourself from your work” speech.
It basically goes like this, cut down to its shortest version . . .
“This is a crazy business to be in. It’s crazy to make or sell art, and sometimes it is kind of crazy to buy it too. And the craziness can come at you from any direction in the most unexpected way.
So if you — as an artist — cannot learn to separate yourself from your work then it may turn you into one of the crazies too. And really, despite the tiresome media-created myths about what an artist is, or should be, there is no point to joining that special club. There’s no percentage in it. I’m not saying that my anonymous emailing-troll was crazy. I’m sure ‘he’ (just a guess, okay?…) is a perfectly nice fellow. The kind of person who is well-liked and polite so long as he is accorded his artistic due by the people he respects. But if you or I put our heart into a painting, and then elect to hang it on a wall, yet forget to pull our heart back out of it before the public can see it — then what we hope to do with our lives — nay, what we dream to do with our lives, will become painful and destructive in short order. I know, I’ve lived it. It is, after all, just a painting on the wall. It isn’t the You or I of What We Are. And trust me on this next one: There will always be someone, somewhere, who will disagree with whatever you or I decide is worthy of becoming a painting, and if we can’t deal with that fact then this crazy business ain’t the place to be . . .”
So it is helpful for us artists to learn how to separate ourselves from our work once we decide to frame it. When we hang our art on the wall it stops being exclusively ours. Even if we were the ones who painted it, we still aren’t allowed exclusive rights to its preciousness. It now belongs to the world. As it should since we were the ones who put it there.