While I’m generally pretty positive when I write for other arts blogs, I like to think of Art at Bay as a buffer to the unconditional positive reinforcement we’ve grown up with. If you’re a fledgling artist hoping to (or already) exhibit your art publicly here is some straight advice from an art critic: avoid these habits like a swarm of killer bees.
On the other hand if you’re an artist and hope to not be taken seriously by respectable galleries, artists, and dealers consider this your to-do list.
1. Self-indulgent self-expression
Contrary to what your middle school art teacher taught you, self-expression is not the whole point of art. Please save that for your diary. There’s nothing wrong with art being rooted in personal experience. However, art that is intended to be seen by the public should be made like it was intended that way. For professional artists, what other people think does matter – without the audience to look at your work, there would be no reason for you to exhibit it. Thus, (unless you’re a living master) the only people interested in your personal life are likely the people actually in your personal life. If you’re attempting to drop this habit, try to zoom out on your life and focus in on a bigger picture that encompasses not only you but also your audience.
2. A weird painting is not a surrealist one
Weird and surreal are not synonyms. Also, surreal and Surrealism are not the same. If you have a difficult time telling the difference, it’s likely an art history deficiency. Here’s a one question quiz: Name three surrealists.
If all you could come up with is Salvador Dali (and/or Magrite) you have some reading that should precede your painting. Get to know how the movement was influenced by Dada, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. It’ll not only leave you more informed (and likely less enchanted with Dali and Magrite), but should add some depth to your art as well.
3. Abstract as an excuse
Perhaps my most common complaint about bad art is that the artist is producing abstract work only because they lack the skills to produce figurative art. You use Photoshop, right?
Think of abstraction like a Photoshop filter. You don’t begin with the filter. You add the filter to the photo. Painting abstractly has little to do with making a mess on the canvas. Doing it well entails knowing a thing or two about composition, color, rhythm, perspective, etc. In short, to bend and break the rules, you should be very familiar with them first. Otherwise you can look foolish thinking your newest piece is a real envelope pusher, when in reality it would look terribly passe by 1960 – fifty years ago!
4. Skull=death; I get it, I’m not a moron
Much like bad writing is full of clichés, bad art is often filled with visual clichés. Thus, let me take this opportunity to let you know that I understand skulls=death, globe=world, clock=time, heart=love. This type of overused symbolism is the aesthetic equivalent of baby talk. Making use of these visual clichés gives me the impression that the artist thinks I’m an idiot that can’t understand the piece unless it’s chewed for me and spit into my gullet.
Try putting to work more obscure or specific symbolism. Also, be comfortable with the fact that sometimes art doesn’t mean anything. At times a work of art is only a work of art – it doesn’t stand for anything but itself.
5. Good artists are hard workers, not delusional psychotics (usually)
Hopefully this comes as a relief – it turns out you don’t have to be so emo or eccentric. The myth of the “tortured artist” is just that – a myth. While some great artists have had serious mental issues, the majority were clear thinkers with a rigorous work ethic. Real mental illness stifles creativity. At times I suffer from serious depression. Nothing kills my creativity like a bout of depression. Worse, nothing incites someone to ignore an artists mental illness like belief in the so-called “tortured artist”.
If you enjoy thinking of yourself as the “tortured artist” type, please drop the act, and get to work. Good art deserves hours of thought and hard work. If you seriously are “tortured”, please don’t write it off to being a “tortured artist” and get some help.
6. Depictions of sunsets are like real sunsets…but much more boring
There are a few reasons why taking photos of/painting sunsets as fine art are a waste of your time and ours. First, though they are beautiful, sunsets are unremarkable. If you want to take photos of a rarely seen tribe of people – awesome! I already see a sunset once a day. With a sunset painting added to the mix, I’ll be seeing sunsets more than I see my wife. Also, photos/paintings of sunsets are like funny stories that require you say “I guess you had to be there” after you tell it. Basically, a sunset photo is a much more boring version of something that’s extremely easy for everyone to see for themself.
7. Ego-tripping is counter productive
Many scams in the art world play to artist’s egos and their desperate desire for recognition. Seriously research juried exhibitions: there are some legit ones out there, but many are not worth it. Also, avoid pay-to-exhibit galleries: they’re not only expensive but a sign that your art could use some maturing. Paying a gallery to exhibit your work is like paying someone to go on a date with you – if you have enough self-respect you’d rightly expect it to be free.
I’ve watched successful artists closely; I’m an art critic, after all. There are two specific things they do that many struggling artists neglect. 1. They work hard at making highly original, informed, and creative art. 2. They constantly support other artists, people, and organizations they believe in with their time, knowledge, and funds.
I really don’t mean to be a grouch. It just irks me to see publicly displayed bad art, made out of ignorance, or worse, out of egoism. Perhaps when I’m in a less snarky mood I’ll actually post a list of helpful habits. Suffice it to say for now that continual work, learning, and supporting are the most helpful habits of an effective artist.
If you wish to further dwell on bad art check out the Museum of Bad Art.