Advice For The Young Artist
I've been involved in photoland for a while now, wearing a number of different hats. I'm am educator, a photographer, a writer. I'm listing these in alphabetical order, because on different days, I see which one is most important differently. While there are a lot of things I still need to figure out, I think I've also learned some things. At times, I think it would have been nice if I had been able to get advice -- instead of having to figure things out on my own.
I thought I'd share some advice. You can make of that what you will. The advice is in no way exhaustive, and your experience might end up being different. But I hope it will useful enough so you avoid some of the problems I've run into.
First of all, before you do anything you need to be very clear about one fact: there are a lot of things that are really, really fucked up in the world of photography, and you will not be able to change anything (at least in the beginning). Consequently, whatever it is you want to do, put your own mental health front and center. Take care of yourself first before you help others.
Note that I just wrote "... before you help others." Don't be the person for whom that sentence stops with "take care of yourself first". There are a lot of people who operate that way, and that's their choice. It's not a choice I want to make. The first piece of advice I've always given my students is: be generous with other artists. Take care of other artists, whatever form that might take.
This is a cut-throat world with very severely limited resources. At this stage, the larger public is fully committed to neoliberal thinking according to which everything needs to be measured by its utility (which means: can it be sold and for how much?). Any act of generosity is thus also a political act: it's an act of resistance that shows that collectively, we can do better -- if (and only if) we decide to do so. Take care of other artists. Be generous.
As a consequence of the neoliberal situation we're in, resources for artists are very, very sparse. The odds of you receiving a grant or prize are minimal. This obviously is a situation I find dreadful. But like I wrote above, put your own mental health front and center. It's easy to go out with your friends, have a few drinks, and rant about how terrible this situation is. But don't get pulled into that mindset too much. Blow off steam every once in a while, but spend the rest of your time funneling your energy into something creative.
For example, don't view a grant application in terms of what you might get (you won't). View it as a business exercise in getting word out about your work. View it as an opportunity to write about your work, with you as the audience. If your writing helps you clarify your own thinking about your work, the grant then is just an added bonus (should you receive it).
If an application costs money, make sure you have a budget for that. File it under "marketing". Obviously, you might find the idea of marketing as distasteful as I do. But if you treat it as this thing you have to do, and there is your budget, then paying the money doesn't feel like a loss. It's just some number you tell your accountant when they do your taxes.
(I'm not very good at this myself. Earlier this year, I decided to submit to a competition. It was $50, and I thought, in this particular case, I would make an exception to my rule of not submitting to competitions. And then when I got the usual passive-aggressive rejection email I was mad at myself for setting myself up that way. Like I said at the beginning, I'm still learning myself.)
When you think about your work -- your photographs, your books, always focus on the work itself. This is maybe the most difficult thing to do, but it's probably the most important piece of advice I have for you: define what success means for you in artistic terms. If you want to be an artist, success ought to be defined by the work itself. The work sets its parameters, and you have to follow them.
Consequently, success means to have achieved your goals, to have created something that works 100% (or, realistically speaking, 95% -- I'll get to that below). That is your success. Anything on top of that -- a gallery exhibition or some grant or prize or whatever -- that's just a bonus. Don't work towards the bonus because you have no control over getting it.
Whatever you make, always access it on its own terms. Don't look at numbers, don't compare yourself with other artists. If you make a book and 100 people buy it and are incredibly happy with it, that's success. Of course, it would be nice to sell 1,000 copies, right? But why is 1,000 better than 100? There are so many reasons why focusing on the numbers could just be way off. Maybe your work is very niche, maybe it's very complex, maybe it's super specific.
Thus, don't look at an absolute audience size. Instead, look at the size of your audience: realistically speaking, how many people will be interested in what you make? If that's 100, that doesn't mean that your work has less relevance than for someone who reaches 1,000 people. Don't buy into the neoliberal thinking that only believes in utility and numbers.
Focus on what you want to do, and do it well -- for the people who are genuinely interested in it.
But also do it for yourself first. I really mean this. Always try to make something with yourself, ten years in the future, as your most important audience. Imagine yourself ten years in the future, taking (for example) the book you made from your shelf and looking at it: you will want to believe that ten years in the future, you'll be proud of what you made (even if you have grown and can see how you now could do it better).
Thus, never do something to satisfy others and never buy into some fad: do something because your own work needs it. Remember, you want to evaluate your work on its own terms.
The creative act can be scary because it might entail sharing something very personal with strangers. Don't be afraid to do that, even if it might feel like telling the world about the most important secret you have. What you will find is that the people who will respond to the work will do it in ways that you can't even foresee. In all likelihood, their response will bring you to tears (good tears). Don't be afraid to make yourself vulnerable. We all are.
There will come the time when you will have to decide that something is finished. You need to realize that nothing will ever be finished. It could always be a little bit better. Resist the temptation to polish the stone to make it so smooth that there's not a single atom rising above its surface. Instead, be prepared to do the best job you can, knowing full well that if you spent another ten years on it, it would be better.
Art without error isn't art. It's something soulless. Embrace the possibility of errors, because it will allow you to learn something, because it will allow you to grow. When you look at (to use the above example) your book in ten years, of course, you will see the little error(s). But you'll smile and accept them for the things they are: they sneak in because that's what it means to be a human being.
There are different types of artistic growth. There's growth to be had while you work on something. And then there's the growth to be had when you move from one finished thing to the next. Don't stand in the way of experiencing both types of growth (which also means: don't work on a gazillion different things at the same time -- you'll never grow that way, and you'll never get anything done).
Be prepared to challenge yourself, and do it often. But don't let strangers define what the challenge might be. Instead, rely on your friends and on yourself.
Lastly, even if this is hard: don't allow yourself to become too comfortable for too long. It's good to be comfortable as an artist after a long period of struggle. But at some stage, being comfortable means that as an artist you won't move any longer. You'll be repeating yourself. You'll know everything you make before it's even made. Then it's time to move on.
In the subject line, it says "young artist". You're not a young artist because of the date listed on your birth certificate. You're a young artist if you live your artistic life to the fullest, while embracing all its possibilities and not getting too upset about all the bullshit.
Lastly, don't spend too much time on Facebook or Instagram. The company is gross, and it's bad for your mental health.
As always thank you for reading!