How to Choose Your Art Battles
Paintball, Detail, Diptych, (2) 48 x 48" / 121.92 x 121.92 cm, Acrylic on Canvas, 2010
‘Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor,’ said Cinderella's-mother-masquerading-as-a-tree, and if you're a struggling artist, that's very likely something that still, small voice in the back of your head is saying, too.
That still, small voice is what makes you jump at every 'unlengthy visitor' that comes knocking because well, art is like a video game—the more 'experience points' you rack up, the better for your career and/or your practice.
In a way, that voice, which I guess one might equate with my Daemon, has been 'the boss of me' for a long, long time. I always listened to him for, well, FOMO, I suppose—the fear of missing out on an opportunity to put my skills to use, hopefully sharpen them, and accumulate those ‘art experience points’ in the process.
Or well, I think I should say I almost always listened to him. Because something happened fairly recently that prompted me to say no to the urge to at least push for a whole bucketload of experience points. While I admit that decision wasn’t made without regret, looking back, I think I (//channels the Grail-guarding knight) chose wisely.
I’d like to share this experience with you along with a few words of wisdom (not that I'm wise or anything like that) about choosing your ‘art battles’. Choose the opportunities you commit to, rather than grabbing every single opportunity that comes your way and clinging to it like a long-lost relative (who is hopefully old, loaded and has you in his will (just kidding, so sorry).
The experience, in a nutshell, was as follows.
A major museum back here sent me an invitation to propose for a spot in a series of online exhibits they were organising. Circumstances being what they are, online shows are all the rage now (and possibly the path I’ll be pursuing for my practice in the near future). (But I digress ^^;)
Anyway, I’m pretty sure I was working on a commission or something or other at the time, but whatever it was, I put it on hold to put together as nice a proposal as I could for them. For one thing, this museum is a pretty big deal and I don’t get invitations like this every day. And for another, well, FOMO, I guess.
I guess I just didn’t want to, you know, waste the opportunity. And I guess (to be super, duper honest), though I’d said I was going to stop doing shows for a while (pandemic not withstanding) to recover and recalibrate, there’s a part of me somewhere that didn’t want to, you know. Break the streak I’ve had since 2005. (Silly, I know.)
In any case, it took me a little while but I did put the proposal together and sent it along, and, long story short, they got back to me and said, oh dear. I’d taken too long to send my proposal in (meow, sorry, I did the best I could), but that they had a spot open that was in about six weeks or so.
Boy, was I in a quandary.
Remember the pushmi-pullyu from Doctor Dolittle? That old cartoon, CatDog? It kind of felt like that. The ‘interior monologue’ I had as a result went something like this:
‘Dude, it’s a show at the museum!’
‘Yeah, but six weeks, though. Less!’
‘Oh, come on, You did Estrellitas in six weeks. Five, even!’
‘Yeah, but that was on tiny canvases with a knife and there were only eight of them. You want to do 20? 23? On paper (which you haven’t got yet, let alone stretched)?! With tiny brushes?!! In six weeks?!!! You’re insane!’
‘No, you’re lazy, is what you are. What’s six weeks without sleep when you’ve gone through six or more months of that?’
‘Exactly. You want to go through that again? I thought you said you couldn’t hack another run like that.’
‘I’ve been saying that for years. Every year I go again.’
‘Yeah but you’re a heckuvalot older now. Your body can’t take that sort of stuff anymore.’
‘Yeah but I’d have another show.’
‘Do you really need another show?’
‘You can’t have too many. Lots of artists out there have like so many?’
‘Quality over quantity?’
It was a big decision for me and I was totally on the fence about it, 50-50. Half of me was still tired from Aviary, while the other half, yeah. Fear of yadda, yadda.
So I asked for advice. I talked to one or two of my art class classmates about it. I talked to one of my co-workers and one of my bosses about it. My classmates were fellow artists, who knew what an invitation like that meant. My officemates knew what it meant for me to work on a show while working (having suffered my presence at the office through four shows #bestplacetowork).
None of them gave me specific advice. It’s like asking elves, ‘because they will tell you both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.’ But what my boss told me was, well, telling. Basically he said I go nuts when I work on a show and if I did the equivalent of more than six months in less than six weeks, I would go (//channels the Vampire queen) really, really, really nuuuts.
Oh and I did ask my mom, and my sister. Both of them said it was a bad idea. So in the end, I listened to them and to my boss, and I told the museum it was too soon. So, so much for that. ^__^
Let practicability do the picking.
About 30% of me felt like kicking myself 30 seconds after I told them because oh my goat did you just flush an ultimate opportunity down the toilet? But 70% of me was relieved. That show wasn’t cheap, for one thing (although I would’ve found the funds, somehow), and for another, well, as I’ve rediscovered this past year, sleeping rocks, yo.
And as it turned out, about six weeks later I moved into the jillahouse (or well, jillapartment ^^;), so everything I would’ve spent on that show went to moving and things like drapes and a bed. And, more importantly, I was able to bring that commission I was working on to a successful conclusion.
So you see, things did work out for the better—and honestly, for the proposal I made, I would’ve wanted very much to take my time over it and not be stressed while working on it, for once. I really wanted to do my homework this time and not rush through the research, and really you know. Turn things out that I can truly be proud of.
I hope I’m not just saying that because what’s done is done, but I really do think I made the right decision. So if you’re considering whether to pursue an opportunity or not, the feasibility of the pursuit might be your prime consideration. Questions you might ask yourself in this regard include
Opportunities like this might also come in the form of other art projects or teaching gigs—I remember turning a few of the latter down because I had too many other shenanigans going on at the same time.
So even if I could always have used the moolers, sometimes, you know, there are just so many hours in the day and you have to choose. So choose wisely.
Money isn’t everything, and neither are ‘experience points’.
You know how you’ll maybe work on something even if you know there isn’t any moolers in it but you’ll get ‘experience points’—or exposure? (At which point I’d like to invite you to check out my post later on asking artists to work for free.) Well, there are times when even the experience points just won’t cut it.
The recent incident with the museum made me think about whether I’d ever let a ‘golden art opportunity’ slide before and two did come to mind, and both of them happened entire lifetimes ago.
The first involved illustrating an entire book which did look like it was going to fly off the shelves after publication, and the second involved working with one of the country’s biggest ad agencies. The first was an especially big deal for me because I’m fairly sure it was before I’d gotten my first ever book.
I’d much rather not go into specifics, but I remember turning both of them down because well, they just didn’t feel right. Sherlock once said ‘I had rather play tricks with the laws of England than with my own conscience’, and if I had taken these projects on, I would’ve been, you know. Working on things that went against my beliefs.
In any case, other opportunities are bound to come along, and hindsight shows that in my case by the grace of God, they have (although that sure as heck wasn’t a sure thing at the time).
So if you should ever find yourself wondering whether you should ‘fight this art battle or not’, ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable or at peace with yourself while fighting it.
As a final note on the subject, I’ve also written before about how, while you shouldn’t, again waste a chance to take it while it’s there (because it may not always be), you should also trust your gut.
To attack or pull back—that is the question.
Perhaps the ultimate questions you might ask yourself before ‘leaping into the fray’ are
1. Is this ‘really what I do’ as an artist?
2. Will I be able to do ‘my best work’ for it?
3. Am I going to grow as an artist because of this?
Of course you could answer ‘no’ to any or all of these and still make the right decision—like if you say ‘no’ to the first question, well, it’s good to experiment and try different media or techniques, right?
In the end, I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s okay to let things pass sometimes and that you don’t have to feel guilty or lazy or what about it. Indeed, it might even happen that you do take full advantage of the opportunity presented to you, only to have it blow up in your face, afterwards.
Again, like the elves say, ‘advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill’. At any given moment, whether it’s choosing an art battle or not, we all just make the best decisions we can and hope for the best.
Do you think I did the right thing to not push for that show at the museum? Could you use a listening ear for a big decision you’re considering related to your art practice? Let me know, here.
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