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July 13, 2013 5:10 AM   Subscribe

Five Reasons Why I Am Not An “Artist”, an essay by Tom Ellard (formerly of 1980s industrial electropop band Severed Heads and now an academic and media art practitioner in Australia; previously), touching on areas such as artificial divisions between art and technical practice, the politics of the role of the artist and the conflict between creative exploration and artistic recognition and success.
posted by acb (25 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
He might not be an artist, but he's the heart of the party.
Any party.

Great essay too.
posted by Mezentian at 5:24 AM on July 13, 2013


He wants to reclaim 'creative' or 'operator' or something like that, to express "this is a person who makes stuff with stuff for reasons for people to see/hear/touch/feel things about".

I think I like 'creator' better for this purpose. A creator must be the creator of something, which neatly excludes the 'creative directors' he rails against for not doing things. There is of course lots of room for argument as to what, exactly, it means for a person to create a thing--and that's a much better discussion to have than "What is art? Paintings or videogames, you gotta pick."
posted by LogicalDash at 5:37 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, I'm also a big fan and have corresponded with him on a couple of occasions.

This article is bang on!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:44 AM on July 13, 2013


he's right, but he's hanging around the wrong "artists"
posted by pyramid termite at 6:02 AM on July 13, 2013


I agree very strongly with all the points and then at the end I'm still not sure why he doesn't want to be called an artist. The behaviours he's describing do not describe any of the artists I know. I get that his own pool feels stagnant and formalised, but changing the lingo doesn't actually deal with that. Changing everything else does.
posted by distorte at 6:15 AM on July 13, 2013


Professionalism. No one says you have to teach at the university, give gallery talks, or even show in a nice gallery. It is one way some people chose to pay the rent though. What does that have to do with being an artist? Not much, I would say.
posted by R. Mutt at 6:35 AM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is great, and it also adds kindling to an idea that I've been forming for the last little while, which is that in some sense celebrity is becoming the new great art form.

His point about artistic inertia, about finding a style and sticking to it, was really what drove this home to me. Because as an art student who had a concentration in advertising, I am utterly sympathetic to the simplemindedness of people who have to interpret "art" and "artists" and consume products or media of any kind, for that matter. There's just so much, and all of it thinks it's worth more of your time than it is. I learned to hate artists who resented their audiences for not working hard enough to understand their work deeply; they ignored the social contract all people have with their audience, which its that you must give them something that satisfies them enough to make them engage with your work. That thing that you're giving them could be trickery or misdirection or even force, if you're sufficiently misanthropic, but either way the point is that other people owe you nothing and you owe other people everything. That's literally what it means to make things for other people.

But what fascinates me more and more is that the relationship an artist has with her audience is defined by what ad-minds call their "brands", and as much as advertising gives people hives hear me out. A brand is more complex than it lets on, because the purpose of a brand is to manufacture some very simple idea about a product in somebody's mind, jumping through many many hoops to make sure that simple idea is as focused as possible. People reject directness. They reject obvious intent. Artists know this: to be blatant about the wrong things is to alienate your audience, to be sneered at for revealing your hand. That doesn't mean you can't ever be blatant, but it means you have to be blatant at tangents to your actual goal, obvious in ways that somehow come to revolve around a subtler, more secret purpose.

(I just talked this week with a client who wants me to write copy for her web site that doesn't actually mention what she does at all. Because she is targeting corporate, straight-laced types, and her method of helping them is way less conventional than they're prepared to accept—so she needs to dance around actually explaining what she does, while giving a strong enough sense of it anyway that people will know what they're paying for. It's fun!)

It seems to me that "celebrity" is an important thing for creative people to think about, because your celebrity brand is what tells other people what shit they should and shouldn't care about when it's coming out of you. Jewel writes innocent catchy songs, but her poetry's shit! Don't read John Lennon's novels unless you like his impish don't-give-a-fuck personality. Patton Oswalt is a poignant essayist and a good actor and a funny comedian, but he's not EXPERIMENTAL the way that Louis CK is. If Laura Dern announced that she was trying to write the next great American novel, I wouldn't bother even picking it up.

Celebrity defines how people think about a person they don't really know and will probably never meet. It's relatively easy to change—just act in a manner that defies expectations—but negative things change it as much as positive ones do. If you're a songwriter trying to become an actor, you've got one or two shots before people decide you're no good. Heck, Jim Carrey starred in two fantastic straight films and still has become a bit of a laughingstock. But take a generic actor or musician or whomever and give them an interview where they reveal a bit of a personality, and suddenly they're America's favorite person. NPH's part in Harold and Kumar led to his becoming an unexpected super-celebrity, and now the dude's so loved that he could announce a Laurie Anderson-style 5-hour-long performance art piece and a bunch of teenage kids would lap it the fuck up.

When an artist has a reputation for being an iconoclast, unpredictable, somebody breaking barriers, that's all part of a brand too. Intelligent, insightful, breakthrough work is done by people who are no different from the rest of us. And lots of people who are very smart attempt to break through barriers of their own, but nobody recognizes it because nobody cares about those barriers, and suddenly that artist is either deluded or pretentious. I have a musician friend whose personal breakthroughs involve differentiating between or integrating about fifty different styles of funk guitar, and he's a damn smart person, but I can't really appreciate what the hell he's up to. Meanwhile some people become famous for saying things that I've assumed for years were common knowledge but apparently they weren't so people point to them as these astonishing intelligences which they sometimes are but are often not.

I think some of the most interesting art done today is by people who actively try to manipulate their own perceived celebrity. Kanye West comes to mind, as does Quentin Tarantino and Tao Lin. Maybe even Ze Frank, a little. All these people play with what we know of them, what we think about them, what we expect from them, and even when we hate some of their styles we're often fascinated by them anyway. Our process of getting to "know" them, changing how we feel about them, monitoring whatever they do that manages to come to our attention, is very much a part of their work. And perhaps they're not thinking about themselves as performance artists, they're just thinking about what's practical for their own careers, but that's how a lot of art starts—as something practical and unthinking that people start to notice and manipulate for new sorts of purposes. It's neat.

And it's also what those frustrating young art students don't get about art. Like all forms of communication, art relies on the space between the person broadcasting and the receiving audience. But when you broadcast, people are looking at you as much as they're looking at the thing you think you're putting out. In this era of nonprivacy, everybody knows who the man behind the curtain is, and whether they like you or hate you they're going to be looking at you, out of idle boredom if for no other reason. Your perceived life is a canvas that you can work with, and doing so might open people up to projects of yours that they'd never think to care about otherwise.

This millennium sees us more concerned with the nature of identity than we've ever been before. So I think it's proper that people who work, as "good artists" do, within the realm of ambiguity and questioning perceptions and making the obvious seem less obvious, should turn on all the labels that let people reduce them and assume things about them and render them and their life's work simple enough to digest. It's a fascinating form of confrontation, and this one in particular points out all of the ways that "artist" has become a simplified term used by people who want to commodify something that often is a difficult and very personal process.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:19 AM on July 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


There's a Swedish poem that talks about construction workers who are building a new art museum. They're told they have to spend their money visiting the shows, to partake of some culture. Because apparently building buildings is not "culture," it's "work." This distinction haunts me every time I hear someone talk about "art." The relationship between art and class isn't just a matter of temporary tastes and language. It seems like we define "art" in opposition to "work." I get the feeling that all of this has been quite thouroughly explored and discussed decades ago... Ugh...
posted by mbrock at 7:26 AM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I can't tell whether he's telling his drunken friends that they will die and go to hell, or not.
posted by .kobayashi. at 8:14 AM on July 13, 2013


Remember, Shakespeare wrote for money.
posted by deathpanels at 8:23 AM on July 13, 2013


"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." —Samuel Johnson

Extrapolating from this, we get:

"If you're good at something, never do it for free." —The Joker

Sadly the people who are good at schmoozing and recognizing trends have worked out a system where they get paid for it to the detriment of artist-creator-operators (because it's a zero-sum game, at least to the top-level players).

You can attempt to change the game, but most people are very, very bad at changing the game without introducing unintended consequences. In the art milieu I'm most familiar with (cinema), the means of production and operation were very top-down until recently. The explosion of DIY cinema hasn't produced great films so much as it's saturated the film market with a lot of dumb shit, so much dumb shit that serial commercial television has risen in status above cinema in contemporary culture.

Even when everyone has a camera and an editing system, there just ain't that many Kubricks or Coppolas out there. Hell of a lot of Bill Lustigs working straight to video-on-demand, though.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:53 AM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


But did Shakespeare work hard for the money?
So hard for it honey.
posted by Mezentian at 8:54 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


That was about as interesting as listening to an auto mechanic rant about why he uses SnapOn tools instead of Craftsman, and why he is not a shop foreman, and why he'd rather work on BMWs than Fords.

I saw no indication in this article that this guy is an artist of any kind. I presume it was his intention to completely avoid any discussion of actual results of this process he describes. I have seen this before, like when I get together with other painters, we talk about paintbrushes and pigments and solvents, but only because we already know each other's work and we're just interested in how we get there. But some groups of artists (notoriously photographers) get lost in technological processes. They focus on making fancy photo rigs and forget that they are supposed to be making visual images. Unfortunately, some guys get worse, and become photography magazine writers, speaking to people who dream of owning a fancy photo rig but have no idea what to do with one.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:50 AM on July 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Five or ten years ago, I ordered a couple of Severed Heads and Co Kla Coma CDs through sevcom.com after Mr. Ellard and Nettwerk parted ways. What I received were clearly self-burned discs in a mailer hand-addressed by Mr. Ellard himself.

I was thrilled that the guy who had composed and created the music had also loaded the blank discs into his own computer and burned copies for me, and then personally sent them halfway across the world to me. I still have the mailer; it's now one of the things on the list of "Grab these things in case there's a fire."

I guess I don't see the pretense or bullshit in the essay. He's hands-on all the way through his process.
posted by Graygorey at 10:13 AM on July 13, 2013


I agree very strongly with all the points and then at the end I'm still not sure why he doesn't want to be called an artist. The behaviours he's describing do not describe any of the artists I know.

Lucky you to not know such artists. Because I couldn't agree with the guy more. Though I haven't gone so far as NOT wanting to be called an artist -- I just try to avoid labeling myself as such.

That is, art's ultimately in the soul of the beholder as far as I'm concerned. If somebody gets something I've done on that level, then cool, let them call me an artist. Until then, I'm just a writer, filmmaker, DJ -- whatever the particular craft is that's in question.
posted by philip-random at 10:46 AM on July 13, 2013


He's hands-on all the way through his process.

Would it disappoint you if you knew with certainty that your CDRs were made and shipped by an intern making minimum wage, rather than the artist?
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:17 AM on July 13, 2013


While I agree with his general sentiment, there is an important adage in artistic work, "only do what only you can do." While I think he's right that artists/creators need to be the people who actually think up and make things, I don't think a great composer's time is best spent, say, extracting and editing parts. That's not a highly specialized skill (in the sense that composing the piece is), and can be hired out to a skilled worker who can't do the big-time creative stuff. My creative work involves a lot of practical, administrative concerns but I have an admin assistant to help with much of that--not because I don't respect that work or think it important, but because every second I worry about new purchasing procedures or whatever is a second I'm not spending doing the thing that I really do well (and am actually paid to do).

But then, I don't have a non-maker, "creative director" looking over my shoulder, either. I would strangle that dude.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:47 AM on July 13, 2013


I'm genuinely perplexed by this one:
When asked to explain the work I said that if I had to use words, it had failed to do its job, and that the audience should go and see it if they needed. That was the first time I encountered a deeply angry ‘artist’ who spent the rest of the panel punishing me for sacrilege.
In my experience, this sentiment is common as dirt, (see "dancing about architecture") so I'm having trouble seeing hot it could be "sacrilege." I've heard people call it a lazy cop-out, or as kind of pretentious. (It divides the world into those who get it and those who don't, and then dismisses as futile any attempt to talk people from the latter to the former.) But I don't really get what sacred cow he thinks he's challenging with this claim.



My most complicated relationship is probably with the inertia bit. I can see his point about it can be limiting yourself for the sake of branding. But I think there's also value in becoming an expert in that thing you do that nobody else does. I've occasionally thought of writing a "hack manifesto" where I would extoll the value of following the path of least resistance, how doing things you find difficult is not inherently better than doing the things you find easy, but I haven't entirely made up my mind about it.
posted by RobotHero at 12:05 PM on July 13, 2013


I had the misfortune of working for a while for a Big Name interactive company, and while I met many of the sort of "X Directors" (where X might mean "art" or "creative" or "technical", or even "marketing") of the sort he describes -- the ones who carefully project a contempt for the means by which things are done and speak in fashionable buzzwords and never in particulars -- there were always a few good ones too. These were the ones who would get their hands dirty, who were fascinated by technique as much as results and lived on the shop floor as much as they could.

After a short while I noticed a pattern: the posturing overlords were uniformly people who had arrived as part of this shop's acquisition by Big Name company, or were hired by them from somewhere else post-acquisition. The awesome kickass ones who willingly leapt into the scrum were the ones who had been with the shop pre-acquisition. This has guided my employment choices ever since.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:47 PM on July 13, 2013


Would it disappoint you if you knew with certainty that your CDRs were made and shipped by an intern making minimum wage, rather than the artist?

Probably, considering that "T" and "Ellard" are legible in the signature on the customs declaration.
posted by Graygorey at 12:50 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a problem with people who rely on ‘operators’ and ‘assistants’, who are ‘ideas people’, who ‘direct’ others, who evidence a distaste for production, who have tried to turn their ignorance into some kind of superiority.
It seems that he cares less about the end result (artwork) than the process. He seems angry and close minded to me, but to each his own. Every artists sets a framework or set of rules that drives their production, a bit sad, imo, when it is so ungenerous.

And not sure why he has to take a swipe at other artists to prove some point. Not that his point or what he proved was clear to me by dissing Tracy Emin.
posted by snaparapans at 1:36 PM on July 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Probably, considering that "T" and "Ellard" are legible in the signature on the customs declaration.

You know that wasn't my question. I mean, why would the artist poking the button BURN, as opposed to the disc being burned in the exact same process by any random computer geek employed by the artist, add any value to the music, or the object containing the music?
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:51 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder how many people just added this guy to their "do not work with" list?

That was about as interesting as listening to an auto mechanic rant about why he uses SnapOn tools instead of Craftsman, and why he is not a shop foreman, and why he'd rather work on BMWs than Fords.

Exactly. But besides seeming to have a large blind spot where he didn’t seem to realize that everyone else doesn’t have his experience, there seemed to be that horrible attitude people get when they’re new to a field and can’t understand why X is done the way it is, and loudly denounce it to everyone, when the real issue is their lack of understanding. As if no one ever thought of it before, and hasn’t heard it denounced a thousand times before by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. As if they people spending the money haven’t fucking thought about whether it’s worth it to pay all that money to the people they pay to do those jobs. This seems to me to be pretending to be egalitarianism, but is really an ego screaming "I can do that just as good as they can!"

It’s thankfully rare, but occasionally people I work with let me know that they can do my job, and would like to be hands on. 99.99% of the time it’s entirely ego talking, and they really don’t realize how little they know or how poor their skills actually are. On the rare occasion that someone gets tired of arguing with them and lets them go ahead and fuck shit up, everyone else works extra to go around behind them fixing things without them knowing, and the whole process becomes more complicated, less fun, and more work. Invariably the outcome is much worse as well.

I’d bet money this guy has been in that situation and doesn’t know it.

While I think he's right that artists/creators need to be the people who actually think up and make things, I don't think a great composer's time is best spent, say, extracting and editing parts. That's not a highly specialized skill (in the sense that composing the piece is), and can be hired out to a skilled worker who can't do the big-time creative stuff.

I disagree, it’s a very different skill set. The problem is when the composer thinks he can do the editing just as well as the editor, but just doesn’t want to be bothered, or God forbid, does want to bother and "help". I wonder how many people have said under their breath to this guy "Oh God, please don’t 'help’".
posted by bongo_x at 6:10 PM on July 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ellard is a talented artist, but a complainer.

You don't enjoy the politics of the fine-arts world, well, no-one is forcing you to do this for a living. The art world is a game, and you choose to play in it or you don't. Some of the people you meet there are annoying, yes, like anywhere, but some of the people you meet are cool. Sure, your work really should just speak for itself in a perfect world, but unfortunately you might want to communicate to people who are not familiar with your work that it's worth their time to go out and see your work, and that promotional aspect is another little form of art-media in itself, like any genre. The decision to not describe your work when you appear on a media-talk panel at the Biennale is a perfectly reasonable approach, so just stand by it.

But I don't feel any sympathy for the little undertone of resentment against the more successful conceptual art-stars. If you really want to play on that level, then you play that particular game and try to enjoy it for what it is. Of course there is a parade of folly to criticize in the weird realm of art-ness, but try to keep a sense of humour about it.
posted by ovvl at 6:51 PM on July 13, 2013


The decision to not describe your work when you appear on a media-talk panel at the Biennale is a perfectly reasonable approach, so just stand by it.

Seems like that would be a great approach for Tom Ellard, although he does not seem capable of it.
posted by snaparapans at 8:19 PM on July 13, 2013


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