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ARTIST'S WORK

In February 2024 I was invited by Monika Kostera to take part in a seminar with Sociology students at the University of Warsaw. I talked to them about the work of artists. Making notes and thinking about what to say, and what my work looks like was very interesting and useful. And so I decided to jot it all down and expand on it. I hope other artists can fill in the gaps, contradict, argue or add other perspectives to this account.

 

There are many types of artist, I'll speak from my own position, a fairly independent artist, without gallery representation but a receiver of some funding grants and stipends over time, as well as benefiting from larger artist support schemes (particular one in Thamesmead, where I currently live is a partnership with Bow Arts and Peabody that offers affordable rent for studio space and housing on a guardian basis). I also do community projects, work at art clubs and have other unrelated paid jobs when necessary. I have in the past worked at various large and small arts organisations - mostly low skilled jobs: invigilation, front of house, back of house; but also as a performer.

 

It seems quite a common mix for artists in London, it's a hassle. 

 

First thing that I wish I had learned in my BA, was that I will end up being a kind of an entrepreneur (for tax purposes I am self-employed, as most artists). 

 

Studying was amazing. I loved my BA (Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art), it was focused on art in a very supportive and pure way; even if somebody then offered me an elective on project management or tax, I would  have not gone. 

When it came to money, there was an air of dismissal towards anything that might be sellable. Work should be ephemeral, not skilled, definitely not skilled, a question of earning money as an artist was never explored, it seemed almost a taboo, painting was often seen as something that was solely commercial. 

There was perhaps one hour worth of a seminar towards the end of the course on approaching galleries, which I remember through the mist, it was an event for the whole of our year. 

I wish this side of things: applying for funding, understanding the industry, learning about many different ways of being an artist: from a commercial fine artist, through independent, folklore and craft; self-organising, manufacturing and pricing of editions - I wish all those things were a part of an assessment, something one had to learn for an examination. How could we have known that we'd need all that? 

 

Still, I partly understand. The art world and the world of work changed fast. I think that 30-40 years ago one might have been able to live and work at a slower pace and so working for money and being an artist in the remaining time was more possible. When I finished my BA in 2010 the every-day reality was so full of everything, and digital media which we still understood as existing in the sphere of relaxation, were in fact making us more tired and less focussed. We didn't see it and tutors could have not predicted it (or could they? there was 'The Society of Spectacle' and Jaron Lanier). 

 

I still know people who work full-time and make outstanding work. I think to do that one must make sure one earns enough money to be able to have sick pay and holidays, be vigilant about having healthy relationships with others and stay away from addictions. 

 

...challenges for young people might be entirely different now. I am taking a risk by giving all that advice, it is the advice I wish I had. But in general my hope is for that movement towards examining how we work and to what ends we work, examining it in a calm and open way. I have to give credit for awakening that impulse in me to Professor Monika Kostera, who reconnected for me work with being human and whose writing, openness and generosity hugely influenced my thinking.

 

From another angle: I had a thought about our tutors regarding the movement towards de-skilling: perhaps that they had a sense of something ending, of not quite knowing where else our world can go, perhaps our tutors wanted us to come up with the new world, perhaps that is why they wanted us to unlearn. Perhaps they did not believe that teaching us old structures made sense. That we would know better what is good, in an intuitive and natural way. An approach I found myself having towards young people, before I realised and remembered, that for me, that was difficult, and in the end, misguided and not a positive solution at all. Perhaps that's because we do not live in vacuum, we live in the world that pulls us in all sorts of directions.  

It is, I think, much better, though much harder, to teach variety of approaches, to present the applicant with complex set of skills that generate an ability to build on some, reject others, open horizons for possibilities, to take what's learned and go one's own way, or for some, to conform. The complex and systematic learning could grant students more resilience and independence in their future work as artists. I think that for us, in some cases, the art school reduced that resilience.

It also seems that leaving a person after the university with no practical structure or skills related to their profession - that narrows alternatives, that makes it less possible for people to come up with something genuine and meaningful. In the end the situation meant that many of us got stuck in a struggle to conform to the seemingly non-conformist art world, without setting out to do so, or understanding the process.

 

This manifests in the fact that popular culture and art are constantly rehashing old styles, collaging them, fluently mixing and matching references; precision of style, but uncritical, empty; yearning for belonging, sincerely, yet distantly and knowingly. But this is not a mature and sincere love for art, love of the world too, whose knowing comes from intimacy. It is a love of a partner, with whom one wants to be close fleetingly, from fear of being fooled and hurt, and whom one mostly sees from distance, judge like one can only judge other people's relationships, from outside. To possess knowledge granted by abstraction, not through daily interaction. To be a therapist to someone, to whom they should be a partner.

 

* * *

 

My MA (Performance  Making at Goldsmiths) was much better in terms of professional skills - it was not located in the art department though, rather in the theatre department, and so had its own unique character. I learned how to deal with a budget, work in a team, organise all sorts of paperwork, like permissions to use public sites. That was incredibly helpful and led to very tangible ability to be an independent artist and to self-organise with other artists. 

An impact of the environment where people were not competing with one another, rather looking for similarities, having join purpose - this for me was huge and opened up a path towards changing my thinking about who artists can be and how they may be able to work. It opened me up to understanding that being the first to do something does not have any value per se. 

 

* * *

 

And so, this is more or less, what the structure of my art - work is:

 

- General Admin - so much of it. There are funding applications, they take a lot of time and energy. A lot of them won't be successful, but some will. And that's a real game changer. Emotionally, it is akin to constantly applying for a job, two, three, four times per year. This also includes talking to funders, researching them. Once the project is possible, there is budgeting, planning, sourcing to be done. Really - it is project managing, a vast job.

 

- Documentation, Comms and Marketing - those take a concentrated effort. It is great to have a professional photographer, but it's not always possible. There is building and updating of the website, making flyers and other graphic material for the exhibitions, designing, printing, distributing, sending emails. Etc.

 

- Install, technical work, framing, archiving, lighting, invigilation and anything that relates to putting together an exhibition.

 

Those three segments above take up about 2/3 of the time dedicated to art. And there is also some paid work on top of that.   

This is not an exaggeration. If anything it is quite a timid estimate. Sometimes it's three quarters. Artists with gallery representations can relay on some if not most of this work being done by the galleries. 

 

Now - one might say - you are just a shit artist. But I will contest that. It is not enough to give countless examples of great artists we love now, who were poor and unappreciated while alive. We somehow think that we now are in the period where it is the non-conformist, the new, the critical and the establishment-challenging art that is cherished; we don't want to preserve tradition, quite the opposite. And so young artists cannot claim that they fight with the establishment. If they are not accepted, that means they are, hmm, not edgy enough, not interesting enough, not establishment-challenging enough, not fresh enough etc. But the art world includes layers of conformism and nonconformism that are hard to distinguish and easy to get lost in.

 

There is a special type of elitism involved there. A lot of it is about being cool and knowing the social cues. While the art world is de-skilling (which is I guess seen very much in this year's Turner Prize), it is very difficult to understand what is the marker of success within it. Perhaps it is political, perhaps it is about 'the discourse', having a voice within the current cultural discourse. This in particular is something we were taught to pay a close attention to at Chelsea: 'your art should take part in the current discourse', 'how is your work relating to the current discourse?'.

(Simon Cowell liked using the word 'current'; this is what he sometimes said to the contestants: 'you are very current'.)

As Monika Kostera says, truly new, emergent, cannot be recognised as current, it is often not seen at all. What is culturally recognised as 'current', is already to a degree, in the past, and so being an artist requires openness that is not conformed to the current discourse, but is alive, perhaps within this discourse or outside of it, or in between; it is marked by spontaneity, a certain freedom in the process of looking, in the reception of the world. 

 

I think that there is also some sort of search for morality in the alignment to the discourse. Very often people within the art world are torn by the effects of this strange professional mystification: ridiculous power dynamics that turn people into fools, shame and distrust on account of that, wounded sensitivity and loss of passion; moral purpose can be an escape from all that, a value that can re-calibrate one's intentions. 

 

From another angle - I met with this reasoning: beauty, composition, craft is associated with middle and upper classes, hence not-skilled art is more inclusive. 

But if it is not the skills that dictate who makes career in the art world and who is celebrated (and famously contemporary art is ridiculed for being authoritative: 'no one understands why, but those are the works of art we should love, despite us having absolutely no thought or feeling about them'), then de-skilling does not do anything for the working class artists. It is the opposite. If one is poor, often it is harder to know how to keep nerve in the presence of money and power, how to manage the whole strange social side of art world, how to talk to people. There are no professional structures or blueprints, no idea of tangible skills that contribute to fame, no culture of asking questions, enquiring, peer advice or just admitting that a lot of us have absolutely no idea how things work in this industry. The art world elites seem to emerge in an arbitrary way, not appearing to make any sense. This means that many artists, especially the poorer ones, feel confused and powerless.

 

Basic knowledge needed to make a living in the art world is not taught at the art courses, students leave having no idea how to survive. You are either left to be discovered, you fail or you embark on a lengthly and painful process of finding ways to learn all the necessary skills you should have learned at the University.

 

To make things worse the notion of instant fame or an 'American Dream', mixed with the cult of underdog, well, all those seem to make it as if there really is some kind of meritocracy. (Some kind of course, there is, the question is - what merits are involved?) So, I'll make a distinction between becoming famous as an artist and making a living as an artist; really I advocate for the latter to be explored.

 

There is a great, short essay - 'On Fame' by Leszek Kołakowski, a fantastic little essay. Kołakowski tries to calculate Andy Warhol's prediction that 'one day we shall all have our fifteen minutes of fame', using a reference of television channels. He would have not known then (the book was published in 1999) about Youtube, Facebook and TikTok. And all the others. 

 

Further he says:

 

'There is no sense in complaining about the 'unjust' distribution of fame, for fame is not supposed to be a reward for goodness, wisdom, courage or any other virtue; it simply isn't, and it never will be.

This is all to the good. For if our lives were not in large degree unpredictable and governed by chance, they would be very boring indeed, and this is in spite of the fact that chance generally does not work in our favour.'

 

So, whose approval are we looking for? 

 

And, could we together build culture that aims at us having enough and making in peace what inspiration, intellect and conscience calls us to do. Not to focus always on the top prize?

 

 

* * *

 

That's for the practical things.

 

After all that, an artist does what artists do in the first place: make art. 

 

I now try to separate this process from everything else. 

 

For example in the past ten years it became a standard that artists have Instagram account that they themselves run, they document their work in real time and interact with viewers during the process of making something, not after finishing. I think partly because of that the way I worked on art became utterly scattered. 

 

And so I got into separating things. First I quit social media all together. I started separating making art from marketing. Even within art, I decided not to juggle. I try to separate the process of observing and the process of drawing. 

 

I have to look at something really intently and examine it, remember it, to then draw it from memory. And so when I look, I only look. When I draw, I remember and draw, I look at the drawing and search for the memory in my mind. This has changed the way I imagine in a very unexpected way, I sometimes can feel my imagination in a detailed, physical way, I can walk through it. Now, even when I have to sketch as I go, sketch and look at the same time, I still pause to observe. 

 

A strange thing happened to time also. I started to go offline once a week, and that is the day I usually leave free for myself to do art in an open way, wherever it takes me. On some occasions I travel to places on that day, just to look at things. When I stared to do it, I was struck by how my sense of time changed: time appeared more complex, I felt it like a landscape, with hills, wavy, with hazy horizons, various rhythms, but also - an open, airy space. I realised then that my sense of time had shrank and simplified, to one monotonous, fast pulse in a confined space.

 

Artists often experiment with life and observation in this way. For me, observing how life is composed in this amazing variety of dimensions and angles and materials and time - seeing those compositions come together, just looking at things, in me and in the world, and feeling how they move in between in a sort of a lava lamp - like way. Then playing with those things, with all I have, that feels like home, like being alive. I pray to always have a heart and mind open to that wonder.

 

 One of the many things said by Monika Kostera, that stayed in my mind, was something she said about management and archetypes. She said that there are things about people that cannot be managed, they can only be respected. This, in the world obsessed with behavioural science, from B. F. Skinner's tech heritage to CBT, struck me like a bullet. I think this is something that happens in the arts too - there is an idea of a possibility of absolute creation: social sculpture, trnshumanism and obsessive precision in assembling references (not unlike a stylist). 

So where I want to go is towards starting with reception (not research), openness. I want to go towards friction in the interaction with material, learning, like one learns a face of a friend, a lover. 

 

Well. There is not that much left to say here, apart from that I am so incredibly happy that I can make myself a sanctuary, to privately look at things and to make art, to feel, to compose, draw, think, imagine, sculpt.

REFERENCES:

 

Three Uses of The Knife: On The Nature and Purpose of Drama by David Mamet, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 2013

I love this book and return to it often. Especially the distinction between art that brings peace and pseudo-art that perpetuates compulsion, on drama as a form based on how humans operate, hence something we can learn buckets from, for example about the mechanisms of political theatre.

 

Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal; Essays On Everyday Life by Leszek Kołakowski, Routledge 2020
Very old school thinker-style essays on life, and lots of good humor. 

In 'On Fame' Kołakowski points to considering where in our work, do we take value from, and rightly points to aspects in which we are not solely dependant on others.

 

After The Apocalypse. Finding Hope in Organising by Monika Kostera, Zero Books, 2020 

In understanding, or starting to understand the processes of dying of a system, as well as an injection of creative spontaneity in starting anew, trying things out - an interregnum as a time of both volatility and potential. One of the many fantastic pages:

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Zygmunt Bauman - term 'liquid modernity' and video 'The Swedish Theory of Love' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7GL_HFCXbs

Leisure The Basis of Culture by Joseph Piper
A facinating essay looking at observation versus contemplation, thought and culture being conceivd in leisure, not only through labour. An essay against the world of 'total work', paying attention to what is 'given to us'.

 

Andrei Tarkovsky - his diary 'Time Within Time' and especially this page:

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Especially looking at attention: the consequences of juggling tasks and looking for deep focus.

Kultura (Culture) - Polish literary-political emigre magazine published from 1947 to 2000, it was illegal during the time of Polish People's Republic, until 1989 - the object itself is tiny, perhaps 10cm x 6cm, it had to be very small in order to be smuggled to Poland. What is important and what is essential?

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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoushana Zhuboff

In this context especially the idea of 'a right to sanctuary'.

 

Nikifor - Polish artist who was a son of a beggar, he is so interesting in respect of finding a way to do art using whatever available in terms of resources as well as looking at self-taught artist

Tam gdzie AI nas nie pokona, article by Monika Kostera, first published by Zielone WIadomości 08/01/2023 https://zielonewiadomosci.pl/publikacje/felietony/tam-gdzie-ai-nas-nie-pokona/ ; published in English by Kossmoss https://www.kosmoss.co.uk/product-page/kosmoss-magazine-issue-1 

This is the one exploring the difference between emergence and generating in the light of AI development. 

Books I was recommended but have not yet read:

 

How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy Jenny Odell, Melville House 2019

 

Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich A. Kittler, Stanford University Press 1999

 

Get The Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey Among The Inspiered Artists And Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How To See, Bianca Bosker, Penguin Random House 2024

 

In The Absence of The Sacred: Failure of Technology and The Survival of The Indian Nations, Jerry Mander, Sierra Club Books 1991

Things to think about:

 

What does commercial mean? perhaps making work that is meaningless, the main purpose of such work would be to make money. That is not the same as being able to sell one's work, in fact to make work specifically to be sold, however that purpose being secondary in the scheme of the whole project. Being an artist is a vocation even more so than a profession. And that is because we make art wether we are paid or not. I think there is one more question in the push for art that is not sellable: this is the need for seeing art as something honest, for an artist to speak honestly to the people. And so we want the art to come from within, not from the need to earn money. Do we think perhaps it is sidelined or an outright manipulation or cynicism if it is made for money? That in itself is really interesting.

 

Ethnography of the profession of an artist should be a subject at art course

 

On getting lost in the constant directionless competition. I remember what made a huge difference for me in my approach to art, a few years after finishing my MA. It was working at school, working with small kids, I live in Bexley and I worked in Bexley, which is a very poor area. And this is where I remembered that work can have value that is clear, rooted in doing something good, and that one might be able to feel and know to an extent at least what is the right thing to do. Then I realised that I can have such direct relationship with my own work. Look for value in that deep sense of something, having responsibility towards inspiration and intellect.

 

What is the difference between 'art world' and 'art market'?

Having written all that I do wonder wether it is a much better to live away from it all and if at all possible, find a job that doesn't entirely exhaust one, doesn't take all working hours or bother with WhatsApp groups, one where one can have a lunch hour and come back home and not have to think about work. One where one can have sick pay and holiday pay. Now getting close to forty, I can see the impact of overworking, of not having a rhythm, of running on adrenaline. I don't have to do that anymore, not for a while, and I am incredibly happy about it. And so I am also questioning wether applying for funding to support one's art is a good long term solution. 

 

Then, there are various funds and various application processes. My favourite fund and one I got three times now: once to curate a local open call, twice to put up my own exhibitions, is Thamesmead Community Fund, which is organised by our housing association - Peabody. The fund comes entirely from income generated by letting sites in Thamesmead to film crews and the whole of the fees from filming are used for the fund. The projects are selected by local residents and they have to benefit local residents. The application process is fairly simple, it's not a massive fund, like Arts Council grants, but for that perhaps it is more sustainable. There is also Bow Arts - Marcel Beating who is the founder of the scheme, which comes into agreement with housing companies to give temporary (and currently long term) housing and studios on a reduced rate to artists, said once that he believes in that consistent support for people, where it is not all or nothing, but a slow drip help that builds up. And this, together with the Community Fund made an enormous difference for me. Because somehow I cannot get through the class barrier, perhaps this is a barrier in me as well, either way, I find it hard to imagine paying full rent and having a dignified life in London. 

Then, the less I work, the less I need. The more secure I feel, the less likely I am to binge watch or binge buy, the more I can really govern my life and go towards values that are important for me. I know it is not straight forward, in the countryside in Poland, where I grew up, everyone owned their own houses, though we went hungry occasionally, it was a different type of poverty. And even when there was no poverty at all, I could see how isolated and resentful people could be, unappreciative. I am interested in that appreciation of life that comes from contrast. When one escapes death, one is more able to enjoy life. So for me now, not having to spend half of my working hours on menial and exhausting work, that feels like escaping death.

 

Beauty should never be associated with any class.

 

Good will and art. Considering moral choices through silence and meditation, and perhaps through rigour (thanks Beth) in reasoning. 

 

Why is art timid? What does it mean to venture out into the unknown? One must give up on precision of style. Give up on the tendency to control and know. What does it mean to search? The term 'precision of style' does not want to leave my mind, so I see it all the time. It is so curious with people like Billy Eilish who moves between styles in such a fluid way, assembles. But the precision of references and signifiers is obsessive. Art now, seems to me incredibly timid and stifled. But I understand that I should start thinking about specific examples, this is rather an overall sense. Perhaps a symptom of that timidness is that people don't talk about art at private views. Hardly ever they look at it.

 

​One more thing I mentioned to the students was professional friendships. Sometimes it can be hard. In Thamesmead for example the mix of professional relationships can sometimes be challenging. Sometimes it results in a loss of trust, we are not sure if someone is nice cause they like us or because they are networking. But also in Thamesmead I have some of the most amazing working friendships, where supporting each other personally mixes with organising clubs, events, workshops, and with talking about philosophy, art and culture in general. What I said to the students was - those relationships are invaluable, they can never be taken for granted. I have now found myself enjoying them so much. I wanted to thank Flo Lines for inviting me to her culture club, and to all present for giving me feedback on the first version of this text. Also I wanted to thank Flo for mentioning the need to feel the need, to not escape it, and hence to have to act upon it. Also, I wanted to thank my mum for fussing about what I should wear for University of Warsaw seminar. And - to Monika Kostera for inviting me, for good will and that fiery life-changing inspiration and the intellectual friendship, that is just a pure joy. 

It may sound a bit funny doing all that - as though it was an Oscar acceptance speech. But I think it relates to the issue of individualism in art. I am thinking about how to see and bring to the fore the fact that in many ways we are one body, that culture is something we do together, to get rid of that constant self consciousness. I thought about The Economist, and how none of the articles or columns are signed by authors, you can check who writes for The Economist but you have no idea who wrote what. I think that's quite interesting.

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