Friday, October 15, 2010

Free as a Brush

Aspiring artists -- encouraged, perhaps, by some early success in selling work -- are wise to do some sums before deciding to quit the day job in order to dedicate their life to their work. Simple sums like these:

To earn an annual income of, say, £24K, one has to sell an average of £2K of work every month. An average. Or, to earn the level of income that buys a modest degree of freedom -- let's say £60K p.a. minimum -- one has to sell an average of £5K every month. Every month. If you're an unknown hoping to sell work, year in year out for 40 years and without a trust fund or high-earning partner to fall back on, those are sobering sums. Perhaps that's why they rarely get done. Better not to know.

Certainly, no bank is ever going to lend money to someone with a business plan which amounts to "Get famous; sell lots of work." Thank you, Mr. Picasso, my secretary will show you the way out. Not surprisingly, the number of non-trustafarians who can make a living by concentrating on their "personal work", whether it be platinum pinhole prints or large-format colour, is probably quite close to zero. I've gone on about this before, so I won't do it again; we don't want to come over as "chippy", now do we? (how I hate that word). My point this time is simply to say how lucky we amateurs are to be free to fail, boldly and repeatedly, in the quest for, well, whatever it is we're looking for, and yet how curious it is that so few of us do so.

Even if we do have the drive to produce a constant stream of new work, we may well not feel any pressure to take risks, to innovate, given we are not competing with each other for attention and income. Many amateurs (in the visual arts at any rate) are actually quite prolific. Yet amateur work is far more driven by convention and the imitation of established models than the work of more commercially-oriented professionals, who are often driven by the urge to feed their children to extraordinary feats of creative originality.

This is depressing, as it takes one deeply into the reactionary territory of market-driven economics. But you only have to think of those walls in pubs or restaurants showing the work of local painters and photographers, produced freely under terms chosen by the "artist". Doesn't their timidity make you want to scream? Or think of the sort of vanity gallery you encounter in upmarket holiday towns, showcasing some wealthy drone's pastime. Leisure + Wealth is a formula for complacency, when the work aspires to nothing more than interior decoration.

We photographers are the worst, of course. Nothing overwhelms that unsettling spark of enquiry or introspection quite like the urge to make a perfect magic-hour landscape in Tuscany, just like the ones Charlie Waite makes, or to freeze a splash of dyed water with a strobe, just like all the other "perfect" winning entries in the latest yawn-inducing competition.

There is, of course, no reason at all why amateur photography should not aspire to the condition of painting-by-numbers. Hence "art filters" and "Photoshop tips". But don't you, too, want to run amok along the tapestry-kit aisle whenever you enter one of those barn-sized temples to fake "creativity" that sell DIY arts-and-crafts sedatives? And don't you despair when you have a flick through Flickr? If not, you really are reading the wrong blog.

A while back, I was amazed and encouraged to find myself featured in Mike Johnston's "Random Excellence" slot on his TOP blog. This unexpected shot of fame (Mike gets over 30K visits a DAY, and this exposure led directly to my Innsbruck exhibition) caused me to think about what I was doing and I wrote a comment which is, in a sense, a manifesto:

Seeing as this is my party, some thoughts on The Unknown Photographer:

Most of my work is done in my lunch-hour, or at weekends, repeatedly visiting the same few local sites. I'm not a professional photographer or artist i.e. I don't earn a living that way. Most people work like this: even professionals have to squeeze time for "personal" work which won't pay any bills.

On balance, I think of this as a Good Thing. It's like writing poetry: if you're after fame and fortune, you're in the wrong game. You do it for its own sake, and the appreciation of a small, dedicated, statistically insignificant audience, most of whom will be practitioners themselves. Even fame within such a small circle is effective invisibility -- Martin Parr is about as well known to the wider world as Paul Muldoon. But invisibility does have benefits: you're free from the expectations of paying audiences -- so there's no excuse for your work not to be As Serious As Your Life (or Daft As A Brush, if that's what you prefer).

All I need to do now is to live up to my own manifesto. Easier said than done. In the only quote most people know from Samuel Beckett (remembered, I suspect, for its uncharacteristic hint of optimism):
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
(Worstward Ho)
May we all find the means and the courage to fail better. Or, failing that, I think I'd settle for that £60K p.a. ...


Struan said...

I would happily feed my children to extraordinary feats of creative originality. It's better than feeding them to a Moloch, or a wood chipper.

I find it faintly depressing, but freedom rarely instills daring. When I used to climb I would try and persuade partners to try a day without a guidebook. Just look at the rocks, try something and see what you find when you get up there. They thought I was mad.

I think there is tremendous freedom in insignificance. There is also a strong English tradition of redemption through well-intentioned failure. Both encourage a reasonable measure of risk taking.

Mike C. said...

Hi, Struan -- have the kids been very naughty indeed to provoke such a wicked misreading of my lucid prose?

You last paragraph puts me in mind of "Dark Side of The Moon" ("Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way") and "Me and Bobby McGee" ("Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose") at the same time. It's an interesting brew.

I must admit I'm quite close to the bounds of my self-sufficiency at the moment -- there comes a point when taking a pride in being ignored by the world is no longer very rewarding (this blog gets rather fewer than 100 visits most days, and I suspect last year really was my proverbial 15 minutes, photography wise).

I may soon need to think of new ways of exploring my taste for "well-intentioned failure". Perhaps the manuscript of an unpublishable novel doing the rounds of rejection might hit the spot...

N.B. the world demands more Twiglog.


Martin H. said...

Come on in, the water's fine!

Not sure that I would be able bend myself into the shape necessary for a £60K return. I do consider myself to be in a fortunate position, though. My modest degree of freedom comes in from much lower down the scale...from the bargain basement, in fact. Cheap, but oh so cheerful.

Mike C. said...


I think my point really is that there is a paradox here: people who are free to create in whatever way they wish (because they have enough income for their needs without having to sell work) seem -- on the evidence -- generally to be content to churn out "unfree" work of the most complacent sort, whereas those who need to sell work for a living have to try much harder, just to get noticed.

The £60K p.a. is simply my guesstimate of the income one would need (as a producer of art) to be able to act as a reasonably unconstrained free agent in that world.

Obviously, if one ate very little, had no kids, no mortgage, no car, and no desire to leave one's garret the figure could be very different, but that is a freedom of a very constrained sort, and the work would have to be pretty damn good to get noticed at all under those conditions... Wot, no internet?

Fortunately, neither you nor I need to sell any work at all to get by. It would be different if we were 30. I had my best ever year of sales last year, and made less than £5K! I think I'd be starting to look for another way to make a living...


Martin H. said...

I thought you hit the nail on the head with this post.

"..the sort of vanity gallery you encounter in upmarket holiday towns, showcasing some wealthy drone's pastime. Leisure + Wealth is a formula for complacency, when the work aspires to nothing more than interior decoration."

I have passed, oh, so many of these! I find that the best surprises are usually to be found in the half-hidden sheds that are where they are, due to financial limitation or artistic integrity.