Vlog 004: Do You Treat Your Profession as a Hobby?


In this episode, I’ll show you some of my painting works, and my studio - but more importantly, I’ll tell you about a specific plan for 2018. 

I didn’t show my paintings here so far (my website is here), because that’s not what this channel is about; but then I thought about using my painting practice as template for the doubts I have about the stuff that I'm preaching here - an ethical way of thinking about marketing, and reaching an audience. After all, it’s a creative effort, and some of my thoughts about it will probably be applicable to other media as well.

I want to be very unromantic about it. Demystifyingly so. But as a disclaimer:

Keep in mind that I’m talking about a medium that I've worked in for over ten years -  my thoughts won't be useful or actionable for everyone. Especially if you're really new to your craft, or have been there for a way longer time than I have, this might just be weird talk.

Content Visibility and Reaching an Audience

But first, I wanted to highlight one of this channel's interviews - one that didn't get the attention I think it deserves; it's a friend of mine, Parkwaechter Harlekin - he's a musician producing experimental hiphop with German lyrics. It's not a blend that makes the work particularly accessible - but accessibility doesn't say anything about the level of awesomeness and uniqueness, as we know.

You can check it his work here - but independently of it, here are his thoughts on content visibility:

Is this a Hobbyist approach after all?

Back to the main branch: I love painting, and was lucky with sales over the years - quite obviously, that makes me a business professional. At the same time though, sales and visibility aren't anywhere close to where they should be. For the sake of argument: What if I critically dissected my attitude towards my profession - couldn't it be argued to be quite hobbyistic? 

Here are my arguments:

  1. I over-produce,
  2. I create works that are too big,
  3. My work's content can be too rough (NSFW)
  4. I don't advertise
Let's dissect them one-by-one:

1. I over-produce

I only sell a fraction of the work that gets exhibited, which is only a fraction of the work that gets produced. Independently of market realities, I spend nearly all of my time in the studio, being stressed out about the current work getting done: essentially just in order to then focus the next work. (#ratrace)

Isn't that weird? While not everyone is stressed out about their mode of working, most artists I know produce the same way: without limit or control. Society, specifically collectors, sometimes romanticize this as the artist's way of life: to be anxiously excited to create the next masterpiece. It might actually be anxiety, but not the one they're thinking of.

This results in a problem though: in late capitalism, the realities of market dynamics can't be transcended: if you over-produce, you set yourself up for a pricing problem down the road. 

Instead of romanticizing the artist's urge to create, couldn't we argue differently: that we produce so much simply because we really don't want to engage with our audience? Because we're afraid of marketing our works? Because we don't know how to in the first place, and don't want to fail there as well?

Selling a work for 5-15k, then posting an image of it to your not-so-well-tended social media garden, to have it liked by five people: it's the weirdest feeling.

It doesn't give you happy feelz. It doesn't stroke your ego. So you leave it altogether.

I want to argue that overproduction ultimately results in this frustration. Because while you tell yourself that it's about understanding the requirements for producing masterworks, you actually also proactively hide your works from the world, that way.

Which is a convenient thing. Noone downtalks these works then. They can be happy, in their misery.

Like you.

2. I create works that are too big

I create works that are too big for most homes and offices. As a result, I create frustration already in the first group of people that do want to support me, that love specific works - but whose physical realities just can't be transcended (apartment sizes, room heights etc.).

At the art university, us students joked about creating works for institutions: museums, huge collections etc. While some of my work are in such places, this is not a common reality for anyone: it's "the masses" that collect your work, and who build your career. If you don't have work they can buy: good luck.

In the small slideshow below, you see works of mine at art fairs - I was lucky that over the years, specific galleries brought my works to such trade shows. But the costs of doing so! 

Art Fairs: It's the galleries that pay transport, insurance, wall space - to then have a huge, difficult-to-sell work of a youngster (me) compete with one of their established artist's works -
that might be a fourth of my work's size, but make five times the money. Effortlessly, because it's by an established artist. A brand.

Noone discusses this - but it's the reality. If your work doesn't sell at these shows, you'll gradually notice galleries not bringing them there anymore. What else are they supposed to do? They definitely can't afford treating their business like a hobby.

Do I treat my work as a hobby by making it physically inaccessible, making it up-to-impossible for people to have it be part of their lives? And as consequence, does this make me stand in the way of my own career?

3. My work's content can be too rough (NSFW)

Apart from having produced some beautiful painting universes that are soothing to the viewer's mind and sense of aesthetics, I'm also guilty of (at times) creating content that’s rough, that rather directly depicts the world's darker aspects. 

This can be hard on people - while we're used to seeing this kind of content on TV or in the movies, seeing it on a canvas is an entirely different experience - and sometimes too much. Maybe it's because we know someone invested so much time to get it onto the canvas - because we know someone worked for so many hours on the horrors of our world; maybe it tesults in an uncanny, voyeuristic feeling that few feel comfortable with. 

Couldn't there be a better balance - a way to contextualize difficult subjects without alienating your audience? Or would this be the end of all artistic endevors? It's the weirdest thing - because people from outside of the arts really feel the importance of this kind of work. In such exhibitions, I got applauded for this kind of work. It's people who work in institutions, and ultimately could further your career, that these kind of works are criticized the most. I don't understand this yet.

It's the most difficult question, not the least because in my experience, people will argue very differently to how they'll ultimately operate. That gap seems relevant.

Here are Kara Walker's words on this topic, after the 2017 Dana Schutz controversy:

The history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don't necessarily belong to the artists own life, or perhaps, when we are feeling generous we can ascribe the artist some human feeling, some empathy toward her subject. Perhaps, as with Gentileschi we hastily associate her work with trauma she experienced in her own life. I tend to think this unfair, as she is more than just her trauma. As are we all. I am more than a woman, more than the descendant of Africa, more than my fathers daughter. More than black more than the sum of my experiences thus far. I experience painting too as a site of potentiality, of query, a space to join physical and emotional energy, political and allegorical forms. Painting - and a lot of art often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it. I say this as a shout to every artist and artwork that gives rise to vocal outrage. Perhaps it too gives rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen.

As a result, I'm wondering whether I should leave this kind of content for good: any other field's content creators would rarely do this to their clients. Can it really be different in the arts? Do I treat the work as a hobby, by creating content that's too hard to sell? 

Here are some of these works, where real-life events triggered works that touch tough topics: child soldiers, religious fanatics, terror attacks, refugee situations, violence by civil society (we rarely discuss this on). It's a tiny blink into my mental world, that obviously isn't only concerned with painting.

This year, I found my strongest argument on why the production of these works were essential:
because as a painter, I obviously reflect the world through paintings.

But who knows.

4. I don't advertise

Essentially, my painting life over the years has stabilized into producing works, having shows - and have galleries do the rest: exhibit my work in their spaces and at art fairs, maintaining collector relations and selling the works. 

For the longest tie, I simply maintained a website, and sometimes posted on Facebook - and that was that. There’s never been a strong effort to make the work seen, and definitely not a contemporary way of doing so: reaching out to social media influencers, participating in online discussions, trying to find out which digital platforms could be used best to make my work seen: using instagram, Behance, LinkedIn, Twitter, ReddIt etc.

I definitely didn't participate in the most important aspect of social media: engagement. Because social media also means to be part of a discussion culture - beyond the discussions you're having in the geography you happen to live in. I never knew, and never cared - but having started posting my work on ReddIt, Instagram and Twitter, it's so obvious that it's real people out there, who all matter individually, produce work that's interesting, and have smart things to say and ask.

Using social media simply to push, to post your work, is a misunderstanding of the core concept.
Instead, it's about engagement.

 I didn't engage.

Or maybe I'm wrong? I mean - I put so much love into it, right?

Of course I never really-really treated my work as a hobby. I put so much energy, so many hours, so much emotions and thinking into it - how dare someone argue that way? 

Emotionally, I definitely always treated it professionally. But structurally, I'm not so sure. So let's talk about this industries' structures, about expectations from within and from outside the field: discussing marketing issues immediately makes you a weird person to industry outsiders - to your collectors and customers. 

Because it's expected that artists focus the semantics of their times, to challenge and express the difficulties of contemporaneity.

To find smart ways of expression that are aesthetically pleasing, avantgarde-but-not-too-avantgarde; to produce work that sells (after all, that makes you and your work attractive) - but not to oversell.

Once a method has been found that works on a market-level, few will tell you to stay there and find that method's sweet spot: rather, your peers will become greedy, and you'll get criticized for your dedication.

So there's quite an ideological burden: people often discuss artists as creatures living in ivory towers of egocentrism and narcissism, criticizing them for not caring about the world. Monet and his Water Lilies, produced in the heights of the First World War. But I don't actually know any artist's ivory-tower - if anything, the artists I know live in economic hardships. The one thing they're guilty of disregarding is economics - but few to none disregard political or societal tendencies.

Apparently, artists are not expected to behave as any other entrepreneur: showing their work, WORKING with their work, making sure it actually reaches people. It feels like a success to have sold a work - but to have a work be seen by 10k people online doesn’t count. Often enough, it gets ridiculed.

2018: One Year, twelve works. With a sales rate of 100%

Because of all these points, I decided that for 2018, I'll drastically change my painting production habits: I will only create 12 paintings that year: one piece per month. My goal is to sell all of them - 100%.

Immediately, my inner voice objects: a voice trained by art academies, a PhD thesis, a voice that imagines running on idealism exclusively. It tells me that it’s wrong to do so, because sales have to be an afterthought - if any thought at all. That I’m selling out, resulting in me being kicked out of the artist community for good. It tells me that I risk my gallery collaborations, since they could think I'm not committed to my professional practice anymore.

But there's also another voice within me: the voice of reason. It tells me that this is the smartest move, one that shows how I’m finally taking art, my profession, seriously: Because this way, I will work not only on producing paintings, but on producing paintings that people will want to have. Because it sees value in producing work that’s relevant to people - so relevant that they want to buy it, and have it be a part of their lives.

This approach is possible for me because I already know that I'm an idealist: my inner compass is so focussed on content, craft and quality that by now, it's more important to take care of other things - those mentioned above.
It sounds like something so banal that only a child would come with it: I don’t have to worry about ethics and craft, because I’m worrying about them all the time anyway

The only thing to worry about is how to make the work seen - and the 12-pieces-a-year rule is my structure to get there. Because without it, I’ll simply stay in a comfort zone of my established 24/7-work-production, accepting non-sales as fact.

But what will you do with the rest of the time?

This is not about being lazy - but about finding a work mode that takes the medium, the customers, my gallery and myself seriously. Some works will take a week to finish, others a whole month. I’ll have more time away from the canvas though - sometimes several weeks - because once I’m done with that month’s painting, I won’t touch the next month's painting prematurely. 

What will I do with this time?

  • JUGGLING TWO FIELDS: Obviously, I have two domains to juggle: (1) painting and (2) the On Doubt project - and as you know, the latter eats up a lot of time: maintaining contacts, travelling, editing, maintaining social media etc.

  • MARKETING BOTH FIELDS: But as I preached in previous episodes - creative minds love to use their craft as their comfort zone (independently of how uncomfortable they might feel with it): to hide from making their work seen. I could spend months on the On Doubt project’s craft (video editing, interview refinement, blog post writing etc.) without getting any viewers to that content: as I did with my painting work. 
    Instead, I’ll work on my social media voice - to make more people aware of my work - those whose lives benefit from it.

  • FIND INSPIRATION: Spending less time in the studio will let me explore all sorts of new creative avenues. As content creators, we often forget that all input feeds into this weird machinery of thought and emotion that is OURSELVES: whether it’s reading, watching a movie, having a discussion, reading the news. It’s all input, so it’s all part of our creative process. We NEED these to function. Depending on where you are in life, taking time off your profession can be the most worthwhile thing to push your profession.

  • USE A COMFORT ZONE, NOT HAVE IT USE ME: I wonder specifically whether intending to work only up to a specific production limit, will result in me cherishing the studio time more. I noticed that ever since I started the On Doubt project, my sensitivity heightened towards the haptics, the physicality, the smells of drawing and painting. In a way, I never enjoyed painting more than now, where I only have limited resources for it.
    Maybe this structure establishes a studio balance that is beneficial to both output and my sanity?

Art and The Good Life

Anyway, that’s it for now. I don't believe you read this far. I can't even believe I'm pushing all of this out there. As for me - I’ll work more focused, and as a consequence have more time to think about marketing. MARKETING - that evil word. It’s not evil though if done ethically. We can do it. You can do it. I can do it.

Stay tuned, and tell me how you’ll make sure your work reaches an audience!


Share Full Article to...