Dear Agony Aunt,
It’s a rainy Friday night here in the city of Gotham otherwise known as Manhattan, and I’m alone, as usual. At this moment I’m contemplating the point of being a fine artist. I feel washed out at the wise age of twenty-three and directionless in my personal life. I also feel lost and insecure about my artwork and my so-called “career”. Along with this mid career crisis, I have major spiritual questions about the validity of the art world I live in. Sorry Mrs. Ashcroft, I tend to vomit my problems onto people, and so I never get a straight answer, and it doesn’t help that I never stop talking.
My question specifically, is what is the point is of being an artist? And does it matter anymore in this recycled world of art commodities and art stars? I mean nobody gives a f**k what you do, art or no art. I think I used to care, or at least I felt that God cared about my watercolors. Your work is one the rare exceptions, and this is why I’m writing to your Agony Aunt column for advice. Please help me my soul’s is on fire, I don’t know what to do.
I’m very sorry to be so negative. Right now I’m in the grips of nihilism’s iron hands. Nobody wants to show my work, unless it’s my infamous watercolors. All I hear when I say sculpture is “Sorry, we’re saturated!” Most times though, I find a ray of hope because even the most nihilistic person has to believe in one thing, and that is nihilism. All is not lost. I know you and your work are real, and this gives me hope. I even once had the opportunity to hear you lecture on your work, so I kind of feel like we know each other. Please believe me I’m not as pathetic and whining as I come across in this letter.
Mrs. Ashcroft, don’t get me wrong I’m not some naive Columbia graduate studio vying for an atta-boy from his or her professor. I never went that route. I had it easy when it came to showing and making money, which seems to be the art world’s major medium in the end. What I want to know is how to find my way back onto the path of righteousness. When I compare myself to other artists whom I believe are satisfied and successful like you-most don’t make fine art. I think of myself as of the Dalai Lama if I was a spiritual leader or Sting or even Prince if I were a musician, or maybe Robert Redford if I were an actor. They’re mainstream but politically empathetic. These people are heroes in their field and seem to be doing something that has fulfilled more than just their bank account.
I’m just wishing I could feel “real” and spontaneous again. I don’t mean to be so negative and repetitive. Most people describe me as a young and charming artist. I just need some solid answers to help me sort out this “art” crisis. I’m a thinker and a dreamer who fell into this roller coaster artist’s life at a very young age. I guess I should tell you a little bit about myself, and my career so you can make a proper analysis of the situation.
As a painter of Christ and his teachings, I achieved international recognition by the age of fifteen for my watercolors of stuffed animals depicting the teachings of the Bible. If you think the Petite Picasso or the Painting Elephant is big, well you have another thing coming, I mean don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Matthew, matthew, (my mother and former art manager came up with my painter name). I paint from my visions of Jesus, if you know what I mean. I used to arrange my stuffed animals and paint scenarios of the teachings of Christ. I’ve been on Oprah, Good Morning America, and Prime Time. My work sells all over the world to decorate the houses of the absurdly rich and religious. In addition to my swelling bank account, I’ve received critical acclaim for my deconstructionalist attitude towards painting. My work has been in Documenta, Basel, and the Portikus.
Lately it’s been more masochistic and internal than you can imagine, my work that is. I used to awake from these visions of god and paint my stuffed animals. As of late these visions and my passion have left me, and now art seems pointless and God hates me. Right now all I do is look around at everybody else, and see that they are all doing better than me. Sometimes I feel so alone when I sit in my Soho loft and dream about the respect and power that a truly successful international artist can achieve.
It’s not the money, I’ve always been rich and, I mean anyone can have money. It’s not the fame, which comes and goes. I should know, I am a child prodigy. Thanks to my mother I managed to stretch being twelve years old out until I was sixteen, when sexual content started to appear in the stuffed animal watercolors of Christ. I still love my mother but she was really tough on me. She thought I was a direct channel for Christ and his teachings, so my watercolors always came first, Polio or no Polio.
“You have to want it,” “You have to put it out in the universe and believe it will happen,” that’s what my mother used to always tell me. If you don’t put it out into the universe and believe that it’s going to happen, it won’t. I really believed Gina, but still God’s visions left me, and so did my passion. All I do is sit around and pray and complain. I also miss my mother’s approval of my artwork. I’m sorry to whine so much, but as you know most artists learn it as a matter of discipline. I have a top ten lists of things to change about myself and to stop whining are at the top, clearly a weakness.
So, I guess you’re wondering truly why I lost faith in art. As I said before I got involved in art at an early age (the art world loves youth) making watercolors of my stuffed animals (if you were wondering, I had never seen any of Mike Kelly’s work). At the tender age of eight, I became a conceptual watercolorist deconstructing God for the art world and utilizing my medium to talk about longing and isolation for the conservative and religious at heart.
At that time success for me was an unlimited amount of candy and toys along with the approval of my mother/art manager. Her business sense and Cal Arts education (she was part of the women’s movement in LA during the 70’s) helped my career quickly achieve international success. The increasing profits and demand for watercolors never stopped. I was the Drew Barrymore of the art world.
But deep down inside in my heart of hearts I wanted to make sculptural objects, but it had to stay a guilty secret because of my Mother. Technically I was already making sculpture, with stuffed animals, but then painting them. Sculpture seemed to me a much more effectual way conceptually to convey my ideas to my audience. It was the combination of hitting puberty and seeing Donald Judd’s work that caused this internal explosion and forced me to abandon watercolors no matter how beautiful they were, to pursue a new body of work, without my mother’s knowledge. Slowly I began to despise the commercial side of my work and even though I continued to paint my visions, things started to stray.
This is when my mother found my first minimal cube of fur and freaked out, telling me it was the work of Satan and that Christ never talked about cubes in his teaching, especially furry ones. After a long drawn out lecture on the importance of my watercolors, I realized that I had to get out from under her parental umbrella once and for all – to finally make the sculptures I believed in.
My new objectivity came with the price of losing my visions from God and my mother. Also it became apparent there would be no chance of showing these works because everyone still saw me as Matthew, matthew, the child prodigy watercolor painter. In the last two years I’ve become completely isolated, and without any audience I feel a sense of emptiness, along with an overwhelming amount of guilt that has taken over my selfish desires to be a minimalist. Matthew, matthew has been crucified by art and needs a reason to continue. Does making art matter if nobody want my true work?
Dear Matthew, matthew,
I appreciate your letter for its brutal honesty and the interest it has for my other readers that are stuck in similar situations as yourself. You are not alone. I’ve received numerous letters from artists that have been exploited and forced to produce commodity driven artwork, when all they wanted to do was teach scuba diving or cook in a respectable restaurant. I think that writing this gapping wound of a letter and turning to my column for advice is a giant step in the right direction. I am familiar with your work and the predicament that it has placed you in (I never saw any relationship to Mike Kelly, more Kim Dingle if you ask me). Anyways, I hope to offer you some advice and direction to help you exit the bell jar you’ve made for yourself.
Recently I was entertaining some guests from Berlin, in New York. They are two trustifarian kids that are doing well as artists in the contemporary art scene in Berlin. They were making works about the fall of the Berlin wall and the openness of the new system they were force to be part. The interesting part of the artwork was they were born on the Westside of Berlin and grew up in a privileged utopic environment without a day of labor, or struggle to support themselves as artists. Yet, the work was specifically about the oppression of a governmental system that a left-wing Democratic nation could create. As a critique, it didn’t really work because the environment in which they showed was so accepting of their Prada suits made out of chain mail armor, it failed to be more than a well accepted jab at the liberal norm. They wore the suits to the openings of their shows to express the weight and oppression within that the new democracy generated. In the end everybody thought they were just absolutely fabulous.
These unnamed German artists had always dreamed of making art in the East under the old communist regime, where they could be truly persecuted for their anarchist ideals. They needed a place were they could work against the grain, instead of always being accepted for who they were, and what they stood for. They truly wanted to be misunderstood and tortured for their artwork. They wanted to make “heavy” works of arts.
In the end they felt oppressed by the total freedom and the progressive environment in which they grew up. In this perfect German world, they were able to study for free and live any type of lifestyle that their heart desired. No burdens. In their formative years both artists found they had no limits to push in their audience, and so they became lazy privileged people that had nothing to rebel against. At a certain moment they stopped making work as team and decided to do nothing as a form of art (probably one of the most important works of art dealing with the emptiness of modern culture was Roberta Smith’s opinion of the duo). Anyways success and acceptance were slowly killing the two artists.
I was introduced to the apathetic artist team through one of their former professors and he convinced me to invite them for a stay in New York. They had never left Berlin and she was convinced that they were in a pathetic space because of the microcosm in which they lived in.
This is my first point in response to your letter Matthew, Matthew. You were living in a microcosm that was governed by your mother and now you have finally broken out and seen the world for what it truly is, a lonely place. Where you must only for yourself. It’s important for you to find your independence and make decisions for which you have to take full responsibility for. You have to make and wear your own suits of armor in this world. It’s our social underwear. As I see it you’re finally starting to live your life as an artist. You’ve put on your protective underwear. So this new found escape from your mother’s capitalist regime is a beginning and not an end by any means to this brave new world of independence. Your entire adolescence was governed your dictatorial mother who sounds like she use you for her own desires as a failed artist.
The reverse is true for my Germany experiment, they had nothing to break away from, nothing to use as a foil for their work. Even though they opposed the system, its liberal vacuum sucked anything into its black hole and turned into a positive fodder towards its hierarchy. It became clear to the German couple during their stay in New York, just how useless the privileged can be.
The climax of the German duos stay with me in New York came at the moment when they decided out of their so-called generosity to take my clothes to a Laundromat. They had discovered that I didn’t own a washing machine. Being the privileged, unoppressed individuals that they were, they had never actually washed their own clothes. Only after an extended period of time did they managed to get the public machine started, and attempt to wash my clothes. They knew it was important to use bleach in the washing cycle, but not its actual purpose in the washing cycle. In the end they managed to bleach all of my brand new clothes that I just bought from A.P.C. The bleach was a breakthrough conceptually. It became a turning point for their development as artists. An act of chance had inspired the Germans to make art works again. Something outside their known system had occurred and opened their eyes.
The second point in response to your letter is that we all live in a state of what I shall dub “the unknown” from day to day. The unknown is the thing around the corner that we don’t know. We all have to realize that we live in our own bubbles. Until you are able realize that there is always the unknown just waiting to be discovered you will be in a self-constructed prison, to which only you have the key. The German twins found that no matter how much they thought they knew about everything in their microcosm, it was just subjective to their location In other words, only you can find the right environment to express your new found desires to make sculptures and just because they aren’t an instant success like your prior watercolors, doesn’t mean that they are pointless. To be honest we are our own worst enemy. To answer your question as to what the point is of being an artist, or whether anything matters, seems utterly pointless. If you don’t find art satisfying and self-fulfilling and nothing more than a commodity, then stop. Do something else. There are already too many artists to begin with.
Matthew, matthew don’t take this tough love the wrong way, I appreciate your openness and willingness to seek help for the answers to your questions, but it seems you have the answers right in front of you. You’re just trapped in a self-inflicted tunnel vision and you need something unknown to happen you to shake your foundation. Maybe it’s time to travel, even if it’s just in your mind.
My third and final point is for you and all my readers who have been questioning the validity of the artist. Stop wasting your time and just live your life. Once the Germans were willing to act as things came their way, they failed to need something to rebel against. Their next solo show was stretched canvas with landscapes of bleaches, always looking forward, out into the horizon of life. They found the inner strength to embrace the unknown, and find the context in which to address it.
Life and art is an ongoing process. You can’t just pick and choose the way it goes. What you can do is believe in your dreams and just make the best work you can. Do you love your dreams Matthew, matthew? What are your goals in life? You need to pull out the roadmap and see what direction you’re going, recognition or not.
In the end this idea about art is somewhat juvenile and privileged, just look around and realize the richness of what we all have being alive, and that’s the air we breathe, t the smiles we get from our friends. I know that everybody has their little life storms at times, but the unknown is always around the corner to help keep us on our toes. I think we should all learn from my German guests. Go out on a limb and try something new, jump into the unknown! Keep sending me those letters!
Gina Ashcroft (( published in MyWays edited by Rita McBride & David Gray Arsenal Pulp Press, Printed Matter, Whitney Museum of Art ))