The Trap of Serious Art: Rediscovering Joy in Making Things

Added on by Archer Dougherty.

I've always been a very cerebral, existential, esoteric sort of person - but also an excited, passionate, fairy-tales and fantasy sort of person. Like everyone, I have a very dark, melancholy side, and a very bright, social side. However, my two sides tend to manifest extremely aggressively. Bad days and good days are very far apart on the mental spectrum and I have no idea how my husband deals with me.  

Making dark artwork keeps me in balance. It helps me actually participate in the other aspects of my life, instead of being consistently bogged down by unanswerable existential questions. If my artwork engages those questions, then mentally I don't have to deal with them other than in the studio.


There's a certain word in making art that I avoid like the plague, and so do other 'serious' artists I know. Simply put, it gives our work the wrong connotation and pisses us off when people mention it. This word makes the work light, easy, 'not a real job', etc etc. It undermines the dedication, sweat, obsessiveness, and general gravity of what we do. It's the word fun. 

If you're an artist and have come to this post, then you know what I mean.

But I have come to realize, slowly and painfully, that I was (and still am, though I'm working on it) attributing the same qualities to that word as other people: How dare they ask if what I do is fun! Don't they realize how important my work is? How hard it is? How mentally exhausting and emotionally draining? Don't they realize that their little 'desk job' is far more meaningless and far easier than anything I do? They don't understand. What I do is so far beyond their understanding. 

If it sounds bitchy and snobbish and condescending, that's because it is. And I'm not making excuses for that sort of thinking; it is absolutely pervasive throughout the arts. There is an elitism surrounding our attitude about our own work that has driven the separation that defines the art market now; a sort of caste system, a definitive split between 'high' art and 'low' art. It's like the difference between seeing someone enjoying the hell out of a cheeseburger and fries, sniffing a little sniff, turning away, and ordering steak tar tar (or, if you're the millennial hipster type, some sort of gluten-free kale atrocity with pine-nuts, mango, grilled chicken and asian pears. Also, let's ignore the location impossibilities of this scenario). You don't order the steak because you think it tastes better or even looks better (you're probably jealous as all hell that guy is enjoying his five dollar lunch as much as he is), but because the steak tar tar (or kale conglomeration) has a specific cultural association that places it, somehow, uniquely above that fantastic burger and fries. Of course, there are certain people who prefer uncooked ground beef over a damn fine green chile cheeseburger (New Mexicans unite!), but I don't know any. And those people are similar to art critics, anyway. They can't cook for themselves so they turn to maligning cheeseburgers while munching away on something they wish was a cheeseburger but wouldn't dare let anyone see them eating it. 

I'm slightly getting off topic, but the general idea to take away from that analogy is this: at some point, art making began to become an extrinsic drive instead of an intrinsic one, and lost its playfulness, experimentation, and all around enjoyment simply because of some elitist idea, based on historical patterns, of what art should and should not be. And I am just as guilty of that elitism. 

I didn't start out that way, however. When I was young, I just made all the stuff. Everyone is naturally creative, just in different ways. I happened to take the things around me and make other things with them. Then I would write about these things, create stories for them, and overall enjoy the worlds I was making for no other reason than I wanted to. I was born in 1982 and as all of my in-betweener generation (Not quite old enough to be Generation X but too old to be a Millennial) fellow creatives will tell you, we were not-so-subtly influenced by the technological/entertainment dissonance from our childhood. Unlike the Millennials, we are the generation that remembers what it's like to write letters, or to try to meet a group of friends and if one didn't show they either forgot, got lost, or were kept home by an adult; we actually didn't know because we had no computer in our back pocket to tell us so. We just carried on without them. But we also were introduced to technology at the formative age which made us far more comfortable with it than our older Gen X. Oregon Trail, Super Mario Bros, dial-up internet, chat rooms (before they were cesspools), etc. etc.

Because of digital capabilities, comic books, animation, and gaming became far more engaging and as a result exploded in its cultural impact. So it's no wonder that the distinction between 'high' art and 'low' art became so sharp, and so vehemently observed during the 1980's and beyond - the more people liked it, the 'easier' the art must be, both in process and accessibility. And we all know 'easy' art can't be good art (I will have the steak tar tar). But it's also no wonder that our generation of creatives chose the graphic arts, the character arts, and the entertainment arts in the face of post-modernism and its conceptual fluff, much to the disdain of the art elite. We like Goosebumps, and Marvel and Disney, and the Goonies, and Tetris and Asteroids. Why shouldn't we make things that reflect that? We are the generation that saw the first freaking computer animated movie by a tiny little company called Pixar - which subsequently changed the face of the entertainment industry. Why shouldn't we become animators, game designers, comic artists, street artists, background artists, or character designers? Why can't we make art that is fun, and other people enjoy simply for its own sake, without relegating it to a 'lower' tier in the art market? 

 As I mentioned before, I am also a very cerebral person. I love my Sonic 2 and my Kirby, but I also love my Ouspensky and my Borges. By the time I was in college and decided that art, instead of writing, was my thing, I realized I was in an institution that was as elitist as they come. It was not a good art department; hell it wasn't even a mediocre art department. It existed in a substantial post-modernist bubble - the very old and distinctly male professors were all about concept. They didn't give two shits about the end result; it was the idea behind it that made something worth while. (I will always remember talking to the grad student who made excellent, really cool sculptures of little creatures; then she had her first grad review in which 'they all' decided her work was too 'cute' for the art world and she had to start making something else.) Even if something looked god-awful in every way (however subjective art may be, there are some things that are just bad), if you could talk endlessly about the concept they were happy. In college I learned how to professionally bullshit my way through anything. 

But all I wanted to do was draw people in weird fantastical situations. At that age I wasn't reading Tolstoy. How can you at 23? No, to hell with that, I was reading Ray Bradbury (always a staple, even if he's not my get), Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks. This was also when the 'art of such-and-such movie' books began coming out - and you can be sure I looked at all of them too. I wasn't taught anatomy or proper drawing skills. My professors derided my work openly and I was actually forced to make 'conceptual' work to get good grades. It didn't occur to me that good grades for an art major mattered as much to my career as the difference between one Merlot from 1975 and the other from 1976. Most people just don't give a shit and can't even tell the difference. 

I majored in the two studio practices that require the biggest and most expensive equipment, thereby ensuring my poverty and limiting my studio practice to the best of my ability: Ceramics and Printmaking. I did a few multi media shows and realized I didn't have the funds to sustain the work. I was absolutely sick of it by then anyway, having been doing it all through college and a few years after which amounted to almost a decade. 

So, naturally, I had to switch to a medium that was cheap and highly accessible in terms of supplies: painting and drawing. 

I'd always loved to draw, since I was little. Painting was a new one (I took one painting class in college and learned absolutely nothing) but I took to it with an ecstasy rivaled only by St. Theresa. Without a decrepit professor breathing down my neck I realized I could draw and paint what I wanted without fear of being reprimanded for making art that was obviously for the basest intellect: the uninformed masses. The reason?

Well, it was fun. 

I drew upon my love of fantasy, fairy-tales, the flat spaces and patterns of art nouveau and art deco, and the ornamentation of the Renaissance and Rococo. I drew with lines (good linework makes my heart happy; every time I see a good comic inking tutorial on youtube I start drooling) and painted with flat, bright colors and patterns. Sometimes the subjects got a little darker, with tears that looked like roots streaming forth from gigantic eyes and demons sitting on shoulders; but the style, process, and results were very distinct and very 'me'. Those earliest pieces married by darker and lighter sides in a way that was spontaneous, instinctual, and completely without reference to any extrinsic artistic mandate. I was looking at contemporary work which resonated with my own imagery, of course: Mark Ryden, Camille Rose Garcia, Ray Caesar, Glenn Barr, etc, and of course my work was visually influenced by them. But I wasn't doing it to make money, I had a part time job and my husband had a good full time job. New Mexico is a cheap place to live, we had a tiny little place and were happy. 

I remember waking up in the morning and being so excited to start working I would take my breakfast into my little studio. I remember working until 3 AM and getting up at 6 AM. I would bring smaller pieces into the bedroom with me so I would see them right away when I woke up. The work was fun. It was exciting, it was experimental, I was exploring directions completely unknown and ones that I was infinitely curious about. I began to work on my figure drawing because I wanted to learn to draw them better. I got anatomy books, drawing books, painting books. I began to learn about color and composition. I was devouring information on my calling, and it was something I really, really wanted to do. 

But then, something unexpected happened: my work began to sell. 

Money is a terrible concept. Like Borges says, "Money is is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee...a coin symbolizes man's free will." 

Money is not a thing, it is the promise of things. It gives power to the holder; the power to decide  for him or herself without having to rely on others. It is a potentiality - and because it is the only thing in the world that is pure promise in a physical form, we always want more of it. 

When my work began to sell, I began to take it more seriously. I wanted to suddenly make 'good' art, whatever that meant. And when my work started to sell was when I decided the internet was my friend and spent much more time on it, and thus spent a lot of time seeing the art other people made and compared my work to it. And when you begin to feel ambitious is when you begin to feel competitive. Competitiveness can be extremely helpful in the short term - I really believe I learned more and worked harder in the span of eighteen months than in all the years spent doing art previously. I wanted to not only make good art, I wanted to be the best. 

However vaguely defined 'the best' was in my mind, I knew that it meant learning a great deal more. I delved into art history like I hadn't done in college. I connected with other artists to grill them on techniques, I made use of youtube, and slowly my work began to change. The more work I was exposed to, the more I thought about content. And the more I thought about that, the harder the work became. Composition, anatomy, color, concept; all those things that I didn't care about in college were suddenly damned important. So I learned them. I probably have the equivalent of two masters degrees in self-taught time and study.

Attending residencies overseas and meeting artists whose higher education completely dwarfed my own opened my mind even further to all these possibilities. Conversations were exclusively about art, art theory, art philosophy. Art became not a thing I did; art became a responsibility. Art became an extension of myself; it became something so inseparable from my core that it was like walking, talking, or breathing. Obsessiveness isn't quite the right term. It's more like living in a universe where everything you think of, see, and hear, is somehow relatable back to the work. You know you're at that point when you squint at everything every time you go outside to see the value/chroma/hue separation and dissect how you would paint it. When everything you see looks like a painting you've come across in your studies. When you rearrange real-life scenes in your head until the composition is better. When everything you read connects with other ideas until it forms one gigantic concatenation of universal events and the work couldn't possibly come close to engaging these inferences, both in concept and quantity, but you try and try and try, and fail and fail and fail. 

Almost constantly in a slight mood of frustration and anxiety, I found myself dissecting others' work constantly and finding everyone lacking - except those whose work indicated that thought had come first. I respected artists who clearly read philosophy, poetry, history, and literature. I no longer respected artists whose work was done simply for enjoyment because it was easy. I gave my cerebral side full reign, and actually, consciously suppressed my reactions when I saw some animation or character art that I enjoyed because it was beneath my own, obviously higher calling. I was jealous, angry, and condescending at the same time. 

Fun not only did not come into play any longer, it became completely unrelated to the work and relegated to the mental tier of 'cheeseburger'. I was too busy ordering steak tar tar and looking around to see who noticed. 

How did I get here? Well, you can't make art, be career ambitious, aspire to the 'high' art market, and keep the enjoyment without being really, really self-aware. And enjoyment is so important, but so misunderstood. 

Enjoyment in art making comes from a uniquely intrinsic place. There is something that tells you making things with your hands is what you like. It's very primal, and very basic. If you obey that something, the reward centers in your brain get their fix and you are mentally, spiritually, and physically satisfied. It's figuring out what things to make that can become tricky, but eventually your influences and world-view will sort themselves out and what results is uniquely you. If you're like me and you like to make all the things - well, sorting out gets trickier but you will return to certain things again and again, and suddenly realize you've stripped away all the unnecessaries and you're doing what you should be. Unfortunately, I'm 35 and I haven't gotten there yet. I haven't learned the knack of telling my brain to STFU. 

Now I do believe in being an informed artist. (Here, 'trained' vs. 'informed' are not the same thing, and require an entirely different post for some other time). I don't believe all those years of study and reading and learning was wasted time - I don't believe in returning to the beginning. Things happen, if not for a reason, but because time is an arrow and we can't turn it back. The decisions I made were made specifically because I was driven to be better, the best, at what I do, and I don't regret them. I am much better at what I do - technically and conceptually. I really believe I'm a better artist now than I was. 

This past year, 2016, I was accepted into a two month residency in a space nestled in the national forest outside of Assisi, Italy. I needed it badly. I was at the point of burnout, my work was consistently for shows and collectors without any time to myself for experimentation or drastic growth, for which I knew I was overdue. My work felt stifled and stagnant, frustratingly convoluted and repetitive. When you're a career artist at a certain level (think above co-ops but below Kiefer), certain things are expected of you: the market wields its paddle and you say "thank you sir may I have another". 

When I got to the residency I literally had no idea what to do with myself for the first two weeks. Art hadn't been my 'sole' responsibility in my entire life. Yes, it is my job and yes, I am thoroughly controlled by it, but I am married with two dogs and adultish responsibilities creep their way in. I make my meals, clean my house, walk and feed my dogs, run my errands, etc etc. At this residency, I was cooked for, cleaned after, with no dogs and a gorgeous studio space just waiting for me. The hosts had no requests to make; there was no solo show required, no gift to make to the space. They just required that I work, and use the forests and mountains to my quiet advantage. I had made work for reasons outside myself for so long I had forgotten why I made work in the first place. Why my hands itched to create.

What the hell do I do now? 

I felt like some sort of poser trying to be a real artist. If I couldn't think of anything to make when there were no shows, or sales, or people to see it, what the hell was I doing there? Clearly I wasn't an artist. Clearly I had no business making things when the internal drive to make them wasn't there. 

Those first two weeks were some of the most difficult I've ever had in my entire life. I questioned everything. After living and breathing a career so external, I found that I had neglected my internal terribly. All the things I enjoyed had been formed and reformed into some shadow of themselves in order to placate my own ambitions. I needed to be quiet, to be silent, put down my own fears and expectations, and listen. 

To make a long and incredibly rich experience short, I did listen. And I found the intrinsic motivation again. 

My work had changed of course. Everything does, that's our fate. It was dark, varied, and rich. It was illustrative without being answerable to an external narrative and it was conceptual without being condescending or elitist. Again, like the earliest work I made, it combined my darkest and lightest personality traits into an organic whole. I enjoyed it. I was patient with it. When I didn't know how to continue, I stopped, and began something else. It was magic, it was reviving, it was absolutely what I needed. It was as if I was giving myself permission to make things unanswerable to anyone else. 

Then I returned home and real life smacked me in the face like a freight train. 

Show requests. Collector emails. Social media, selling, produce produce produce. I came very, very close to an emotional breakdown. 

Career growth and artistic growth, ironically, aren't very good for one another. Unless you've reached the point where just your signature is enough to sell a piece, artistic growth usually bends to career growth, and vice versa, depending on which is more important to you. They don't grow simultaneously; that's not the way the art market works. And I've always been interested in a great deal of different media, styles, and concepts, but too ambitious to really indulge myself, so my growth was always very linear and very predictable. 

So, in order to focus on growth, I turned off my phone. I deleted my social media apps, deactivated my Facebook account and actually deleted my substantial Instagram account. I'm starting over from scratch and rebuilding my work without it being beholden to anyone or anything. I need to regain my enjoyment, I need to start having fun again, and not have to travel the world to find it. I need to rediscover my joy in creating worlds simply because they are there to be created. Because, while I do believe my own work isn't necessarily about having 'fun' in the given sense, I still need to be able to take joy in what I do. I need to be eager to get into the studio again and find the passion and motivation to make work without thinking about what might happen in the future. I need to recognize when I'm making excuses not to work and why, and fix whatever needs fixing.

Since Italy I have been making work for myself and taken a break from showing. However, I find myself still weighted with the need to be the best. But alongside this drive to make the best work is the fact that meaningful work doesn't have to be a personal struggle, or so convoluted that it gets bogged down in unrecognizable references. My work doesn't have to be intellectual in order to stimulate. I didn't begin my artistic journey thinking I was going to be a famous artist, that I would sell my pieces for unimaginable amounts of money, or museums would acquire my work for their collections. Those thoughts are stressful. The common thread amongst all artists I consider both great and successful is this: they don't directly pursue 'success'. They pursue knowledge, they learn about the world, they make work in which they are interested and passionate. Enjoyment = longevity. The more you enjoy it, the longer you will do it. There's a reason Rembrandt painted into his nineties. If he had lost his joy in painting when he was 35, do you think he would have continued?

Probably not. 

Making art is a difficult calling. It requires the burning desire for knowledge, skill, openness, awareness, sensitivity, empathy, and a certain malleability. But there is one thing it does not ask of you: that you suffer for it. And often that becomes the case. I have come too close to very dark and miserable places in my mentality to think otherwise. Somehow, we equate serious art with suffering. History is peppered with creatives whose lives were dramatic, brilliant, dark, and short. There is a romance about being the isolated artist who creates masterpieces behind closed doors and dies unknown, only to be discovered after his or her death. Joy and fun are nowhere to be found in such scenarios. 

So I am doing myself a favor each day, and reminding myself, while looking at all the beauty around me for its own sake, that this is all I have. I can't spend every day without enjoying what I do, especially since what I do has such a capacity for enjoyment. I'm learning that I can take breaks from the mentally tough work and just draw or paint characters, or digitally play around; indulging my very distinct halves. Not everything has to mean something. It's ok for me to like video games and comic books and want to sit around and watch Star Trek while noodling around with some sketch or other. It's not necessary for me to be constantly thinking so hard I depress myself about my place in the universe, and make art accordingly. I can indulge my Goonie Generation tendencies and draw characters with stomper boots and steampunk goggles along with my existential painting called "Metempsychosis, or the Transmigration of Souls" (in progress). 

Oh, and another favor I'm going to try to do for myself, though it's been a long time: eat a cheeseburger and fries.