An open letter to 'The Artists'
In case you missed it, last week the flyer below was posted around downtown on various street lamps, vehicles, trees, and other utilities. It has generated a lot of dialogue both online and offline, ranging from full agreement to complete disgust. I respect the spirit of the guerrilla-style messaging, but as a local artist I can’t fully align with it. I thought about posting my own flyer in response, but this is a topic that warrants something more long-form. I’m going to address the various reactions I’ve heard and give you some of my own unsolicited thoughts.
Art Is Not a Luxury
It’s hard to define what art is, and there are may definitions. The Oxford Dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” According to this definition, art includes things like an episode of reality TV, a child’s scribbles, a photograph of a flower, a Rothko painting, and an experimental dance performance. Almost everyone has something they enjoy that falls within this definition. That being said, to some people your art is a luxury (my art included). It might not be relatable to their daily struggles, socioeconomic status, worldview, etc. A lot of art is relatable, but everyone's circumstances are different. That doesn’t mean that your art isn’t of value.
Compensation ≠ Value
Ideally we would be well-compensated for our work, but that’s frequently not going to be the case. Some types of art have more commercial appeal, some have zero chance of making a cent. I would wager you do not make art purely for monetary reasons, so don’t frame the discussion of value around money! You’re devaluing your worth as an artist to compare success with money, recognition, press, etc. Money might make things easier, but you might need a lot less than you think. There are many individuals in Rochester who are willing to donate art space and press coverage, you just have to ask.
Furthermore, being paid to do art can sometimes be a double-edged sword. You might feel pressure to make art to make ends meet vs. creating the art you want. You risk losing the power of your art to market forces. If you’re making art solely for money, there are much better avenues. Being an artist as a profession is extremely risky, and I would try to find something else to sustain your passion if possible.
Many people in Rochester see the local artist community as entitled. A common interpretation of the flyer I’ve heard is, “I made something, now give me money.” This might not be your intention, but that’s what many people read. No one will give you money just because you make something. You have to demonstrate that it is of value. Make connections (especially with people outside your discipline), become involved in the community (not just the art community), create art that addresses a problem you see around you, and take your work seriously. If you don’t put the effort to present your art in the best possible context, you’ll be at a disadvantage to those who do.
You can decide what to charge for your art. If it’s not worth it for you to sell it for peanuts, then don’t. But don’t expect people to always agree with you.
Rochester (Probably) Doesn’t Care About Fine Art (And That’s Okay)
Rochester doesn’t place a lot of value on art. This is clearly demonstrated by the recent budgeting issues of the Rochester Art Center and Rochester Civic Theatre. Even if there are groups that want more art in this town, it might not be the type of art you or I would like to see. Rochester isn’t unique in this aspect; most people everywhere don’t care about fine art. Sure, some places like the Twin Cities may have a more lively arts scene, but it’s still a minority group.
We’re all going to like and place value on different things, and the differences in our perspectives should be encouraged.
Thank you for generating this discussion. I wish you success in your artistic endeavors, I can’t wait to see what you’ll create.
Editor's note: This letter was published anonymously at the request of the author — and at the discretion of this publication. It does not reflect the views of the Med City Beat or any of its partners.