Friday, September 21, 2012

A Simple Recipe for Artistic Success

In my opinion there are two goals for an artist who wants to make a living: first is that he creates good works of art; and second he knows how to sell it. This might seem like a statement of the obvious, but I didn't always see it that way, and when I talk to unsuccessful artists I hear many who still don't.

I regularly used to complain that the culture doesn't support art, or most people have plebeian tastes and don't appreciate good art (people today get all their information from the internet and blogs for heaven's sake); or that there are no enlightened patrons around. All of this may be true (and the role of knowledgeable patrons is important ; but the question I have to ask myself as an artist is what can I do about it. Rather than expecting society to change until it demands what I am already producing, which is what I had been doing up to that point. I was forced to conclude that my success depends more on creating forms that appeal to people. Furthermore, as I wanted to be successful in creating a certain type of art, I had to work out how to do it without any compromise on the principles of tradition. The main barrier to my accepting this is my pride: if my work is not selling at high enough prices then I must accept - in this age of the internet when marketing has never been easier - that the most influential factor is that what I produce just isn't good enough. This presented me with a choice: keep complaining or strive to improve. I have chosen to follow the second option (and have much progress to make).

For all this, in fact an artist can do both: improve his work and transform the society to which he aims to sell it, thereby creating a demand. The point is that means by which he will do so is the same in each case, through the creation of works of beauty. It is beauty that will change the world. So I need first to create it, and then strive to get people to see it. If people value what I produce sufficiently, then they will pay me for it. The truly beautiful will transform those who see it, and people will want it. If this is not happening, I must work harder to create something that they will value more - I must become a better artist, or a better salesman, or both. This is the principle of noble accessibility coming into consideration again. We have to create forms that are so powerfully beautiful that they connect with people today. The nature of beauty is that tends to creates the desire for it once seen. As John Paul II put it in his Letter to Artists in the context of art, beauty is the 'good made visible'.

In that same letter, John Paul II was so confident in the supernatural power of beauty to do this that he called for a new epiphany of beauty. He did not appeal to society as a whole, or even the Catholic community to change itself and become more tasteful; nor did he even appeal to educators to change society so that it would appreciate good art (not that either is undesirable); but rather he addressed his call to artists. The clue is in the title of the document! It is the artist who will effect this epiphany through the creation of beautiful works of art.

Pope Benedict after him chose to address artists for the same reason, as did Paul VI before him. Each is echoing what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council articulated. In his letter, he talks about art both inside and outside the church and points out that the beating heart of the tradition is sacred art. He writes: 'At the end of the Council, the Fathers addressed a greeting and an appeal to artists "This world - they said - in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. In this profound respect for beauty, the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium recalled the historic friendliness of the Church towards art and, referring more specifically to sacred art, the "summit" of religious art, did not hesitate to consider artists as having a "noble ministry" when their works reflect in some way the infinite beauty of God and raise people's minds to him. Thanks to the help of artists ''the knowledge of God can be better revealed and the preaching of the Gospel can become clearer to the human mind''. (In this he distinguishes 'sacred' art from 'religious' art. I am assuming here that he considers 'sacred art' to be that worthy of veneration and appropriate for the liturgy - in accordance with the criteria laid down by Theodore the Studite - and to be distinguished from the more general criterion of portraying religious subjects.)

This, by the way directs our focus in education today. The greatest need in all the arts is for people who create beautiful work. Therefore education should be directed as much to the stimulation of creativity, as to cultivating an appreciation of what is good. Patrons have a huge part to play in the creative process and education of future patrons, lay and religious, is certainly part of this. John Paul II called also for a dialogue between artists and the Church, in accord with the 7th Ecumenical Council, which stated that artists are merely executors of ideas and the ideas originate with the Fathers. Ideally, this dialogue would be a real one between the artist and living breathing Fathers. However, when an artist chooses to conform to principles of tradition, he is in connection with the Fathers of the past who directed those artists who formed the tradition. The reason that the Popes addressed the artists, I believe, is that it is the artists' responsibility to initiate this dialogue today by demonstrating that he can produce works that possess this transforming beauty. This will then draw the other parties into the dialogue.

The successful Christian artists that I know who are working in traditional forms have certain things in common. Each produces work of high quality and they assume that this is the basis upon which people want to buy it. Each knows how to sell his work and each manages to support their families comfortably through their artistry.

I have never heard either complain that the culture or the Church doesn't appreciate what they do. The majority of these artists have not been through any formal long term training and are mostly self taught. Regardless of how they were trained originally, the successful artists are constantly looking at new methods and materials that will help them to improve, largely teaching themselves now. And all are great students of their traditions: if there appears to be a need for innovation and there is any doubt as to its validity, they always seek advice from those who are aware of the great body of Church teaching, the theologians, philosophers and liturgists.

None has a precious attitude to the craftsmanship. Making money from what they do is as important as being able to do it. This is good, I feel, for if they cannot pay the bills by doing it, then they cannot keep on doing it; but also because the market is the most efficient mechanism for the distribution of goods that we have today.

Incidentally, this is something that all manufacturers might take note of. This says that if what they make is beautiful then people will be attracted to it and will pay a premium for it. The success of Apple computers is based upon this premise. Mass production doesn't need to detract from this. In fact, if an object is beautiful, then mass production means more beauty than if only a limited number are produced. I have not seen any evidence to suggest that ugliness is intrinsic to the manufacturing process. The cost of making something beautiful is not necessarily greater than the cost of making something ugly and even if it is, it is as likely to be an investment that pays off, as in the case of Apple where people will pay more for a more appealing design. The reason, I believe, that we associate mass production with ugliness is that since the rejection of tradition values in art and design, most designers simply don't know how to make something that participates in the timeless qualities of beauty. The quality of the article that is mass produced is dependent upon the quality of the original design. If the design is bad, then we have ugliness in great quantity; and if good, then it produces beauty in great quantity. And that is a desirable thing...isn't it?

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: