Photo source: www.armandbartos.com
Collection of Ninety Drawings, 1988/1993
Graphite pencil on museum board
As a recent graduate from an art program, much of my focus has been centered on ideation for series of works. While in school, we are frequently told that successful artists work serially, and that having a “cohesive” body of work is crucial to success. Why is working serially important? Is it a necessary component of a thorough exploration of an idea? The vast majority of solo shows that I have viewed are comprised of 10-20 pieces that have a strong enough sense of visual similarity for people to feel assured that they are one, by the same person; and two, clearly the result of organized thought patterns around a specific topic or theme. Even many shows that label themselves “cutting-edge”, “boundary-pushing”, and “contemporary” adhere to this model. When I show people my work, they commend me for having a “distinguishable style” and they often structure compliments around the fact that, even though I have a lot of variation in my work, they can tell that it is “still me.” Sometimes it feels like they are trying to reassure me that there isn’t “too much” variation in my work, as if that is something that I should worry about and try my best to avoid.
In writing about their own art, it is encouraged and, therefore, common for artists to pinpoint a (few) theme(s) that are of interest to them. While defining interests can be self-affirming for the artist and helpful for the audience, definition often - if not always - comes with an element of exclusion and limitation. Further, I would argue that this reflects a cultural attachment to appearing stable and consistent: as entities that move through time and remain unchanged. If an artist is constantly changing, can we ever claim to “know” them, their true interests, or their work? Changes in artistic content or “style” evokes fear because we place so much value on “knowing” each other in specific ways. When we discuss art, it is almost as if we are discussing more than just the outward characteristics of an object: we are describing something far more personal and personified.
The idea that art embodies something deeply individual and personal is reflected in the construction of language around art. For example, if someone were to purchase a piece by Picasso, s/he might say “I have a Picasso.” In stating this, it sounds as if s/he were buying a copy of the artist himself, when in reality s/he is not even buying a piece of him: s/he is buying a piece by him. We are not only drawn to the idea of purchasing some piece of a [preferably famous or esteemed] person’s essence; it is also important that the work be clearly and authentically theirs. Collectors find cohesiveness among works reassuring, in part because it serves as “proof” of the object’s source.
Beyond wanting something that is distinctly of or belonging to someone else, cohesiveness in series is rooted in capitalism. Creating and displaying a series provides the opportunity for a limited- or single-edition art object to be purchased that is both unique and clearly part of a larger group of similar art objects. This gives each work value by being unique, but also by belonging to an exclusive group of works that are similar enough to be clearly recognized as the work of a specific artist. If an artist and her work gain a sense of visual identity through repeated forms, media, and/or topics, her pieces become significant, in part, because of their relation to others within the series and within her entire body of work. Unity creates monetary value, but also turns the artist into a worker that produces a particular, personal brand of products.
While artists need to live and eat in our ego-driven capitalist system, the expectation that we make works that are distinctly “our own” discourages fresh thinking, mutability, and adaptability. Sometimes an artist might want to explore an idea and/or medium that, in their own thought process, is not particularly well-suited to their established “style.” What then? How much deviation from their own personal norm/brand is acceptable? It is funny for me to hear that people associate being an artist with being free because the more I have grown to understand the art world, the more it seems to trap people in set roles — much like any other job.