Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Art, selling out, and the audacity of wanting it all

I feel compelled to address some whispers that have been bought to my attention. These whispers are concerned with the percieved quality and integrity of my fine art practice in relation to my more commercial illustration or publicity endeavours. It's a dichotomy I am no stranger to and I of course am aware that to some people, each commercial commission, collaborative project or illustration I do for a fee is a black mark against my name as an artist.

I want to explain why I fundamentally disagree with these thought processes.

Upon starting my degree in Fine Art at the Victorian College of the Arts, I'd begun the traditional and accepted path of an emerging artist. The demure online presence I upheld with my regularly updated blog at the time was accepted by my peers as it was seldom read. Consequent to being offered a paid position of illustrator at Rookie Magazine in 2011, as well as continuing to study and pursue the conventional notion of "being an artist", I began to traverse what I saw as relatively uncharted territory, especially for me as a fresh-faced young woman with the ingrained propensity to not be taken seriously.

This "uncharted territory" that I cite is the rugged terrain of upholding a freelance, commercial illustration practice at the same time as pursuing a position of integrity as a fine artist. Lately, in combination with my rapidly growing presence online and my tendency to present myself to the public as a person and personality of equal importance to my artwork - I begun to rub some people who harbour traditional notions of art and artistry up the wrong way.

I am and have always been very much aware of the boundaries I am perhaps pushing and the people I am perhaps pissing off whilst attempting to navigate the distinctive position in the art world I have forged for myself. I have always stated that I see the commercial facet of my practice as separate to the fine art facet, and I maintain that. However, it has come to my attention that just because I state that this is so, doesn't mean that my peers and audience accept it is so. Also, it has creeped into my ever-buzzing mind that perhaps the reason I continue to so staunchly state them as separate is because I'm subconsciously concerned that if I don't preface my practice with this, some in the art world will immediately disregard it.

At the moment, I get approached relatively frequently by companies to make work for them or to collaborate with them in some way. These offers occur, I believe, from a combination of the friendly, accessible aesthetic of my work, my relatively large following on Instagram, my easily marketable appearance and agreeable personality, and, the fact that I work hard on every project I do and produce "good" work. I carefully screen every offer that comes through, and I only say yes to things I feel comfortable doing. Feeling comfortable means that I don't see it as compromising my vision or personal brand in any way, and I am to be paid properly for my time and work. If I believed my vision or personal brand was to be compromised by a commercial collaboration or commission, I wouldn't say yes to it. Seems simple enough to me. Unfortunately, according to some - simply the act of saying "yes" is apparently enough to compromise my vision, my personal brand, and my position as a respected emerging artist in the art world.

This is why I say "yes"...

From as early as I can remember, one of the main reasons I've made art is so that people can see it. I'm a visual extrovert. The commercial facet of my practice in conjunction with *the internet* has been enormously helpful in achieving this goal of permeation on a large scale. I want to make art with the power to visually reach as far as music and writing does, I want to make not 'pop art' but 'popular art', art that is friendly and accessible and doesn't only exist in a white cube. I don't mean to imply that there's anything wrong with one's art existing in a white cube - there is absolutely not. I just mean to highlight the lure that large scale commercial reproduction holds for me as a "visual extrovert" because I can share my vision with the world and not just the white cube dwellers of the world. I don't want art to just be for the elite or privileged.

Every member of my family and extended family run their own businesses. I have been raised in an environment where money does not come as a weekly wage but as a sporadic and often long awaited reward. I have watched my Father work seven-day weeks building up his design practice from scratch, and his determination and work ethic has rubbed off on me in a big way. I run my art practice like a small business, and I see nothing wrong with that. I want to live a comfortable life, I want to save a deposit to buy my own home, and I don't see this want as shameful or contradictory to my position as an artist. Why should I say "no" to commercial opportunities I am comfortable with, that can get me closer to my personal goal of home ownership, in order to preserve an archaic notion of artistic integrity? Why should I embody the stereotype of 'struggling artist' if I don't have to?

I consider briefly what my artist peers would do in my position. If they were offered a decent sum of money to make work for a commercial institution or company that they felt okay with, would they do it? I believe that saying "no" is largely viewed as more admirable than saying "yes". Denying the dirty money and living less than comfortably is always preferable in the eyes of the "true artist" to taking it graciously and using it to contribute back into your life and work. Ultimately, I say "yes" because I don't believe I should quash my voice and my decisions in order to gain respect. Respect should come from the fact that I work hard, balance a number of different commitments, and navigate some pretty tricky dichotomies that not a lot of other people are attempting to navigate. Respect should also come from the perceived quality of my work - and this should have nothing to do with seeing my commercial projects as slime that immediately 'devalues' my paintings that would otherwise be considered as having conceptual or critical weight. Also, I don't know if you've made this connection yet, but the fee from my commercial projects allow me to pour funds into my fine art practice. Inject currency and the more art I make = the more art I can make.

There is also a disproval emanating from some for the way I choose to market myself and my art practice, that is together - and frequently. My face, hair, and lipstick habits are seen by as many eyes as a painting of mine. I choose to have myself and innermost thoughts "out there", as much as I choose to have my artwork "out there". I've been blogging and sharing photographs of myself online for 8 years now, and it's not something I'm going to discontinue because of the potential to spoil the illusory notion of the "artist". As an artist I want to stand also as human on an equal plain to my work, and I don't see that as something that should devalue or compromise my practice. Because I am a young woman with moderately attractive features my openness online is seen as foolish and juvenile. Because I insist that the viewers of my work be aware of me as a person, as a woman - the mystery of my practice is deemed non-existent, and that prompts some to class it as insignificant or meaningless. I used to think that laying everything bare was an act of bravery because it was hard to make so much of yourself vulnerable. Now I believe the act of bravery is not in the act of laying yourself bare, but in standing by that act and refusing to see or acknowledge it as something embarrassing, demeaning, damaging, or as something that can impede people from taking you and your work seriously.

Another bone of contention I have become aware of in regards to my art practice is that I utilise a number of different mediums. I flit between writing, drawing, fashion, collage, confessional blog entries, painting, selfies, music, illustration... anything that I feel compelled to pick up and that I believe will be the best possible way to convey a particular idea. I have learned that this makes some uncomfortable because of the propensity to be seen as not taking something seriously and not treating a medium with the appropriate respect. I had assumed these notions were rather antiquated because of the fluidity of the internet and the increased availability of platforms for these mediums to exist, but I don't think that's the case quite yet. I still want to have and use it all, despite those who see not skill or contemporary ideologies in this practice but disjuncture and an inability to make a commitment and follow through with a single medium.

More recently, with an increased awareness as to how my practice is viewed from an objective and outsider perspective, I've felt things get harder. I thought that I'd been negotiating the terrain I've chosen with relatively good sense and had managed through some miracle to maintain integrity as a fine artist alongside my commercial endeavours. To some it doesn't appear that this is the case, and initially that made me sad, and then it made me mad, and then I turned that mad into energy to write this piece. I know my decisions will not please every single person in the world, especially not every single person in the art world, but when you're explicitly made aware of this, it hurts. I am - for lack of a less daggy word - "unique" and I am defying traditional ways in which one tackles the role of artist. I can see how some may believe I'm not treating it with the appropriate reverence or respect. However, I think these notions are becoming increasingly irrelevant. I don't believe it's okay that I be persecuted for promoting my work through a neatly presented personal brand. I don't believe that I should be persecuted for utilising a number of my skills in different mediums to make work, and I certainly don't believe that I should be persecuted for taking on a handful of considered commercial projects for money that I need to live my life the way I want to.

I felt compelled to write this in order to stipulate that I am very much aware of the decisions I am making and that I am now hyper-aware as to how these decisions have the potential to affect the perception of my fine art practice. I am publishing my first book in September with Hardie Grant Publishers, and by writing this piece I am hoping that my book will not be seen as a diversion or yet another distraction from my fine art practice - but something that enhances and contributes to it.

I write this all from my new studio at Gertrude Contemporary - a notoriously non-commercial space in which I feel very much as though I belong. There have been a number of victories in my thus far short art career, but being offered a studio space at Gertrude has been one of my proudest. It seemed that taking up residency here was an act of defiance against those who believed my commercial forays meant I didn't deserve it. I intend to continue on the path I am now on, and I will not apologise for any further commercial projects I undertake whether they be large or small scale, regular or few and far between. I love what I do and am proud of how hard I have worked and all I have achieved in a short space of time. I will continue to produce good quality work in a multitude of mediums for a multitude of purposes and will continue to post about it online. To anyone who still sees this as problematic - I see you as having problematic ways of seeing. And that's the way it's going to be.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this!!! This is exactly what I experienced when I was at VCA. People were constantly questioning my validity to be a student there because I would say 'yes' to commercial jobs and I enjoyed them. I never saw my photography in a studio and I struggled so much with the idea that we had to present something, each week, as though someone was looking at it in an art gallery. It just didn't fit. If I wanted to exhibit my work anywhere I would paste it up on the streets or show it in a cool cafe/bar rather than at the NGV.

    Kudos to you for writing this so eloquently! Keep doing what you're doing because your work in its entirety is amazing and fun and it's so awesome to be able to tell people that I'm wearing a design by you when I wear my Lady Petrova skirt! <3

  2. Excellent article. Could "they" be envious???

  3. Beautiful words Minna. Thank you for speaking out. I often feel pressure from certain corners when I pick up other mediums or play with themes not familiar to my main practice. It's hard enough being an artist, we don't need people telling us 'how' to be an artist (and if they knew how, why aren't they making it?).

  4. I thought Tall Poppy Syndrome was just a Kiwi thing? People will always knock you down for achieving something in such a tough industry that they can only dream of. To me art has no rules and your critic's small-minded bullshit contradicts what is the essence of art. Your work is accessible, playful and unpretentious - pretentiousness is sadly a huge part of the art world. I admire you for your ambition to not play to the 'poor artist' stereotype, artists have access to so much exposure these days and you are taking full advantage of it, the world is changing and so are artists. Keep doing what your doing because you do it well and inspire so many! x

  5. This is rad, for several reasons but mostly because it's so genuine. You're a beautiful writer and this was flawlessly executed. But for me though, it was the relatable feeling of feeling every feeling ever imaginable all at once that came through in the subtext that struck a chord with me. Sincerely, thank you so much for sharing this and for being authentic, very inspiring. xx

  6. Such genuine and brave words, and I completely agree with you. I think views about the 'struggling artist' and notions of art being both mysterious and exclusive are so outdated. Similarly, your ability to use different mediums to express your art should be celebrated, not shunned!
    Hannah x

  7. This is SO SO great! I think you market your work and self in such an interesting, beautiful and accessible way. You always come across as such an unpretentious and genuinely likeable person (which I really couldn't say about a lot of artists!) I've grown up around a bunch of struggling artists (namely my parents but friends too) and it really isn't always that delightful to be poor. I think many people are extremely unrealistic about the art world and what it takes to make a dime. Also what is that rubbish about having to stick to one discipline?! One it's dull and two we live in a post-post modern world, duh! You should be SO proud of what you've achieved, I truly am inspired by you in my own very fledgling art career. XX