I can't express often enough my gratitude to Maurice Sevigny for taking time out of his art-making day to talk to me for these articles. The conversation continues to fascinate and enlighten me as I review it and reconsider it.
Integrity versus market demand
Edgar: [Some of us struggle with being artists for our own sake. My wife doesn't want to make art for a 'market', and she's not sure she wants to sell it in any case.] But I come from a marketing background, so to me, art is about persuasion. ... I don’t care how it gets reproduced, or whether it sells or not, but whether I connect with an audience in a certain way.
And we [struggle] with this idea, “what is ‘acknowledgement’?” We’ve used the word acknowledgement, and in some cases that’s the sale of a painting. And in our culture, that’s almost the ultimate compliment, that someone parted with their hard-earned money – or their daddy’s hard-earned money. They are buying something of yours because they had to [possess] it. But that isn’t art’s traditional role, in [broad] human civilization, generally art wasn’t sold. Maybe it was bartered, but it was usually done for the group or for the individual.
And now we have this ambivalence. We say, “Well, I’m going to express myself, and I don’t want to compromise my self in that expression. I want people to accept what I do, and if they accept my raw expression, they are accepting me. But if I compromise, they are accepting some propped up version, some artificial version of me."
Maurice: Well, now you’re speaking of integrity, an artist’s integrity. Integrity is about being true to yourself. So, if you don’t know yourself, you can’t be true to yourself. But your wife’s truth to herself is about unadulterated non-commercialism. [It goes like this:] "if I get discovered and someone spends a million dollars on one of my installations, or whatever I’m making, fine, I’ll take the money, but that’s not what it’s all about." On the other hand, knowing what your values are, knowing what your goals are as an artist, and trying to be true to them, you know, there are different kinds of artists. There are ‘professional’ artists, which means you get paid for what you do.
E: That would be the IRS’s definition.
M: That would be part of it. On the other hand if you are a ‘commercial’ artist, usually that means you are working for someone else’s goals, and using your skills and talents to do something for them. And that’s a designer or an illustrator. They’re setting the parameters. Someone always sets parameters. When you go to school, the teacher sets the parameters...People who can’t survive as an artist are those who have difficulty self-actualizing their own parameters. If I can’t give myself a problem, I’m stuck. I’m going to go look around for something outside of me and get unstuck. So this is writer’s block or artists [block]. One of the ways in which you keep yourself in a flow, is to continue to evolve your imagery, and your technique, and your strength as an individual artist.
If you’re just making art for art’s sake, are you a hobbyist? Because your intention is not to be professional. Your integrity is to be true to yourself, and that usually means trying to be inventive, while wanting no external influence. You’re trying to divorce yourself from the market place because your integrity is pure, or your unadulterated imagery is all you, and no one is influencing it… Try to put those in a portfolio and bring it to a gallery, and the gallery is not interested. “Go back and do some red ones these are green.” Or, “The colors people are buying in the southwest are A, B, and C.” And so…
E: Have you heard those answers?
M: Of course!
E: Oh, my God!
M: Yeah. “Can you make this in blue?” -- So, you answer “No, I already made it [red],” or “Sure, I can make anything in any color.” So, ‘blue’ is the challenge.
...I have a friend, Barbara Rogers, who primarily works in earth tones, it’s her ‘Bible.’ And I tend to use a lot of purples and pinks and magentas. My wife’s always saying, “Easy on the pink.” I like pink. So, I think you grow up with a certain palette, that has something to do with the things you think look good, are comfortable with. They are the colors you live with, like when you decide what colors to paint your living room. Some people like excitement, some like calm. Some people want go home to a sanctuary and be peaceful, some want to go home and be excited.
All those things influence who you become. And the more you know about them, the more you can control them in your work, otherwise they’re all pulling at your attention at a subconscious level, and they may not be harmoniously integrated.
E: Does the Market compromise integrity?
M: It’s a variable. I don’t know that it compromises it. If you want to work in a marketplace, and you don’t know it, you aren’t going to succeed.
E: If you’re unaware of your desire to work in a marketplace, is that what you mean?
M: That’s what I mean. Enter it carefully. Gather the facts. Most artists try not to (garbled – confront?) them. They don’t want to. Somehow… Most artists over time, when they’ve “Sold out” – sold, selling, that you’re “selling your soul” in some sense when people buy your stuff, is on a continuum: [For example,] The artist who doesn’t have to sell their stuff makes a painting. Some critic writes about them, and suddenly after they die, somebody buys up all their stuff that they didn’t sell while they were alive, so it’s “pure.” So there’s a purity element. I’m not sure that’s so. I’ve not met many artists that were successful that didn’t like their success, or the money that came with their success.
M: But they would tell you that their success was related to their absolute integrity to self and their absolute discovery of a voice that is unique from everybody else’s in the world. So it’s more about trying to discover what your voice -- your talent is, you know? If you look at kids in art school, so many of them want to emulate people that they like… the way they’re different, the way they make things, whatever. Copy this one a little bit, copy this one a little bit, and they look through ArtNews and they flip through magazines and they pull out pictures and [make scrap books of what they like]. They scout faculty and try to find out which faculty work like [the artists] they like. And then they are gonna study with that faculty. Maybe they can learn something.
Who you are -- and how we challenge it
So, in every sense, every artist creates a fragile reality of who they are, and what images they can make. And somebody goes in, or a student goes in, or another artist comes in their studio, and they try to breach that reality. And they’ll say, “Okay, this guy’s too commercial, this guy uses too much color, and this guy works too small.” And that’s fine, what they’re really doing is evaluating what their purposes are and how they might want to work, when they do work of their own. So you step into someone else’s reality for a short time, and you borrow from that the attributes or variables that interest you and you forget the things that didn’t attract you at the moment.
And that’s sort of how we grow an eclectic of all the artists that enter our lives. That doesn’t mean we pick up and copy all the artists that enter our lives, we leave some of the things behind and don’t do things of other artists we’ve met. That’s what feeds visual knowing, is seeing visual things.
Most artists like to go around to other artists studios, or flip through books or go to museums, or whatever. Why do we do that? To keep embellishing our visual repertoire, things we know about paint, things we know about color, things we know about distortion. Things that tax us, in terms of, everybody’s got a frame of reference, and they keep wanting to push that. So you’re always pushing the edge of what you accept as art. You know, the art I made twenty years ago is nothing like the art I’m making today.
M: And maybe the art I made twenty years ago is better than the art I’m making today. There’s an assumption that you grow and art gets better. It isn’t necessarily true.
Artistic success—a personal view
E: I’m going to ask you about success, but I don’t want you to try to define it for everybody, because the question’s too big, but… what does it look like?
M: What does success look like?
E: What does success in art look like, to you?
M: Oooh. … I would guess, not being in the unemployment line?... I think success is a continuum. Ultimate success, is that what you’re asking me?
E: I don’t think so, because I think you see art as a process, and your life as a process, too. There isn’t necessarily an end point.
M: Well, I think that success is a continuum that has something to do with connoisseurship. Those people who know success, anoint you with that success, whether that’s a well-known critic, or a gallery owner, or if it’s in a museum. So, it’s back to the notion of audience, and people recognizing that you have something that rewards taking time to write about, or to look at, or to sell, or any of those things. Success is about your ability to capture the attention of someone else with what you do. And that varies significantly between people. Am I a successful artist? No. Am I an artist? Yes. Could I be a successful artist? Possibly.
E: But for you, does that really hinge on giving away the power to validate your work to someone else? Saying, “If I don’t get a blessing from you, then I’m not successful”?
M: No, because my success is defined differently personally. My success is about experience and knowledge of art, because basically, I’m an art administrator. So part of my success is the ability to do, to make, to live with artists, in a community of artists, to talk about art in a way that takes advantage of self-knowledge and connoisseurship in the field. So, I know a lot about artists and art people, and obviously I’ve been successful as someone who’s moved up the ranks in terms of the occupation I have, which is an art educator. So, to teach about art, you have to learn to talk about something that’s a visual phenomenon, right?
M: So, to talk about a visual phenomenon, it’s difficult finding words which is not a visual phenomenon – language -- to talk about something different. Part of the skills, success, one has as an art teacher is the ability to have people understand what you’re talking about in terms of certain attributes of works of art. So, my success as an arts administrator is contingent upon my ability to make and do and move materials around and know what I’m talking about. That’s how I’m measuring success now, and it’s not relevant to me to measure my success as an artist, that’s not been my goal.
M: But when I make the transition someday, it might be. And then maybe I’ll work harder at the marketing, showing my work to galleries, you know, working bigger, finding out what I need to do. I don’t know. But that’s yet to come.
E: I’ve gone over time, are we okay?
Are "artists" and "community" mutually exclusive?
E: I have one more question, and it’s [tied to] what we’ve talked about: the relationship we have with other artists, and the fact that we as artists go around and push our threshold of understanding. In many cases that’s why I go on the open studio tours: what can I learn about what I know about art by looking at how somebody else is doing it, and why they’re doing it, what they’re getting out of it. But I heard an interview of Francisco Franklin, a local artist, on Arizona Illustrated and he talked about spending time in France and Iceland, hanging out with artists, and he really wanted to be part of the artists’ group. And he said, “Eventually I realized that art was a solitary activity.” And he now he practices art in his studio, and apparently he doesn’t relate very much with other people.
Are we stuck with that? Is that a reality? Is there an art community? Can artists support each other, or is it too competitive, too trade secret oriented?
M: I don’t think so. If you look at the history of art, you look at Picasso, you look at Van Gogh, the people that tried to isolate themselves, they didn’t do it very well, they still had to write letters back to one another. Gauguin went to Tahiti, but he still came back to France to be with artists.
I mean, I think that, when we talked about audiences before, the ultimate audience is another artist, who understands many of the dimensions of making art and working with materials. So, when you have a dialog with another artist, you are talking about “How did you do this? How do you work with PhotoShop?” So, the amateur comes to the studio and asks me questions about process, where the artist comes and asks me concept questions: “What were you thinking about when you made this image?”… “Is this meaningful to you? Is it speaking anything beyond what you can do as a designer?” So, some artists will attack your intention or your conceptual value of a work of art (there’s a difference), and most artists need that, to some extent. And if they don’t need it from another artist, they may need it from another connoisseur, which could be a gallery person, it could be a museum curator, (it could be someone who’s a scientist that just happens to spend a lot of time looking at art and reading about it.) So it’s only as good as the level – if you’re a beginner, you don’t have much sophistication to talk with somebody with a lot of it either. It’s always trying to find someone with a little more sophistication than you, who gives you feedback, that allows you to keep growing, and pushing us up.
E: That may be why I’m blogging.
Interviewer becomes the subject
M: Because, why else would you be spending all that time, when you could be making art? I mean, are you justifying your blog? Are you justifying you’re a wannabe artist? … Why are you an artist, why do you think you are an artist?
E: Um, unfair question!
M: Why? An interview is an exchange.
E: I discovered I’m just very, very intensely interested in what people do to communicate. That is: relate ideas, present themselves, share themselves, gain acceptance, and it’s why I think I was comfortable going into advertising. I actually got into art from a political point of view.
M: Were you a design major?
E: No. No, I originally went to school thinking I was going to be a theatre technician. Then I changed degrees and wound up in studio art.
M: A lot of people do. I mean, they want to make a living, but they really want to be an artist. They learn to paint scenery and stuff, and wonder, will I make a living doing this? So, they go back to wanting to be an artist. That is kind of interesting.
E: I recently had trip to New Mexico, a couple weeks driving around New Mexico with our son. Took our sketchbooks and did some watercolors, and I realized in doing that – I’d not set pen to paper or anything for years – how much that nourished my soul. And I realized, “You know what, if I stop it, I’ll die.” And now I’m stuck with that feeling. Having rediscovered that part of myself, I can’t say “no” to it anymore.
M: What if I said to you, that you are more inclined to be an art critic? You’re building skills, you’re a smart man, you like to write. It seems to me that part of the realm that you may be exploring is your ability to deal with art criticism, and esthetics, and art as social commentary, art as psychological commentary… So the things that interest you, under the guise that you’re going to inform your art are really in some ways your training as an art connoisseur, that will allow you to know artists, to know artists feelings, may allow you someday to write a book, or write a blog or some new vehicle, electronic publishing. Essentially, I say look at what you’re doing: you’re toying with the idea of finding knowledge about changing fields of art, and the complexity of the artist’s perspective. And it gives you pleasure.
E: If you were to say that, I’d acknowledge, yeah, it gives me pleasure to write about it, talk about it, learn about it, but I would also argue that that’s a personality trait that I have that I would apply to anything is interesting to me.
M: Fair enough.
E: My brain is built for abstraction, and I’m very good at taking big ideas and tearing them apart and reexamining them, so, yeah, I can write about art, I can talk about art, I’m a very verbal person. But…
M: Hmm. Does that prevent you from being a visual person?
E: It may. I may ultimately find that it does.
M: Now, when you're teaching art, all day long, talking about it, it’s difficult to go home and make it. Part of it is you’re giving your best ideas to your students, and you’re exhausted. So, there’s a certain part of art that needs incubation.
E: That’s right.
M: You know, you need time to reflect on what you’re doing. The biggest mistake most people make is that they keep drawing. And they don’t pause. You know drawing is 90% looking, [10%] moving pencils around or whatever. And most beginners are 90% drawing and erasing, and making mistakes – so, it’s observation, it’s critical thinking, it’s esthetic thinking and creative thinking… and if you don’t allow time for the thinking, then you miss something. That’s why this process works nicely for me, and how I can manage it just doing it a few days, “You’ve got an awful lot of work… are you not working full time at the University? I mean, where did you get all these paintings?” Part of it is because, I have a lot of space between the Saturday and Sunday that I do work, to think about what I’m going to do.
And I intend to, like finish a piece, and I’ve got eighteen pieces going at the same time… “This one’s – Oh, I’m going to work on this one today. That one didn’t talk to me.” It’s going to stay there another two, three weeks, or a year, before I get back to something.
E: That’s an excellent skill to have, it’s one I’m trying to nurture in my wife. She’s got one project, and stays on it until it’s through.
M: I know, and what if it’s a bust? That’s so hard. That’s the thing I learned about computers. If you don’t know, you can decide if it’s going to be in the red tones or the blue tones by sliding a scale, instead of “Unh, let me make it red,” [paint it red] and then “I don’t like it, start all over,” five hours later.
E: I did that for my wife one time. She was working on it, and said, “I don’t know where to go with it.” I took a picture, put it in PhotoShop, made a couple layers, zip, zip zip: “Look, this is how you can change it, change the saturation, change a color, see what you like?…print you out copy” And she was saying “That was about two days worth of work in thirty minutes.”
M: Yeah, just about.
E: Yes… I may find out I’ve got two careers in art.
M: Actually you may discover this was an alternate way of getting an education. Because you didn’t go through art school.
M: I mean, you’re older, more mature, you want to sidestep four years in the classroom… which is fine! If you're coming from the perspective of understanding performance in theater, and scene painting and flat making, and you’ve got skills that would apply to visual arts or decorative arts as well. Maybe that’s what you’re doing too. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. I’m just saying, “Who are you, what are you?” What are you? You are someone that’s seriously engaged in learning about art and yourself as a knowledgeable person of art, and a potentially knowledgeable artist, right? And you’re meeting interesting people, your time is well-spent, and you’re content.
E: You know, one reason for wanting this [interview with you], was in response to somebody who was selling work to get validation, and what rejection feels like, whether it’s rejection from the gallery or rejection from the customer. And I realized, coming out of commercial art, that I’ve got a very different perspective on what that relationship with the customer is, that client, that audience. For me, I’d do a design, that was a knock out. I’d take it to my client and say, “Isn’t this the most creative thing you’ve ever seen?” they’d go, “It’s not at all what I asked for, it doesn’t fit my needs. Change it.” And I knew it was good work, but I also knew I wasn’t going to make a sale.
M: Frame it and sell it.
E: And I realized, ultimately, in that relationship, my responsibility was meeting the client’s needs, not my own.
M: Unless you are your own client. Unless you can afford to be. Unless you’re a trust baby and you can afford to sit in your studio all day.
E: But the thing that I also learned was that, just because the client rejected it, doesn’t make it invalid work. It doesn’t make it bad work.
M: Well in one case the function was more esthetic, and in the other, the function is more commercial and the intention of the client is to exaggerate one thing over another, and you didn’t do that for him.
E: But even though the work is commercial, they become art critics. Clients become art critics.
M: Nah, they’re clients.
E: They ask, “Why did you choose ‘blue’, why is this bar here?” And what I learned, what made me articulate about it, is that I learned to defend my art. I’d say, that’s there because it does this, and there’s a purpose for it, and concept behind it. If you don’t like it, we’ll work on that, but you can’t argue that it’s just random.
M: Many clients want artists to tell them the value of the work. Because they don’t really know art. They may know coffee, but they don’t know art.
E: And it helps them feel good about it.
M: So, they’re ready for an argument. A lot of designers – interior designers, landscape architects—all these people have to go and sell a point of view. “If you buy my services, you buy my expertise, so trust me on this one.” Or you didn’t really do your homework before you did your art, on what the client wanted. Or the client doesn’t really know what they want, til they see it.
M: They might say, “ I know what I like, but I don’t know it until I see it.”
E: That’s an interesting point – I just read in How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, Caroll Michels was saying all of these accoutrements that we’re supposed to deliver with our portfolio -- an artist bio, a statement, a brochure -- are ways of comforting a potential buyer that they are making a good choice in choosing your work, that you’re validating their acceptance of your work, and saying “Look, I really am somebody, you’re not just crazy for liking my work.” And that’s no different than I run into with marketing.
M: Artists who are successful commercially, often don’t do that for themselves. So, if you want to be successful commercially, you need to have an artist’s marketer. You need to have an agent. I have an agent who goes out and says how wonderful my work is. If I do that, I’m some kind of egotistical, self-centered arrogant person nobody wants to be with. But if she goes, she can convince people that this is really good work, and very popular, and if you don’t buy it, I’ve got ten people who will. So a lot of that has to do with, who is skilled at something. Most artists are not skilled at marketing, or promoting or selling their own work. The art field has millions of people out there in different roles.
E: yeah, and we need that range—look at our audience.
M: We’re past making the goat on the cave wall. There is public art, though. You talked about it earlier, and there’s a lot of public art for the whole community, including museums. Looking back to the old days, it’s like, “I have to own this. I’m obsessed with ownership of things.” So that’s collecting. And collectors are different than buyers, because collectors are focused on a certain kind of thing. They’re obsessed with having the biggest and the best example of something. There is a kind of fanatic collector of Mayan art at the museum, and he found a billionaire, and he can afford to buy the best of everything, and he did, amassing a collection that nobody else has. It was pretty important to him.
E: I had a discussion with an archeologist one time, and his view on collectors was… something to take note of.
M: I bet.
E: And he made an extremely good point, that, once you take this pot out of its context, it has lost much of its meaning. Now it’s just an object, and everything that you say about it being beautiful or ancient, and therefore rare and unique and wonderful is really lost… you’re just adding stuff to it.
M: But that’s an archeologist. And for him, it’s about context and history.
E: But it’s true. When we collect Roman art we’re assigning to it different meaning than the Romans ever had, and we’re looking at it differently too. They had polychrome statues, they painted them. And all the statues we have left over from them are just plain marble.
E: The paint’s worn off, and we say “Look how beautiful it is.” And, it’s not what they saw.
M: No. But it’s a different time too.
M: When Duchamp put a urinal in a museum.
E: Yeah, now everyone wants a urinal.
M: People saw it and – yearn for a urinal. (laughter) I mean, the context changes: the meaning changes. So, the function is changed – the esthetic function versus, “This is a pot.” But if [it was only] a pot, in that culture, why is it so unique? Why did a person have to put marks on that pot that elevated it? So, the role of the artist over time has been, he who can embellish something ordinary in a way that other people stop and pause and contemplate. The history of art is full of them, examples of artisans that did something – extraordinary – with techniques that were pretty primitive at the time.