Photograph by Martin Abegglen via Flickr (under CC licence)
Photograph by Martin Abegglen via Flickr (under CC licence)

I recently participated in several events as part of the Artsmart festival, the aim of which was to help students and graduates from the University of the Arts London “make it happen in the creative industries”, as the website said. While many of the talks and workshops were very interesting, inspiring and certainly beneficial, afterwards I caught myself feeling somewhat confused. I made lots of notes during the events and it was only when I had processed them that I realized what was bothering me.

For centuries art and money went arm in arm. From antiquity, when artist was a labourer, through the medieval idea of master-craftsmen and the renaissance period when art was intimately related to wealth, through to the rise of Baroque court-artists. It was only the Romantics who broke from the materialistic side of art and with their non-pragmatic approach to creation inspired the next generations of artists. As a result, we had a century of romanticizing the idea of “art for art’s sake” and artists giving in to the Bohemian spirit of no income, contempt for possessions and general self-indulgence. Now we’re in the 21st century, and while the “bohemian” attitude is not only impractical but virtually impossible, the interesting thing is that we now seem to have gone into the other extreme.

For the artist is now a businessman. Head of a one-man company, he juggles the roles of creative director, head of fundraising, head of communication and marketing, PR specialist and a company manager. An artist needs to have a vision, prepare a strategy, create a brand, identify a USP, do a vast amount of marketing and finally launch himself. Be bold, aggressive, unique, connected, up-to-date and omnipresent both in the real and the online world. The “USP” is a term which had been repeated several times by various speakers during the Art Smart festival. For those who don’t know: USP stands for Unique Selling Point and, according to the Wikipedia, the term was devised in the early 1940s to explain the phenomenon of advertising companies which “made unique propositions to the customer that convinced them to switch brands”.

I was listening to the speakers’ lectures on the importance of this business-like approach, feeling slightly unsatisfied. When I came back home I automatically began worrying: “Oh no, what is my USP, quick, I need a USP, what’s the best thing that I do, what’s so unique about me, arghhh!…” And then I stopped. A good friend of mine gave me Austin Kleon’s book: Steal like an artist (I must confess that the title had nearly put me off but thankfully the curiosity won), which was both a relief and a confirmation of my rightful scepticism: it explained my reluctance to apply the USP into my “career strategy”. Kleon quotes Steven Tomlinson who said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards.” And then he adds: “The thing is, you can cut off a couple passions and only focus on one, but after a while, you’ll start to feel phantom limb pain.” In my case, the idea itself to abandon painting for illustration or writing for painting, seems incredibly painful.

It seems to me that after a period of meticulously separating “sacred” (or “clean”) art from “dirty” money, it is now in fashion to borrow business-like gibberish and apply it to every conversation regarding artistic practice. Don’t get me wrong – I have a huge respect for business people and “money-makers”, yet I’m not convinced about the forced use of business terminology and practices in the art context. I believe that in order to create good art, one cannot begin the process by thinking in terms of sales strategies. Undoubtedly, my definition of what is “art” will differ from anybody else’s. But I am now thinking about the basic process of generating ideas and creation, be it a drawing, installation, trendy gadget, performance, poem, a piece of music etc. The nature of that creative process is experimentation. Allowing for lots of ideas to come to one’s head, trying things out and failing – incessantly, obsessively, with passion and open-mindedness. One of my favourite musicians, Emika, in a recent interview for MTV Iggy said:

Flexibility is the key to staying alive as an artist. That’s what I’m learning. You can’t really do just one thing. And if you do just one thing, you have to really push that one thing to the point where you sell out, and you really can’t expect longevity.

A lot of the time, we are a) unable to predict people’s response to what we do, b) assess the value of our ideas as it is other people that give the value to our work, usually by being willing to pay for it. World-renowned artist Tove Jansson, famous for her wonderful Moomin series, wanted to be a painter. The success of the Moomins was not a result of a careful strategy to do something “unique” but of people’s enthusiastic response to work which was created with passion for self-exploration and self-representation through a metaphorical visual language. The same curiosity remained the foundation for all her work. In an essay called A Painter’s Reflection: The Self-Representational Art of Tove Jansson, Boel Westin says that:

Between the small pictures of 1928 and her last book Meddelande came figurative and abstract painting, painting al fresco and al secco, illustrations and cartoons, picture-books, novels, short stories, plays, a libretto for an opera, songs and poems, theatre work, commercials, book covers, post-cards, films, TV-productions and Moomin articles of all kinds.

An emerging artist trying to identify a USP is, in the best case, performing a somewhat artificial operation, and in the worst case – working against his benefit by discarding possible fountainheads of success. Which is why I find it a little worrying that art graduates are being tricked into thinking that this approach will boost their chances of succeeding. Yesterday a friend told me about this year’s BA Performance Design and Practice degree show at our former college, Central Saint Martins. She was surprised to see that instead of what we did upon our graduation, i.e. presenting the strongest elements from different projects to demonstrate our way of visually responding to specific themes and the journey we took to execute our ideas, those students were showing just one piece. They had to choose something to be associated with, almost like a tag or a catchy phrase. I was astounded too.

I have always been working in different disciplines and media. Now, when I am no longer engaged in theatre work, and my focus is very much on painting and drawing, I have fewer platforms to jump between.  Still, some people respond enthusiastically to my portraits, others to my expressive semi-representational paintings; some like my illustrations, and some praise my set design projects. What is my unique selling point? I honestly don’t know. I have lots of unconnected dots: a curious mind, technical skills, and head filled with certain persisting themes that I explore through my work. I paint, draw, write. I respond to emails, tidy my room, keep an organizer and I can write a text without typos. I read philosophy, psychology, I am interested in economics and politics (in a wider sense than worrying about funding cuts and signing Facebook petitions). I believe that there’s a lot to be said for maintaining a high standard and quality of work and service, building one’s reputation through that dedication and reliability rather than through artificial promotion of a particular product that might spectacularly flash in everyone’s face and quickly fade away.

“Don’t throw any of yourself away. Don’t worry about a grand scheme or unified vision for your work,” says Austin. And I wholeheartedly agree with him.