Help Desk

Help Desk: On Titles and Talent

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

Your counselor, hard at work.

I’ve always had a problem titling my artwork. My question is how much should an artist “give away” through the title of an artwork? And when viewing a piece of art, how much should the title alter your overall perception?

Down with shoulds! There’s no one-size-fits-all way to go about making titles (or anything else) in art. What you might do, instead, is think about what questions your work sets out to answer, or what the work explores or implies, and then title it accordingly. If you work in series, you can go the #1, #2, #3 route to give the viewer a clue to your methodology. Likewise, if the collected works of Lewis Carroll inspire you, you could name your pieces after characters in his stories. If your work is about the rejection of systems, refuse to title it. Artist Nina Beier reserves the right to change the title of her work long after it has left her studio, proving that it’s possible to think outside the white box of tradition.

Yes, a title can alter the viewer’s perception of the work. Done skillfully, a title will enhance the comprehension of a work because it will shine a light on the artist’s thinking or working process. It can be used to add a kind of value, to denote homage, or—if you’re really good with words—as the punch line to a joke.

Nina Beier, Modify, as needed, 2011. Installation view, MoCA Miami SONB/IV 2011, Photographer: Steven Brooke

I know I am not that talented. But I am driven to be an artist. Money is not a problem. I’ve queried my friends and it seems as though nobody else has a dirty secret like this. They all seem very confident in their abilities. What would your advice be for me? Changing careers is not an option.

What a horrifying and complicated dilemma. Here you are, financially secure but artistically faltering, asking your friends if they’ve ever felt anxious about their talent in order to commiserate, and none of them will own up to a moment of fear. How sad.

It’s not really a dirty secret to feel like an imposter sometimes (or to admit to it) unless you are an insecure and competitive bastard who feels that a bit of emotional honesty somehow places you at a disadvantage in the imaginary Great Race to the Top. I was talking with Mark Bradford at a press event the other morning and he confessed that right after winning the Macarthur “Genius” Fellowship he would swagger into the studio thinking, I just won the Macarthur, I know exactly what I’m doing…and then he would spend the rest of the day stymied, locked in the mental and emotional struggle that is required to produce a great work of art. If Mark Bradford—you know, the guy who won $500,000 because he’s just that damned good—can feel troubled and unsure in the studio then you can, too. So let’s set your friends aside for the moment. I’m more concerned with the Donald-Trump-alike you have in your head, the one with the bad comb-over who keeps telling you that you’re fired.

The artist Mark Bradford in front of his work.

Your query points to quite a few of the murky areas of contemporary art production: What is talent? How do we measure it? Who decides? And also: Is a person who is not talented any less deserving of the title of artist? Can a person who has little talent grow into an artist of serious consideration? All of these questions are excruciatingly subjective, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of our time.

I think if you pick apart these issues you might find a way out of your dilemma, as least as far as it stops you from making your work. Grab a pencil and paper and let’s start with the first question: What is talent? Is it the ability to paint an exact likeness, or the skill with which to elicit a particular emotion from an audience? Is it the aptitude and willingness to provoke or shock a viewer? Make a list of your favorite artists, and then try to pin down what makes them talented. What particular qualities does their work evince? And how have they gotten from start to finish? Jot down your notes.

How are you measuring talent? There’s a general assumption that talent is directly correlated with the number of shows you’ve had or the grants you’ve received, but to propose that is to claim that art is a meritocracy. We’ve all met talented people who are overlooked for one reason or another, so obviously that’s not the case. Yet the implication is that a slim CV indicates an untalented artist even while we acknowledge that there are no universals in art. Furthermore, let’s all try to remember that exhibitions and awards are outside validations that, though they may feel good at the time, make for a shaky intellectual and emotional foundation on which to build a life as an artist. It’s worthwhile to really dig into your assumptions here and figure out where you stand on this issue, because it’s going to guide your feelings and your career decisions alike.

Now let’s look at who decides what talent is, because it seems to me that you may have given your power away prematurely, allowing curators, writers, and exhibition coordinators to dictate the terms of the game. Yes, the gallery/biennial/museum route is one path that many artists strive for, but is it the only one available? Further, are all the artists in this most traditional pool talented? A half-day in Chelsea will teach you otherwise; there are many exhibiting artists whose work is boring, derivative and/or ill-considered. So who decides, what is their decision worth, and do you want to let them decide for you?

And now for the last of our questions: is a person of little talent any less deserving of the title of artist? Can a person who has little talent grow into an artist of serious consideration? Let me say that I wholeheartedly believe that to call yourself an artist is to be an artist. You may not be an artist in the same way that I am an artist, and I maintain that this diversity of practice enriches the field. Practitioners like to talk about “the art world” as though there were only one, but to paraphrase John 14:2, this house contains many mansions. And since every artist changes over time, growth is possible, especially if you’re putting in the time and effort.

You were brave enough to open up to your friends, and brave enough to contact me. “Changing careers is not an option,” you wrote, leading me to believe that you are stubborn and focused. Why not use these traits to your advantage? Such characteristics will serve you well in a career in the arts, and might well fuel some interesting work if you let them guide you. Your honesty is exhilarating. Stop looking for outside validation. Let your command of candor strengthen your voice in the studio, and you might decide that you are not as talentless as you once believed.

And if money is really not a problem, please send some to me.