Help Desk

Help Desk: Is It Any Wonder?

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.


How do you become a famous artist? I am an artist and make lots of art (performance, paintings, drawings, etc.) but I never went to art school. What should I do to slowly but surely become better known in the art world?

Fame, huh? Without a doubt, you must already know that there is no way to “surely” become “better known in the art world,” especially if you are going to do it slowly. Fame strikes like lightening, white hot and irrefutably blinding those in its immediate path. If fame is your goal, why bother trying to climb the ladder rung by greasy rung? Why not charter a helicopter and get airlifted to the top? Since my job as an advice columnist is to answer the queries set before me, here is a short list of actions that others have tried in pursuit of fame:

-Kiss (with lipstick on) the museum-hung artwork of an already-renowned artist. When you are arrested, explain to the press and the jury that it was a form of homage and that you were simply overcome by the power of the art. Alternately, if you are the fighter-not-a-lover type, you could punch, kick, stab, or otherwise wound an artwork you find objectionable or offensive.
-Sleep with someone powerful. It’s pretty well tested as a means to gain recognition, so why not give your favorite rock star/politician/A-list dealer a bounce? And then he or she can give your career a boost in return.
-Make a complete spectacle of yourself: do buckets of drugs while making art, have sex in the gallery, don’t bathe, etc. Be the wild and crazy guy who publicly justifies all the stereotypes of the tortured artist. Bonus points if you are a.) attractive and b.) from an old-money family.
-Two words: reality show.

Not pretty, is it? Okay, now that I’ve rinsed the snark from my bloodstream—sorry, the Kinkade thing always riles me up—it’s on to the real advice, and here it is: if you want to become better known in the art world, make great work. Yes, it’s really that simple, and yes, it’s really really hard. It might take you a lifetime. It might happen tomorrow, or never.

From the tone of your question, I’m concerned that you would put something as fleeting as fame ahead of your integrity (see photo, above). Like all but the most saintly among us, I’d be lying if I said that some of the same thoughts never once occurred to me. Nevertheless, your question makes me wince. Wouldn’t it be better to make solid work that no one ever sees than to put renown above all? What do you think might happen to your sense of self-worth if you favor the path to notoriety over building a career by making great work—especially if you fail? The truth is, there are no steps that guarantee success. And since that is certainly true, why not focus on the one thing that you can control: your work.

Maybe I’m naïve, or a dinosaur, but I believe that artmaking should be its own reward (that’s not to say you shouldn’t be compensated fairly for your work, but that’s a topic for another day). Don’t let your quest for public prominence take away your dignity or interfere with the enjoyment of making your work. Let’s put the gratification and pleasure back into hard work and creativity, because to focus only on fame is to miss the point. To quote Erma Bombeck, “Don’t confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other.”

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What are your thoughts on Thomas Kinkade?

Since this question was written to me before the maestro died, I’m going to answer it aside from the issues that have been raised since his untimely demise. My thoughts on Kinkade are quite simple: I feel that in many ways he is no different from Damien Hirst and that it’s a useful exercise to see exactly where the two artists overlap. The main similarity, of course, is that they both make market-driven work that simultaneously panders and condescends to their respective audiences, but I think they also have a whiff of the totalitarian to them.

Of course, I’m not the only one who finds either artist’s output objectionable. On the face of it, Kinkade’s main sin was peddling pablum: hyper-sentimental paintings of garden cottages executed by assistants in saleable colors and hangable dimensions that never challenged the ability of their owners to display above the front hall console or the living room couch. We could argue that Hirst does more or less the same thing from the other end of the professional artist spectrum, provided that the loft walls of his über-rich collectors are large enough. His incredibly un-provocative dot canvases are painted by a squadron of rent-hungry MFAs and are designed to be, if not beautiful or thought-provoking, at least reassuringly easy to identify in terms of market value. The two artists concentrated on creating a trafficable commercial product, though one is placed in the galleria and the other you can find at Sotheby’s. Aside from the base distinctions of high and low, if Kinkade’s paintings insist on a revisionist bucolic America that—for his spiritually-certain followers—reinforce a sense of nostalgia for a time that never existed, then Hirst’s “spin paintings” must bring a similar peace of mind to their investment-savvy owners.

In terms of oeuvre, both Kinkade’s and Hirst’s formulaic work evokes the monolithic and oppressive. Even though stylistically they are worlds apart, they are steadfast in the assertion of their belief systems. Kinkade’s ideologically-loaded work creates an unyielding, emotionally sanitized vision of the home territory, while Hirst’s aesthetics are simplistic to the point of vapidity. Both bodies of work are so defined by sheer economics that they surpass any concern for the defining principles of art and satisfy only the cynical dictatorial control exercised by the free market.

Mildly related anecdote: