Help Desk

Help Desk: Building Character

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. Help Desk is co-sponsored by

This week’s column is accompanied by images from Wynne Greenwood‘s recent show “Peace In” at Lawrimore Project in Seattle.

Your counselor, hard at work.

Do you think that learning the technique of mediums before using them (instead of just doing something arbitrary with the medium) is stifling to creativity?

No, I don’t. Creativity isn’t arbitrary, it is direct imaginative action oriented toward a medium. The more you know, the more calculating and precise you can be (all while making it seem effortless). What is stifling to creativity is when the urge to create is stymied by a lack of knowledge. Stop complaining about your color theory homework—I promise it will stand you in good stead some day.

Wynne Greenwood, “Peace In” installation view

I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I’ve known this since I was very young, and was fortunate enough to have parents who helped me sort through it in the right way. It is very mild, and I don’t even really think much of it, however I’ve noticed that my behavior tends to color people’s opinion of my artwork. Sometimes I get the impression that they think I am some narrowly-focused-boy-wonder-type. I can’t say that this impression has hurt me – in fact, I believe it amplifies any interest in my work – however I’m not sure how I feel about being contextualized this way. Should I fight against this reputation I seem to be inadvertently building?

I wonder what you could possibly do to combat the impression you believe you are making. After all, you don’t know what conclusions people are actually coming to when you interact with them. You’re just guessing. But if you want to try to fight this assumption (yours and, potentially, your studio visitor’s) you’ll have to beat them to the punch. Maybe you could make a t-shirt that says, “I think that you think that I’m some kind of boy wonder, but I want to preemptively let you know that I’m not.” For brevity’s sake, on the back it could just say ASPERGER’S–you know, like a team jersey.

Wynne Greenwood, Head #2 with Pillar, 2012. Painted ceramic, dyed fabric, thread and foam, 48 x 24 x 24 inches

However, fashion’s not really my thing (see column lead picture, above) so in place of sartorial advice let’s get to the heart of this matter: the problem of how an artist controls her public image. Obviously, it’s necessary for the professional artist to have some information about herself out in the world (name, birthplace, education, and exhibitions are all basic resume items and statements often mention inspirations, etc.), but it’s funny how quickly this can get distorted or mischaracterized. Sometimes it seems that fact checking is passé: if someone gets a notion about who you are, and especially if it enlivens a story, there’s not much you can do. It’s no easy task to fight the rising tide of misinformation that gets circulated, especially when we live in a culture that fetishizes artists even as it undervalues them.

Let me give you an extreme example of how biographical information gets twisted: one young artist I know was born in Africa but raised in the US. She has an American accent. Upon meeting her, one patron said enthusiastically, “Oh, you’re African!” “No,” corrected my pal, “I was born in Africa, but I was raised in the US, in the South.” The patron immediately switched to expressing her sympathy, appearing to believe that the artist grew up in poverty-stricken circumstances. In reality, the artist had a comfortable middle-class suburban childhood, but this woman clearly wanted to put her into a particular category: either the “foreign/exotic” box or, when that didn’t work, in the “black ghetto” box. She wanted the artist’s life experience to be one that neatly dovetailed with her own assumptions.

Wynne Greenwood, Head #1 with Pillar, 2012. Painted ceramic, dyed fabric, thread and foam, 48 x 24 x 24 inches

Even at its most benign, the art world (indeed, the entire world) loves a good narrative. Many artists have cannily crafted a detailed back-story for themselves that enhances the reception of their work. Others (like collectives) eschew authorship and, in the process, reject the idea of creating a personal history that supports their oeuvre. But in contemporary art—which, let’s face it, is often confusing or opaque—there’s a lust for biography and a desire to make direct connections between the life of the artist and her work. No matter what you do, if critics, gallerists and curators are paying attention to your practice they are going to construct a narrative that links their perception of your personal tale with your artmaking. It’s just one way that humans attempt to explain the circumstances of imagination and creativity.

It seems that there is little you can do about it—at least preemptively—without falling victim to your own conjectures about what other people might think of you and your work. Consider the possibility that your work is simply good enough to merit attention. If your natural behavioral eccentricities make you an even more charming or romantic figure, so be it. As long as you are not being disingenuous then there’s nothing wrong with allowing people to cultivate whatever notions they want about you—and remember that they’re going to do it anyway. If you feel that it’s important to correct any possible misunderstanding of your work or your studio practice, you’re free to mention Asperger’s in your artist statement or in studio visits. But be warned that this information will create another dialog around the work that will only play into another set of assumptions, ones that you may not want to deal with.