Help Desk

Help Desk: Majors and Media

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 photographs by Brad Carlile, whose work is included in the upcoming exhibition Fragile Boundaries at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts from June 15 to September 16, 2012.

Your counselor, hard at work.

As a Political Science major, my choice to minor in Studio Art has taken more than a few by surprise, especially those who are familiar with my artistic skill level. My question relates to how to cope with being in a setting where others are clearly more skilled, and why you might argue that one should not lose hope and pursue their art knowing that when it is completed it will not receive the highest marks or hardly any praise. I love creating art, and I recognize that I will never have my pieces in a gallery, but sometimes I need a bit of motivation. Art gives me the escape and freedom that my other majors seem to squelch, but should I keep going when I’m simply mediocre?

Absolutely you should go on making art if you find it enjoyable. Skill is an issue now because you’re in an academic environment, which (of necessity and long-standing tradition) emphasizes certain kinds of proficiency and maintains a hierarchy. But you won’t always be in school and you won’t always be facing these particular pressures. Eventually you’ll be on your own and it will prove vital to have a pastime that is satisfying.

If instead of art you discovered that you liked to bake, but usually produced cakes that were lopsided in comparison to those of your peers, would you be asking if you ought to give it up? Or would you just accept baking as a hobby and leave it at that? The increasing standardization and professionalization of the fine arts has produced a generation of people who, a hundred years ago, would have been content to be Sunday painters but today feel that if they can’t get an A+ or a solo show or the MacArthur Grant, they’ve failed. This is all wrong because it takes the pleasure of doing completely out of the picture (pun intended). It’s the logical result of a society that prizes experts and punishes amateurs. But as all dedicated amateurs are wont to point out, the word itself comes from the Latin amator meaning “lover.” You can love what you do simply because it brings joy to your life and not because you are an ambitious professional.

Brad Carlile, Nerja, 2009. Photograph (no digital manipulation), 30″ x 40″

Please don’t stop making art. Try to appreciate the skills of the other artists around you and learn from them while you are in school. When you don’t receive high marks or praise for your work, ask for detailed feedback from people you trust and see if anything they say is useful to you. Spend time with art in galleries, museums and publications—you’ll see that skill is not the only element that counts. Above all, savor the time you have to make your work because soon you’ll graduate and acquire a busy life. Art may well be your solace and comfort in the days ahead.

Brad Carlile, Ran, 2010. Photograph (no digital manipulation), 30″ x 40″

I am an artist whose work typically requires a lot of high tech equipment to be realized. Most of my projects use computers, programming, microprocessors, media processors, digital projectors, video monitors, sound systems etc. etc. etc. Lately I’ve begun to worry that my work is being driven by the technology, rather than the other way around. I sincerely believe that just because you can do something it doesn’t follow that you should, but I have found myself coming up with project ideas that are based primarily on newfound technological capabilities. Is this putting the cart before the horse? How can I avoid the pitfall of relying on the tech spectacle of gadgetry and make sure that the conceptual basis of my work takes center stage?

I’m happy that you wrote me with this question because I’ve seen so many exhibitions where there was an amazing spectacle of gadgetry (lights, things that moved or beeped, stuff on timers and motions sensors, videos, etc.) and while I’ve marveled at the technical know-how of the makers, I sometimes feel like there’s little beyond the wow-factor. It’s not often that I’ve found the bells and electronic whistles to be well-married to the ideas behind them (exceptions include Jon Kessler, Arthur Ganson, Ann Hamilton). In fact, as some kinds of technology get cheaper and easier to use, the more it seems like ideas are being replaced with Arduinos.

Brad Carlile, Toywin, 2012. Photograph (no digital manipulation), 40″ x 30″

How to avoid this in your own work? It might be as simple as sitting down and making a list of the things you think are interesting or exciting. Are you keen on human perception or modern warfare or social relations? Do you moonlight in a job that informs your work? What kinds of books/articles/websites do you find yourself reading these days—romances and celebrity gossip, news and true crime, Cold War biographies? Do you prefer to be soothed or energized? Poke around in the corners of your mind for some thoughts on what makes you tick and write it all down in a big messy unedited list. It’ll take you about ten minutes. Do it today and then put the list away.

At the end of the week, take the list back out and look it over with fresh eyes. As you read it again you might have further thoughts you want to add–go ahead and do that as you read. Then draw some lines to connect ideas you think are related. Which idea(s) are you most excited about? Are there any that lend themselves well to visual expression? This list gives you a place to start.

Brad Carlile, One-o, 2011. Photograph (no digital manipulation), 30″ x 40″

Now, what to do with these ideas? Well, one route would be to try to work their expression into projects that use the programming and digital technology with which you are familiar. This is probably the easier way to go because you are already proficient with the tools you use. But if you’d like a challenge, you could try instead to use these ideas to create a small body of work that doesn’t utilize technology. Make at least three pieces that use other media. You don’t have to show this work to anyone if you don’t want to, and you can quit at any point, but it might be valuable in terms of clarifying your core ideas. Often, simple experimentation can resolve many dilemmas.

As you begin to work with your idea list, keep in mind that the medium is the message (yes, still). The format you use to express your ideas will change the character of each concept. A landscape executed in collage is different from a painting, which is different from a video projection even if the image is essentially the same. Of course you might find that the high-tech solution is the right path for some of your concepts, and that’s fine. The key is to determine the right solution for every case, and it seems unlikely that everything you’re thinking about demands the same approach. Just remember to work slowly and check in with your original list from time to time as you go. Consider it a road map for the near future, one in which your ideas take center stage and you use the skills and technologies that are appropriate to the expression of each.