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« If Big is Bad, Is Small Good? | Main | Authorship Redux »

October 14, 2003

True Art School Tales

A new installment in John Leavitt's ongoing True Art School Tales, his irregular, illustrated diary about life as an art-school student. John's currently studying at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. His own website -- where he shows off his witty and elegant art, as well as his prowess as a designer and cartoonist -- is here.


True Art School Tales

My friend and fellow student J is always putting her paintings on display at cafes, restaurants, and assorted bars. She's a firecracker about it, as well as about pushing her work as an illustrator (her site is here).) It makes sense -- she's comfortable with the business end of art.


Me, I have a terrible time getting myself to put my work on display. I'm pretty flighty and lazy, of course. But I also hate taking part in shows. I hate hanging them, I hate making invitation lists, I hate hanging around the parties. I especially hate watching people in the active process of ignoring and Not Buying. Who really wants to come to these parties and shows anyway? No one, apparently. It takes an ego of iron to sit alone in the reserved room, with everything carefully laid out and arranged, and have not a single invited soul appear.

Also, getting your work out there takes a lot of effort. Promoting your work in person takes ambition and scrappiness. Going from bar to bar, from cafe to cafe, asking wary and often reluctant people if they need art or would like to hang your work. You're lucky if they remember you when you show up to put your stuff up.

Me? I'm just a lazy dilettante. Sending out samples to art directors is hard work too but I don't have to get off my couch to do it. But an art show? All the little chores: printing out flyers, making up lists, creating a number of small pieces that'll be cheap enough so people can buy them on a whim ... I'm far too distractable to keep all these ducks in a row.


No one at school tells you explicitly to put your work up at shows, though a few teachers are encouraging. It falls under the "probably won't do anything but can't hurt" category.

To their credit, FIT pushes careerizing to a greater degree than many other schools do. You're told how to put together a portfolio, who to call, how to slip into the field via side roads -- for example, how to become an assistant to a successful artist. They offer a thousand little tricks and tips to get you started. Matting makes everything better, presentation is everything, fake tearsheets never hurt anyone.


I wonder if this degree of career pressure was always part of the art world. J's mother tells me that you didn't have to be so entrepreneurial in the past. If you wanted to apply for work as an illustrator, you checked the New York Times job section and went to a recruitment office.


J's quite remarkable in her self-confidence. I don't know many other students who have given themselves shows, especially not 2nd year students. My own efforts to push myself wind up in disaster, out of a combination of laziness and ignorance. J, if nothing else, makes friends with the owners of cafes and restaurants. If she doesn't sell any paintings, well, she gets a lot of free coffee.


It doesn't make me feel proud to confess this, but my prudish, Victorian side must be heard. Pushing myself, and pushing my work, feels vulgar. When I try to do it, it means I can never have a normal conversation, or a normal drink in a bar. I'm constantly thinking "Why aren't they looking more?. Why aren't they buying it?" I can't recall anything more unpleasant than the time I put in, a year ago when some of my art was hung in a show, chatting up potential buyers. It was about as humbling and depressing an activity as I'd ever experienced. Is this a function of a weak ego? A very ungentlemenly excessive anxiety about money?

I know I need to push myself more, though. I'd like to make a success of art, and as far as I can tell what brings success is to be loud and entrepreneurial, hard-working and doggedly persistant. I'd like to be all those things, and I try to be, but I can't seem to keep it up for long. So I go back and forth between phases of hard work and sluggish lounging. It's a manic-depressive cycle at best. My internal monlogue is a bore and an embarrassment: "You need to do this to get work. I shouldn't have to! What are you, a spoiled brat?". Ah, how self-loathingly middle-class.


Who comes to these shows anyway? Drunks and patrons, mostly -- the owner of one cafe bought a piece of J's. I sold a couple of private portraits to a couple of people. But nothing, in other words, to call home about, let alone to bother the IRS with. The most successful shows I've been aware of have been FIT's own Student Shows, at the FIT gallery. I suspect most of the buyers were parents.

-- by John Leavitt

posted by Michael at October 14, 2003


John, thanks for the good reads.

Posted by: valine craig on October 14, 2003 10:19 PM

Leavitt- It's not confidence that gets you to promote your shows. It's despair.

And as for why I get the shows- I credit this to mmy two most ample talents

-The Oft-Mentioned "J"

Posted by: "J" on October 15, 2003 9:11 AM

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