The Undercover Artist

This is a piece of incredibly obvious advice, yet most artists (myself included), I would bet, do this one very dumb thing.  It’s so dumb, that you will wonder why you do it, but I bet you do it, or have done it.  Let me explain.

Many artists wonder why they are not better known, why they don’t get the commissions, why nobody buys their art and why they have very little reputation for doing what they believe they do well.  It seems unfair and unjust, as if everybody else is getting the breaks, but you, alone, are being singled out for imposed oblivion.  Many artists, in this situation, will imagine they’re playing on a non-level playing field, or worse, conclude that they really are poor at their art, as evidenced by the lack of interest in it.  Some artists, tragically, will simply give up, in the face of so little positive reaction to their art.

So, why, oh why, oh why, do we hide our art away from the world, then?  Why do we make it difficult, if not downright impossible, to discover our art and learn about ourselves, as artists?  Why do we keep our work and ourselves a great big secret?

How easy is it to discover your art and to buy it?  Take a look at most artists’ web sites and you will see a paucity of content.  They remain enigmatic, like that’s a good thing.  You see even the most renown and revered artists telling you virtually nothing about themselves and making it exceedingly difficult to contact them or buy something from them.  There isn’t even a way to show your appreciation for what they do.  People with long and distinguished artistic careers are virtually invisible, on Google.  You search for them, but find only fragmentary, peripheral information about their careers and work, at best.  The content is old and stale and it’s as if they don’t exist.

Some people are artists and yet have no web presence at all, or such a cursory and derisory one, that it sends the message that they are not serious about their art.  Imagine that!  By not having a web presence about your art, or a half-hearted one, you are making an active decision to tell everybody, in the whole world, that you are not really an artist.  Is that how you really feel about your art and your work?  The default action of doing nothing to put your art in a format where it can be easily found, via everybody’s favourite finding tool, a web search engine, is precisely the same as announcing you’re not really an artist, to literally every human being on the planet with an Internet connection.  Yikes!

Some people fear the reaction of their employer.  It looks like moonlighting.  However, the fact is that you are an artist, whether or not your employer approves and supports you and if you want any chance whatsoever of doing more, rather than less, with your art, people have got to know about your art.  You have to stand up for it and stand behind it.  Do you also think your employer is so naive as to not have noticed your artistic inclinations, or so disapproving of your art, that they hope you will just give up on it entirely, for their benefit?  Why would you want to work for somebody like that, anyway?

Your artistic talents, believe it or not, are actually benefiting your employer, in thousands of subtle and unrecognised ways.  There is such a thing as the polymath advantage, where cross-fertilisation of ideas from many seemingly unrelated fields of practise and interest serve to make you outstanding in any single field.  If employers were to replace every secret, undercover artist, in their organisation, with people that were so focused on the day job that they did nothing else and thought about nothing else, the quality of their products, innovations and output would undoubtedly plummet overnight.  The smarter employers know this.  The stupid ones deserve their fate.

Maybe you fear for your privacy, or that people will copy your work shamelessly, so you would prefer people not to know about you, how to contact you or see enough of your work to rip it off and claim it as their own.  Those are valid concerns, but if you want to sell your art, you are necessarily going to have to tell people something about yourself.  People buy into the artist, more than into their art.  That’s just a fact.  Part of the attraction of buying some art is to support the life of an admired person.  You can’t provide no information at all, or make it all up.  It has to be authentic to have any value to your appreciators at all.

I also suggest that, with the Internet being a big, time-stamped archive, which actually gets archived (https://archive.org/index.php ), putting your art out into the world can discourage copying, because it is so easy to trace the work back to you, the originator.  If anything, it’s easier now than ever before to expose copycats and their reputations are permanently affected, once discovered.  Yes, it’s a double-edged sword, because you can accidentally do something that is a copy, or looks like one, but then again, you have the tools to check.

Are you advertising what you do, as an artist, in any way?  Can people find your work anywhere?  Exhibiting your work, making it available through on-line sales sites and placing your product in record stores are all good ways to get your work into positions of discoverability.  Some are harder to access than others.  One of the easiest and least expensive routes to discovery is to make a blog site about your work.  Where is your art?  People want to know about you and to experience your works.  They want ways to support you.  Make it easier for them.

Often, we think that a brief CV or artist’s statement is all that it takes to do justice to our work.  However, does the need for brevity in a CV, in an artist’s statement or on a LinkedIn profile (or any other site that aggregates people that do what you do) force you to underplay your achievements and capabilities?  Is there enough room, in the limited space allowed, to tell the full story of you and your art?  Are you even mentioning your art, in your professional CV?  I bet you aren’t.

Is your art still a massive secret that only a select few even know about?  Has your attitude to your art been that it’s not a serious aspect of your being, so you down play it?  Do you still focus on telling people about your day job, rather than your art, when in conversation?  Do you fear that revealing everything about your real interests and passions will damage your chances in the job market (thereby condemning you to only ever find jobs that have no artistic content in them whatsoever)?  Won’t hiding your artistic talents away guarantee that you have a miserable working life?

One of the best ways to get what you want is to ask for it.  So many artists forget to ask people to support their art.  They forget to show their works, when asking for that support.  Worse still, they forget to express their heartfelt gratitude, when that support is forthcoming.

I’ve realised, quite recently that, if you were to google me, knowing nothing else about me, you would have little idea that I made art at all, let alone that it was an important part of my life, if not the dominant factor in my work and thoughts.  Even my blogs have not really promoted my work adequately.  I barely have any photographs of my paintings on my blogs, even though whenever I post them on social media, I get a generally warm reaction to them, from my lovely circle of friends.

In an attempt to remedy that, I am working on a web site that will attempt to tell the whole story of me.  It’s like a super-CV, if you like, with detailed information about what I do, how I do it and why I am motivated to do it.  It also offers my work for sale.  I’m including every art practice that is of importance to me, including my professional arts.  With a navigation structure in place, visitors to the site can only choose to read only what interests them.  They don’t need to read it all.  Preparing the site is a major undertaking, because you have to make a pretty big web site to talk about it all, write a lot of content, take a lot of photographs and make many audio recordings, which is why it is taking so long to put together.

While making the site, I realised that I wasn’t very visible, as an artist, my art was not very visible either and that the actual works of art I’d made were not in a format that I could easily present, on-line, so I had to do a lot of work just to show what I have done and can do.  Just photographing my paintings, or editing excerpts of my music, or writing down my experience in detail are, individually, seriously time-consuming undertakings.

The site will be launched at http://michaeltopic.wordpress.com  and it will be launching soon (hopefully within the month).  I’m pretty sure this site will evolve, over time.  I have a mountain of work left to do on it, but when it opens, I hope it will amuse, entertain and explain.  To tell my story, I have written over 60,000 words, to explain everything about me.  This is a far cry from a two-page CV, which might have less than 1000 words in it.  The web site has the content equivalent of a small book.  For comparison, the NanoWriMo (http://nanowrimo.org/ ) target is just 50,000 words (incidentally, NanoWriMo is an excellent way to force you into writing this amount of content about your art and yourself).

If you are an artist and you’re a bit invisible, try making a web site about your work, using a free service like WordPress.com.  You don’t need very much technical skill to get a pretty good result.  Showcasing who you are, as an artist and what you do is important, if you want to come out from the shadows of obscurity.  Sure, it can make you feel vulnerable and as if you haven’t done enough, of a high enough quality, to show what you do in public, but staying hidden is not helping you grow, as an artist.  It is far better to break your cover.

I find it amazing we don’t do this sort of thing earlier, in our artistic careers.  Actually sitting down to do it is a true “kick self” moment.  Hiding your art away, from the rest of the world, is spectacularly dumb.  There’s no other word for it.  We’re not spies and there is no good reason to stay undercover.  Make your art, by all means, but make sure people can find it.

Don’t remain the undercover artist.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to The Undercover Artist

  1. Hi fellow artist tropical

    One of the problems with self taught artists is confidence. I believe that in Art schools now, more is taught about the business side of things and how to sell ‘yourself’ rather than your art. I’ve always been unable to sell myself because psychologically, I can’t believe that I can produce such excellent stuff… in other words, I put myself down. Ultimately, it shouldn’t be about selling but more about inner satisfaction. I’m getting there, but sometimes, to sell a painting gives me the inspiration to produce several more. It’s a cycle, love – hate – hate – love and so on. But don’t you just love being able to do that? Thanks for the insights, very welcomed by another artist who is bad at self promotion 🙂

    • I definitely count myself among the ranks of those who are learning to self-promote more effectively. You’re right. It’s ultimately about confidence and that can take some building up, if it has been knocked down a lot. Thank you so much for commenting and I wish you every success with your promotional efforts.

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