Design 10-8-2007

On Artistic Competition

Is the art world necessarily a dog eat dog place? Does reputation mean more than substance? What drives artists to do what they do? Michael Fallon's essay for Monica Sheets' Jerome Fellows project has thoughts about this--respond in the Articles Forum.


ARTISTS AND ART LOVERS OFTEN CREDIT COLLABORATION as a prime driver of creative expression. But if one examined the actual record of artistic accomplishment, one would find that togetherness and cooperation aren’t a very common spur to artistic efforts. Rather, artists often are driven in their creativity by baser impulses: jealousy, vindictiveness, competitiveness, even pure hatred.

Call it “creative differences” if you will, but head-to-head battles abound in art history. Vincent Van Gogh brandished a razor at Paul Gauguin in the south of France. Pablo Picasso got along with few other artists. Paul Cezanne denounced his childhood friendship with Emile Zola, after the author published a novel loosely based on Cezanne’s life. Jackson Pollock broke with his teacher and mentor Thomas Hart Benton, saying the elder artist’s teachings at best gave him something to rebel against. And James Turrell broke from his friend Robert Irwin, shrugging off several intriguing months of joint experiments on sensory deprivation.

One of my favorite artists, the celebrated French classicist Jacques-Louis David, could be the patron saint of artistic competition. Not only did he fight with nearly every artist of his time—including several former students, whom he deemed ungrateful to their former master—but he throve on contention and competition, fostering it in his atelier by positioning his students like chess pieces placed at varying proximity to him. The artistic spirit of many a student of David was broken after jockeying to be shown at the annual Paris Salon (as a student of David) or to be that year’s recipient of the Prix de Rome. I often wonder how many young artists throughout history have given up on art after having to deal with such bitter competition.

THOUGH TIMES HAVE CHANGED, THE HONEST ARTIST KNOWS that competitiveness, jealousy, and backbiting abound even now in the art world. Artists feel it when an artist “friend” receives a grant award that they themselves applied for, when fellow artists organize a show or other opportunity but don’t include them, or when word comes back around about some artist friend’s sniping about their work.

This touchiness is understandable. Art is a tough thing to pull off in the world we have made for ourselves, overrun with pointless distractions and ambivalent about beauty created by hand. The artist’s practice is often thankless and tense. Grants, exhibition opportunities, sales and other patronage are hard for any artist to procure, especially when so many fellows are scrambling to dip into the small pool of support. The inevitable rejection faced day after day by the striving artist is an almost certain recipe for existential crisis.

As a critic I have had a microcosmic view of the local artistic foot-race. I’ve seen home-grown artists scramble to position themselves in proximity to certain trends and fashions and in opposition to others. It can seem that the order of the day among local artists is: You’’re in my camp, or you’’re an enemy.

As a result of my attempts to call this race and position the racers in relation to the National Art Derby, I’ve been called “negative” and “bitter” (and worse) at times for words I’ve written and also—for the very same review—been taken to task by an artist for being too positive about his rivals. Furthermore, I’ve known artists locally who were friends with each other twenty-five years ago, who now could not stand to be in the same room. I’ve seen gallerists court artists with talk of bringing their work to their fabulous new space who eventually grow bitter from dealing with artist demand and run off into the night issuing curses and blame at everyone who contributed to the gallery’s failure.

NONE OF THESE STRUGGLES ARE UNIQUE TO MINNESOTA; they are conditions inherent in the stressful pursuit of art across the country. Still, based on what I know of other places I can say there is one particular point of struggle that makes this place different. This is the air of contention that surrounds competition for the direct artist grants given each year by three major charitable foundations in this state—the Bush Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation.

This money, of course, is generous and unusual in this country, especially for an art market of our middling size. But the opportunity that this money and exposure gives to individual artists becomes toxic and jealousy-inducing.

Artists who have been turned down for one of these grants— and a great many fantastic local artists have never won a single one of them—likely think pretty much the same bitter thought when rejected: My art is better than, or at least as good as, what was granted, so why didn’t I win? And this is true whether or not the artists are aware that the jurying process for the grants is subjective, with very human jurors who will often appreciate some art more than other for capricious reasons. Even more disturbing than the universal sour grapes among the non-granted, nearly every artist I know who has been fortunate enough to receive one of these grants almost immediately forgets his or her good fortune and begins plotting even more intently to go after the next batch of grants.

The final irony is, despite the poisonous jealousy and competition that comes from these annual scrambles for the fleeting cash trophies of foundation grants in Minnesota, no one single artist—I’m guessing—would propose that we do away with the grants. If I suggested, for instance, that we pool all this money and divide it equally among anyone and everyone who made art in the state during a given year—yielding each artist at best an annual award of perhaps $5.40—I’d no doubt be laughed out of the room. And rightly so. No artist would give up the slim chance of hitting a career-validating lottery—taking in a cool $20K or even $40K—for the sure shot at such paltry chump change.

In the arts the very air of competition is what drives artists to continue striving. Artists want to become the chief alpha dog of art. That’s the big prize—to struggle mightily but in the end to triumph. The art race can seem as much a draw to artists as the making of art.

In the end, while we all know that hypercompetitive fields, like art, can create a world of hurt, frustration, and disappointment, we also know that such an atmosphere is preferable to the opposite. It’s natural for artists to imagine what cannot be—a world in which nastiness could be kept in check, where everyone could help each other to get ahead in an arts-ambivalent world, and in which collaboration and harmony brings us all together. It’s a natural wish, but both impossible and undesirable—in the same way as a freezer full of vanilla ice cream would be a waste of space.

Competition and contention often yield good things, and in art these factors may be necessary to guarantee each succeeding generation strives to surpass the previous one. After all, two of the students of Jacques-Louis David who faced much of the master’s fiercest scrutiny, Antoine-Jean Gros and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, survived to become two of the most prominent artists of the age that followed David.

Every artist should remember these two figures the next time they feel so frustrated or jealous that they want to chuck their brushes and paints in the proverbial river. No victory or award ever went to the competitor who gave up the fight.

Competition may be, in the end, an evil that is essential to the moving insights of art.