Blair Brennan, “Imaginary Portrait of Lou Reed (after Man Ray’s Portrait of D.A.F. de Sade)”, 2005 (23/04/05), ink on scrapbook paper, 12” x 12” (30.4 x 30.4 cm)
By Writer in Residence Blair Brennan
Whenever anybody asks me for advice, I say, “Don’t count on this for income.” Also, “Don’t be ashamed of doing anything in striving to establish yourself as a musician.” Artists nowadays need to be prepared to pretty much whore themselves every waking moment. There seems to be no way to distinguish selling out from succeeding. —Todd Rundgren1
Todd Rundgren is, of course, a musician, producer and famous step father (look it up kids, that’s what the internet is for). He offers important advice about the entertainment industry and, as the world of visual art becomes fully integrated into the world of info-tainment, this becomes more relevant to artists. Notwithstanding Rundgren’s advice (and to extend the comparison between music and visual art), I would suggest that, as artists (performing or visual), we can choose whether we want to be a “Mike Watt” or a “Justin Bieber”. I’m picking on the Bieb as a current manufactured flavour of the month and, to be honest, I’m not sure who the visual art world equivalents would be, perhaps because I read more music magazines than art magazines. (Art magazines don’t generally come with a “free” CD.)
If you make music or visual art you will, in all likelihood, have to confront the separation between what is right for you and what is “marketable” (which means both sell-able and fashionable enough to be shown in public art galleries). You alone will have to figure out what is right for you. And if you do, and put it into practice, you will probably not make a living showing and selling your art (though you may make a decent living teaching art, acquiring arts related grants, hanging other people’s art, up-selling the fries or stealing copper wire). You alone must figure out what constitutes “selling out” and what kind of deal-with-the-devil is required for you to make the kind of art that you want. This struggle will ultimately lead to further crisis (for there is no better term) and, if fortunate, some understanding of what your art is doing and how it may affect others.
Flaubert, concerned with the art of words, said that “…the human word is like an outworn, battered timbale upon which we beat out melodies fit for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity.”2
More music magazine research: Lou Reed, extending a giant middle finger to Flaubert, (though perhaps unconsciously) comments on Lulu his recent collaboration with Metallica: “It’s maybe the best thing done by anyone, ever. It could create another planetary system. I’m not joking, and I’m not being egotistical”.3
Music or art that “moves the stars to pity”, creates planetary systems or may hardly be fit to accompany dancing bears—what artists believe about their own work lies somewhere (or perhaps, more correctly, is in constant flux) between Lou Reed’s characteristic hubris and Flaubert’s overly self critical reflection.
Of his album Metal Machine Music—an unlistenable album ten thousand times more abstruse than Lulu—Lou Reed said “Most of you won’t like this, and I don’t blame you at all. It’s not meant for you. At the very least I made it so I had something to listen to.”4
This is perhaps closer to what every artist should think about their own work. We should be able to say, “This may be of some value to you (the viewer) but I made it for my own needs. I was trying to figure something out and this is the result.” In a lifetime that will offer many Faustian bargains, our art practice may be a place relatively free of compromise. Without apology, we should say “I made this so that I would have something to look at.”