The Laws of Nature

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Image and Manners

Our good friend, and plein air painter, Celeste, remarked yesterday about the questions people ask her while she's painting. It reminded me of a story that is the jumping-off point for a discussion about the image we artists project in society, and our "manners." Here's the story:

(This photo was taken by Bob Travis)

For those of you who aren't familiar, Monhegan a very small island (3 miles long, 1.5 miles wide) twelve miles off the coast of Maine near my summer home. Before building my home, I'd spend summer vacations there because of the superb hiking trails, quaint seaside village, and artists' colony. The photo above shows Monhegan village by the water.

Anyway, one day I was walking down the unpaved road through the village and came upon an artist who had set up her easel right next to the road where there's heavy foot traffic (no cars). Just as I was walking by, trying not to gawk at her work, a man stopped and began to photograph her while she was painting. She flipped out! Turning on the man, she scolded him for taking the picture without first asking permission and rebuked him for several embarrassing minutes. Of course, I and many other passers-by, stopped in our tracks to see what was going to happen. The man tried to apologize, but the artist was relentless in her scolding. He eventually wandered off looking wounded.

This got me to thinking about how we artists deal with the public. Some of the stories shared in yesterday's comments reveal that people frequently ask us questions that can be offensive without knowing it. How we handle those situations reflects upon the general reputation of artists. What I mean is, people who aren't professional artists learn about who we are as a group by their interactions with us. So, the "manners" of each artist affect the group as a whole.

The big question is: How do we artists wish to be perceived?

There's the age-old image that we're all a bunch of lunatics with wildly eccentric and unpredictable behavior. I doubt that very few artists genuinely fit that description.

Then there's the "elite" bunch of artists that think they walk on water. To me, they're phonies.

Another group is so insecure that they need constant attention and praise or they resort to whining and depression. They are the "it's all about ME" bunch. I hope that's a small group.

And then there's the group, which I think is probably the largest number of us, that's well-mannered, pleasant to deal with, and socialized enough to engage in normal interaction with the public.

But, whichever group we identify with, the fact remains that our individual behavior influences how the public perceives us as a whole. Am I my brother's keeper? Yes. I'll remember that the next time someone asks me a rude question.

Your thoughts??


M said...

Interesting topic Kathy. Stereotyping always gets one into trouble but as humans we tend to resort to it often. I think the thing we have to remember is that there are as many kinds of artists as there are types of people in other professions. It goes without saying that common sense and courtesy is what we should always strive for when we interact with other people, no matter how rude they might be in their interaction with you. The artist in your story obviously fails in both areas. If you stick yourself in the thick of things be prepared to deal with being noticed.

I didn't get to respond to your previous post about time taken to produce a work. It is a question I get asked often. My answer is usually from conception to delivery more time than you would ever believe! That covers the gamut of the various facets of creation. Sometimes my work creates itself, it just seems to fall off my brush, and other times I have work in process for months trying to complete it to my satisfaction. I don't think time spent on a work is any indication of its worth either financially or creatively.

Myrna Wacknov said...

Perhaps my response yesterday came across as a rude comment ( It took me my whole life to paint this picture) but it is said in a genuine way and is meant to inform people that a lifetime of painting is reflected in every painting.

My non-art friends think I am a little exotic and they like that.

Chris Beck said...

This post is definitely connected to the previous one about answering questions which may seem annoying -- I think it comes down to having a sense of humor about yourself. You're not as likely to jump down somebody's throat if you aren't on the defensive all the time. But some of it is just about having good manners and treating others as you would like to be treated.

That said, I have to say that you can't allow yourself to be run over by the occasional aggressive buyer. I had one woman call me repeatedly AFTER I had told her several times that the painting she was calling about was going to be unavailable for several months. I was working hard on another deadline and explained that I would be happy to call her when the painting was back in my studio, but she just wouldn't give up. After hearing from other local artists that this was her regular mode of interaction, I decided I didn't want her patronage enough to subject myself to that kind of treatment. I was never rude to her -- I just "lost" her phone number!!

Casey Klahn said...

Yes, the other side of the story is the rude attention or things said by the public to the artist. But, back on topic, I do think it's a good idea to have a ready answer for common questions that is courteous.

A fellow in Maine photographing an artist in action - not a major crime. The artist was in the wrong, IMHO. OTOH, I have been at art fairs where a guy from a certain country known for ripping off images and mass producing them was video taping artist's booths. That was inappropriate, for sure.

hw (hallie) farber said...

I don't think there's ever a good excuse for being rude. When looking at one of my paintings, a viewer asked if she could "paint something like that." I said "sure" and told her where to buy supplies.

As for being eccentric, I am slightly off plumb; my friends (in high places and low places) enjoy it and attribute it to my being an artist. In truth, I think I was lucky and born into a family who views most things with a slightly skewed and humorous eye--nothing to do with being "arty." It's a way of dealing with life.

Unknown said...

First of all, I think almost all bloggers are in the last group. ;o)

I do know a thing about stereotypes. Perception of citizens of cops and cops "profiling" a certain look.

Because of my job in Internal Affairs the last 5 years I was there, I really learned to take each person as an individual. The good looking executive in the $5,000.00 suit can be a unreasonable narrow minded butt head and the druggie transient could be the officer's best witness in an excessive force allegation.

So we can only be our own ambassadors to spread the perception we want people to think of what an artist is like right?

Unknown said...

Hi Margaret - You're correct! As artists, we are all quite different and stereotyping is a problem. My interest is more in dispelling the "myth" that artists are a particular type, although I'd like to think that we're a socialized group who contributes to society in a positive way. Thanks for your comments about this topic and the last post. I agree with you!

Hi Myrna - I didn't think your remark was rude; it was straightforward. That's refreshing! Being exotic is great :) Thanks for your comments.

Hi Christ - Yes! A sense of humor about oneself is essential. Artists, and others, often take themselves too seriously. This gets in the way of creativity, in my opinion. Your experience with the aggressive buyer is informative. There are times when we need to find a reasonable way out of a difficult situation and you found one (or "lost" one). In either case ... a good example. Thanks, Chris.

Hi Casey - I've seen this rip-off artists at fairs, too!! One stopped at my display and started taking close-ups of my individual paintings until I shooed him away. Boy ... you never know. Thanks for reminding us of this scam.

Hi Hallie - great response to another! You have a wonderful way of relating, both in art and socially. And, you raise an important point about who we are. If there's no facade, that is, if what we show to others is truly who we are inside, then it has nothing to do with being an artist. Thanks for reminding us of that.

Hi Sheila - Right!! You've had an unusual life and career experience that has given you insight into human nature that many of us never witness. It's good to learn from you! Thank you.

Anonymous said...
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-Don said...

I would venture that our "brand" as an artist is not only the artwork we do, but also how we act and appear. I don't mind that my brand includes a bit of quirkiness, a twisted sense of humor, and a self-deprecating manner. It all ties in with my style of painting and my subject matter. I would never want to be construed as an anal retentive bitch! (sorry, it needed said)

In all honesty, I don't know how artists are able to paint in public forums. I have an even greater respect for Celeste after reading her comment yesterday. Personally, I would find it too distracting to have people interrupting me with questions and/or comments. But, if I put myself "out there" I would treat those people with the same respect and courtesy I would want from them - although, sometimes possibly laced with a touch of sarcasm... oops, I mean self-deprecating humor...

Because of my long hair and "hippy" mentality, I was always referred to as "the art guy" by one of the GM's I worked under as an art director. In all three TV stations I worked for, people used to come by my office and want to "hang out" because they said it was the most relaxing place in the TV station. And, this was in the midst of a hectic work schedule with ridiculous deadlines. I always said, "if it ain't fun, why do it?" - and I MEANT it. The downside to my laid-back personality is some people thought I must not be doing much because I wasn't stressed out and always one straw away from snapping. I didn't care. I yam who I yam!

And, who I yam is a part of my brand.

But, enough about me...


Stan Kurth said...

It's funny how humans interact in social situations. Inevitably when we meet someone for the first time it seems dialogue always gets around to that most telling question, "what do you do for a living?" I kind of like answering that question because of the questions that follow the answer. I find most of the time people are interested in what artists do or maybe they want to see if I am indeed a weird artist type. What they find out is I love doing what I do and I'm not a weirdo (relatively speaking). I have many different friends with many different occupations including a lot of artist friends and when I think about it their action and behavior is really just another cross section of personalities in society. Perception is a tricky thing. A large social group tends to be perceived as all being just like the most notorious among them, like some of the current CEOs and higher-ups of large financial institutions or Wall Street or millionaire sports bad boys and entertainers. I remember in my college dorm room I had a poster of Andy Warhol on the wall. Salvador Dali was as far-out and freaky as his paintings (I liked those paintings at the time, but it was the sixties you know). I guess my point is no matter how kind we are as humans/artists there will always be the exceptions that are far more newsworthy.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - I, too, have found that our artist blogger buddies are really great people with impeccable manners. How great is that?! Thanks for commenting.

Hi Don - Besides being wonderfully self-depricating and laid back, you're also a very kind and generous person! Thank you.

Hi Stan - you raise an important point about how the personalities and behaviors of the most famous artists greatly influence the public idea of who artists are as a group. And, most people do ask me what I do for a living, and then stare like a deer in the headlights when I tell them the answer. Thanks for commenting.

jimserrettstudio said...

I think as artist we must recognize that art history is littered with some very flamboyant and unique characters. For better or worse we must except that as part of our artistic heritage. If the general public wishes to think all artist are like Dali,VanGoh,Titian,Picasso or Warhol. I can live with that, for at least they know something about art and may develop a greater appreciation for what artist do by seeing one in action. And realize that artists are very, very diverse individuals. In fact I would say that is the real stereotype I see in artist.

The best comment I ever had on location was from a man that stood about ten feet behind me for the longest time, and then walked up and said, "So that's how you do that, you just smear things around until they look like somethings."

Unknown said...

Hi Jim - a sensible response! Thank you. And, the comment by your viewer is priceless!!

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

I'm shocked to hear of on artist berating an onlooker on Monhegan. It is after all, a very small place with pedestrians only and many many artists. Sounds self important and boorish to me.

When I was young my parents would always say, "well, she's an Artist" as a means of describing my somewhat moody personality. Now, I love the leeway it gives me to be "a little off" as it were :D