The Laws of Nature

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles and Orland

According to Bayles and Orland, competition can be a good thing when it's directed inward. That is, when we artists push hard to meet exhibition and publication deadlines, our work often improves because of our dedicated efforts and need to offer our best work to the public. In a healthy artistic environment, artists are not in competition with each other. Unfortunately, healthy artistic environments are about as common as unicorns, the authors write.

We artists must compete for recognition, grants, sales, and space in the marketplace. We're reminded in this chapter that artists build their cv's upon their accomplishments which occur in a competitive arena. And when that happens, competition centers not on making work, but on accumulating the symbols of acceptance and approval of that work. If we fail to successfully compete, then we may succumb to bitterness and depression. And, even if we do have a winning streak, eventually it will end.

I'm going to disagree a little with these authors. IMHO, it's not the existence of competition that's problematic, it's human nature. If it weren't for competition, I wouldn't work as hard nor would I challenge myself as much to find new ideas. Competition allows new artists to challenge well-established ones for prominence. It also pushes the boundaries of fine art into new regions previously unexplored. At the heart of the matter is the fact that life itself is based upon competition for resources, mates, and survival itself. So, I can't see it in a negative light.

However, competition can bring out the worst in some of us who succumb to immoral and
unethical behavior in order to get ahead. I've seen this happen plenty of times in the fine art arena and it's very destructive. But, art is also a business and the marketplace is fundamentally competitive in our capitalist society. It's the engine that runs the machine.

Personally, I think there's room for everyone and I take care to encourage others to develop their work so that they may successfully compete with me and everyone else in the art world. I get great joy from learning that one of my students earned an award or made sales even if I didn't. At the end of the day, I must be able to look at myself in the mirror and like who I see. That means that I must deal with my competitors with honesty, fairness and good will. Certainly, many others have extended that to me and I'm better for it.

What are your thoughts?


Dana Cooper said...

Your last paragraph speaks volumes, Katherine! I am really enjoying your synopsis of Art and Fear.

Mark Sheeky said...

How strange. I love entering competitions for the challenge, the deadline and even the subject or idea, but I can't say I've ever competed with another artist. It's not really possible because art is your own. I don't think I've ever encountered an artist who does compete with other artists either. Perhaps I've not noticed because I don't care that much, but it seems alien to me that artists are competitive at all.

Stan Kurth said...

I love the competitive arena. It's all part of the game. I don't believe there is an artist in the world whose work is true to self that enters into it with the mind set of knocking off others gladiator style. But I personally want the symbols on my resume; it gets me to the next level in the game. However, it's a game that nobody wins, but the goal is always a higher level of achievement and/or recognition. Hopefully I'll never get into a niche that I can't or won't get out of. At that point my work would be in vain. It all has to do with why we make art. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. OMG, the horror!

hw (hallie) farber said...

Since art is so personal, I never think about competition. Trying to make each piece better than the last is enough of a challenge. (It's like golf.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I'll ever enter art competitions- I'll have to get tons better before considering it- maybe someday. I have found that competition brings out the best and the worst in people- I've seen both. I believe in competition but I have very mixed feelings about it. If everyone could have Mark's attitude- then there might not be any problems. I tend to be more like Hallie- I compete with myself- and for now, that's enough.

M said...

Competitions don't play a very big part in my practice. There's really only one competition in NL that I've entered. I've been successful in being juried into five arts and letters shows but I've never won a prize. I realize that in the end the judging is often subjective and there each jury has its own ideas about why and how they pick ten winners. There's not much you can do about that. I've never really looked into competitions off the island.

I guess when you apply for a grant it's a form of competition and in this arena I've been successful. Competition for me is inward and personal. I continually strive to meet or surpass my own goals from year to year. That seems to keep me satisfied and moving forward.

Unknown said...

Hi Dana - Thank you!

Hi Mark - whether or not we're aware of it, all artists are in competition for recognition and reward. It doesn't have to be our intent or motivation, but it's a reality since both money and space are limited. I like the fact that you've been able to ignore it.

Hi Stan - I'm glad you didn't pursue a career in law! I, too, engage in art competitions to build my cv and to open more doors of opportunity.

Hi Hallie - competition with oneself is the ultimate experience! It makes us achieve what we didn't think possible.

Hi Pam - you remind me that I spent years developing my art before I entered the competition arena. That was very important, and the time you're spending to develop your art is essential, even if you choose not to compete with it.

Hi Margaret - yes, the ultimate goal is self-satisfaction. I like your approach!

Casey Klahn said...

Oh, I've met competitive artists. It is antithetical and seems against the art spirit somehow.

I think the line I like in your post, Kathy, is "...when it is directed inward."

Isn't it the case that no one can really copy or outdo you, anyway? After all, only I will be me - and so only I can do my art. Can I improve on last years' art? There's the crux.

Casey Klahn said...

BTW, in Officer's School I had a peer tell me I was the most competitive guy he'd ever met. I said I hoped it was against myself that I was competing.

Unknown said...

HI Casey - I agree with you, although I've seen some very competitive artists who closely copied the styles of successful artists in order to get into competitions. Even the judges were fooled.