Archive for the Artistic competition Category

As a follow-up on my previous post about artists hitting inevitable career/existential hurdles, I’m posting an email from an artist I don’t really know. She got my email address from the Art Happy Hour! site (that I run as a counterweight to all this Artistic Failure gloom and doom), and she sent me a copy of an email she had written to an exhibition coordinator voicing frustration about being rejected for an art exhibit at a hospital in Minnesota, suggesting for some reason it would be grist for conversation at the happy hour.

(The message is included below, with identifying details X’d out for purposes of confidentiality and privacy, because it provides an interior glimpse of the wounded psyche of an artist hitting an artistic hurdle.)

Subject: RE: XXX XXXX exhibit notification
Date: Fri, 11 Apr 2008 08:57:03 -0500

Thanks XXXX,
I’m going to keep this rejection letter as evidence of how difficult it is to show work in Minneapolis. The pieces were exhibited at Augsburg in 2004, and since that time I’ve had them stored in my studio. NO one wants them because they do take visual and physical space. New York art critic Eleanor Heartney juried one into a competition at the Plains Museum in Fargo, she liked the work. But otherwise, I still own it and store it, which costs me money.

The galleries in Minneapolis have responded with the same words that you have used. They note passion…but no thanks.

I fully understand your position and have other work, but this was a strong emotional period of my life that really demanded healing my heart. What does an artist do with it? My colleagues wonder why I’m not showing, and the answer is I’ve tried.

The full insult is when galleries look at a resume and assume that the artist has not tried to exhibit because other galleries have rejected the work. I do find that my ideas fit better on the coastlines of our country, but that demands shipping expense. If I behave myself and frame it under glass, then I’d have that additional expense, but that doesn’t guarantee acceptance.
You see my point??? Coffee shops won’t even show the work. I truly need your prayers.

best to you,

Subject: XXX XXXX exhibit notification
Date: Thu, 10 Apr 2008 12:18:56 -0500

Dear XXXX:

Thank you for your interest in participating in The XXX XX XXXXXXX exhibit at the XXXXXXXXX XXX Health & Healing. I received many submissions, and was struck by the quality of work I saw.


I regret to inform you that your work has not been selected for inclusion in this exhibit. Your images are strong, the description of your experience moving, and I honor the healing that is a part of the artistic process for you. However, I had to make difficult decisions as I worked with issues of space availability and the desire to create a cohesive group show.


I thank you again for your willingness to share your work with the patients, staff and visitors of the XXXXXXXXX and XXXXX XXXXXXX Hospital. We very much appreciate artists, and the ways in which art helps to create a healing environment within our clinic.


Blessings on your continued artistic journey.





XXXXXX XXXX Program Coordinator

All this talk about Vincent van Gogh has got me thinking a bit about how artists often ruthlessly back-stab, undercut, and undermine each other in order to get themselves ahead. I recently wrote a quick essay on the subject of artistic competition for a project by the artist Monica Sheets, which began:

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…

Such behavior makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that artists struggle for a very small pool of reward. On one level, it’s simple and basic law-of-the-jungle behavior. At the same time, it may also just be that artistic people tend to be more high-strung and high-maintenance than their non-artistic counterparts.

Two recent stories bear out both theories. One, an account by Joseph Harriss, in the Smithsonian magazine, of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s life together for two months in Arles, for instance, relates numerous examples of the “creative sparks that flew when these two opinionated avant-garde artists came together in the South of France.” At the key moment, Van Gogh, upon learning his friend planned to leave their “poor little yellow house” after only two months (instead of the planned six months) threw a glassful of absinthe at Gauguin’s head and ran after him in the street hurling wild accusations; then, sometime before the next day, there was that whole cutting-off-the-ear episode (the exact circumstances of which we may never know).

Leading up to this climactic moment, of course, it was clear that Gauguin and van Gogh—though connected by an artistic affinity—were not compatible as people. Their work styles were different, Gauguin approaching each work in a more measured, plotted and composed, intellectual manner, van Gogh working with impetuous, “pell-mell,” poetic and manic energy. Whereas Gauguin worked to build up thin layers of color that affected certain moods, van Gogh’s technique was replete with gestural strokes and an impasto accretion of paint. “Their ideas on art differed greatly,” the article quotes Andreas Blühm, former head of exhibits at the Van Gogh Museum. “[While in Arles] they influenced each other to a degree, and then went back to their original styles.”

The two also clashed over ideas. “Our arguments are terribly electric,” van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “We come out of them sometimes with our heads as exhausted as an electric battery after it has run down.” Ultimately, according to the article, Gauguin grew contemptuous of van Gogh’s intellect, citing his friend’s “disordered brain” and “absense of reasoned logic.”

Still, the real reason for the dissolution of the friendship may have been simple and petty feelings of jealousy and competition. A few weeks after Gauguin’s stay in Arles, Theo van Gogh sold a number of the artist’s paintings in Paris, giving him more money than he’d had in years, and Gauguin began thinking immediately of leaving Arles to go to Martinique, where he’d start a “Studio of the Tropics.” The portraits that each artist painted of each other in this time period—in their posing, composition, and rendering—were tense, loaded with “defensive and aggressive implications.”

After the glass-tossing, street-shouting incident, Gauguin left on a night train for Paris. The two artists never met again. A few months later, in early 1889, van Gogh entered the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and just about a year later he shot himself.

In 1891, Gauguin finally abandoned his family (back in Denmark) for good and moved to Tahiti. He became ill (possibly of syphilis) and developed a drug addiction. In 1892, he attemped suicide with poison, but he failed. He died of a heart attack, broke, in 1903 in the Marquesas Islands at the age of 55.

I can’t help but wonder whether either artists’ lives would have been different had their relationship not been fraught with mutual competition, back-biting, and intense jealousy; had they managed instead to inspire each other mutually and provide support in each of their struggles.  These questions, of course, are naive and moot. Not only can we never have an answer to them, but competition, jealousy, and ruthlessness are ever the artist’s bread and butter.  So intense and inbred is this behavior that Paul Gauguin, tellingly, continued exhibiting it years after van Gogh was gone.

Toward the end of his life, Gauguin, realizing that van Gogh’s reputation (even in death) was growing faster than his own , began to refer to his former friend as “crazy.” He wrote in 1903 that his stay in Arles was for purposes of “enlightening” a struggling and lost van Gogh. “From that day on,” he claimed, “my van Gogh made astonishing progress.” Gauguin even attempted to alter chronology to date van Gogh’s sunflower paintings after his arrival in Arles.

Even in death, even at the end of life—when nothing else was stake other than reputation—an artist will without a thought throw a fellow artist under the train.

Et tu, artifex?

(Note: A second story of the tragic consequences of artistic competition and mutual jealousy will follow in the next few days.)

In an art world that is ever more beholden to the NEW—to new art, new fashions, new trends, new money, new everything—a very common phenomenon is for artists to fall through the cracks. Artists who, at one point are successfully established in the art world in the end fall through the cracks of changing fashions and fickle tastes. They fall through the cracks of a career that is cut off by new, rising trends. They grow old, making art into old age that was once popular, once part of the rising wave of fashion, yet forgotten because they were inevitably overshadowed by the NEW.

I wrote once about an artist named Sonia Gechtoff, whose rapidly rising career trajectory led her to move to New York City from San Francisco around 1959. In 1960, she was at the top of her game—showing work at the Whitney, obtaining gallery representation, selling enough art to survive. Her future success seemed assured. Then, in 1961, Gechtoff saw a sea-change in the art world—away from expressionism and toward the new “Pop” Art—and her career quickly bottomed out underneath her. Although she survived many years as a painter by teaching classes at this or that school and showing in occasional Abstract-Expressionist retrospective exhibitions, she fell through the cracks of the art world, forgotten in the end.

A current traveling exhibition, called “High Times/High Times: New York Painting 1967-1975,” takes as its subject a generation of painters—many of whom who are relatively unknown—who continued painting in their native styles, mostly abstract, into old age even as those styles were deemed increasingly passé by the art establishment.

A subtext of the dismissal of the old by the NEW in art is much of this, of course, is a power struggle. That is, the art establishment that determines fashions has long been ruled, generally, by rich white men who get ever richer by their machinations and manipulations. Not to be too paranoid and conspiracy-theorist about this, but there’s a reason why women and people of color are legion among those artists who fall through the cracks. Or, as the exhibition description of “High Times/High Times” puts it:

Most art-historical accounts of the late 1960s and early ’70s say little about painting,… [y]et many artists during these same years were exploring radical new directions in abstract painting: pulling painting apart, moving it off the stretcher and onto the floor, creating new shapes and structures, using an entire room or the human body as a canvas. Influenced by social change and the burning political issues of the day, [a number of] artists… created works of great joy, passion, fury, and imagination, expanding conventional concepts of what “painting” could mean. Nearly half the abstract painters whose work is presented in High Times, Hard Times are women, many dismissed at the time by influential art critics, who saw them only as creating an eccentric expression that had some limited value and not as leaders in the renewal of a medium as important as painting. African-American artists such as Al Loving, Joe Overstreet, Howardena Pindell, and Jack Whitten, and artists from other countries who lived temporarily in New York (Kusama, Blinky Palermo, César Paternosto, Franz Erhard Walther), were similarly denied official recognition. (emphasis mine)

In the great waging war that is the art market, certain artists are the expendable footsoldiers, and curators, critics, gallerians, and museum professionals are the generals who callously condemn them to their fate.

Kristin Tillotson, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, this past weekend made mention of a little essay I wrote on artistic competition for (local site) It’s a small mention–so small I completely missed it when I read the paper on Sunday and had to have it pointed out to me–but nontheless it’s complimentary of my work, describing it thusly:

[ posts] Features, forums, podcasts and the like [that] range from obtuse to interesting (Michael Fallon’s honest piece on the role that jealousy and competitiveness play in artists’ relationships, under “Behind the Scenes.”)

For those of you who missed the original essay, and I know there are a few of you poor souls out there–here it is in its original form.

On Artistic Competition

October 8, 2007
Michael Fallon

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.

Here’s an interesting little story from the BBC‚ about a side-result of the recent overheated international art market. Apparently, for about two decades in Britain—until they were recently caught—a son and his elderly parents made fake artworks and artefacts worth millions of dollars.

Shaun Greenhalgh made sculptural objects and paintings that were often flatfooted copies of originals he had found in catalogues. The artists and family also created fake letters to provide provenance for the objects that fooled multiple museums and collectors.

The police became suspicious when the letters contained misspellings and incorrect samples of cuneiform script. After raiding the family’s home, the police found that the artist’s forgeries went back at least seventeen years and had netted the family at least half a million pounds—the amount found in the family’s bank account. But police said the family’s crimes did not appear to have been motivated by money.

“They didn’t own a computer or live in luxury,” said the police. “They were living in abject poverty, a very poor lifestyle, very basic.”

So why did they do it, according to police? “They had a resentment of the art market and wanted to prove they could deceive it,” said one police official. “Greenhalgh felt he was a better artist than he would ever get recognition for and he developed a general hatred of the art market and the art establishment.”

Hm, possibly true. But just about every artist thinks the same—that he’s a better artists than just about everyone else—and most don’t end up going criminal.

Or do they?