Seldom Discussed Artist Issues

Periodically, we pose questions to artists about issues they face in their work and lives.

Whether because they’re hard to talk about or because they just fly under the radar, some issues don’t get a lot of discussion on forums such as this blog. This month, we’re asking, What issues do you see artists grappling with that don’t often get discussed?

Camera Obscura photography by Marian Roth

Marian Roth, photography artist
Much of what causes me the most angst is an internal dialogue about my work and its place in the universe of “art.” One form it takes is my worry that my current work is too “far out” in respect to other photography. My friend Midge, who like me, works in photography and painting, blames our more generalized self-doubt on the nagging remnants of second place citizenry for those of us who work with photographic image making.

It’s been a long and ongoing history of gaining acceptance for photography, and that feeds a crazy kind of internalized prejudice, in which I continuously defend myself to myself. This year I blessedly received a Pollock-Krasner Grant, but they have only just begun allowing artists to apply in the field of “fine art photography” and, unlike other artists, we must be invited to apply. So I guess, one of the things I don’t think we all talk about very much are “art prejudices” – all of them – and how they become internalized and worm their way into our psyches. I think most of us cut ourselves down with self-doubt that is internalized marginalization.

Jane Dykema, writer
A challenge many writers deal with silently is others’ and our own perceptions of productivity, the time it takes to make something, and the ways we actually need to spend that time. So much of the writing process is sitting and staring, or starting to read 500 books and only finishing five, or waiting for enough time to pass so we can re-see a piece from which we need distance. It’s hard to justify to others, and worse, ourselves, that we need to protect this time, this 30 minutes or three hours, even if it’s spent staring at the wall, or writing one sentence and deleting it, or editing a piece and realizing the next day it was better before. We have to believe there’s no wasted time, that all these steps are absolutely necessary for the end product to exist. When we don’t believe that, we’re overly encouraged by days where we generate a lot of content, making the days when that naturally doesn’t happen more discouraging. And we’re overly discouraged by days spent pacing or undoing work we’d done, making it harder to get motivated to work the next day. Ideally, a writer would feel as accomplished after a session of staring as of writing, and we need the help of our communities to value the process as much as the product.

Our Take
The Massachusetts Cultural Council is proud to support individual artists and consequently, we get to meet and work with a lot of different individual artists. One issue we see coming up frequently is residency and the way it impacts availability of artist opportunities. Artists often discuss how residency in a big city – usually New York City or L.A. – can sometimes be seen as a signifier for an artist, a subtle badge of access to opportunities. We see a lot of artists with teaching positions or other ties in Massachusetts who keep a foot (re: a studio, a performance schedule, etc) in NYC for this very reason. But there are other, less-often discussed aspects of residency that impact artists. In her fascinating essay for ArtSake, poet Liz Waldner shares how challenges in livings costs and adjunct faculty employment led to her moving from place to place in a nomadic existence. On the plus side, an artist can be more open to opportunities when it’s easy to pull up stakes and move. On the other hand, health concerns (as Waldner discusses) are even more challenging when residency options are unstable or unknown. And from a practical point of view, many artist opportunities (like ours) require state or local residency.

What do you think? What issues do you see artists facing that don’t get a lot of attention or discussion? Let us know in an email or leave a comment.


Jane Dykema received an MCC Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellowship in 2016. She will read at the New Art Center on Sept 30, 7 PM, in an event in conjunction with MCC Artist Fellows in Painting, Choreography, Drawing & Printmaking, and Traditional Arts.

Marian Roth received an MCC Photography Fellowship in 1997. Her solo show Marian Roth: The Mysterious World of Camera Obscura exhibits at the Griffin Museum of Photography thru Oct 2, 2016. On September 25, there will be an artist talk (3 PM) and reception (4 PM).

Image: Camera obscura photography by Marian Roth.

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2 Responses to “Seldom Discussed Artist Issues”

  1. marian roth Says:

    It is so interesting to read Jane Dykema’s response alongside mine. I have many friends who are writers and this is such an important thing for all other artists to understand. I takes us such a short time to read a book in comparison to how long it takes to write it. I always give photographs to writer friends in “trade” for what they have given me.

  2. Emily L. Ferguson Says:

    Years ago, realizing that many of us stress about how little it seems we get done in a culture hurrying towards results, a friend shared with me her way of thinking. She was a very deliberate photographer. Trying to shoot with her was sometimes an ordeal for me because most of my deliberacy occurs after I get the images home and in the computer. But her goal with to pop everything out of the camera exactly the way she wanted it.

    But the wisdom of what she said has guided me ever since, sometimes as an excuse, sometimes as a piece of clarity and sometimes as a joke.

    She said artists gestate. It might look like procrastination, we might not be able to see the gestation; but the unconscious is usually working and we will often find out what it’s been doing at unexpected times which can’t be forced into a schedule or goal.

    This is not to assert that deadlines can’t help, or that we’re not responsible for the times when we are putting something off. But part of our job is to follow the spirit when it’s ready to reveal whatever has been gestating, and not get in the way of that with fretting, nagging and self doubt.

    Psychologically I have found this to be a very useful rubric, but the waiting is sometimes very hard.

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