Artist Hybrid Careers and Hyphenated Artists
The great philosopher (Heraclitus, 535 BC) created the term panta rei, which means to create a blurred, fragmented, and hyphenated entity, something that seamlessly flows from one form to the next. It means that everything is constantly changing, from the smallest grain of sand to the stars in the sky. Thus, every object ultimately is a figment of one’s imagination. Only change itself is real. Eternal flux defines this conception of reality, like the continuous flow of the river, which always renews itself.
Think of this while you read about how artists are redefining their own careers on their own terms. Finally, a DIY movement has begun to take shape in the global art world. By this I mean it is no longer underground, as this is not a new idea. Twenty-first century artists have access to an abundance of opportunities unheard of before. The old model of working a grueling day job in order to make your work is thankfully finding its way to the dustbin. The idea of the starving artist is being replaced by the professionalization and hybridization of the arts. The idea that someone has to give you permission to show your work, or to enter the dialog of the art world luminaries is passé. While you still need a degree to teach at most universities, it does not mean that you need a degree to teach. There are a number of opportunities for presenting your own ideas in a workshop, or through a blog. The art world has changed drastically. When I began showing work, there were few opportunities for emerging artists, women, and people of color. Now, emerging artists are being gobbled up, and ageism is the new racism in the art world.
Out of necessity, artists have created a number of opportunities for themselves. They work in schools as teaching artists, expanding the very meaning of this timeless job description. They consult with corporations and small business, providing much-needed ideas for a new creative economy. They work at or with non profits, as artists-in-residence, administrators, and programmers. They organize communities and facilitate productive outreach efforts to create real change. Instead of taking a “day job” that they hate in order to make their work, artists are starting their own business in order to create a hybrid practice that creates meaning in their lives.
Artists are also pushing the boundaries of art as they always do, contesting the very definitions of art that have carried over from the last century. Their practices chart new and often contested territory that blurs definitions of the role of the artist. Artists are creating businesses as art projects, inventing fictive artist identities as a way to navigate around stereotypes, adopting flexible management styles to fit their own practice, networking in participatory ways, and creating social and mobile communities. Some are creating their own communities based on projects and starting tribes, instead of groups that rely on geography. A tribe is a collection of like-minded people who work together, exchange ideas, and collaborate. There are no geographic boundaries. A tribe can exist virtually or physically. It can change constantly with the inclusion of new artists. It can exist for a specific period of time, to do a specific project.
The hybrid career artist has multiple jobs, but takes them all seriously, and one job often has an impact on the other. The most common idea is the teacher who also makes art, but here we are talking about multiple subjects. This is not just an artist who teaches art, but someone who may have a job as a medical technician, or a carpenter, or a house painter. These jobs may actually blur together in that the artwork created is heavily influenced by the non-art job, and vice versa. For example, artist Bernard Brunon’s work as a house painter is his artwork. Bernard began his career by attempting to make nonrepresentational painting. He also started a business as a house painter, and through this, realized that house painting was the most nonrepresentational painting he could do. So he came up with lingo to talk about this as an art practice and created a brochure and a company. Since then, not only has he painted many houses, but also walls in museums, buildings, and put 1,000 coats of paint on an Art Guys billboard in Houston.
Tai Kim is an artist who also started his own business in Los Angeles called Scoops. He makes hundreds of different flavors of ice cream as a creative project. One of the favorites is brown bread and beer. His store has become so popular that he asked Yelp to take him off the list as the most popular ice cream venue because he was too busy. He has the time to make his artwork, and he makes a living selling scoops of pure deliciousness. He has received many suggestions to make it a franchise, but he has turned that down, opting to just make a living so he can make his artwork. He is slowly expanding.
Artists’ voices are needed in all areas of our society, and this is one great way to infiltrate your ideas as an artist into new territory. Are you contributing your vision as a board member of an organization? Do you bring up new ways of working with your boss? You may not get somewhere all the time, but bringing something up at least adds a new way of thinking to the group. Starting your own business might be an interesting way to have a career and do something interesting to make money to support yourself. My company, GYST-Ink, only hires artists and each of them gets to take time off from their work life in order to work on a show or travel for an artist lecture. A hybrid career no longer separates an art practice from a job. Businesses started by creatives have the potential to take care of artists, while allowing them to continue their art careers.
A hyphenated artist is one who blurs the distinctions between mediums and strategies. One who works with more than one medium or idea. This is usually an additive process more than a merging; like someone who uses both photography and paint for example, or sculpture and music in a way that is not tacked together. Artists have been using hyphenated practices for a long time, but the term has recently been used ad nauseam. A true hyphenated artist does not just put paint on photographs (this would be called interdisciplinary), but uses mediums and strategies to create new hybrids, breaking down hierarchies and distinctions, not just blending two mediums.
Artists are taking control of their own education, careers, and their personal lives in ways that we could never have imagined 20 years ago. In Los Angeles, artists have created their own “schools” such as Side Street Projects, the Mountain School of Art, Machine Project, and the Public School. In each of these organizations, artists teach workshops and/or classes to other artists and the public. These classes range from intellectual offerings to sewing and circuit board building. They can be free classes, paid classes, or a mixture of both.
Artists may have a huge impact on the future of how art works for a change, using their creativity to restructure, re-sort, and reclassify everything they know is true at this point. The landscape is changing not just in terms of what artists are exhibiting, but also in terms of what an art career looks like.
Artists are providing products and services. They are fusing ideas and creating benefits for other artists. They are collaborating, pushing, traipsing, singing, challenging the status quo, and reinventing their way to a hybrid career. Can an artist practice be a business? Do we even care if what we do is art anymore, choosing to concentrate on what matters?
I came up with a theory or explanation a few years ago to help me make sense of this shift. I call it the Vertical or Horizontal Artist Career Strategy. I am not sure that there is much new in this idea, but it helps to see the possibilities that are out there. It is not a perfect solution, and you have to remember that these are gross generalizations, and not all artists fit one model or another. And many artists are somewhere in between these two definitions.
I want to make one distinction here, and that there is a difference between the art market and the art world.
The Vertical Artist
The vertical artist is one that we are very familiar with, and generally taught in many art schools. The most vertical angle sounds like this: Their career goal is to rise to the top of the pack (think ladder). Their trajectory is usually quite similar: going to art school, getting shows, getting into a gallery, getting written about and, in general, working their way toward getting their image on the front cover of a magazine touting their praises. Vertical artists often have a solo practice, and spends long days in their studio and often alone. They are always searching for ways to “enter the art market.” They have come to agree that this is the strategy we must all take to make an art career. They often have a day job for a while until they can dump that for an art career full-time, or they may work a day job for the rest of their lives, but still maintain a traditional art career. The goal is fairly simple. The more well-known they are, the better options they have. Fame is usually important, though not always. There are many vertical careers that range from this to a more open strategy that includes other ways of working.
In this scenario the art market tends to treat the top-grossing artists, the most visible artists, as “smarter,” more “successful,” more “relevant,” and more “valuable” than their “dumber,” “lazier,” less “attuned” counterparts. This hierarchy creates divisions between artists who “make it,” and those who choose a different path and “fail.” That old adage of “those who can’t do, teach” comes from this kind of thinking. We know a number of artists who are always asking their friends, “When are you going to quit your job and be a real artist?” There is little room for diversity here in terms of what defines an artist. This conception of an art practice mirrors the corporate model of Capitalist production, where the most profitable company (artist) wins, no matter what its business practices are. Instead we should be paying attention to reworking the very idea of success in the art world. Artists should be choosing their own criteria for success, whether it is this kind of practice or one that fits the artist’s desires in different ways. This is one extreme model.
The Horizontal Artist
Horizontal artists looks at things a little differently. They often also have art school backgrounds, but look at their practice in a way that is not only about climbing the art ladder in the traditional sense, but developing innovative concepts and ideas about how to combine and recombine the ingredients of their practice in order to create their own careers. They tend to work more in communities, be more activist-oriented, have hybrid careers in which their “day job” is an active part of their practice. They may be entrepreneurs and self-employed. They may make objects one day, and curate the next. They may guest edit a journal, or teach a workshop. Or they may do all of these things in a single day. They tend to be multi-centric instead of seeing a center or market. They often look at temporary strategies, instead of ones they must adhere to for life. What I mean by this is that if each artist looked at what she/he wanted to accomplish and chose the best strategy to get there, as opposed to the strategy she/he has been taught, some really interesting possibilities are brought to the forefront.
Artists often blur the distinction between making art and doing something else that they find important. They blend careers and ideas as if there were no distinction between artists and the rest of the world. These artists often have more impact on the world than the vertical artist who has an influence on the art world, as the art world is very small in comparison to the rest of the world.
Horizontal career-oriented artists often have a participatory or socially-engaged practice, often in addition to an object based practice, and tend to plow through formidable barriers to feed their own artistic exploration or expression. They infiltrate institutions instead of showing in them. They do not rely on the ideologically convenient museum or art fair celebrations of socially relational forms, but deliver their work to new audiences who may benefit from their politics and practices, and therefore create more change within culture. They often confound traditional modes of critique. By its very nature, creativity involves a departure from what has come before. Why not consider this in our own choices?
Vertical artists may hide their strategy in order to keep it to themselves in hopes that the novelty of their materials and process will garner them notoriety. Or they may keep secrets from their peers about a great grant or exhibition opportunity, choosing to apply for it themselves even if their work doesn’t make sense for the project. Horizontal artists might broadcast their strategy to the world in order to include others, or ask others to adopt their strategy, much like open source is used in software. They don’t necessarily follow the well-trodden path of the traditional artist.
There are also artists who use both vertical and horizontal strategies as they see fit. They may make work that is socially-based, but still show in a gallery. Artists can use any strategy that makes sense to their practice, but it is good to consider options to what you may perceive as the only way to be an artist.
My own practice can be defined this way, as I tend to fit in the 45-degree slant, but straddle this line on the side of a hybrid career. I created a nonprofit organization with the help of my partner, Joe, as a part of my art practice. Curating shows was always an extension of my own ideas and work as an artist. Teaching workshops and teaching full-time at an art school is a part of what I do. Starting a for-profit company by artists and for artists is my latest and largest artwork to date. I started a Hybrid Career Site for Artists in order to begin to study this phenomenon and get other ideas from artists around the globe. I have invited artists who see themselves having a hybrid career to post information and ideas about those practices.
Our thoughts should go out to all those forgotten creative heroes who tried and failed. We should hail them, because the innermost mechanism of human progress is called failure. If it were not for the fools trying to do the impossible over and over and over, we would still be living in caves.