Five reasons why I’m not an ‘artist’.

1. When I worked in advertising I was surprised to meet people who didn’t do anything. They are called ‘art directors’. People like myself that perform the actual tasks are called ‘operators’ and there is a strong class distinction which leads ‘art directors’ to cross their arms while speaking near any object that they may accidentally use*. I was employed to move text on a page for an irate person standing a few feet away from the means to do it. Apparently their pureness of thought would be sullied by contact with a mechanism.

It was shameful to then work at a university where I would speak as an ‘academic’ and have a ‘support’ staff member come in and touch the equipment I was speaking about. This partly comes from film production, where the auteur tells a camera operator what to do. The day that Alex Davies was sent in to touch the equipment for me I called bullshit on the whole idea. I touched the equipment. I will not accept this division between worker and foreman.

I can use a video camera, I have practised its handling over many hours and learned the muscle skill of it. I position the tripod, sand bag it, frame the shot. I set the shutter and the aperture. I raise lights and aim them. I replace bulbs. I write code, slowly and poorly and am even worse at soldering – but I do it. I make digital composites in Photoshop and After Effects. I build games and animate 3D objects. I replace daughter boards. I justify text on an A4 spread. I cut vinyl, print, sew.

When I taught ‘digital media’ I assured my students that they would some day not have to put up with ‘art directors’. I’ve since lost that hope. The gatekeepers have been torn down but artium magister now stands ready to keep the techniplebs under foot.

This post was prompted by something I read about field recording. Yes, I hold a microphone. I choose the appropriate kind; shot gun, crossed pairs. I set the levels on the recorder. I set edit points. I cut tape. I adjust clip amplitudes. I apply filters and set fades at the edges. Does someone have a problem with any of this? Because I don’t care. I have a problem with people who rely on ‘operators’ and ‘assistants’, who are ‘ideas people’, who ‘direct’ others, who evidence a distaste for production, who have tried to turn their ignorance into some kind of superiority. Like eating in restaurants somehow makes them a chef.

2. The first time I made an ‘artist talk’ at a significant event was a Sydney Biennale. Up on stage was a gaggle of ‘media artists’, who like me had a sculptural sound or video work currently on display. When asked to explain the work I said that if I had to use words, it had failed to do its job, and that the audience should go and see it if they needed. That was the first time I encountered a deeply angry ‘artist’ who spent the rest of the panel punishing me for sacrilege. It’s not been the last, but these days I laugh at them.

In every definition of art I’ve read it comes down to context. The ‘artist’ creates a work ‘in a studio context’, which then goes into the marketplace ‘in a gallery context’ for an audience who engage with the work ‘in an arts context’. This explains how somebody’s dirty old bed and their trash gets shown in the Tate Gallery; it’s in context. This is a fantastic sleight of hand which suggests there’s a hidden aspect to everything that is visible which evades scrutiny. A kind of dark matter holding art together.

Even if you don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, just see that an exchange between two parties takes place. There is communication. When I communicate I think it best to use the appropriate means to do so, which shouldn’t then require subtitles. I insist that the thing itself is what matters, and I deny the idea that there’s a separate rather mystical layer to the whole business – a mysticism that often gets turned into International Art English. I have great respect for writing and words. But I don’t think that they are always necessary.


3. Opening night comes and everybody does their entrances and dances like an 19th century costume ball, followed by days of empty rooms and bored gallery staff. It’s such an ineffective means of connecting with a wider audience that the sham is obvious – the audience is the least important aspect of it. It’s about the congregation, their bonds and alignments. Every career involves some politics; being ‘an artist’ is no exception and requires constant stroking of the powerful and important. All of which distracts from the work (and probably why so many artists employ operators).

Recently I was speaking about visual music at a gallery. Halfway through the talk there was a flurry of suits and the audience fluttered around in an agony of politeness. The incoming federal arts minister was making an inspection and much bowing and scraping was in order. I didn’t care, did not pause or give the suit man an inch. It was my talk, and fuck the politics.

Worse in my eyes is that real friendships are masked by the arranged ones. I’ve met some good people who are also ‘significant artists’ and so we could only communicate via approved dance steps of interviews, panels, audiences. As I get older I forget to follow protocol and do things like punch ‘significant artist’ arms – it seems to shock but I think the actual person is grateful for being reminded that human contact is still possible.

4. I’ve said it too many times: the ideal of an artistic career is inertia. Innovate for a while. Find a practice, a style, a scheme that earns attention. Repeat it endlessly, never daring to step outside your persona because the system will need to bind you to an iconic representation of yourself. Do you reproduce famous paintings as slow motion videos? Or use a skateboard as your macguffin? Better stick to that. Keep on making action painting, or ‘industrial’ tape cut up until you die – which is your prime function, sealing off the quantity of your saleable work.

Artists that constrain themselves are recognised more quickly, they are funded, they are more acceptable to publications because they are easier to digest. They are the cheddar cheese of creativity, and when I am I told that ‘all the best work is happening over here’, I know the place to look is anywhere but there. Innovation is part of a continuing vitality, and confusedly being alive is more important than being neatly dead. We should never ever pre-organise ourselves into categories that fit nicely in museums, journals and repositories. That’s like pinning yourself into a display case.

5. The quality of much ‘celebrated art’ is debatable and fails to inspire any true love or respect. Given that the audience is not required, the thing itself needs endless explanation, the auteur has no skills and innovation is abandoned as soon as it gets in the way it’s amazing that there is any good work at all. It’s made by people that don’t buy into all this bullshit. That’s what I want to be.

What will we call ourselves? The Kraftwerk guys were onto something when they called themselves ‘music workers’. But I have another idea. In advertising the term ‘creative’ is a mixed signal, it seems to be a positive, but can be a polite substitute for ‘operator’. I’ve often heard somebody say, ‘we’ll get our creatives onto that’. It means ‘all slaves to the oars’. If so, perhaps we can claim ‘creative’ or ‘operator’ back. It can be our own swearword.

* ‘Class’ seems a heavy handed term until we recall that some societies such as ancient Greece and pre WW1 England defined the upper class by their inactivity.

11 thoughts on “Five reasons why I’m not an ‘artist’.

  1. Excellent rant, Tom. I concur, although I’d probably prefer to reclaim the term ‘artist’, than ‘creative’ which seems at least as problematic. My favourite artists are usually ‘outsiders’. I started as something of an outsider, somehow fell into being almost an insider for a decade or so, and now have chosen to ‘tread the backward path’ as Syd Barrett put it.

    For me, being an artist is really just an attitude to life, to see the ubiquitous potential for creativity, and sometimes to realise it. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with markets or status, despite the social forces that tend to drag people towards them. Those are things which can be overcome, individually if not systemically.

    More power to you for fighting the good fight, and for articulating these issues so clearly and forcefully.

    • This is a tedious and unpleasant stoush. Everything I’m saying is common bloody sense. But the relentless drumming coming from the other side of it is tasting victory and it will not be satisfied until every act is reduced to a thought experiment. (Some of this I can tell you in private).

      You are right that outsiders are the answer. But they need their own dignity, which might come from a new code word. I don’t really know.

      It’s stopped raining. That helps.

    • “Why should anyone use English words with the same frequency and statistical distribution as the BNC?” What?
      And with a quick dance step they defend as vital a way a way of speaking which is meaningless. This is a straw man. No one asked it to be standard English. Just that it had some content.

      It’s the language of both the oppressors and the oppressed? What? It’s not even a language. It’s an affectation. It’s a top hat.

      • I don’t think they were defending IAE, and I’m certainly not defending it either.

        I wouldn’t mind a critique of the political circumstances that gives rise to this bullshit. Why do we have press-releases? I would think this is a better question – than simply reducing it’s language to a statistical comparison.

        I agree with the first comment though, most artists I know are “outsiders” – even when and if they get commercial or institutional recognition. It’s probably the nicest thing about art, it can be a sovereign act.

        • I think we have press releases because it’s expedient. That’s a word that crops up in all kinds of evil. Living your life like a clean modern kitchen.

          The stats are dweeby, yeah. I think that stats get them off, like fins on a car, it’s pretty, they want to point it down that road and see what speeds they can get. It’s the current Big Data way of things.

          • Agreed. “Expedience” is a good descriptor. I also think there is real desire to historicise things before they’ve even happened. That by naming something, it can be made safe and palatable.

            And yeah, I was mostly surprised that you went for the IAE article because of the big data argument (it’s authority and oracle like status), but I guess it’s general sentiment wasn’t too far off the mark.

  2. This struck me as the most perfect fit for the thoughts I’ve already been having about the stupidity of the “arts” education inflicted on so many of us. Just last night I commented on a forum on a related aspect of this blind ignorance we have

    “I’m a liberal-arts graduate with a couple of masters in other arts disciplines, late 40s. Nearly all the people I know are similar in educational background. I know a lot of younger folks (20s-30s) with a mix of arts and “older tech” backgrounds (civil engineering, architecture). Today when seeking advice on a simple browser-type problem, I realised that I don’t know a single person who knows more about IT and communications than me. In fact all these people tend to call me as their “geek”, which is absurd as I know practically nothing. Even the 20-30 year olds ask me IT tech questions and I am really a layman on all this stuff.

    This I think shows the bankruptcy of the classical “liberal arts” education and even the more traditional technical disciplines. We are pathetically underequipped to operate in this world, much less understand the issues.”

    Then today I read this rant. It’s like finding the other half of the orange.

    • Not sure where the bankruptcy sits, because you were able to answer questions that others couldn’t. Maybe you can’t see a point to it but it crept into use somehow. My first degree was a BSc, supposedly in Mathematics which ended up mostly History of Science. Seemed useless but it helps me whine about technology 🙂 Also an elective in German, which made me think more about English. Second degree was Comms, and that’s good for blogging!

      A classic education had some kind of point in the public service, probably not so much now when public service means the NSA. Now it means you should be able to help people avoid all the stupid mistakes that shallow thinking keeps rolling out again and again. There is a word – ‘literate’, that needs to be treasured more often.

  3. What a load of bullshit. Not an artist? At times you were.

    Credit where it’s due, you grew up a toff rich boy. Lie to yourself re. Attributions. you know your story is false on many points.

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