Identity Crisis

“Nobody can be exactly like me. Even I have trouble doing it.”

– Tallulah Bankhead

As an artist, I frequently have to make conscious decisions about the artistic style in which I’m working. Do I attempt to create a “look” that is recognizable as me, or should I continually try to explore new styles and subjects? There are experts that say that you will be more successful in juried shows, galleries and exhibits in general, if there is a consistency to the work that makes it recognizable as your own. A distinct style, as it were. On the other hand, as an artist I want to try new things, experiment in ways that will cause my work to evolve and improve. How do you reconcile these viewpoints?

I suppose that part of the answer lies in what your motivation is in making art, what your goals are and within what range of artistic endeavor you find creative satisfaction. It is probably true that having a body of work with strong consistency makes it more marketable (I’m assuming that the quality of the work is also high – consistency alone isn’t enough!). Too much variation confuses buyers, galleries, collectors, etc. However, doing similar work over and over may feel to constraining for you.

But I think an important factor in this balance is that each artist must decide how much variety is needed for them to feel creatively satisfied. For some of us, we have to use different mediums, styles, techniques, subjects, etc to avoid feeling bored, stultified or stifled. For others, it may be sufficient to explore subtler variations within a more constrained style to get that same satisfaction. I believe we all must feel we’re being creative – it’s just that the requirements for that feeling to exist can be very different for each of us.

I tend to be the type that needs a greater range of variety to feel creative. I guess I have trouble being exactly like me…

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5 responses to “Identity Crisis

  1. A great, very sensitive and humble post, Bob.

    As you can perhaps imagine, wherever I exhibit, I am confronted with the question:

    “Have you painted all that?”

    and then the incredible look in the eyes when i answer yes, and invariably the comment:

    “So many different styles… I thought these came from many different artists!”

    I don’t know if it is meant as a compliment, but I guess it is not, as the current opinion is that the personal style must be recognisable.

    Once, a famous painter from Paris told me, as he saw my paintings in an exhibition:

    “You must focus, Miki, you must focus!”

    Well, I am sorry, i must not at all! I must nothing, except what I want. I paint to have pleasure and excitation, and not to get bored. In fact when I looked at the work of the famous Parisian painter, i got very bored because the paintings looked all the same, so focussed they were….

    I totally agree with you, that it depends from the personal goal. I am myself not looking for glory and fame, I am looking for fun, pleasure, adventure, positive tension, all this kind of stuff. I don’t feel at all being in an identity crisis painting all these different things, on the contrary: I feel exactly myself. I follow my instincts, my intuition, my moods, my desires, and this is exactly me, deep inside. Not the person which the society and the art world is trying to make out of me.

    But I guess that when ones tries to reach fame, then yes, one must be recognisable, or at least not change too rapidly in the style, following the gravity of nature and the slowness of universal changes…. Anyway society always tries to frame all her members, artists and others, to classify them. Who tries to jump out of these qualifications is not welcome.
    Well, i don’t care, I prefer jumping all the time on the trampolino of my impulsions then to be locked in their drawers1

    A very explosive thematic for me!

  2. Great post, Bob, and surely you raise a question that has vexed exponents of all art forms back into the mists of time. Being a musician, I instantly draw parallels in the musical domain. I have seen bands achieve incredible wealth and success by rigidly sticking to a formula. Status Quo, a British band who sold millions worldwide over the last 40 years (except in America!) took this to the extreme, fending off accusations of using only three chords in their entire career! (This led to their last album being entitled “In search of the fourth chord, so at least they retained their sense of humour!) Conversely, some of my favourite artists, such as Dan Reed and Glenn Hughes, display eclectic writing and performing styles, and as such don’t (in my opinion) receive the recognition they deserve, but I suspect that is not their primary goal. Their goal is to satisfy their creative muse, and to write as the whim takes them, as is mine. I could never be a “brill building” hit machine (though I freely admit this takes a special kind of talent)
    It is one of the reasons why I understand Miki’s outlook so completely. I could never re-write the same song over and over again, it would bore me. My one-time colleague, Jeff Christie, had worldwide success with the song “Yellow River” selling 21 million copies. the follow up, “San Bernadino, was in a very similar vein.The record company were happy, it went top 10 -but jeff was already growing musically and he followed it up with an entirely different song, “Man of many faces” a clever, interesting tune, which didn’t chart. the company pretty much forced him to return to the style of the first two singles, and hid next did scrape the top 30 – but the momentum was lost. It is, as you say, perhaps the art of finding the balance between creativity and commercialism, if the desire is to be widely appreciated. A thoughtful post.

  3. It’s very funny! I could sign myself most of your 3 (three) post and comments! Subscribe, anyway…

    I have the same problem: I’m too divers, too different. And just like Miki, I don’t care very much… I do almost exclusively what I want to do. but, I have to say: it’s not so damn difficult since I have only 1-2 people who buy my stuff (and they don’t seem to care, they buy just what they like anyway…) and no gallery…

    One solution could be, though, to work in series. To keep a certain consistency of style, materials etc. for a certain time, untill you do your thing within a technique, theme, etc. But even this is difficult for me (and I suppose, for miki and Bob and kev)…

    Famous could be a pain in the arse (sorry): I know a painter, called Le Prince des moutons, which is doing, in a very consistent and recognoscible style only one thing: sheep, muttons in a Quebec landscape… He’s driving a Mercedes USV but his life, if he really is a true artist, must be pretty boring… I prefer driving my Kia (I just bought my first NEW car in canada!) and do what I like…

    Great thing, bob, to choose themes for your post which stirrs us so much!

  4. @ Danu
    You see, in the series point I am very different: I adore to make series, and this is what i always do. In fact this is the only way I paint, I kind of hate isolated pieces.

    But when i start a series I paint like mad, almost night and day, so that i can get the series finished before I get bored. For not getting bored the time factor is very important for me. I can paint a series of 50 pieces in one week without getting bored, but not a series of 10 pieces in one month.

  5. Sorry to not have responded sooner – I’ve been fascinated by the comments (but too busy to join in) but it seems to be a topic others can relate to.

    Sounds like there is some acknowledgment that it may be better financially to have more consistency – but I have the same reaction as Danu. I look at artists who paint the same thing the same way year after year and wonder how they can do it without getting tremendously bored!

    I suspect some are bored – they may feel stuck like it is too risky to change (as in Kev’s example). Others operate under a different definition of creativity that keeps them satisfied. Each piece may need to differ to a smaller degree, or a subtler degree for them to get the very same satisfaction that some of us only get when we venture further afield.

    I like Miki’s solution best of all but I don’t have the skills or the fortitude to paint 10 paintings a month, much less 50 a week! Wow!

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