by Mark W. Scala
Frist Center for the Visual ArtsStyle
“The slow burn seems to operate best in a culture that appreciates the poetics of nuance over spectacle, deep excavation over breadth.”
I had dinner recently with an old friend—a mid-career artist who has spent decades developing an imagery, technique, and vision (what we often think of as “style”) that is undeniably virtuosic and critically acclaimed. Yet our conversation, not unlike the last one we had, was about frustration: my friend’s work continues to meet with uneven traction in the marketplace. Sales are not the only sign of success, but New York is expensive. Too, when somebody likes your art enough to pay for it, there is validation—a recognition that your aesthetic offspring has a place in the world.
The next day, I mentioned this conversation (without naming names) to another artist of the same generation, and she said yeah, she too has been hearing this over and over again. Is there too much art, too many artists, not enough discerning collectors? And then she said the thing that everyone knows is true: you have to be in it for the long game, knowing that there are no guarantees—ever—of success, at least as defined by sales or critical acclaim. To endure is to succeed.
The long game has to do with managing your career to give yourself a sequence of opportunities to reach and affect new audiences, and yes, to possibly join the 1 percent who make a living from their work. But more important, it relates to how an artist maintains a meaningful aesthetic position despite the marketplace. When I was in school, the prevailing belief was that you have to focus like a laser—ignoring the trendiness of the art world—to do one meaningful thing extremely well and consistently. If your work develops slowly and thoughtfully, astute collectors may come to appreciate its depth, seeing it as something worth owning, not just as an investment but as a way of participating in the building of culture. Even if collectors don’t recognize the work’s value but other artists, art lovers, critics, and curators do, there is sustenance to be had in the long game.
The slow burn seems to operate best in a culture that appreciates the poetics of nuance over spectacle, deep excavation over breadth. The historian Hannah Arendt once spoke of culture as being defined in part by its objects, including artworks—things that withstand the passage of time and embody communal memory and ideals. She distinguished culture from entertainment, with its relationship to people and to life over things. I wonder if this dichotomy holds true today, when our communal identity is based less on continuity than change, and art and entertainment often merge in the arena of spectacles created for an audience that craves experiences of the new. If anything, art and entertainment are intertwined, entering culture simultaneously and almost immediately, which may explain why in so many newspapers they are presented as one and the same thing.
Even our viewing habits have changed: we are easily distracted, and with the vast number of artists and artworks around today, it has become more common to look quickly than to see thoughtfully. Does pursuing the long game mean ignoring the world’s short attention span, burrowing ever more deeply into that one idea or medium, and adhering to a singular perception of the world? There is certainly a valid argument to be made that in a fast world, art that reflects constancy, that slows us down to look and think, has a vital role in balancing our lives and restoring our breadth. Finding emotional power in reflective meditation, the celebrated performance artist Marina Abramovic says, “I give the audience tools to look into themselves. . . . And then we ask the main questions that we never ask: Why are we here, what is our contribution to this planet? When I do long durational performance, my proposition is that life is fast. Let’s do art slow.”1 Working in the studio is also a kind of performance, involving deep reflection as much as resolute action. And if the artist finds meaning in this performance and its product, the audience might, as well.
The long game does not justify stagnation. Even artists who have really mastered their mediums, whose works are original and beautiful like my friend’s, stay sharp by analyzing and questioning their assumptions, occasionally setting them on fire. They avoid the harbor of insularity, where virtuosity comes at the sacrifice of a willingness to fail, to step outside of one’s comfort zone to make whatever seems necessary. With this approach, style is less a kind of personal brand than a framework for the evolution of ideas. Artists can most effectively live the long game when they have faith in themselves to pursue their work with acuity while nurturing a healthy dose of self-criticality, restlessness, and openness to possibility.