Making your way as an artist has never been easy. For most artists, it can at least be interesting. During the Renaissance art patronage shifted from bishops and cardinals (that’s how all those lovely European cathedrals were built), to wealthy merchants and bankers with political interests, who supported artists and offered them a livelihood, but were often not the kindest, most ethical, or generous people.
The Medicis supported Leonardo da Vinci, Boticcelli, and Michelangelo. Luckily, the Medicis had excellent taste and a gift for choosing the right artist for the job. It is not outrageous to say that the Medicis, by investing in art, laundered a lot of money by hiding it in art. The entire city of Florence (Italy), home to the Medicis, is alive with commissioned art.
Now that there are fewer Medicis (and art patrons), artists have to look to the American business model for a patron and a path to fame.
I began to pay attention to just how hard an artist has to work to become well-known. Roughly, here’s how it works: an artist develops a niche, a specialty, and focuses on that to attract an audience. The artist teaches this specialty, using favorite products. She (could be a he, too, but for this article, I’m using “she”) contacts a number of companies that produce the products she uses, hoping to get onto the company’s marketing or demo team.
Once that happens, the artist gets free products, but has to promote those products on social media, podcasts, blogs, on-line and in-person classes, books, and videos. Traditional book publishers shucked their marketing departments, using artists to market for them instead. It was a gamble, and for some publishers, it worked.
Now the celebrity artists are often bound to art- or craft-supply companies, required to promote the products. If an artist is especially lucky, they work with their supply company to develop a new color line, maybe even a new product, and travel to promote that company. For some, it’s a symbiosis that works. Artists develop classes to teach and books to write, and companies provide product and name recognition.
Sometimes, the supply companies unwittingly train art bullies. What’s an art bully? Someone who insists on specific name brand products being purchased for class use. Someone who insists that when they praise a product, their followers must like it, too. And if a celebrity artist/art bully doesn’t like a product, well, their friends, audience, and class participants shouldn’t use it, either. It’s the “cool kids table,” all grown up, now with art products.
Sure, I understand that not every ink, watercolor, paper, or tool is interchangeable. But a list of specific brand names in a supply list makes me suspicious. Is this brand the only one that will have a favorable result? Is putting an art celebrity’s name and face on a product line a guarantee of art success? (Short answer: Never. Success is 90 percent artist effort and 10 percent supply perfection.)
Some time ago, I said (in the thread of an art celebrity’s Facebook comments) that I had no luck with washi tape. It doesn’t stay stuck for me. I joked it must be the art equivalent of kale. (I’m not a fan.)
The celebrity was not amused. She told me I must be using the washi tape wrong. Surprised, I said I was pretty sure I was doing it right, and had even tried several brand names. Out came the art bully. She disliked people contradicting her when she recommended her preferred products, she said. She was pretty sure, she insisted, I didn’t know how to use the tape correctly, and certainly was not using her recommended brand. (Yeah, I was.)
Let’s get real: art skill never comes from buying a magic product. Art skill comes from experimenting, from failing, from trying more and different approaches until the practice begins to take hold. I thought of how asking questions to learn was so easily squashed by art bullying. Like the worst of grade schools, you have to color the sky blue (with a specific product) and stay in the lines.
But I remained quiet. I did not clap back. Why? I don’t feel better when I make someone feel worse. Because I knew her fear of not supporting her money source, and I really can figure out how to use (or not use) washi tape. I made a mental note never to take a class from the art bully, though. There’s a price for bully-hood.
Those who protect the product they are hired to market, who care about the source of money more than spreading creative ideas, may do well. But they can’t do good.
I’m not at all sure that the art bully ensures the success of creative work. That work is always private, soulful, and revealing. And not stuck with a brand name.
—Quinn McDonald’s blog has, in 18 years, never been monetized. I want to keep it that way, so I can like and dislike, recommend or share what works for me and what doesn’t, with freedom.