Monday, March 24, 2014

Why I'm Not a Real Artist

Kids (and the occasional adult) ask me on a daily basis, "Are you a real artist?" I often hold out an arm and say, "I'm one-hundred percent real, I swear you're not hallucinating me. See, touch me, I totally exist."

They usually don't mean any harm in asking. Though (at one of the swankier Vegas hotels I ever worked retail caricatures at), I did have this one drunk douchebag ask me, with a voice dripping of snide malice, "Arright, go on and show me why you're not a real artist." He was being forced into the chair by his friends and oh-so-lucky fiancĂ©e. He continued making jerky comments the entire time, and I smiled through it, drew the asshole, and took his friends' money (plus their "sorry our friend is a jerk" consolation tip). I doubt the swanky hotel management, or my boss, would have approved if I'd told the guy my true thoughts about him and refused their business. I did make his ears extra big, though. So there.

I'd be lying if I said that drunk guy hadn't hit a nerve with his opening salvo. That question tugs at every caricature artist: AM I A REAL ARTIST? When exactly does one "graduate" from rinky-dink caricatures into the realm of being a true, card-carrying member of the artistic guild? Is this business a path to artistic greatness or a trapdoor through which one plummets into artistic mediocrity? Or both, depending on how you use it?

Well, first let's ask, have any "real artists" gotten their start with caricatures? 

I think, arguably, Leonardo DaVinci was the realest of the real artists. Most of you are probably familiar with his grotesques, which are often pointed out as some of the first caricatures. Lorenzo Lorusso, an Italian neurologist and author of Neuroscience by Caricature in Europe throughout the Ages, writes: "Leonardo was fascinated by people with "bizarre heads" (teste bizarre) and often followed them around to memorize their features, later copying or exaggerating them in his drawings." Hey . . . that's caricature in a nutshell!

Then fast forward a couple of centuries and we have the proliferation of political cartoonists and illustrators--Hogarth, Nast, Tenniel--"real artists," to be sure, but also cunning satirists, using caricature art to topple the mighty. French artists Charles Philipon and HonorĂ© Daumier conflated the round-faced King Louis-Philippe with a pear so effectively that they started a movement--with graffiti of pears popping up around Paris and wax pears offerred for sale as souvenirs to the politically discontented public. Our perception of Napoleon is permanently altered by caricaturist James Gillray--did you know Napoleon wasn't actually short? But in Gillray's biting caricatures, Napoleon was a miniature, dandied-up fellow in an oversized hat. Which is how he has come to be remembered in the collective consciousness. 

Moving forward still, to the last century . . . if Da Vinci dipped his toe into the caricature pool, Pablo Picasso certainly waded in up to his waist. His early work was caricature and portraiture, and his march into expressionism and cubism has been seen as a deeper plunge toward the type of exaggeration, distortion, and "capturing of essence" that one typically looks for in caricature. One of the major books about his work is titled Picasso: From Caricature to Metamorphosis of Style

Certainly it's hard to imagine Picasso or Da Vinci setting up shop somewhere to offer their quick sketches for sale to the general public.  But I would give anything to time-travel for a day, get them to try it, and see if they could pull it off. And, well, of course they could! We're talking about Picasso and Leonardo fucking Da Vinci. But how would the public react? My guess is Picasso would be swimming in rejects (but not care) and Da Vinci would have nice old ladies saying to him, "You're pretty good, ever think about being a real artist someday?" 

There was a social experiment set up by the Washington Times back in 2007 that you may have heard of (it went pretty viral). World-renowned violinist Joshua Bell set up incognito as a busker in a metro station and played some incredibly intricate Bach pieces on a violin worth more than a million dollars. Over the course of 45 minutes, six people stopped to listen, and they only hung around briefly. The experiment showed that people have trouble recognizing great beauty, or great artistic skill, when it appears out of context. 

And in our line of work, at least the live version of it at parties or carnivals, a brilliant "real artist" would indeed seem out of context. Yet people get drawn by brilliant artists all the time at events and never know it. I am not saying our ranks are filled with Da Vincis and Picassos . . . far from it! There are a ton of people plying the trade who do mediocre work and will probably never rise above the one-trick-pony routine of drawing a series of similar-looking heads with slightly different hairdos, and poorly drawn hands giving a thumbs-up or a peace sign. 

On really bad days I worry that I've become one of those. 

But any job--just like any school, or any experience--is what you make of it. And there are modern day examples of truly accomplished artists who got their start in party or theme-park caricature, used the experience to truly learn the human face, how to capture expressions, study light and shadow, master color, and add to their abilities each and every day. I have worked with folks who regularly have gallery shows, who specialize in impressionist painting or plein air, but who still sling caricatures here and there to pay the bills. Tony Shore, who was a rookie with me back in Baltimore's Inner Harbor during the early nineties, went from graffiti to caricatures to painting on black velvet and then ended up a celebrated sporting art painter and professor at MICA.

Jason Seiler, who was among the crop of Midwestern caricature artists showing up at ISCA cons (back when it was known as the NCN), recently scored the ultimate feather in his portrait-painter's cap and was commissioned to depict Pope Francis for the cover of TIME's "Person of the Year" issue.

Then there's wunderkind Joe Bluhm, who showed up at an ISCA con and swept the awards after doing retail caricature at Sea World for less than a year, if my memory serves. I was on the board that year and watched as the votes were tallied up. We all knew he had put up stunning work and deserved his accolades, but we just kept chuckling in amazement as his column of votes got larger and larger and larger. Along with worries that it might go to the kid's head, we also wondered what the future held for him: caricature is a broad pasture, but a wild buck like that would soon escape its confines to stretch his legs further. Turned out that the future held an Oscar (for "The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore") and a brilliant career in advertising that includes designing the Chipotle scarecrow ads that made such a splash last year. It's odd to think that just a decade ago Joe was dealing with Mr. & Mrs. Tourist and, as often happens, getting his live caricature work rejected. In fact, he compiled a whole book called Rejects that still makes every live caricaturist giggle when they thumb through it. Whenever a tourist tells me they had one done years ago, at Sea World, I tell them to check the signature! If any of these theme-park doodles has a chance of impressing the appraiser on Antiques Roadshow in 2075, it will be a Bluhm piece.

So are these guys real artists? Hell yes. Would they fit the general caricature-buying public's idea of what an "artist" is supposed to be? Maybe. The public has this notion of what constitutes the job description, and from what I've gathered it ranges from "learning computers so you can work for Pixar" to being a mysanthropic weirdo who paints all day and then cuts an ear off while in a drug-induced haze.

Fuck that shit. I'm keeping my ears. 

What I have seen, from time to time, and what saddens me, is when I see someone in the profession who fancies themselves an artist--or I should spell it artiste, the snooty way of saying the word--and they share the misguided notion that the public has about the job. They believe they are touched with that mystical drop of talent that should make them special and celebrated without the hard work that always, always, always precedes greatness. And, while being blind to what they need to improve on, they sit at the booth and await "discovery" by some imaginary art scout that will pick them out of the junior ranks of caricature and catapult them to the canon of great masters. These "artiste" kids rarely last in the business, and they get bitter quickly because they feel misunderstood. I want to take them aside and say "It's not that your work is hard to understand, kid, it just sucks!" 

(As an aside, I do know a dear fellow craftsperson, a very hardworking and humble gal, who puts "Artiste" on her name as her email handle--but she is using it ironically and does not suffer from the delusions I mention above.) 

A longtime friend in this business hates the title "artist" and prefers to think of himself as a craftsman. I like that. It sounds more stable, and conjures up a more realistic image of the profession. I show up every day, put on my work apron, set out my tools, and whittle away at peoples' faces, producing a quality product that will hang in someone's family room for decades. I mean, if the Met wanted to hang my art there I'd be thrilled (and a little confused at their severe lowering of standards), but having my work displayed in thousands of people's homes is quite nice too. And each and every day--or, at least most days--I try to learn a little more about my craft. 

So, when folks ask if you're a real artist, you can ask them if Da Vinci and Picasso and Daumier were real artists! Or you can say you go by craftsman/woman. Or hell, just hold your arm out and ask them to touch you if they need verification that you're not a figment of their imagination. 

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  1. I do so suffer from delusions. ;-)

  2. Very interesting. There is a letter "f" in the last paragraph (first line), I think it is missing the i for "if"

  3. Aaron S. Ward must have copyediting genes. ;-)

    As per your instructions, I shared your blog post on the ISCA FB page…because someone assumed I was NOT a Real Artist as recently as an hour or so ago!!

  4. This is SO well written and documented! Thank you. FYI Claude Monet also
    drew and sold his caricatures when a teen. And later I think.

  5. Another thoughtful and interesting post, Celestia. There's a lot of mediocrity (of course) but let's celebrate the artists. Thanks.

  6. Ears are overrated. Great, informative, and HIGHLY quotable post. Thanks.

  7. Great blog! I have enjoyed reading your texts. I think you say a lot of truths about our art that nobody have said before. This is great and I really share a lot of your opinions.

    I have a question that wanted to ask you in other post:

    What do you do when someone gives you freedom to work, you exagerate, and then you see that something is missing, that you failed in something and the fault is not of your client and his face, but a mystake that you commited... Have it happened to you?