When Art is life

When Art is Life.
Getting out over your skis.
by: Aaron Mandel

I had a fabulous conversation with a fellow artist the other day on the way to meet with yet another artist. Akira Morita, the co-founder of Orangutan Swing, and I were driving to Raleigh to meet and talk with Catherine Howard, she of the 13x13x13 project. Akira and I both sit on the board of the 13x13x13 project.

It left me contemplative, evaluating yet again the relationship of money and income to Life and Art.


Akira is immersed, along with his partner in life and art, Dipika Kohli, in the STITCH Durham project. Find their Kickstarter here.

With a week to go, the pressure is on!

STITCH creates a conceptual space for artists and citizens to collaborate on what they’d like to see their home, their city, become. STITCH intentionally asks artists and citizens to actively shape the future of ever evolving communities.

Akira and I had probably thirty minutes in my little, beat-up, hand-me-down Nissan from Durham to Catherine’s home in Raleigh, the location of our board meeting with the recently returned world traveler, freshly back from Zimbabwe and South Africa, off to the Dominican Republic next month. Howard is spending a year living with thirteen different collectives of artists across the globe that use visual art to revitalize their communities and bringing those techniques, experiences and vibes back to us; citizens and artists.

Howard’s 13x13x13 project is entirely supported by donations and her art. Shuttling through prefabbed suburbia on a superhighway together, Akira and I couldn’t but help note the bravery of that, the uncompromising nature of it. When you are heading off to thirteen different countries in a year, it is hard to hold down even a part-time job. Howard is freelance writing a bit, and curating for Artistically Irrational when she is in America. When you are as committed to the artistic output of your project as Howard is, she is creating and selling thirteen unique sketchbooks, one per county, and yet you have to eat, the balance is tenuous.

Akira and I agreed that there are a panorama of approaches in the art world, between those out over their skis, ala Howard, with no fallback position and those on the other end with a full-time job leaving Art scrunched into their after-hours like hobbyists building model airplanes. In between, part-time jobs, business, and income are merged with our artistic lives, frequently there is no healthcare provided by work.

The irony is that many of those who do not have to support their lives by the very dint of their Art, conceive of themselves as the purists. They can make Art for Art’s sake, without having to worry about whether or not it sells, let alone is profitable after costs, expenses, and time.

Akira believes , “Whether it’s [the art’s] offered for free or premium doesn’t matter so much as that there’s a clear intention…Art should be valued, and that starts with the artists themselves being clear about their value proposition…My criticism of “hobbyist art” is mainly that they lack the clarity of intent about why they create and why others should care. ”

In my view, this ethic pervades the culture of our art patrons locally in Durham. Just this month, I was exchanging emails with the Durham Storefront Project’s Jessica Moore about “how to develop more arts’ patrons – people, businesses, developers and other organizations who are willing to back projects by area artists…”

When the artists themselves endorse this hobbyist’s ethic of purity, “No matter if the art sells, I just made it for its own sake,” the patrons cannot help but absorb this psychology, too. This framework is positioned as an effort to escape the crass commodification of the world of Walmart and Target. (Both of which sell art!)

However, it is really a surrender to that worldview. By giving in, and saying it matters not whether the Art sells, the artists are prima facie allowing themselves to become niche players, unwilling to stand behind the Art’s value.

It is my world view that Art is at the nexus of protest. I do not write to eat. I write because I could not go on living without writing. Like Howard and Akira Morita, I have something to say about this world and its ways. It is, as yet, an unjust and imperfect place for so many. If you don’t stand up to be counted, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Be the change you wish to see in the world is a challenge to adapt how and why you live every single day.

Art that surrenders and says, “it does not matter if I sell,” sidesteps that challenge. It limits its own significance. The artist’s investment is always safe and secure behind the income walls of another job. Howard and Akira, on the other hand, must put food on their plate via their Art. Literally. It is this battle that inspires the Medicis of the world to be patrons, to invest in artists. The patron class is ever cognizant that Walmart and Target must operate at a profit.

Howard notes, however, that artists have a tendency to over-commit  and over-promise that also erodes their ability to communicate the reality of their situation…She says, “Artists — hobbyists or not — say that they “give themselves to their art” and “everyone asks so much of us” (a strange martyr complex) and rather than setting boundaries, they say “yes” to everything while secretly knowing they will not follow through.  Which is why curators/organizers discuss their job as “herding cats” — because artists are too willing to say “yes” and then disappear.

I believe that, just like you[Mandel] are calling artists to task for being hobbyists, that too many artists undercut themselves by overcommitting (you[Mandel]  and me included from time to time), thus perpetuating the patrons and those-with-money’s perception that “Oh, they can make anything happen on a shoestring budget.”  That overcommitment takes away the focus on developing deep commitment from true supporters (which is necessary for sustainable and impactful projects) and perpetuates the image of artists as magical flighty fairies who make miracles happen, but also have a short attention span.”

…And I would add “and inconsistent follow-through.

It is a core belief of my personal ethic that the artist cannot began the conceptualization of their work by thinking, “What will sell?” This inherently and inevitably despoils and commodifies the work. It then is a work of sales and marketing. If this is a work’s point of origin, it is not Art, but Product.

Warhol and Hirst notwithstanding, an artist cannot be their own Jerry Maguire. It is self-immolating.


Howard posted an outstanding interview with the renowned artist, Beverly Naidus, on the 13x13x13 site who summarized her own views to much the same affect. Naidus told Howard,

“Just before I left New York in 1984, in the last four years that I was there, I got a lot of recognition. My work was written about in the New York Times and art magazines. Activist art was popular for that particular moment in time, and I was in the right place at the right time with the right thing. If I had stayed in New York, with articles coming out constantly, I would have eventually been taken in by a dealer and gone off to be in the major shows and fairs.

But I decided to leave, which many people thought was insane. I was torn because there was a part of me that was interested in having a career and reaching a lot of people. But another part of me needed to work with students. Also, I knew there was something really f*cked up about the art world that I didn’t understand. It was corrupting my peers. As they became more successful, they were less powerful in their activism. Some began taking drugs, some lost focus, and some died. I just wasn’t emotionally or spiritually strong enough to handle that. So I just had to leave.”

I heard the echo of that years ago in the Beastie Boys’ lyric, “Everybody’s rapping like it’s a commercial / Actin’ like life is a big commercial / So this is what I’ve got to say to you all / Be true to yourself and you will never fall.”

Howard and Akira do not run in fear from their Art selling. In contrast, they (and I hope “I” too) try to create the very best, most meaningful, most powerful, grounded in their beliefs, feelings, emotions, lives and love,s Art that they can.

Then, they do not abandon it with a causal wave of the hand that says, “It can sell or not sell. Matters not to me. It is Art for Art’s sake.”

No! They reject that and say, “My Art, my work, my output, my feeling, my reaction, my reflection, my Self and its way of giving back to you, the community of citizens of this world, has value. Intrinsic value. I make, I create because I am and I would do an injustice to myself and others were I to do otherwise.”

“My Art has value.”

It is bold and true.

Now in a human eat human eat corporation eat little dog world, the Market and its vast impersonal forces will decide, if, and then, what value, said Art has. (If any.)

Read as: “If you want the Art to survive, you must buy it.”

Howard and Akira will not abjectly surrender first. Their Art is not shuttered away from the Public in a hidden Emily Dickinson quarters. It is front and center in their lives.

Yet they must eat.

They are facing down the same real battle that Hugo chronicles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame of the mad, penniless, poet, Pierre Gringoire, fighting to survive in Paris. A full dedication of one’s Life to one’s Art should not be a sentence to a life of poverty.

However, neither should the artists, who are all-in on their art work as income, carry themselves as puritans or absolutists. Akira and I gratefully accepted the delicate, flaky, white fish and broccoli-n-cheese corn muffins topped with a dollop of sour cream that Howard made for dinner. The sliding scale is to be judged for oneself, a part-time job does not make an artist a sellout.

Hugo’s Gringoire, remember, went mad and saved Dinjali, the goat, instead of Esmeralda, the girl.

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Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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