Tamsin Doherty asks “What is a creative life?”

In the September issue of The Brooklyn Rail, Tamsin Doherty contributed a book review of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, a book of 40 artists’ essays (one of which I wrote) edited by artist Sharon Louden. The book has been widely praised as a resource for young artists and a pep talk for older ones, but Doherty, a 2014 Pratt BFA grad, was unmoved.

[Image: Tamsin Doherty, Untitled, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 38 x 42 inches. Images are from the artist’s website.]

Tamsin Doherty, brandon, 2013, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches.

 Among other complaints, Doherty suggests that:

the book becomes a cross section of a specific type of artist: one whose definition of a �creative life� has been shaped chiefly by the art institution and by commercial opportunity. They are professional artists in the truest sense. By and large, these are the art school artists. Thus the book almost functions as a reference�if a slightly dated one�for those headed in the same direction. The path in question begins at graduation, with the young artist stumbling into a quirky entry-level job, turning to teaching, and then hopefully moving on to some degree of self-employment.

Some essays come off as haughtily autobiographical or overly diaristic (although there may be readers who are genuinely interested in the particulars of an artist�s yoga practice). The more interesting of the lot read more like considered lectures. This tone seems unsurprising as at least half of the contributors held the title of professor at some point in their career. (In large measure, these were the artists who chose to have children.)

Every middle-aged artist, having been in Doherty’s shoes, knows how she feels when, further into the review she suggests that the book should not have asked how artists manage to organize their lives so that they can continue making art, but why. In fact, very few art school BFA grads do continue making art after they turn thirty. Some decide they can’t stand the uncertainty, the poverty, and the grind of working a full-time job during the day and then going to the studio at night.

Others find meaningful work in creative fields that is just as satisfying as making art. Plenty of people I knew in Williamsburg in the 1990s (when I was a recent grad) gave up making art completely and eventually left town. But some of us were too single-minded and stubborn to consider alternatives. Editor Sharon Louden responded to Doherty’s article with an articulate letter to The Rail (posted on Facebook) which reflects the kind of tenacity I’m talking about:

I am writing about the recent review by Tamsin Doherty of the book I edited, Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists. On behalf of all of the 40 artists who contributed to my book, I feel compelled to set the record straight on the heels of Ms. Doherty’s misleading critique in the September 2014 issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

This book has clearly struck a chord with readers, both in and out of the art world, since it’s release last October, as evidenced by the sales of nearly 5,000 books and 800 e-books so far. I believe its success can be traced to the “real” dose of information shared by these amazing artists; the book is not an “advice” or “how-to” book. Instead, as its title makes clear, it helps show what it takes to continue to live a creative life through the years. It also starts a conversation about this difficult subject, one which is not talked about often enough in schools or otherwise.

Since last November, I have been traveling across the country on our 50+-stop book tour and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The emails I’ve received by artists who have read the book have been truly inspiring, and almost all of the press has been positive. Until now.

I should preface my point-by-point rebuttal by saying that I actually thought this review was positive in that it is generating conversation, which I love! And I am grateful that The Brooklyn Rail cared enough to review this book. However, I still disagree with many points Ms. Doherty makes:

The first factually incorrect statement comes in the beginning of the second paragraph, where Ms. Doherty — a recent 2014 BFA graduate from Pratt — writes that the contributors are claiming “commercial success.” I’m not sure what she means by “commercial success,” but I do know that the point of this book is to highlight the fact that most artists are not commercially successful but rather, what matters most, is how we define “success” in this context.

In that same paragraph, the author claims, again incorrectly, that a disproportionate percentage of essayists hail from my alma-maters, the Art Institute of Chicago and Yale. This is untrue. Julie Heffernan, Brian Novatny and Brian Tolle received their MFA from Yale; Amy Pleasant and Adrienne Outlaw went to SAIC. Out of 40 artists, I don�t think that is disproportionate. What is correct, and which I outlined in my introduction, is that I chose artists I knew, admired, and because I could trust them to tell their stories honestly. These 40 artists have been extremely generous with their time and continue to give to other artists. Most importantly, they were chosen because their stories are helpful examples to other artists trying to figure out how to juggle it all.

Doherty quickly gets to the core of this book in the next two paragraphs where she laments that, “Working part time and painting furiously in your Williamsburg studio may have been a reality 20 years ago, but today it is an unlikely luxury,” and “Thus the book almost functions as a reference — if a slightly dated one — for those headed in the same direction.” She’s hit upon the crux of the book: these stories are by artists who have been successfully showing their work, but not just at those “art institutions” and “commercial opportunities” to which she gives her back-hand. The spirit of the book, which comes through clearly, is that every young artist (and older artist, for that matter!) needs to find his/her own way to continue to create, to continue to add to the vast art dialogue happening across the country and to not depend on one strategy to sustain a creative life.

She then goes on to lament the “haughtily autobiographical” or “overly diaristic” essays, written like “considered lectures” by mostly artists who teach or have taught at academic institutions. Although she’s certainly entitled to her opinion of the tone of these essays, it’s clear that what she may be reacting to is the common anxiety young artists have about being able to pay the bills while continuing to make work. She finishes that unhappy paragraph with this: “There must still be a way to reconcile a need for thoughtful artistic engagement with the ebb and flow of everyday necessity.” As we’ve discussed all over the country on the book tour, each artist must find his/her own way. These essays show Ms. Doherty 40 specific examples of those who came before her. Who cares that you can’t support yourself with carpentry gigs in SOHO now (like Will Cotton did twenty years ago)? Move to Las Vegas! Our panel discussion with Wendy Kveck there this past Spring was a packed house with amazing artists creating a community buzzing with energy, able to thrive in the lower-cost environment of that whacky town. Who knew? The possibilities are endless. Other amazing communities include Baltimore (talk to artist Cara Ober!), Houston, Minneapolis and many other cities across the country that all contribute to the contemporary art dialogue.

In the next paragraph, Doherty reveals more of the agenda she’s after: “The more interesting question may be to ask these artists why they did it, rather than how. The idea of motivation as being some mysterious, ineffable given is simply unsatisfying.” Well, that’s not what this book is about. I’d suggest to her that she look elsewhere for the origin of motivation. I do think it�s positive that after reading this book she is looking for more! Most of these artists are accessible: I suggest she reach out to the artists who wrote the essays in this book and ask them what their motivations are.

She then meanders into her second agenda — being bothered that artists create items that are bought and sold in a capitalist society: “What does it mean to live and sustain a creative life? In the case of most of the artists presented in this book, it means finding a way to operate within the capitalist framework of a consumer society.” Well…if you make an object that someone wants to buy, then sure, you’ve entered the “capitalist framework of a consumer society.” I’m not sure what Doherty is yearning for here — an art world whereby no items are bought and sold? It’s clear, though, that she has a problem with money changing hands, when she asks rhetorically, “Perhaps the title of this collection should have been Living and Sustaining a Creative Career.”

Finally, it’s pretty clear that her issue with the book is more about her pining for another way to go forward (outside of Western culture somehow?): “Despite its strengths, much of the book ends up projecting a standardized biography of the career-oriented Western artist, who defines creative experience as the production of branded objects and ideas. This institutionalized perspective seems to funnel creative energy into discrete occupations and spaces” I’m not sure what she means by “institutionalized perspective,” but I’m fairly certain that she missed the point of the book. Artists make work and we create communities. We help each other; we don’t bring each other down. But most importantly, there are no set paths and we each need to find our own way, just like we do in our studios with our own work.

I wish the best of luck to Doherty and all the other 2014 art grads who are trying to find their way. Of course they can’t follow the same routes that we took –they have to find their own. Like the generation before us, we’re all looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

Related posts:
Remarks to young artists at UConn’s 2013 Art & Art History Convocation
The lives of artists



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  1. The review was indeed laughably ignorant. Ms. Doherty is young and callow, and should certainly be held to account. She seems to resent or fear those who may have subordinated "art's subversive potential" to the pragmatic exigencies of sustaining an art practice. To quote Chuck Close (a highly successful artist who knows a little something about endeavor in tough circumstances): "Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work." Doherty needs to do that for a while before she can credibly sit in judgment of other artists who have been at it for years and suggest a wholesale alternative. The Brooklyn Rail editors are at fault, too. The magazine should never have assigned the review to (or accepted it from) a 2014 graduate with little real-world experience who evidently remains steeped in naive campus idealism.

  2. Thank you for posting this thoughtful essay on the impact of the book, a critique and a rebuttal. I love the conversation this is generating. After 26 years as a professional artist, I, too, have begun to dedicate some of my time (a book, website, mentorship program) to helping others to create what I also call a creative, sustainable life.

    I feel "Living and Sustaining a Creative Life" fills a vacuum between books and websites for emerging artists that focuses solely on making money from your art and the careers of the most known artists.

    There are many artists working consistently, Thank you for posting this thoughtful essay on the impact of the book, a critique and a rebuttal. I love the conversation this is generating. After 26 years as a professional artist, I, too, have begun to dedicate some of my time (a book, website, mentorship program, youtube channel) to helping others to develop what I also call a creative, sustainable life.

    I feel "Living and Sustaining a Creative Life" fills a vacuum between media out there for emerging artists that focuses solely on marketing and sales from their art and the glamour and fame of careers of the most known artists. Many budding artists of all age simply give up because they feel if they can�t match these definitions of �success� then they efforts aren�t worthwhile.

    There are many artists working consistently, diligently and lovingly at their practice who don't give up if their efforts and work aren�t generating huge sales or widespread recognition but who are still contributing mightily to their communities and the cultural conversation.

    In fact, there is so much exciting going on and so much fun, I think it's wonderful to see a book and a group of artists who help others to understand that they can apply their prodigious creativity to not only in the studio but to crafting their lives.

  3. Tamsin is young, but she is wise beyond her years, extremely thoughtful and anything but "callow". She did not "sit in judgment of other artists" as Ernie (NY) quoting Chuck Close arrogantly and condescendingly suggests… She merely pointed out that the spirit of creating art is somewhat at odds with the nature of the capitalist society in which we all must live and work. And that issue is not actually examined much – even by artists. I am an architect (with 33 years of practicing in the that same society) and can personally vouch for how difficult it is to try to produce something beautiful when most people just want things done faster, made cheaper, and looking more like what everyone else has already done before.

  4. It's lovely to hear how wonderful you are; it's helpful to learn to be open to constructive criticism- because then you can grow.- Paraphrase

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