The impact of social media on my work, gauging quality and a bit of advice...
Lead Artist interview for Webinart George Sfougaras 2.00 pm November 12th 2019. Some additional notes and bits that there was no time to discuss.
What has been the impact of social media on your work?
It has been good and also detrimental, but the good outweighs the bad.
When I was making art and hoping to sell it immediately after my degree, the problem was getting the work seen by the public. The only way this could be achieved was by securing a place to exhibit, in group shows or in solo exhibitions. Even then, the audience numbers would be relatively small. A few hundred people would perhaps engage with works shown in such a way. Now, of course, I can post an image on Facebook or Instagram and receive immediate responses from any part of the world. If I want to sell work and want to do this for an edition of prints, I have to think very carefully whether I can physically meet the possible demands and cope with the administrative aspect of packaging and sending work to different parts of the world. A couple of years ago, I made some very personal resonant maps, one of them being my mother’s birthplace which was destroyed during the 1920’s war on the coast of Turkey. The map won a prize and then after posting on social media found its way to several parts of the world. This would not have happened without the power and reach of social media. I now always ask myself, is this the right time to promote this work? Often I feel that it is not and I hold on to an edition for future review and to use in a way that it will be impactful, perhaps as part of an exhibition.
At the same time, there is a set of variables that have emerged with the advent of social media, which are not so positive. In his book ‘Playing to the Gallery’, Grayson Perry cleverly describes the tension between what the public likes and what actually constitutes ‘good art’ in the eyes of people who make it and who promote it. He uses as an example the most popular exhibition in Britain and the 5th most popular in the world in 2012. Namely the David Hockney show in the Royal Academy. Senior curators and others thought that was a terrible exhibition. He also mentions two Russian artists Komar and Melamid who commissioned polls in several different countries to find out what people wanted most in art. The results were shocking. ‘In nearly every country, all people really wanted was a landscape with a few figures around, animals in the foreground, mainly blue.’ After the experiment, they said: ’In looking for freedom, we found slavery’.
I mention the above from Grayson Perry’s book, because when I post on social media, the reactions are interesting, but I know not to let them define my output. For instance one of my most liked images was of a very traditional academic drawing, which was reposted several times and achieved a great number of positive comments. Although I liked doing the work and it was good to see its popularity, making more work like that would have been impossible and possibly quite detrimental. The work came along naturally at that point and it signified a particular theme and commitment to make a small series of works on paper, relating to a visit to Mount Athos. Having recorded that event and commemorated it through the drawing, I needed to move on. I could have easily been swayed by the reaction to make more work on the theme and to capitalise on its popularity, but I did not feel compelled to do it at the time. The theme had been exhausted for me and it was important to keep moving.
So in essence, I would say, use social media to give your work an audience and to see how it sits in the large and hugely impressive body of visual work that gets posted every day. Post the work with the comments or without the comments that spring from your creative thoughts and just let it be out there. I sometimes, actually and possibly quite recklessly, believe that if the work is not that popular, it may actually be just beyond what is accepted as the norm on Instagram. It makes me feel that I have perhaps pushed beyond the norm and that in itself is a good place to be. That difficult to access set of aesthetics that moves beyond the polished figurative representation and easily read meanings/subject matter may be (just for me, as I can only really comment on my own perceptions here) the place where innovation happens. It could also be that the work just did not touch anyone, or that it simply did not interest people. I think what has changed for me drastically, is that I do not really invest much time thinking about the popularity of the work. I think what I do now is observe more dispassionately. Having said that, I still love the fact that we can share and connect with others. With age, I have come to increasingly feel that popularity is not at all the same as value, or depth. So the wish to share a message in the work and the resulting connectedness keep me posting.
How do you gauge the quality of what you make?
So, this has changed over time. I have always made art, even when I taught and had a very demanding career as a manager in schools. The quality of the work was often a subject for rumination. Others always seemed positive and being in a school as an art teacher, your work is often admired by young people who are either impressed with your skill, or colleagues who are being kind but with due respect are perhaps not judging it as potential owners of the work.
Unless you have a few hard critics in your circle, you sail through your amateur making years in a haze of praise and feeling like maybe you should quit your day job and simply dedicate your life to making this work that everyone seems very fond of (but no one is prepared to pay for). Mostly during those years, the work that appealed to others was always figurative, detailed and accurately painted/faithful to the original reference material. The few critical friends, who may or may not be artists have their own views about what is good and what is not so great. I got very lucky by developing a way of not really listening to their comments. I think this happened as a result of the tendency of some tutors at Art College to try and demolish a piece of work during a critique so that the student reflects deeply about their motives and outcomes. That approach switched me off to criticism which took pleasure in its own existence. I learned that if you sat with your work, you could formulate your own judgments about its quality and value. This is perhaps something which again happened very recently. So the quality of the work is determined by three questions:
The first is about the ‘story’ I am trying to communicate. Is this what I wanted to say?
The second one is about the practical outcomes, technique, accuracy, quality of execution and the look of the finished work: Is this piece competent enough to depict the story it is trying to tell? Sometimes ‘errors’ in the drawing of the figure if they are not part of the intention can detract from the message. People may see the ‘mistakes’ rather than what you are trying to say, and the message is less powerful.
The last one is the easiest to answer honestly because you cannot justify to yourself that in which you do not believe: Did this come from the heart? I know for a fact that if it is not meant if it has no substance and if it does not mean something important to me, it will not be a strong piece of work. Although the maker, in this case, I, is the only one that knows the answer, and the answer is readily available to me, introspection if left unchecked can really stifle one’s production and damage your confidence.
Somewhere in all of the above, there has to be an element of acceptance of our human fallibility. The story may not be as strong, there may be technical issues and so on. However, the piece must not feel devoid of merit, of thought and most of all conviction. The ‘quality’ of the work may fluctuate, but I really believe that conviction can’t or else the outcomes will be poor. That is my take on this, and I know for a fact it is a very idiographic or a particular way of looking at things.
Do you make the work with the intention of people understanding it? What happens if the work is just not understood?
Actually, yes, I always want people to have a handle on some aspect if not all of the elements of the work. Some years ago I co-wrote a booklet entitled ‘Evaluating Artefacts’. It was meant to encourage critical and informed evaluation and understanding of unfamiliar objects, some from other cultural contexts, without the value judgments of cultural bias.
It ended up being quite important in my thinking, as I researched and analysed the way we evaluated visual materials. The way that Personal, Cultural and Religious aesthetic considerations, Appropriate Technology and the demands of potential ‘Consumers’ are embodied in the Maker’s intentions and the objects made were open to interpretation by the Viewer.
If the maker and the viewer have very different viewpoints, then the objects made will be seen very differently from those positions. I am aware that some of the things I create are very personal and are rooted in my own experiences and values. I use some visual symbols that are universal but others are hard to decipher if one is not familiar with them. For me, there has to be a small stepping stone to accessing the work, even though the full meaning of it may not be evident to the viewer.
I keep going back to the work we did in the Evaluating Artefacts book. There is a triangle made up of the Artist, the audience or Viewer and the Object itself. My work, I believe can take on a guise and a life of its own, beyond my intentions, as the person looking on it can project his or her personal and cultural norms on the piece. For me it is not about making something that is aesthetically pleasing, however. I think it is more about making something that feels right and sits well in my belief system and intentions.
You were a teacher for 30 years. You purposefully left teaching (retiring early) to make art. Recently you have been very busy, often working internationally. Was this something that you foresaw, or was it accidental?
Actually no. I think I had very little idea about what was going to happen. I simply wanted to tell my stories visually and have a less high impact activity in my life. Teaching and managing in secondary education and having children were the most important and most difficult learning experiences of my life. I thought that making art would be relaxing and poetic, less stressful, genteel and a way to make my life fruitful and enjoyable after a very fulfilling but stressful career.
I started to make paintings and to print and acquired a studio and all that somehow was not even really directed at anything, such as exhibitions or travel. I started to write and to illustrate things that mattered. Family history, emotional journeys through life, the experiences that for over 30 years had been filed away, whilst I was busy been responsible for others. I had time to reflect on the history of the part of the world I come from and revisit my parents’ lives, posthumously. The results were a mixture of sadness, pride, wonder, fascination. Ultimately the need emerged even more strongly to recover and retain their story, pass it on and demonstrate that despite all the distance that may separate people geo-politically our humanity binds us inextricably. I started to reconcile myself with a painful history of wars, conflict and displacement and to want that feeling of looking and accepting, moving on and healing to become a key part of what I made. I was lucky to receive some recognition and support from various corners of the world and various organisations. Often the work meant discomfort, perhaps travel, difficult subject matter or simply hard work. The lesson that I learned was that saying no to things because they are hard closes doors and saying yes to the unknown does the opposite.
So I am now proud of having worked with Etz Hayyim in Crete and have such warm feelings of gratitude for enabling me to be a small part of the healing journey of the last surviving Jewish religious monument/synagogue in Crete. I am equally grateful that I was able to access the work of Scholar Mohammad Ballan from Chicago. His translations from Arabic sources enabled me to write a history of the Arab Emirate of Crete. This gave me an insight into academic writing and the beauty of looking at the past through another’s lens. It also made me realised that the past and the present are not simply a continuum, but part of a cyclical process; each affects the other. How? Because we look at History through the way that History is recorded and the biases of the writers.
Our sense of who we are is shaped by someone’s particular viewpoint and is very personal and rooted in their value system. National rhetoric and the interpretation of the past shape our present and also make us reflect on our History through a distorted lens.
To recover the past is not an act of nostalgia or morbid curiosity. It is an important function of a time-limited life: to learn from those that preceded us and to hand down important information. We cannot forget the mistakes of the past, nor the people and the experiences that have shaped us. In recovering those individual and collective narratives we are able to feel, acknowledge, learn and forgive.
“The ‘us’ here is wide, embracing and unifying. Beauty endures in our common human bonds across space, time, language and beliefs. Therefore, there is hope as this vision is so much more compelling than that of the current crop of our chest-thumping political masters. What is uncovered here is light and love, deep and wide enough to embrace all our stories.”
Rita Hindocha, July 2019 Introduction to the Recovered Histories Project.
What advice would you give to other artists and makers?
Take on the work and don’t ask how it will be made. Ask only why and if it should be made. This applies to your own work as well as large commissions. Be flexible and let your convictions be your guide. Don’t sweat the small stuff and do not become side-tracked by small irritations from having your work made and your story told.