|As the lights come down
and the guilty blaze another sort of road,
you wash your hands
and start to climb the ladder that you stole
-Darby Crash, 1979
A sad thing to see in the Art World is an artist who is certain of how to make it. The only thing sadder is this person pontificating to other artists, who then go out and emulate his or her stupid methods. The worst thing that can happen to you is to accidentally succeed, to make a sale on a day when you should have been slapped, to get a review when you should have been overlooked. Others see you enjoy a little success and they try to repeat what you did. Once learned and adopted, artists will follow any how-to-do-it blueprint. Books will be written. People will speak of these methods with certainty. The years will float on by and artists everywhere will still be holding tight to the tactics that once reportedly got so and so their first shred of interest. Yet lightning never ever seems to strike twice.
Make no mistake--it is good to have some tactics. But as every other field general learns too late, tactics no longer work once the enemy anticipates their implementation. What are some anachronistic tactics? Oh, the need to learn French. See, we can all laugh at that. Nobody needs to move to Paris and schmooze his or her way to the top. At one time, less than a hundred years ago, one surely did; but it is now a time long passed. There are many tactics that are just as dead as Lingua Franca. Their effectiveness as a tactic is nil, yet encouragement to implement them as a primary method of advancement abounds. Slide packets do not work. Publicists and cheese plates don’t either. There are others, ingrained deeply into the culture of the art world: The need to have a good mailing list is quickly receding into the past. For less money and less work one can e-mail art opening announcements, affordably advertise them, maintain a website and publicize one’s exhibition or event far more easily and efficiently. There are a hundred tactics today that have effectively replicated the success one once expected of postcard mailers (and slide packets, juried shows, etc.). And yet, many people are reading this while waiting for the postcards to get back from the printers, or have been updating the address database and are hassling with five hundred 23-cent stamps.
In terms of the big picture, one must constantly reevaluate, alter and develop one’s tactics. And an arsenal of them is preferable to a lazy reliance on one tried-and-true comfortable old shoe. The Art World is filled to the brim with players who are deploying new tactics during midweek studio visits, casual lunches, coffees with collectors; and all while you are wondering what to wear to an opening a week from next Saturday. Yes, your wardrobe is a tactic. Nobody sleeps with homeless people nor buys their art. But while you are fixated on one move in the game, some of your opponents (everyone out there is not your adversary; all of them are your opponents) are advancing at a rapid pace, playing the game every day, engaged with a variety of other players.
One could fill a book with timeless art world tactics. Sleeping with the dealer or critic always works--until the next aspiring artist comes along. Sleeping with an art professor is an excellent tactic for advancement--until the day after graduation. Renting a gallery to display your art will accelerate your career growth--except that everyone laughs behind your back because we all know who the rental galleries are. Being nice to everyone you meet is a good tactic--except that most people who fake being nice are seen as cloying parasites in a matter of months.
After some contemplation, it is easy to grasp the spectrum of available tactics--from the useless to the timeless, the temporary to the epic. It is a mutable scale of one through ten. Outside outworn tactics, any clever ploy to put you one step closer to that MOCA solo show is as good as the next one. Many people confess, after a few glasses of wine, that they have secured the good graces of a powerful Art World ally through similar interests (Did you know that a Beverly Hills class in gardening is a better place to meet and befriend art collectors than any event in the art world?). A solid relationship is gold, a nine or ten on that scale. Since you cannot fake an interest in skydiving, obsessing over the minutiae of tactics is a fool’s errand; you simply have to be flexible, never holding to any rule (tactic) as an absolute in your head (except maybe that one about brushing your teeth)--but do instigate tactics at all times, in every encounter. Even if your tactic can be distilled into a moronically simplistic mantra (such as the ubiquitous Keep It Real or corporately inane advisories about Just Doing It), make sure you can move forward with something else if and when your methods falter. The only thing lamer than a mullet haircut are the people who are cocky about their position in life simply because they do not sport the mullet. Confining your tactics to a haircut, or your looks, or your car, or your family name, is limited. The limiting of one’s tactics is better defined as: confusing tactics for strategy.
All of your tactics need to support a strategy. All too often the smirk of superiority comes from mistaking an impressive tactical advantage for the advancement of one’s long-term strategy. Working a friend for an introduction to an art dealer is a tactic. Having a hundred friends in the Art World is a strategy. Having two powerful friends and 98 acquaintances in the Art World is an infinitely better strategy. A strategy is your long-term solution. It must be well thought out. Tactics are applied to carry along a strategy, to salvage it after a slow patch, to ensure that the goal is ambled towards at the healthiest pace. Through it all, though, tactics are never strategy.
Your New Year’s resolution must be to focus on your strategy. Playing it by ear, improvising, joining discussion groups, working a person you hate in order to get into a curated show, these are just tactics. You need to place yourself in the big picture. If you are, or aspire to be a great artist, you should be sticking to the strategy of making great art. If you are just another average artist and want to stick out from the crowd, there are a variety of strategic options available for your advancement. One option is to go to art school. Everybody’s doing it. Another option is to curate. If you implement this strategy, a thousand artists will suddenly want to cultivate favor with you. Perhaps opening your own gallery will accelerate your professional connections. Of course, if you are an artist, these strategies might take you far away from your original goal. You will spend your time preparing exhibits of other artists. You will balance a schedule of being dined by wealthy collectors and seduced by beautiful artists. The drama in your personal life, the managing of a big bank account and the spotlight on all of the artists you have discovered translates into no time to make art, let alone promote your own art career. There is a big difference between success in the art world and success as an artist. You won’t find that out for yourself without adopting some strategy by which to succeed and seeing it through. A successful strategy is not necessarily a lifetime commitment. A strategy should at least get you to a higher plateau.
Is it all so heartless, so empty, so pointless to reduce human interaction to a mere game? The sad fact is that even the casual neophyte you meet at an art opening is playing the game, or at least wants to play the game. People in co-op galleries think that they are playing the game. Anyone who tells you that they are a curator is the equivalent of the person who owns two of the orange properties in Monopoly--all he or she cares about is getting that third parcel; you are either someone out to get St. James Place or you are the person who already owns it. The curator will deal with you accordingly. Gallery directors and collectors play the game. They play to win. If your gallery doesn’t want Boardwalk and Park Place, get what you can and move on. A funny thing is, gazillionaire museum trustees in all of their power are stuck playing the game too, the same one you or I can play (and are playing now), and we can beat them if we just stick to a solid strategy and employ superior tactics. And when you look at the prizes, you make the sacrifices. The great assemblage artist George Herms once told me that the only sin was glamour. So shed the gloss that is getting in the way of you reaching your dreams and reach for the dice. It’s your turn.
Mat Gleason long ago adopted a strategy of using his great looks and stunning physique to compensate for a mediocre intellect and dull personality.