Artist’s Consistency versus Kicking Ass: On Avoiding a Consistent Body of Work

Recently, I enjoyed reading a critical post on the limiting definition of art as work over at The Department of Aesthetics. As you might imagine, I totally agree with the author’s rejection of understanding art merely as art-work. As Randall Szott outlines in the post, this restrictive view may well be a consequence of our whole work-centred mindset. In my opinion, this is leading to a partial blindness that may prevent us from experiencing not only art, but also life in general in its fullness.

Randall’s post also reminded me to idle-think a bit more about a topic that was on my mind for quite some time already. It’s the notion of the “consistent body of work” that artists are supposed to produce – and what’s all the buzz about it. Because fact is that critics, gallery owners and artists alike will glowingly praise the great consistency in the “work” of Artist X, while at the same time making fun about the pitiful attempts of wanna-be Artist Y to accomplish this, failing in executing and editing his stuff.

While I reject the concept of “wanna-be”, I’m certainly a dilettante artist. In fact, I’m deliberately dilettante. But this fact notwithstanding, I think it’s time to ask if absence of consistency always has to be a flaw. I personally don’t care about consistent bodies of art, not because it’s too hard to make them, but because they get damn boring all too fast.

Consistency and Commercialization

Why exactly is it necessary to be consistent as an artist? Is it because of an inherent constraint of beauty, or just because of some collector wanting to buy your stuff only as long as it fits into his living room, while assuring an ever-growing resale value?

In the end, if you create 20 pieces of art, mixing collages and paintings and illustrations (I call them skribbles) and diary entries and ready-mades and sculptures and performances and concept art and net art and a whole lot of other stuff nobody even has invented yet, and all of them merge different styles and techniques, bringing together a variety of materials and currents, and if all these pieces are excellent, who the fuck cares about consistency?

The money people do. The gatekeepers do. And they want you to care, too.

Gerhard Richter, one of the most successful living artists, describes his view on consistency and the consequences in an interview: “I always hated those artists who were so consistent and had this sort of unified development; I thought it was terrible. I never worked at painting as if it were a job; it was always out of interest or for fun, a desire to try something. […] When I was struggling financially, when I had trouble with Heiner Friedrich, I couldn’t be with the gallery any longer, and I had to leave. At that time, I became a teacher. I would do different jobs. I didn’t want to have to make paintings I would be paid for, nor did I want to have to be nice to a dealer-although I am very nice.”

Although you as an artist might reject the limitations imposed on you by the demand for consistency, it’s just a lot easier for gallery owners and merchants to pigeonhole you and say, “Artist X is the guy that paints impressionistic visions of LSD trips in oil”. If you’re not consistent, Richter noticed, don’t expect to make money with your art on the short hand. Galleries won’t support you anymore, and only teaching and other jobs will eventually allow you to make a living.

The Beauty of Inconsistency in the Internet Age

So are inconsistent artists doomed forever? Do you have to become a taxi driver wash dishes to support yourself, if you’re not willing to play by the rules of a work- and commerce-centred society?

Hell no! The good news is that we’re living in a Worldwide Wonderland. Each day, thousands of people get connected for the first time to the internet. So if you don’t care too much about gallery owners and merchants and money people and other gatekeepers, you may as well put all the stuff you do on some website and let the people decide. While this is not an easy route to take, it certainly is possible to earn some money and find your bunch of true fans through the web. (Or, if you’re not into money at all, you can just keep your art for yourself and burn it when it annoys you. Richter did that, after trying a whole range of styles and forms of expression many decades ago in Western Germany.)

Of course, the reasons for ignoring the critics are the same as they were before the internet: Trying to be consistent all the time can be to your creativity what’s a tin of bug spray to a cockroach. Fatally killing deadly lethal, that is. Photographer Guy Tal describes the implications of accommodating to the critic’s requirements on his weblog: “A sad consequence of […] narrow-minded criticism is that many would-be multi-talented artists end up crippling their own creative avenues under the dictum that they need “more focus”.”

Dedicating ones time to optimize a certain technique is one thing. Experimenting another. And probably it’s just me, but I see no evil in doing the latter and following your muses. I don’t get the point why even art schools force their applicants to be consistent, if what they should be doing is to encourage experimentation. Only by trying new things and by producing as relentlessly as they possibly can, young artists will be able to bring some change and excitement to the art world. And when you think about artists like Picasso or Rauschenberg, did they care about consistency? Or did they just keep moving, putting out stuff, and kicking some ass?

These actions are certainly easier to take once people already pay millions for your stuff. But it’s nonetheless true (and probably even more so!) for beginning and emerging artists. If the critics hate you, they may be right. Or they may be completely wrong. Think about that, and if you come to the conclusion that the latter is true, just follow your gut and forget about consistency. Because once you look back in life, the greatest time you have is when you forget about trying to please others and just go for the things you really care about. In the end, this will not only make you a better artist, but also a happier person.

Personal note: I am happy to announce the release of my newest photo series, “The Vacations you always wanted: An Inquiry into Escapism”. It was shot between 2003 and 2009 in Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, El Salvador, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the Netherlands, the USA and Venezuela. Taken with a bunch of different cameras in a bunch of different occasions, I tried to avoid consistency as much as I could. You are cordially invited to view the series over at BLUE LIES. (Due to the large amount of data, please allow half a minute for preloading. Consider it the time you would spend in a traffic jam on the way to a real-world gallery.)

I would love to hear your opinion and thoughts on the series and this post in the comments.

Comments 20

  1. Faustus December 5, 2009

    This comment isn’t well thought out but I’ve got the impression, that there is a consistency in the “work” (excuse me to use this banned word in this context ;-) of an artist if he want’s or not, if he faces it or not and if he likes it or not. So I definetly see a consistency a) in your arts and b) in the actual series of Blue Lies. Relax. It’s a good thing.

  2. Fabian December 6, 2009

    Hey Faustus, thanks for your comment! I’m just not too sure about it. If the kind of expected “consistency” would be unavoidable, it would be nothing anybody would ask for. Neither on the critics, nor on the art school side.
    Of course I understand your point in some way, it’s just really a difficult issue to pin down. Maybe what worries me is more the limiting part of consistency, i.e. not trying new things because of worries about scaring off the market.
    Also, don’t worry about using the term “artwork”… it’s certainly not “wrong” (and much less banned! :)), it’s just insufficient.

  3. Jeb December 6, 2009

    To me, consistency is just the parlance of the art world. And of course, what it means is conformity. Conforming to some standard that was created eons ago and to which people have been teaching just as long. Take away conformity, and the teachers become the students…and I’m thinking they don’t like that idea so much.

    If you fit neatly inside that box, then we can label you, control you, tell you how to act and what to eat and who to talk to. As in anything, power over others requires control. If you’re not consistent, then we can’t explain you. And we sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about. And people stop listening to us. And we have no more control. And then…no more power.

    This is a great conversation to be having Fabian…keep it up. Looking forward to checking out your pics.

  4. Fabian December 6, 2009

    Thanks Jeb! I’m not sure about equating consitency and conformity, though. I think the situation is better understandable with the causalities you describe in the second paragraph: If you are consistent in your art, “they” (always sounds so conspirational! :)) will be able to pigeonhole you, to pack you up – and THEN you conform and it becomes more difficult to break out. If you reserve your unconsistency, in the end you’re saving your freedom, although probably of the expense of bigger financial success.

  5. Faustus December 6, 2009

    I guess, that the difference between artist and “I could do that – Yeah, but you didn’t”-Man is, that the one gots a inherent consistency in his work, the otherone will still be – if he wants or not – kind of … hm… meaningless. But maybe we use the same word for different things. I’m quite not interested in the art-“market” or what they call so.

  6. Nate December 6, 2009

    Fabian – great post. Consistency goes beyond the art world. It’s everywhere. For example, it appears in your career. People are told that in order to be successful, they should follow a pre-determined path and stick to it so you have a consistent resume. I’m not necessarily opposed to a specialist mentality as it’s good to have expert status in a given area, however, I also think it’s good to experiment. You don’t want to get too comfortable because then you become lazy and you stop growing as a person. I think we should always be looking for ways we can learn and grow by trying out new things to see what ‘sticks’ and what doesn’t.

  7. Fabian December 7, 2009

    Good point, Nate! It’s indeed pretty much the same with resumes… the employer generally wants you to have a streamlined career that leads you in a straight line directly to the position you apply for. Of course, that is not really the case in 99% of the cases, but still, everybody tries to live up to these expectations by “tuning” their CVs as much as they can…

  8. Milo December 9, 2009

    Great post Fabian. The trend of consistency in art may have something to do with the need for persistence – meaning that the world has time to catch up with artists if they just plough the same furrow long enough. At the same time I agree that stagnation is a horrendous thing.

    Those photos are incredible!

  9. Fabian December 9, 2009

    Thanks Milo! Consistency – at least for some time – might indeed be an artist’s attempt to give people time to really get comfortable with him. But yeah, this may lead him to just repeat himself over and over again – if it’s selling. Not very creative, and probably even less entertaining. Sometimes, mixing up and trying new things might just be a better approach.

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  11. jafabrit December 17, 2010

    I have been so lucky in that the gallery uses my diversity as a selling point. I know this was written a year ago, but I really enjoyed your article and wanted to comment.

    • Fabian December 18, 2010

      Hey Jafa, thanks so much! I’m always happy to see somebody is looking at stuff in the archives. And it’s great to see that your gallery is open towards a more diverse approach to art! Hopefully, this approach will become more popular! :)

  12. chechecheche February 25, 2011

    then my art is not consistent thanx for the tip of not caring

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  15. simon shawn andrews December 16, 2011

    I think picasso was pretty consistent actually…. the same themes repeated through all his phases.

    One might say that consistency has something to do with an artist’s world view, and if they create through that lens, the work is consistent no matter what they do. But honesty is a tough thing, and it takes a very sure person…it’s much easier to follow someone else’s path.

    • Fabian December 19, 2011

      Good point, Simon! Although I’d say that a worldview can also change over the course of a life or even a couple of years…

      Would you say that your own work is consistent? Whatever the case, it looks certainly impressive! Great stuff on your blog!

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