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.