A House Divided

I wrote something on Facebook that made a lot of people mad.

“If you want to buy exposure for your art, don't pay entry fees to publications, just buy an ad.”

The responses to this got were hostile on both sides. My own writing in the heat of the moment was openly vicious. I was angry. Not really about fees or advertising, but about a community that sometimes feels as though it is doing bad by its most vulnerable members.

Over the past year I’ve reevaluated a lot of the things I held true about being a professional artist and it has begun to make me feel increasingly expulsed from the illustration community. Separating from traditional values has helped my life and career in a number of ways but it’s also revealed a lot of problems that I didn’t previously see. The worst of which, is that some of the advice being given by many of the smartest, most passionate and most successful people in the illustration world is so similar that its leading many artists to confusion, failure and poverty. Seeing this makes me want to help, but helping means telling some important people that I think they are wrong.

A commenter wrote that my advice is “damaging” and that’s probably the truth. My views and values are harmful to some people because they might lead them away from things that would help them succeed. However, for a different group of people, those same values might lead them to a greater success and vice versa. Looking at it through the distorted lens of Facebook, these multifaceted truths distort everything and everyone into a twisted, monstrous version of itself.

Identifying what truth is correct for which person is not easy and not for me to say. Those of us who are not served by the common wisdom of the illustration community do not wear a sign. We don’t conform to separations of genre, medium, age or gender. We’re like the androids in Blade Runner or Battlestar Galactica. We live among you, we look like you, but we are fundamentally different (I ingest sulfur to survive).

The real problem, as I see it, is not that anyone is giving bad advice, it’s that we are risking a monoculture of ideas. With much of the illustration culture valuing a very narrow criteria for professional success, many aspiring artists are being led away from their personal success. Scores of aspiring artists subvert their interests in order to conform to goals which they’ve been led to believe are essential (Magic, book covers, gallery shows, Spectrum, etc.). The inability for many people to achieve these things implants the false idea that they are either lazy, untalented or unworthy. What feels more true to me, is that there are a lot of unique ideas out there that aren’t being heard because too many people are infatuated with tiny, albeit attractive targets.

For example, thousands of artists pay significant entry fees to apply to juried annuals each year. That number is exploding in part because the common wisdom around them is that it they are fundamentally worthwhile, valuable and important. It’s easy to believe that such a thing is true when everyone around you believes it. And they might believe it because it’s fundamentally true for them. But what about those of us for whom it is not true?

I am personally not going to be entering any more paid annuals again, not on principle, but because it just isn’t worth it for me. I’m also going to continue to advise most people (not all) to do the same. If I can successfully convince artists who are a bad fit for annuals to stop submitting, it will not tear down an institution which many people hold dear. If I succeed, it will open up more space in a crowded market for those who truly value it.

There are an endless number of paths to success and not all of them are right for everyone. Just the other week, JAW Cooper was on my show describing the way she balances commercial work, personal work and camping. It was the exact opposite of anything I would ever do myself but she made it seem like the best idea in the world. That was an awesome moment. Seeing someone find balance in their own way and make success on their own terms makes me happy and I want that for more artists.

I hope this clears things up.