Thursday, June 23, 2016

Art vs. Mere Skill - Do Commissions Destroy Art?

Some of the greatest pieces of art are commissioned works.

In 1835 the writer Nikolai Gogol published a short story entitled The Portrait in which a poor, young artist gives in to the temptation of money and starts a mass production of commissioned portraits which leads to him losing his talent as well as his sanity. His sin against art isn't taking commissions per se, but giving in to the demands of his commissioners who understand very little about art and only care about being portrayed as Greek gods.

In 1833 Vladimir Odoevsky told a very similar story: In his Improvisator a poet is granted the power to make up poems on the spot and has a huge success as an improvisator who makes up verses according to his audience's wishes. He, too, loses the ability to create art along with his mind.

Both stories are fruits of the Romantic era which introduced the idea of art as something divine seen and expressed through the artist. Today there is the idea about art being a way of self-expression. From both standpoints the artist is seen as having a crucial role in the process of creating art.

When it comes to commissions, however ... At first glance, the artist doesn't seem very important: The idea comes from the commissioner, the artist serves only with his bare skill. Yet is this first impression true?

For a long time I have been very suspicious of commissions and as a writer I'm still very careful when there's the mere possibility of anyone influencing my writing. This is why I usually stay away from contests and everything else where there is any kind of directives or guidelines, be it a certain subject, words that have to appear in the story or something else. It's really hard for me to understand how some (hobbyist) writers manage to write commissioned stories, be it as part of an art trade, for a friend, whatever.

In my experience, commissioned stories usually don't turn out very well. On a professional level, there's ghostwriting and some of it is done well, but would you say such texts are art? When someone comes into play only because someone else simply lacks the skill? Is there any room for creative initiative? Even when writers write their own stories the quality often drops as soon as they're pressured by deadlines and the demands of their audience. Art ceases to be art as soon as it's reduced to mere skill.

However, I've made some very converse experiences with drawing. It may be because I don't take drawing as seriously as writing and only try to improve my skill, but despite swearing to myself I'd never accept commissions I agreed as soon as someone approached me and asked to make a drawing for them. This was the beginning of me officially accepting drawing commissions. I don't charge any money for it, as I do it merely for practise, but I've learned that I actually do have a crucial role in putting someone else's ideas on paper (or rather: screen).

Working on commissions is fun, because it's a very special challenge: The commissioner seems to have a very clear idea of what he or she wants, and in his/her mind's eye it looks great. As for the artist, well, as such, it's your task to understand what your commissioner wants, think of a way to realise all the ideas you wouldn't have ever come up with yourself and find a way to make it look good. Sometimes you have to tweak the commissioner's wishes, because you're the pro and some things simply don't work or because you know a way how to improve the concept.

Empathy is what I believe you need to have if you want to make art for others. You need the ability to love someone else's idea - their child - like your own. I'm still a beginner at doing commissions, of course, but ... right now this is what I believe.

It simply wouldn't make sense if commissioned art would be considered something worth less than other art. Some of the greatest works of art aren't the artist's self-expression but commissioned pieces, made because someone simply valued the artist's skill. And there are also huge artistic projects like theatre, movies and games where many genres and artists are involved, implementing someone else's ideas.

What seems important here it the artist's own attitude. There is nothing creative about slavishly and mechanically doing whatever you are asked to do, simply for the sake of money. But as long as an artwork is treated as such, as long as the artist continually thinks about how to make it better, tries to find innovative solutions ... I don't see why commissioned artworks are any different from free self-expression.

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