Should Artists Get Rid of Art They No Longer Like?

Q: I read where you recommended that artists never destroy or liquidate their art for next to nothing but rather that they save it, no matter what it is or how much of it they have. I'm not so sure I agree. All great artists review their work and destroy what they do not perceive as being up to their standards, like Edward Hopper, Hans Hoffmann, David Park and Georges Rouault, for example. It is up to artists to create their own personas and decide what their best and worst works of art are, not obscure reviewers or dreary academics.

A: We see somewhat eye-to-eye on this issue. I don't think artists should save absolutely everything either, and agree with you that they should go through their work periodically to weed out pieces that do not meet their standards. What I advise against is for artists to destroy or otherwise divest themselves of significant amounts of their art all at once, based solely on their own feelings or opinions and with zero feedback from others, simply because they're tired of looking at it, bored or frustrated with it, changing styles, it's too old, it's not what they're making anymore, they're running out of room, moving into smaller quarters, or are acting on orders from whomever they live with because they've been told to do a major house or studio cleaning. I doubt Hopper, Hoffmann, Park or Rouault used those sorts of criteria when evaluating their work and deciding whether to keep it or toss it. And even if they did, who knows whether they ever had any regrets about having done it?

While we're on the topic of destroying art and possibly having regrets about doing it, things can get pretty heated in the moment, and artists can and do act in fits of pure passion. There's nothing unusual about that. Over the years, I've spoken with a number of older artists about this exact situation-- artists who are now well well along in their careers-- about destroying or otherwise liquidating substantial amounts of their art at various points in their pasts. During these conversations, I always ask one simple question, "Do you regret having done it?" So far the regret rate has been 100%. Just a little something to think about next time the moment gets a little heated for you. It's a long game; always remember that. And once it's gone you can never get it back. But let's back up here a bit...

Your feelings about reviewers and academics (obscure, dreary or otherwise) will not serve you well. While we're at it we might as well include dealers, gallery owners, curators critics informed collectors, and anyone else who regularly views and responds to art. No artist creates art in a vacuum and no artist totally creates his or her own persona. The art that you or any other artists produce are the result of a lifetime of experiences and interactions with others including with dealers, teachers, collectors, scholars, reviewers, family members, fellow artists, members of the art community and everyone and everything else on the planet you come into contact with. You or any artist who shows their work in public (including online) receives ongoing written, verbal and visual feedback on all aspects of their art on an ongoing basis, and ignoring what you don't want to hear simply because you don't want to hear it only works to your detriment. Labeling or stereotyping reviewers, academics or anyone else with knowledge, position or authority in the art world only makes matters worse because across-the-board categorizations like this instantly disconnect you from thoughts, ideas, feelings and feedback, some of which may be highly insightful and constructive.

Here's another hypothetical situation to think about, particularly with respect to the value of input from others: Suppose Picasso (or fill in the blank with the famous artist of your choice) had lived and created all of his art in total seclusion in a cave in the wilderness until he was seventy years old, never interacting with others about this, and then suddenly introduced himself and his work to the public for the very first time. Do you think his art would look anything like it does today? Doubtful. To believe for one instant that either Picasso's image, body of work or place in art history would even remotely resemble what it is today would be absurd. His oeuvre was not only a product of his genius but also, in a sense, an ongoing collaborative endeavor with everyone and everything around him.

So never dismiss comments or feedback about your art out-of-hand, no matter who they come from or how awkwardly or ineptly they're presented, especially when that input comes from people who look at art all the time and really know their stuff. Think of them more like gifts from those select few viewers courageous enough to share with you what they actually think or feel-- because as you well know, the overwhelming majority of viewers keep their thoughts and opinions to themselves, and silence is never any help at all. You don't have to act every single time anyone makes a remark about either you or your work, but you should at least cogitate on what they have to say. These instances when people respond to your art are wonderful opportunities for dialogue, argument, involvement, reflection, exploration of new ideas, and for your growth and evolution as an artist.

And this takes us full circle, right back to your studio and art. Rather than decide entirely on your own what stays and what goes, always be open to input from people you know, respect and trust-- especially experienced artists, fine art professionals, collectors and others who either buy, sell, create, curate, write about or otherwise transact in art on a regular basis. In fact, encourage it. Give them complete permission to be truthful with you about your work. Better yet, insist on input from others before making major career decisions regarding the disposition of either all or part of the art you've created over the years. What you see as worthless, outdated or otherwise no longer relevant to what you're doing now, others might see as seminal moments in the unfolding of your artistic career, significant early works, turning points in your development, and so on.

Oftentimes artists are so close to and immersed in their art on such a constant and intimate basis that they lose a degree of objectivity and come to view it in radically differently ways from the rest of us-- and not always accurately. Over extended periods of time for instance, artists can actually get sick of looking at certain pieces that others might totally appreciate, treasure, value and enjoy (including institutions and collectors). That's why stepping back and asking for feedback from others is so essential BEFORE making any potentially career altering moves like divesting yourself of significant amounts of your art.

One final thought... Artists universally abhor are stories of art being destroyed by others. Think about that the next time you're the one who's contemplating doing the destroying.

artist art

(sculpture by Tom Otterness)

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