So You Want to be an Artist?

In an effort to rebrand themselves as pragmatic exemplars of capitalist utility, art schools have lately emphasized preparing students for the outside world: There are seminars on grant-writing, as well as classes on building and presenting a marketable portfolio. But what about courses on How to Cope With Neglect? Would it be too self-defeating to offer master classes called The Art World is Generally Speaking Not a Meritocracy, or We Can’t Teach You Charisma?

When I give lectures in art school, I gaze from the podium before speaking and size up the room. And I always see myself at the students’ age: Someone who, upon being told that the artist’s lot isn’t easy, rolls their eyes; someone whose smug, untested confidence coats them like paint. And I consider it my duty to depress these kids, because none of their teachers will. I wish my instructors had interrupted a slide lecture to discourse on the difficulties of the life of an artist on the make, or the Faustian bargain that art-world success entails. The books below all tell the truth about the art world—I just wish I had encountered them in the course of my art education.

“Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist” by David Sedaris (from Me Talk Pretty One Day)

Sedaris might have had to change some names to avoid litigation, but this short story—a cautionary tale about the life of the artist—is funny because it’s true: The speed-freak who makes a nest of human hair; people who make excessive use of the word piece to describe every kind of artwork; the charismatic idiot who makes a three-hour “piece” involving “Mother/Destroyer”; the New Media majors in love with the phrase “raw space”; people who think that defecating constitutes some kind of profound art. I knew all of these people. I went to school with all of these people. Despite my wishes to the contrary, I continue to know all of these people. And, while they constitute the cautionary aspect of this story, I can’t help but identify with their jealousy of Sedaris, because his ridiculous performance piece (dragging a typewriter through a forest) got chosen over their ridiculous proposals (such as sculpting the then-governor’s bust out of feces and lighting it on fire) to be included in a juried biennial of performance art.

True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations With David Hockney by Lawrence Weschler

The latter half of the twentieth century was dominated by critical and theoretical questions about the relevance of painting; by the time I got around to studying it, the idea of a painting's physical qualities being important had been battered like a piñata, as every stripe of art theorist had a go at it in an attempt to smash its authority or kill it outright. Hockney was a member of the last generation of artists who could just worry about paint—not about Painting. To read Hockney’s discourse on the problems of simply making a painting—the materials, texture, color, composition—is a delectable paradise, a gentle reminder of how rich and complex and gratifying it is to just paint.

The Manual of Contemporary Art Style by Pablo Helguera

Socially, the art world functions like a Jane Austen novel: The main principle is a carefully constructed system of etiquette. Every precarious reputation, any morsel of clout, is built upon the mist of How One Seems. Helguera wrote this pamphlet-sized book as an art project: It’s a step-by-step (and tongue-in-cheek) guide to clawing one’s way through the mist, written and arranged like the Chicago Manual of Style. How can one best use casual conversation to promote one’s latest projects? What is the appropriate avenue of circulation at an art opening? Is it wise for an artist to sleep with a curator? Helguera answers all these questions and more. He is the Julian Assange of the art world, leaking all of its secrets, and it’s a small wonder that no one has broken his kneecaps yet. I would also like to note that I discussed this book at one of my aforementioned guest lectures: It took me only about five minutes to collectively demoralize forty art students.

Collecting Contemporary by Adam Lindemann

Published just before the 2008 economic collapse, this has to be the strangest and most honest document of the art boom. It was originally intended as a small pamphlet for wealthy collectors, but the enterprising Lindemann found that he had more to say, and the wise publishers at Taschen agreed. In its mission to teach newly rich would-be collectors how to spend their money, this book strips the art world of its pretenses of creative engagement or critical thought and gesture—instead he treats it like a vast outlet mall. Formatted mostly as a series of interviews, the book is divided into sections such as The Collector, The Museum Director, The Critic, and arrives at a hard kernel of truth in its section on The Artist: Not a single artist is interviewed. Instead, Lindemann gives us five short paragraphs on how peripheral artists are to the market.

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary

An unimaginative critic might call this novel an “irreverent romp,” but I prefer the term “vintage British misery.” It follows the late career of Gulley Jimson, a painter of success and renown who has failed to make the most of it. As the book opens, he has just been released from prison and is an alcoholic—penniless and crass, brutally cynical—who is desperate to reclaim some of the shine of his tarnished star. He spends the book cutting a sociopathic swath through his circle of friends, ex-wives, and gullible patrons as he tries to reclaim his former glory. Jimson wrestles through long stretches of restless, destructive frenzy and cruel misanthropy attempting to arrange circumstances amenable to painting; when he actually does so, the novel’s tone shifts into an Eden-like bliss. He eventually ruins everything and everyone around him, then suffers a stroke that leaves him paralyzed and unable to hold a brush. His life has left behind a trail of scorched earth, but it was all done for Art. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I couldn’t bring myself to actually finish this book: It caused me to spend too much time thinking about my own death. Depressed yet?

Sholem Krishtalka is a painter and a writer. He is the visual art critic for Xtra magazine, and is a contributor to C magazine, CBC Arts Online, Canadian Art magazine and, among others. His work can be seen at and