I believe that someone should always stay abreast of what is going on in their world. It is your world, you must know what is happening in it in order to be relevant. I do not believe an artist can be successful, in their own eyes nor the eyes of others, without at least reading the newspaper.
That is not to say that all artists need to be social. Joseph Cornell, who made some of the most beautiful artwork I have ever seen, was a notorious recluse. This, however, did not stop him from falling in madly love with one of art's queens of self promotion: Yayoi Kusama. He had to be connected to the New York art scene in some facet in order to meet her.
Wonderfully alluring things can come from reclusive artists, but they are always innovative works, and not works that draw heavily on tradition. Art brut, the lovechild of the '90s, works in this manner; however many of art brut's saviors were mentally insane and were not only “reclusive” but also institutionalized.
So, art must come from either the point of view of someone who thinks deeply about his own culture and how to translate its symbols and philosophies into a meaningful, critical visual language, or it comes from someone who is entirely removed from it and creates a visual language that is entirely his own. Either way, great art is always innovative.
I do believe that while art should be informed by the traditions of its predecessors, one must deviate from their forms in order to be successful. It cannot be denied that we live in the 21st Century, and beautiful drawings executed in a renaissance style, while extraordinarily aesthetically pleasing, do not apply to our culture in the same way that the applied to that of Florence in the 1500s.
I have a fundamental disagreement that schools that emphasize the academic traditions of art, and the students who follow their pedagogy to a t, are not relevant artists today. Many county colleges are guilty of taking this narrow view of aesthetically pleasing art, but also some true “art schools” never hold classes that help their students to escape this box that they are bound into: where portraiture is revered and printmaking reviled as a craft, and not a tradition (even if the school has both of these departments as majors, it is often well known within the student body of which department has more clout).
I do believe that a beautiful drawing can be relevant if executed in an innovative manner. The same can be said of portraiture, and of paintings. However, I find that these traditional meetings often hinder artists who are taught only of their tradition, and not of their possibilities, by which I mean, not being exposed to the ways in which contemporary artists are using and mutilating the mediums.
I feel as if I am loosing my thread. There are exceptions to the groundwork I have laid down. A painting or drawing can be relevant, and it does not have to be made by someone who is entirely informed. I will say again, my point is regarding innovation. One cannot expect to paint portraits in a manner that they have been painted for hundreds of years and to then be accepted into the cannon of art.
Even if what an artist strives for is not to necessarily be accepted into the cannon, I feel it is important for their work to be innovative. And with regards to those who study art in today's schools, it is indelibly important for artists involved in that world to understand and appreciate modern and contemporary art. I would argue so far as the schools have a duty to instill this appreciation in their pupils, although perhaps appreciation is the incorrect verbiage Students at least must be aware, and active participants of, this world.
My fear is that today's students are going to go on creating new ways of painting and sculpture and what have you with their own philosophies only to later figure out that their particular framework has already been approached by another artist. This is something that I believe will certainly happen if artists are not conscious of the modern and contemporary art world. Artists who are pushed through artistic institutions in order to attain their degrees must have a dialogue concerning the world around them, and know what has come before them, in order to make work that is truly reflective of their current culture, which is what all art should strive for in order to be truly successful.
I would think this argument has been made before, but I am continually astonished at how many people I preach this to tell me that they have never thought of things this way before. That they're amazed at how I've thought so much about this topic as to have a strong opinion on it.
Often, I hear that one does not have the funds for a subscription to The Burlington or ArtForum. I personally stay abreast of events in contemporary art through blogs. While I often worry that I am not getting enough of a dosage of art criticism and only seeing tidbits of news by doing this, I must say that Hyperallergic and Art21 are wonderully informative and filled with criticism not only on new shows, but on the state of the art world today and new trends, as well as many comparative analyses on contemporary artists.
So, to all my friends who are burgeoning artists: I encourage you to read voraciously, attend new exhibitions and museums, not only to inform your own practice, but to stimulate your visual vocabulary and perhaps even provide inspiration for your own work. I encourage you to read about artists, especially the ones you hate (I'm currently trying to get through a book on Renoir). Even if you hate their style, if you hear their name enough to know that they are relevant to you, you should at least make an attempt to understand why.
These are the tenements by which I approach art. I constantly think about it and consider new works that I come across. Although I live in Philadelphia, I believe that we have a vibrant art scene, and am striving for our city to have hows that equally as noteworthy as what is exhibited in New York, and I long to see our city as a place of a innovation in a list of the must see galleries. I do not expect everyone to hold this view, but I would be happy to argue with anyone who thinks that it is possible to work only within traditional mediums, traditional frameworks, and relative isolation, and come up with a work that is sincerely culturally reflexive and thereby successful (within what I acknowledge would possibly constitute a rather narrow framework for some).