Cautious Generosity

Recently, a reader wrote the following:

There is another kind of generosity that comes much harder to me. I know I shouldn’t be stingy in this way, but I find myself stubbornly so. It’s the generosity of sharing my ideas, my connections, or giving a leg up to those who could benefit sometimes from my knowledge – whether that’s contacts, networks, tips, or the meat of my ideas themselves.”

This concern, of course, is not unique and strikes at the heart of something that all those in creative professions fear and must face. The ownership of ideas is difficult to prove. If you tell someone your plan in confidence and they, in turn, use it for their own purposes, there is very little you can do to show that you are the originator. Spreading this rumor is likely to make you look like the bad guy. It’s no wonder that this sort of generosity is cause for concern.

Arguably, no one would really offer up their original ideas before they have been fleshed out and no one would expect this from another artist. Talking about work in progress in general terms is one thing, but detailing the entire plan is another altogether. There is nothing wrong with being a little protective of your creative capital, it is the lifeblood of what you do.

But what about sharing your networks or some trade secrets that helped you get to where you are today? While you may have worked tooth and nail for everything you’ve gained, there were surely people along the way who said yes at the right moment and assisted your progress. No one can ask more than this, and as an artist of a certain standing, there is nothing wrong with offering this sort of help.

It’s important to ask yourself what you may gain or lose by offering your assistance in any way. While this may not sound like a very altruistic way of thinking, remember that you are indeed running a business and there is nothing wrong with a bit of shrewd thinking. Further, though, when you stop and think about the outcome of sharing your network, it is unlikely that helping an emerging artist by introducing people who might be able to help will in any way affect your position as a more established artist.

No one exists in a vacuum. Even you, who may have scraped and fought your way to where you are today, benefitted from the acceptance and help of others. Sure, you may have pounded the pavement endlessly in order to secure your position but that is no reason not to pay forward the success you have achieved. It is too easy to forget, once you have achieved a certain status, the myriad small moments that led you there. While it may seem as though hardly anyone was out to help you in the early days, surely there were some otherwise you could not be where you are today. Even if it was just a few gallerists who were finally willing to take a chance, there are always rungs of assistance in the ladder to every success, no matter how small.

In our present times, we live in a world where community is very much at our fingertips. The rules of social engagement have definitely changed. This is both a benefit and a burden. While the new landscape of online social engagement can absolutely open up opportunities that didn’t exist prior to this revolution in social connection, the online community can also present a world of its own difficulties. It is impossible to know who you are actually dealing with and with virtually everyone in the entire art world present online, it can easily overwhelm a newcomer to the scene.

For these reasons, there is a lot to be said for good old-fashioned face-to-face interaction. Being the sort of artist who is willing to mentor in the real world sets you apart. Establishing this sort of reputation, for being the one who will gladly share the bounty you have created, seldom reverses one’s own success and frequently opens new doors you may never have considered.

Getting back to the idea of sharing artistic ideas and concepts, this is a bit trickier. As I said before, it may be unwise to give away your nascent, unfruited plans to just anyone. On the other hand, allowing others to view works in progress isn’t likely to cause too much harm.

Arguably, there is no such thing as original art. Even some of the most contemporary artists’ work is derivative of past creations. Marina Abramovic, in her unique style, has absolutely drawn from (and occasionally been accused of copying) works by other artists. Pablo Picasso (and perhaps more famously, Steve Jobs who quoted him) said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.” This doesn’t mean that you should open yourself up to idea theft, but it does mean that perhaps being stingy with your concepts, your network, your position as an established artist, doesn’t count for as much security as you might think. Be smart about things, but in general, it is always a good idea to reach down the ladder and help those coming up behind you find the next rung.

20 COMMENTS

  1. I find the attitude of sharing ideas or allowing a work in progress to be viewed, as antithetical to the process. I’m very superstitious about being influenced; I don’t ask for anyone’s input or opinion while I’m making a piece. I want to own it, 100%, and like Freddy Mercury, I’m afraid of getting my teeth fixed, because it would change my voice.

  2. my friend the very brilliant Susan Curtis, Royal Academy, etc. actually performed the meditative ‘staring’ performance at the Liverpool Biennalle a few years before Marina brought it to MOMA.
    Susan had been working with a spiritual group in Switzerland and this was part of the project she was deeply involved in. Because Marina was so much more well known, Susan lost a teaching/art job because they felt that the work was now over exposed by Marina and it was difficult for very ethical Susan to make a thing about it. I, as her fan and friend, was appalled.

    • True, and also Marina interviewed me and my wife who were in the whitney biennial giving out hugs several years ago – then after knowing us well, did her “embrace” performance. I went to it, got a hug, and said “marina, remember me? remember the art my wife and i did in the whitney” silently she nodded her head. Other artists have more examples as well!

      • wow! This is truly sad that she used (essentially stole) your idea of a performance piece without asking for permission, or asking to collaborate! I really wish she did. with her statue she brings this to a wider audience but also acknowledges the collective cultural wisdom and wisdom of the two artists she’s influenced by! Also, the comment earlier, shows that it wasn’t the first time she had done something like this! Very sad.

  3. No mention at all regarding the gay glass ceiling?
    The gay mafia controls art, fashion and music… broadly speaking but true none the less.
    If you’re not gay, there ain’t no way.

    • That’s kind of offensive! I have heard the Jews run Hollywood, if you’re not a Jew forget it. I’ve heard you need an MFA from the Yale mafia or forget it, I’ve heard you need to be a minority, or forget it. If you research the the 100 most powerful artists working today, not to mention the thousands that simply make a living and/or exhibit a lot, you will find they are not all gay, they are largely white, straight men, though we are seeing more women and minorities as we evolve.

      • “But true nonetheless”, seriously? It used to be that making it in art, one of your parents had to be an alcoholic. Sharing technique is one thing, sharing ideas is a very grey area that for me, falls under personal approach. As I said in an earlier post, I’m careful to the point of being paranoid about messing with a methodology that finally feels like it’s working.

  4. i am realizing the importance of getting my work out there w my name on it, documented w photographs’ etc. publicity; then there is a clear line of who influenced who. (although, I have heard there is nothing actually nothing new under the sun)

  5. If I didn’t have people who believed in me earlier in my career I wouldn’t be where I am now. So I feel I have an obligation to do the same, especially with younger artists. I also share with them what I would have liked to hear/know/see earlier in my career. I consider it part of my job.

  6. Wonderful post!

    I think once we realize there is more than enough of everything for everyone and stop hoarding (ideas, money, goods, …) we’ll find great inner peace.

    Ideas are always floating around and belong to everyone and it’s up to us to grab them and make something of it. If we view that part as competition we only stress ourselves out.

    That being said we do have to be smart and guard and protect our creative endeavors like parents and then we have to let them go to grow.

    The smartest move is probably to create content that’s so original and unique there is no way it can be copied because it is your authentic individual expression and there is only one of You.

  7. To be cooperative or competitive, to be altruistic or selfish, to be generous or greedy, to be honest or a thief. In some ways our culture has educated us to be all those posibilities which makes choosing the right path, sometimes a slippery slope. As usual, Brainard some wonderful food for thought.

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