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How can I increase agency to proactively handle life?

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We are all endlessly challenged by life, with a major obstacle being our frequent lack (or low degree) of agency. This also applies to artists, which is why increasing agency can often feel like a primary objective: to set up a life where your proactivity influences your fates as much and as competently as possible.

Agency is the capacity to act, and thus the result of all of a person’s experiences,  thought patterns and psychological strategies – it doesn’t come easily or for free: it’s hard to do anything when depressed. There’s little agency available to a victim. It’s often the result of years of introspection, discussions, (self-)coaching or therapy. While every child has certain decision-making freedoms, a grown-up has deeper, harder, more challenging and potentially more consequential decisions to ponder.

As an artist, you want to make use of the creativity ascribed to children – the many ideas, hopes and dreams that can result in an artwork; your most precious challenge is to use your agency to pursue your art practice. At the same time, you need a firm grasp on the world, on reality: as potentially self-employed person, you need to navigate your life through both artistic practice and personal challenges, with ever-increasing business-savviness, self-knowledge and self-care. There’s little child-like about any of this. You need to develop a balance between the potentials of your inner child, and the necessities of being grown up. Every challenge lets you refine this balance anew. Yet quite obviously, some of the situations we’ll face will simply be too much for us. They can bring us to a stand-still.

How then to approach challenges? Consider the following template:

  • Analyse the situation: What’s going on?
    • What’s the essence of the challenge? 
    • What are the intentions and goals of each of the challenges’ participants?

  • Create agency: You need to find out what room you have to maneuver the situation. Without this, there’s little space  for agency. By starting to ponder your options, your agency begins to manifest. This removes you from self-victimization, and instead lets you become proactive. Ideally, you manage to create agency
    • without causing harm to yourself (by compromising your core vision, collaborations, work, etc.), and
    • without causing harm to others.

  • Implement the steps as envisioned: Life will always interfere with the dry theory of plans. The better you visualize your strategies upfront, the easier they might play out, and the better you will likely be prepared for alterations. The stronger your experience with the specific subject matter, the better your chances in manifesting your vision: how to stretch a canvas; how to sell a sculpture; how to end a gallery collaboration; which lawyer to involve. The better your knowledge about psychological aspects of yourself and the involved people, groups and cultures, the less friction there will usually be between theory and practice.

  • Do a postmortem: Reaching the finish line sees you more experienced: you moved through (or sidestepped) challenges, and experienced successes and/or failures. Yet how did you succeed or fail specifically? What’s the anatomy of the situation and your path through the challenge(s), analyzed retrospectively? The deeper your understanding of your experiences, the better you can be prepared for similar future experiences. The wider you dig into your experience, the better you can be prepared for further, slightly different future experiences: few situations result in only one lesson to learn. Most likely, there are all sorts of things to remember, for the next time a challenge arises. Consider:
    • How spot-on was your original analysis? Were there specific aspects that unexpectedly were (in-)correct? Where did you succeed, and where did you fail miserably in understanding and anticipating the situation?

    • How good was your strategy (to create agency)?  If you understand your plan as a sum of actions with specific attributions: what were their consequences, and how could you have improved the result? Could you have reached the goal more smoothly, with less alienation or humiliation, or simply quicker or more efficiently?

    • How did your implementation actually play out? Which aspects did you not consider correctly, in regards to people, situations, materials, processes etc? Which specific collaborators or negotiation partners, likes or dislikes emerged from this episode?

Our lives are built on experiences – yet experiences themselves aren’t always to be trusted; if you don’t invest time to reflect upon them, they can stay shallow. It usually pays off to interrogate your actions (and their outcome) both radically analytically and emotionally. You need to embrace yourself, hug yourself, and then still find out why things went wrong or right. With luck, this helps you understand the world.

The deeper you know yourself, the more likely you will find goals and strategies that will make your life bearable, and potentially exciting and fun. Noone can do this for you, since everyone’s truths differ. You can surround yourself with people who help you on this way – but the will to analyze yourself has to emerge from yourself. It’s the first and final step to being a person with agency, and thus the prerequisite to succeed as an artist.

I only started getting into art way late. So much time has been lost. Is my career doomed before it began?

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With life being subject to time, and time passing in one direction only, life can feel like a one-way street. While this is true for time itself, it’s not true for our range of actions: yes, we are a weird accumulation of our past experiences; but no, we definitely don’t have to stick to previous choices – especially if they don’t feel adequate anymore. If anything, life offers an abundance of options: navigated smartly and with luck, a lot can be seen, experienced and accomplished. A lot can be changed.

Adapting the direction of one’s life is often both encouraged and admired by those that know about our frustrations. At the same time, society at large doesn’t usually offer a lot of support structure for such major movements; debt repayments are relentless, child and living costs increase steadily. Downsizing will usually be essential to changing careers, but is often interpreted as a step back; you’ll most likely have to wade through chaos, in order to establish a new, hopefully better order. In addition, ageism exists on nearly all layers of society, and also in the arts: art school applications, exhibition requirements, grants or gallery representation: they all tend to have strict, both implicit and explicitly stated age limitations. Does one’s career depend on them?

Your age isn’t something you can influence. You have no control over it. It can therefore serve as a perfect excuse to not ever start trying – it lets you be a blameless victim of circumstances. At the same time, although your age might seem absolute and ever-increasing, other people’s perception of it often turns out to be entirely dynamic: some will see 28 years as old, while others will interpret 63 years as young. Some will mention that you feel younger today, than how you appeared two years ago – after a diet, a separation, an accident or childbirth. In that way, age can be somewhat relative. Age doesn’t just denote the years since your birth; it also indicates the amount of time you had to grow, experiment, and collect experiences.

Your age can feel like a burden – but it’s always also your potential.

Age doesn’t denote lost, but lived time; time that can be used to gradually turn you into the person you want to be. Your experience and empathy can help you understand whether you want to work in the arts; it can give you the insights to increase your chances of success. Your age can feel like a burden – but it’s always also your potential. Society often favors the young, especially the alleged geniuses amongst them; yet art itself doesn’t favor creations based on their author’s age. While the art market might use extreme cases for marketing purposes (artists being extremely young or old), art itself never cares.

Art Doesn’t Care About Your Age

Instead, art cares about your expression, your authenticity, about your process and how you reflect and work with its past. It cares about pushing limits both sensitively and drastically. Art doesn’t care about careers or market values. You can’t be “too late” for art – but if you could be, why not see it as necessity for urgency? If you really could be too old to get into art, why even wait another day before starting your experiments? If your age worries you too much, consider using it as the starting point of your artistic exploration: depict age. Depict your alleged weaknesses, society’s unfairnesses, and the fears and desparations that drive your courage. Research artists that did the same before you, and find out whether you can extend their vision through yours. If you feel to have wasted years, you can either focus on what’s forever permanent and unchangeable – or refocus and try to set up a different future for yourself.

Remember that you are not your age, but your experience and motivation; your expression, network and luck. You can’t influence whether what you create is encouraged and wanted by your surroundings – but one’s surroundings aren’t necessarily the right judge on whether something makes sense or has importance. Accept that some of the most successful artists didn’t have a career in their lifetime; this can happen. Some art isn’t meant for its contemporaries. But by not trying to create the work that you could create, you’re most likely selling yourself short. Stop to regret, and start to work.

Without euphemism, consider the benefits of being older: expression is the consequence of emotionality, knowledge and courage – things that can ripe with time, if you focus and work on them. Most anyone’s career will benefit from visibility and networking; depending on your character, you might be able to present yourself and your work in a more adequate, self-assured way. This might help you to establish specific dialogs with gatekeepers, simply based on your potentially deeper experience as a human being. Or it might not: some people will focus your grey hair and wrinkles, and your allegedly outdated manners – and be unable to see your potential. This will be burdensome and frustrating, but it can’t be helped: let them lose out, and look for better options. It’s not a good reason to not get started. Understand that your age might even help you to be more disciplined and focused in the studio – after all, there’s no more time to lose.

While the art market has a tendency to thrive on young age (for market reasons: their work’s price level can expand easier, and over an allegedly longer time), someone’s age is never the only metric: it’s ultimately your work that matters, and your network. The later you start, the more important your network will be. You need to focus your work, and get to know gatekeepers: curators, gallerists, art critics etc. Read the “Networking” subchapters for detailed approaches.

If you consider yourself to be late at starting art, consider the following strategies:

  • Understand your situation: Although the art world is exciting, it’s also challenging and frustrating. Those who enter it later in life will quickly experience certain people’s arrogance and aloofness; compared to their previous work experiences, this can be off-putting. Understand that this kind of experience might happen to everyone switching industries later in life – it’s rare, and therefore suspicious to certain people (while admirable to others). Know that you will need to work and network smartly, and maybe harder than younger peers. You might require more luck as well. You will benefit from realistically defining your idea of success: it might be exhibitions and gallery representations, or it might simply be a life that’s no longer bound to your previous job (without gallery representation, you will get to keep one hundred percent of your earnings). Understand your fears and aspirations, and let neither of them drown you.
    Understand that everyone can set up an artistic practice. To judge your art world chances, consider your motives: what do you want from the arts? Money and fame, or a worthwhile mode of expression? You can work on both, but need to accept that in certain ways, you can control the latter way more than the prior.

  • Be realistic: Establish realistic structures in regards to time, space and money: how much time can you invest in your practice, where can you pursue your work, and how much money will these require. Set up work habits to pragmatically increase the depth and scope of your artistic practice.

  • Experiment: Allot time to experiment with different media, styles and semantics. The more you do this, the better you will understand what you like, and what you don’t like. This will help you to understand your quality ideals, and will therefore be another basis for your artistic practice.

  • Start gradually: Start your experiments in your spare time, without investing too much: most media have more affordable student-quality materials. You don’t need a studio: a dedicated wall or corner in your flat will suffice. Understand that most every invested hour will bring you forward. Try to motivate yourself to find thirty minutes per day, to continue your experiments. If you manage to establish this kind of schedule, you will know a lot more about your tools, materials, media, styles and semantics within a year.

  • Find education possibilities and funding: Research local adult education centers, universities and art schools, as well as adult learning grants. Visit institutions do understand whether you want to enroll, or rather want to become self-taught. The former will usually offer a stronger network, access to studios, materials and workshops, as well as more feedback opportunities – yet only accepts the lucky few. Adult education centers are a more affordable in getting to know media and materials – but usually aren’t strongly tied to the art world.

  • Find mentors: Your previous experiences might have created access to wealthy supporters – understand who they might be. Your path of trying to change your life, of living your dream might feel harsh and real to you, but might also serve to  inspire others, and motivate them to support you beyond expectations. They might be very curious about your new “adventure”, the works you create, and the new side of you they never knew about.

  • Start saving money: Investigate your financial situation to understand where you can save on your living expenses – housing, commute, vacation, hobbies etc. Understand where else might be able to save, and how you could downsize; the longer your savings lasts, the lower your fixed costs, and the easier your life will be – at least financially.

  • Consider therapy: If you lack self-confidence, specifically about your age, then consider for this to have a deeper reason. If you can afford the time and money, invest in a healthy therapy setting to reflect your past, and its consequences – it will likely help you to establish a better basis for the future. You might also consider using art as therapeutic model: while despised by some as too egocentric, others have used it to great success.

Photo of Louise Bourgeoise, Credit Unknown

The Artist’s Imagined and Actual Life

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Life is an endless series of challenges. We often lack the courage to approach, and the knowledge to solve them. But life isn’t just an accumulation of challenges – it’s also an endless series of experiences. Challenges can become experiences, and help us to proceed better next time. Nevertheless, we need to accept life as an endless accumulation of problems: when one is solved, the next one appears. As a result, there’s always a biggest problem right in front of us. This can be intimidating – but by understanding problems as personal growth opportunities, we can accept and solve them. We can find our place in the world.

Everyone understands the creativity required to be an artist – it’s a cliché by now. The artist’s knowledge of aesthetics and semantics, the histories of their media and paragons, the skills required to master their crafts, the urge to materialize thought, opinion and emotion into matter – these are core parts of any artistic practice. For historic reasons, this is where art schools usually stop their discussion, leaving graduates with rather romantic ideas about their profession: if the curriculum doesn’t discuss business and personal growth, can it really be essential? The artist’s imagined life doesn’t need any of this.

The reality is different though: art has become a business. It’s possible to live from your creations, but that requires you to grow your business sense, and balance it with your work practice. Art done for the pure sake of personal expression can ignore this: professionals don’t have this luxury. With art schools mostly leaving business realities unmentioned, artists become professionals predominantly by learning from their mistakes: messing up gallery collaborations, missing out on sales opportunities, ignoring commission contracts or work insurances, failing at communicating to their collectors, suffering from burnout, screwing up their taxes – the list is endless and enraging: by so exclusively focusing on art practices, art schools foster an outdated, romantic, unrealistic and unreasonable approach to life. They focus on the creation of hobbyists, not professionals. 

The expertises required to succeed as contemporary artist are immense. Artists traditionally think of topics outside of their work practice as hardships (“Can’t I please just continue sculpting?”): for professionals, this won’t be good enough. Aren’t artists the ultimate problem solvers? Isn’t the artist’s actual life the ultimate creative challenge? There cannot easily be a more holistically challenging, and thus potentially more gratifying job out there. Let’s therefore embrace the complexities of the real world, and become better artists along the way. To this end, the Handbook offers analyses and strategies beyond pure career advice. It wants you to thrive as an artist, as a business person and as a human being worthy of success.

To get there, you need to be circumspect, and perpetually increase your self-knowledge: who are you? How do you want to express yourself in your art practice and business relationships? How does success look like to you? By incorporating these questions into your everyday inquiries, you will become ever more sensitive to your surrounding’s changes and challenges. A seismograph of change and potential: an artist.