Bradley Wester

Artist to Artist #4 (On the Occasion of my Guggenheim Rejection)

The conceit of the Artist to Artist series is a personal letter to a real person like in previous Artist to Artist #’s 1, 2 & 3. In this case, the piece began as a letter I sent to my Guggenheim Fellowship recommenders—those who wrote reference letters on my behalf.

Letter To My Recommenders:

Dear Recommender,

You are receiving this letter because you are a friend or colleague that holds the special place of being one of my reference letter writers; in this case, one of my Guggenheim Fellowship recommenders.

Choosing to be an artist and making it your number one priority for a lifetime—nearly forty years of this lifetime so far—might appear to be an insane enterprise. But for many of us, it is not a choice, but a way of being in the world. Otherwise why would we choose this path when, in these eleventh-hour days, being a true artist goes against the crux of contemporaneity as we have come to know it—there is no place for an art for art’s sake, or an art in service of change, in late market capitalism’s obliterating operation of supply and demand.

Not being in demand is the real state-of-the-arts for the clear majority of artists. The ambitious among us would like it otherwise, yet the ability to tolerate rejection might be the ultimate gauge of whether we are artists or not. Most of us, I believe, aren’t so much after the art-star-in-demand version we hear about, with her full-page magazine spreads, or his hobnob-ings with movie stars, or their waiting lists for bland inoffensive over-priced paintings. There are many artists whose primary ambition is to be a vital part of the conversation, which, beyond finding the means, time, and space to make work, means finding proper context. Sure, solid representation and a modicum of sales are important, but more importantly should the work be written about by smart writers, referred to in articles, discussed by other artists and art students, and be on the radar of smart curators who contextualize the work in important group museum shows, biennials, and surveys.

Going after the high-profile Guggenheim grant was just one of the ways I hoped would move my work toward its proper context. Context is everything for me these days. Context is what can transform my work from being a collection of smart aesthetic objects, ostensibly for sale, to the life’s work of a serious, thinking, passionate artist who is in meaningful conversation with other artists about the issues of our time. The problem is, without context, my side of the conversation has been hitherto suppressed. Even more frustrating for how deeply I am engaged in this theoretical, political, aesthetical conversation through the discovery and study of some of its best and brightest voices.

And speaking of brightest, and the desire to shine, the most serious concern of my recent work, as you well know, has been for the ‘politics of shine’. And it is through this interest that I want to join the conversation. These days, when anyone wants to disparage the inflated art market or our art-fair culture (and there is a lot to disparage there!) they describe the worst possible kind of art as ‘shiny’. While this is an understandable slur in this context, it has become a foregone conclusion. I’m interested in restoring the transgressive agency to shine, celebrating it while critiquing our contemporary shiny commodity fetish. Art does not have to be complicit with it. My mission is to put the disco back into DISCOurse

The beginnings of what I hope to be a larger article on the #shinegeist, (please use the hashtag) can be found HERE.

Part of my new strategy is to write my own context and do my best to get it out there. The paradox is that in the last four years I’ve made the strongest work of my career, and had two solo exhibitions. A review in Sculpture Magazine notwithstanding, it’s led to nowhere and I’ve sold less than in the previous fifteen years. Part of this may have to do with the limitations of the current gallery model, market forces, the mid-career artist who is not famous, and plain luck. Still, I have a lot to be grateful for—a more than respectable resume, incredible home and studio, awesome friends, and the freedom to focus my time on my work.

A lot to be thankful for, even on this day after receiving a form-letter from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation stating that I did not make the 178-person cut out of 3000 applicants, despite the extraordinary recommendation letters each one of you wrote for me. I get it. There are too many artists, and many of us are even good. And the funding and facilities of our granting institutions and residency programs are nowhere commensurate with the numbers of their applicants.

For me, the Guggenheim rejection marks #17 in a record 21 applications in less than a twelve-month period. Granted, more than half were writing related and writing is a medium for which I have less of a track record. Still, 17 rejections in a row out of 21.

What was it I said about the ability to tolerate rejection?

I’m choosing to let it roll off my back, and double down. There is part of me though that hates having to be responsible for this salesmanship aspect of my career, that hates having no other word for ‘career’ but needing to use it, and hates that we teach art students ‘professional practices’ these days. Yet I will say that reading, and especially writing, and the numerous efforts I make at communicating what I’m doing to get a grant or a residency, a job or a show, has more often made my work, and my relationship to it, stronger. Still, when a rejection comes, after all these years of experience and succeeding, there can be this voice:

“What are you doing wrong. You’ll never be able to ask for another letter again. Nobody likes a loser.”

I know several artists that simply can’t ask again because of this voice, even after one or two rejections. It’s a big ask, because it’s not the easiest thing for someone to jot off a letter, especially a sincere one, especially by someone significant enough to make a difference, and who therefore has been asked by others.

So, I want to thank you guys again, sincerely, for being in my corner, for believing in me, no matter the outcome. It’s difficult to express how important it is to have a few friends and professionals in their field recognize in my work what the larger world hasn’t yet. It’s confirmation, on those bad days when it’s not going well, that if my work has attracted the likes of you, I must be doing something right.

So count on it; I’ll be asking you for another letter soon!

Love, Bradley
April 2016

(Above image: “Conversation” (detail) drawing/collage, Bradley Wester 2016)

Artist to Artist #3 (Shine and its DISCOntents), made better by recent edits, and from which I will develop a larger article here

For other Artist to Artist entries and other writings, click on blog link at margin.