Quantity versus Quality: A Tale of Two Artists
Canadian painter Robert Genn has a twice-weekly newsletter that I always enjoy. While Genn writes primarily about painting, his thoughts apply to any creative pursuit, including writing — and we’ve reposted his letters here several times before. The gem below, which illustrates the importance of practice and gets to the heart of what “success” really means, is reprinted by permission.
Because this is a bit personal, I’m not using their real names. They’re both about 40 years old.
“Jack” got a BFA and then an MFA from a Midwestern University. He’s visited many of the major contemporary art museums and follows the work of several “important” contemporary painters. He’s written articles on Philip Guston and others. He subscribes to several art magazines and is “the most knowledgeable art-guy in any discussion.” After university he worked for a while in a commercial art gallery. He sometimes writes me long, well-informed letters. He’s painted eleven large paintings (two unfinished) since leaving school. He’s not represented by any gallery. He thinks you need to move to New York and “get lucky” with a dealer who “really represents you.”
“Jill” took two years of art school and then quit. She pays little attention to other artists. She subscribes to no art magazines but has taken several workshops. Her hobbies include bowling and travelling. At one time she also worked in a commercial art gallery. On two or three occasions she’s written to me. She’s painted “approximately two thousand paintings” since leaving school. She’s represented by four commercial galleries in four, well-separated mid-sized cities.
There’s a great story in David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art and Fear. Here it is:
“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of the work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work in the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A,” forty pounds a “B,” and so on. Those being graded on “quality,” however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busy turning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
PS: “Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work.” (David Bayles and Ted Orland)
Esoterica: Both subscribers Jack and Jill are thoughtful and enthusiastic artists. Art is central to their lives. And while success and “being able to function as a full time artist” may not be important to some of us, their current situations are quite different. Jack rents an apartment and makes $2,150 per month (plus tips and benefits) as an airport porter. Jill works daily in her converted garage in a home she now owns. These days she’s averaging $18,000 per month. She has “no benefits.”
Don’t miss the treasure trove of Genn’s letters here.