Monday, December 2, 2013

Labels

-By Arnie Fenner


“If we were to wake up some morning and find that everyone was the same race, creed and color, we would find some other causes for prejudice by noon.”
        —George Aiken

I'm not sure exactly how to categorize this post, so let's just consider it a rambling philosophical or cultural conversation. If you want to skip all the babble (and who could blame you?) I can sum it up this way:

Labels: I don't like them. If you're curious to know why, well, you're stuck reading this.

Harlan Ellison used to get irritated when others would label him as a "Science Fiction Writer." It didn't matter whether he wrote TV shows like Burke's Law or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; it didn't matter if he wrote political commentary or film reviews; it didn't matter if he wrote horror tales or hardboiled crime fiction or urban fantasies or simply "story" stories, people would routinely describe Harlan as a "sci fi writer," which would often illicit an angry response from him. SF fans would get angry at him in turn, feeling that he was giving them the brush off after they'd supported his work—but that wasn't the case at all. Harlan never disavowed his science fiction roots or fiction, he simply didn't want to be hamstrung by a label; he didn't want to miss out on opportunities or audiences because of preconceived (and often erroneous) perceptions of his work. The only label Harlan ever wanted as a description of what he did, of how he earned his living, was "writer."

Of course, there were and are many that happily embrace the SF Writer title—just as it's true that Harlan wasn't alone in trying to avoid the designation: Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury felt similarly. They were happy to write science fiction (among many other things, naturally), but they fought against being labeled (or marketed) as SF writers. Stephen King has spoken frequently about being called a "horror writer" regardless of anything else he might do.

I've been thinking about this a little bit recently, partly because some of the responses to my "Pet Peeves" post awhile back. In the art world who is what? And, more importantly…what's the difference? Artist. Illustrator. Fine Artist. Commercial Artist. Gallery Artist. Narrative Artist. Impressionist. Expressionist. Post-Expressionist. Abstract Expressionist. Pop Artist. Dadaist. Fauvist. Surrealist. Science Fiction Artist. Western Artist. Wildlife Artist. Fantasy Artist. Fantastic Artist. Outsider Artist. Lowbrow Artist. Street Artist. Urban Realist. Magical Realist. Imaginary Realist. Imaginative Realist. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Everybody has a club. And everybody's "club" is better than the other guy's "club." It's the Sharks Vs the Jets, doncha know.

Labels make it easy, I guess: they can be shorthand explanations to the curious, simple summations of someone's "job," or, often, a way to sell something to the public (even if they don't actually understand the distinctions and nuances). I suppose that labels can sometimes be a positive (though I'm a little hard pressed to think of an example at the moment): mostly they're fairly harmless with little significance or meaning. And God knows that if an artist is happy referring to themselves as this, that, or the other, more power to them. Truthfully, labels come and go, barely making a blip on time's radar screen. But sometimes the labels become a trap, a way to pigeonhole others, a way to form class distinctions (yes, even in the arts), a way to…discriminate.



“I worry that the language of exclusion, whether we perpetuate it through self-consciousness or a sniff of geeky elitism, is doing the genre more harm than good. Strangling our own potential audience.”
        —Kameron Hurley

I talk a little bit about this in my essay in Spectrum 20, about the "pecking order" in the art world, a pecking order that is entirely specious and wholly manufactured, primarily by non-artists attempting to capitalize on artists' egos and insecurities. Spectrum began two decades ago as a direct response to an elitist attitude in the illustration community toward F&SF art: with only the rarest of exceptions, artists working in genre were dismissed and discounted—discriminated against—by their fellow non-genre artists (even as those general illustrators were in turn dismissed by the Fine Art advocates—discrimination is the gift that keeps on giving). Spectrum helped to change that attitude a little by being inclusive and encouraging, by embracing and celebrating diversity. By showcasing a multitude of approaches and sensibilities. We used the term "fantastic art" when promoting Spectrum as an umbrella, certainly not as a definition. It hasn't made the asshats in the art world disappear (I wish), but it has provided a welcoming home for all artists, regardless of how they choose to describe themselves or what they use to create their work. Being inclusive broke down some of the artificially constructed barriers and ultimately helped make things better for all artists. We've tried to extend that positive outreach with Spectrum Fantastic Art Live.

So I'm a little discouraged by attempts in the last half dozen years to splinter the community and create something of a class system for fantasy art, elevating or dismissing artists based on little more than the tool and medium they choose to use in the creation of their art. I read a sad essay online by an art dealer that dismissed "prints (i.e. digital artists)" and made a snotty comment about "action figures" and "T-shirts"—and by extension the artists that create them. This was the same person I had argued with in past years when she would assert there were "no new artists entering the field worth a damn." Her stance was always pure bunk, of course: exciting new artists emerge every year. Her prejudice was aimed squarely at digital artists (well, and those traditional painters who refused to sell her originals at the prices she wanted) and that prejudice blinded her to the craft and skill, to the intrinsic value and cultural significance of those choosing to work with methods she personally did not collect. As for comic art—woof—her contempt was thick as a brick.

Who is this personor anyone else—to dismiss any artist of any kind or anyone's art as an attempt to elevate other types (which, almost inevitably it can be shown, the dismissive party have a financial stake in elevating)? Who is this person to smirk and proudly proclaim their prejudice and not have their motives questioned? The answer, of course, is: nobody.

Because when you think about it, there is only one tool that counts in art: the intellect of the artist. Anyone who obsesses over medium or venue instead of content…really doesn't understand art at all.

The dividers are always those who erect the barriers and try to profit at the end of the day—and always at the artists' expense. The Fine Art/Museum/Gallery Worlds are experts at categorizing and excluding various types of art and artists from their hallowed halls, regardless of aesthetic value or popularity…and they always use labels as their scalpel. There are a number of artists I know who love Spectrum—who have appeared in the annual over the years—but don't participate in the competition anymore because their galleries are afraid they'll be tainted by appearing in the same book with (you guessed it) illustrators and hurt sales to their Fine Art patrons. It's unfortunately common. I remember when a touring Winslow Homer museum show was considered controversial because it smacked of, you know, illustration. The horror.



Naturally we could argue that all art that is sold or created either for sale or on commission, from the Sistine Chapel on, is "Commercial Art" and not "Fine Art" at all…but that's a conversation for another day.

The simple fact is that fads come and go; "movements" go in and out of favor. Tastes change and evolve with time. It's easy for artists to get wrapped up in the periphery and not give enough attention to what's important: the work.

When I see artists rushing to embrace some sort of new label to describe themselves or their art, when I see them falling for the patter and schmaltz and manipulation of the pretentious, the elitists, and the prejudiced, I sometimes feel a little bit like Cassandra warning the Trojans that there's something funky about that big wooden horse and maybe they should set fire to it instead of dragging it through the gates. Monet never described himself as an "Impressionist" (the term was coined by critic Louis Leroy as a derisive description of the show Monet's "Impression, Sunrise" appeared in). Picasso never described himself as "a Cubist," Andrew Wyeth never described what he did as "Modern Art." They didn't have to. They never worried about explaining about what they did; they never cared about sitting at the Cool Kids Table. There was never the need. Audiences responded to the work, not a neat and tidy descriptor. The art did the explaining that was necessary.

So my feeling is that the only label an artist needs to describe themselves is…

Artist.

I think that works pretty nicely. And it doesn't fall into the discrimination game others like to play.

"Any club that would have me as a member, I wouldn't want to join."
        —Groucho Marx

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