The Cohesive Body of Work is Dead

Quick! Somebody start playin’ taps. The cohesive body of work is, indeed, dead. Put a fork in it! Dead like a doorknob dead. Finally over and done kind of a dead. You know what I’m talking about here. Muerto.

Allow me to explain.

Back in the dark ages, when I first started out as a photographer, photographers were these people who shot film. If they got a little bit better, maybe more involved, they started developing their own film. Basement and washroom darkrooms sprung up around the lands like mushrooms. Paper was hoarded, good chemistry mixed, and gallery shows were reserved for “the greats.” But, if you look at who attended these shows, there were two types of people: one were the rich, the famous, the “collectors” who seemed to be not-interested in your work and the other were other photographers. Shows were, quite literally, divided into two groups of people: those who looked at the work, examined the prints, got dressed up and didn’t know anybody at the show or those who were photographers. The photographers traded paper secrets, mixtures for chemistry, film types, etc. They spoke “in code” if you will. Who else would know the meaning of the words “F/8 and be there,” right?The other folks? They were just bystanders really. Along for the ride, some might say. It was really all about the photography in those days, and photography was done by the kings with the cameras.

Fast forward a bit. Galleries started to “make” photographers. Photography started to become an “accepted” medium (and by that I mean it was being “accepted” in the art world more and more) even a “collected” medium. Prices for antique images rose. Ansel Adams sold his first million dollar print. (Don’t we all wish we could do that? Oh how we try!) Galleries had more of a say in who was showing where. Careers were built-up, made, and broken on the walls of certain avenues in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and even a few other places, like Santa Fe. A small hovel controlled the success of many. Photographers were either part of the “in” crowd or they were outsiders. The lines in the sand were clearly drawn and it was clear (well maybe it was mostly clear) to those fighting for a spot in the “inner circles” of the gallery world. As a photographer, you had to do what the galleries wanted. They ruled the roost, as it were and, those who followed along and played “nice” got rewarded with big “career making!” shows. The rest of us? Well, we kept locked up in our basement and crawlspace darkrooms “conveniently located” in flyover country.

Fast forward again. Welcome to the rise of the Internet and the “Great Recession.” Many galleries are struggling to stay afloat. It’s estimated that, during the “Great Recession” about 1/3 of the world’s art galleries closed down. Mind you, these weren’t just galleries in places like New York, this was a world-wide event. Things crashed and people got burnt. Everything was down, flat was “the new up.” But, artwork? Yeah, people were still doing that, still making it, some now more than ever. But, where to sell, where to sell with all of the galleries gone and all?

Imagine for a moment that you’re an artist, sitting out there in Peoria, making your oil on canvas paintings, wondering if the world will ever come back to good. Now imagine a gallery, one of those “lucky” few who did not close already. You’re both struggling, but in different ways. The artist, to be recognized, to stand out among the “noise” that’s out there on in Internet and especially on that gallery circuit, the gallery to stay afloat-you have expenses after all, and a lot of them. It can take thousands to keep a gallery afloat and you need a sure sales pitch to do it, in an economy that’s not so hot. You suddenly learn the meaning of the words “discretionary income” and it hurts. It’s not pretty, even in the best of cases.

In the early days, all the artist had to do was create a rather unique (or “unique-ish” if you will allow me to make up a word) body of work that looked consistent. We’ve all heard this term here: the “cohesive body of work.” And we all know it’s really shorthand for something that’s really a marketing tool. “Oh, yes, I know Jane Smith! She photographs those dress forms in Antarctica. Those images are so lovely! Would you like a piece of cake?” If you didn’t have a “dress forms in Antarctica” line, if you didn’t have a “moment” in which to sell yourself, to brand you as an artist, you didn’t sell, you didn’t get noticed, and you didn’t get picked up by one of those all-important galleries. It didn’t matter really if the pictures were any good (though, in fairness, most of them were!) it just mattered that you had your “dress forms in Antarctica” moment in the sun.

Again, fast forward a bit to our harder economic times and shifting attitudes. Galleries now want (actually NEED) work that sells. SELL, SELL, SELL. In the days following the “Great Recession” those lucky enough to still be alive need that sort of lifeblood. They need it, they want it, they demand it, and technology is here to help. We have things like Flickr, like Moo, like Blurb. An artist can make a book, make a business card, design a flyer, heck even make and sell framed artwork right out of his (or her) home. Gone are the stinky darkrooms, behind us are the days of “irrelevant” flyover country. Anybody can get up in the morning and declare, “This is Tuesday! I think I shall start to make and sell artwork!”

Consider books. In the early days, you hoped to get a gallery show in the hopes that maybe some (one?) of the “non-photographers” at the “big important show” was a publisher. And, if you were oh-so-lucky, that big important publisher would notice your work and give you an oh-so-coveted book deal. You would be on your way! A book deal! All of your friends will want to be you and you’d be the toast of many a dinner party. Then, Blurb came along and changed all of that. Anybody can make a book. Galleries expected you to come in, Blurb book in tow, showing them your “dress forms in Antarctica” series in all of it’s Blurb-ery goodness. Tides changed. Now, instead of doing a show in order to make a book, you made a book in order to try to get a show.

Then, the Internet came along. It didn’t just come along, it simmered to a previously unknown degree of importance. We have Facebook and Pinterest. We have galleries putting themselves online but artists too online with a “web presence.” Artists did websites and many websites provided the shopping basket experience. There are even sites on the web such as 500px or ImageKind where you can upload your art and they will handle printing, sales, credit card processing. I mean, come on, who does not like credit card processing? *Poof* Every artist is in business now! That “Guy Tuesday?” Yeah, he’s so all over Etsy, let me tell you! Selling like hotcakes now and, heck, he doesn’t even need a gallery wall. He does it out of his basement! You know the basement, don’t you? Why, it’s the same place we used to hide the stinky darkrooms.

So galleries start to use Facebook, Twitter, and the like too. Now they see the successful artists out there and they want a piece of that. They NEED a piece of that in order to survive. Gone are the days of the artist trying to impress the gallery with the “cohesive body of work” instead galleries (well, smart ones anyway) are out trolling for successful artists. They want to see sales. It’s becoming harder and harder to go up to a gallery and say, “Here! Look at these beautiful images of dress forms in Antarctica!” Instead, they are expecting to meet artists who say, “I’m the great Jane Smith! You know me already. My dress forms in Antarctica series is all over the web. Perhaps you’ve seen me on Twitter? Perez Hilton once liked one of my images on Facebook. Would you be so kind as to represent me? My web statistics indicate that I need to ‘fill in’ my demographic interests in your town. Thanks so much! I’ll Tweet you the details and we can email over lattes.”

The point here is that there is an increased burden on the artist to create himself or herself in the way they want to be created. Galleries are shifting away from bringing patrons “new/fresh” work to work that they know will sell a certain amount. And, how do they know what will sell? Why, they are increasingly using tools like Facebook, Twitter, Blurb, Pinterest, 500px, and the like. They want to associate themselves with successful artists. In turn, it’s becoming increasingly the artist’s responsibility to approach the gallery by saying, “Here. I have XXX amount of sales a month through Twitter.” Galleries, in turn, have to provide a different, slightly modified service. They have to sell on-line. They have to help build that “web presence” of the artist. Gone are the days of “dress forms in Antarctica” but here are the days of “we represent Jane Smith!” or “Come here to see Jane Smith’s famous dress forms in Antarctica work!”

Yes, it’s a slightly different ballgame. Good in some ways, bad in others, changed in almost all. Gone are the days of “cohesive body of work” but here are the days of build your following. Kind of like that line from that old movie, “if you build it, they will come” only with artwork. In order to rise to the top, you must be Jane Smith. You must build your own following. You must generate your own sales. You must build your own brand. You must, well, be you. Not just “you” but the biggest, brightest YOU you can possibly be and you must Tweet, “YOU!” all over the world in order to do it. And, any “cohesive body of work” that falls out of that? Yeah, it’s so yesterday’s news.

Until next time…

1 Comment

  1. Great Grandma Lin
    September 6, 2012 / 2:30 am

    how true, I just made my first self published book into an e-book to have a presence on marketing is a full time job…and I'm retired.

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