They’re the two questions that go straight for the jugular and can stop an interview with almost any artist in its tracks.
In fact, I've just posed one of these questions to an artist I'm interviewing right now and have yet to hear back.
All I can hear are crickets chirping. CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP! CHIRP!
Years ago, I asked an artist one of these questions and he stumbled and replied by saying something like, "I don't feel comfortable with that. Next question please."
Before I continue, let me just say that there's this common belief that interviewers are "out to get you" with hardball questions. Nothing could be further or farther from the truth ... unless you're a crooked politician or child molester.
Most journalists simply want great, exciting stories and they absolutely want their interview subjects to do very well. And wanna hear a secret? Most journalists want you to do exceedingly well during your interviews with them so that they'll have great stories to stockpile with their resumes. It's about doing great work AND advancing their careers.
There, I said it. But here's the thing. I've found that in our current time, it's not the hardball questions that foul up interviews. It's the simple, softball ones. I can barely get most interview subjects past the softball questions. People have a tendency to treat interviews like inquisitions ... or at least like law school exams.
I remember years ago, I was interviewing a woman about something, I don't exactly recall what. Yet I do remember that during the actual interview, I literally had to hold the woman's hand to get her through it. She was terrified. It was as if she thought I was asking her to defend her life choices which I certainly was not. I'm sure that had I asked her a true, "hardball" question, she would have thrown up all over the floor.
Interviews are your chance to actually say something of value. Everybody wants to be heard. Well, guess what? You now have the microphone. Say something! Now is when it actually counts. Or ... is that your fear? Could it be that you know that by going on record you will forever be judged according to your words? Don't worry. You WILL be. Nevertheless, this is your opportunity to make some small impact with your words. Your words DO matter. Words are wombs that give birth to reality.
But anyway, back to those two questions that make artists squirm.
I've interviewed hundreds of artists and I think these questions make them uncomfortable because they really center on the true state of contemporary art today. So, what are those questions?
Drum roll please ... They are the most basic, softball questions you can imagine...
1. "Are you a full-time artist?" and...
2. "Have you sold any paintings lately?" or "Is your work selling?"
Surely, you're laughing right now, but I'm telling you, I can engage any visual artist in the most ethereal, intellectual, head in the clouds discussion about contemporary art, but when I pose either of those questions, it's like crashing a brand new Mercedes into an old, Oak tree.
I continue to ask these questions because they're very important. Inquiring about an artist's work status, full-time or part-time, gives you insight into their commitment, but more importantly, their ability to sustain themselves as artists in our digitally-obsessed world that doesn't respect contemporary art. The same goes for the sales question. If your work isn't selling, how are you surviving? This may speak to your lack of salesmanship, but couldn't it also be about how our society ignores creativity while at the same time it claims creativity is important? The sales question alone opens up a whole Pandora's Box. Art is not an easy career choice.
Again, I love asking artists these questions not because I want to embarrass them, but because they really do help us as a society understand the TRUE state of the art world today. In fact, I could make the argument that every other question I ask amounts to bullcrap. These two questions really get to the heart of the matter and everything else is intellectual masturbation. Yes, that's a little harsh, but I just wanted to use that silly term I made up. Intellectual masturbation.
The entire art world doesn't want to address these deceptively softball questions because they're quite frankly too hard. It's much easier to talk about things like line, form and composition. No feelings get hurt with those "artspeak" questions and everybody gets to go home feeling warm and fuzzy about art. However, the two (too?) dangerous questions I often ask are like curve balls from a gunslinging, straight shooter.
Here's the deal. If every single artist I interview is a full-time artist and their work is selling, then guess what? We're living in HEAVEN. But the reality is we're here on earth, living in this fallen world where we have problems, dilemmas and constant challenges, if not barriers and roadblocks. It's called, "Real Life."
The glamour and gimmickry of the art world can be tiresome. The flashing of smoke and mirrors is akin to Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' "Blurred Lines" recording debacle. Yet the truth always has a way of rearing its authentic head that eerily resembles and sounds like Marvin Gaye.
Art world bubbles are built on blurred lines. For argument sake, let's call them flat out lies. Everyone is complicit. This includes many artists who want people to think that they're full-time artists whose work is selling well when in actuality they have full-time jobs doing something completely different and they barely have enough money to buy art materials to make works that hang on their own walls for years before anyone buys them. If ever.
This simply speaks to the fact that many super-talented artists would actually have an easier time selling Tupperware than any of their original masterworks to the art ignorant masses. Could this be why some of those so called "contemporary art fairs" out there are really nothing more than crafty flea markets full of wood-carved squirrels? Art fair season is upon us. Keep your eyes peeled for any actual art. The disrespect I see for the actual art at some of these events is a shame.
Truth is artists ... there should be no shame in your game. You do what you have to legally and morally do to support yourself. The shame comes when we insist on perpetuating the charade. This is partly why the art world continues to live in fear of the next bubble which is surely going to burst. And yet when it does, everyone who is red-faced and bruised after landing on their asses will actually continue the fraud by looking around and asking ...
"What happened? We don't understand!" Really?
It's like giving Frankenstein a facelift. Now it's time for the big reveal. Which are we not supposed to notice? Frankenstein's old face or the facelift itself?
But again, back to those dangerous questions. Are you a full time artist? and Is your work selling? I've found that truly professional artists can handle these questions expertly even if the answers aren't what we would like them to be. Here's a hint ... Head in the clouds, but feet on the ground. Rock that theme.
Forget about the hardball questions. It's the softball ones that can make you squirm and open up a big old Pandora's Box.