Saturday, April 30, 2016

Precarious Lexicon; How A Simple Word Can Complicate An Artist's Life Part 3




Introduction

Hello again to this 7–Part series exploring the nature of the term "hobby" as it relates to artists working in the model horse showing game. In Part 1 we learned some definitions and influences the term has on an artist's life. In Part 2 we explored more influences, only more deeply. In this Part 3, we'll peruse some contradictions inherent in the use of the term so that an artist can learn how to steer clear of them, or come to understand and accept them for what they are. We'll also explore the idea of accountability as it relates to the activity and to artists.

Again, this series isn't meant to belittle the use of the term "hobby" since this activity is, indeed, a hobby for most of its participants. But for a working artist, it's far more than that...it's a way of life. For that reason, "hobby" can pose some interesting obstacles an artist has to clear, and this series explores them.

So let's peruse!...

Contradictions

A “hobby” perspective doused in fear has prevented consensus on even the simplest of concepts, even after forty–plus years. Even today there are still no standards, definitions, or itemized criterion of what would constitute “quality.” This means anyone (including judges) can use whatever criteria they wish to evaluate our work. But what’s particularly odd is that while the venue has refused to acknowledge a standard of quality, it’s sure quick to rile when that imaginary standard has been breached! After every NAN, for example, there seems to be an outcry over the legitimacy of the placings. This contradiction puts an artist in a strange creative situation by breeding seemingly conflicting expectations. Without a doubt, every artist within the venue will find herself or himself wondering at some point, “What in the world do people want?”

What’s even stranger is that many successful artists have a clear understanding of what constitutes “quality” and can recognize it immediately on a rather consistent basis. Of course they would if they create it. So “quality” really isn’t some mysterious subjective idea—it may actually be something objectively learned and identified. Even the best judges tend to pick the same group of entries for the top placings, especially when applying the same criteria. This implies that there’s already a working objective concept of “quality” in use that works. But it does mean this: while everyone does have a different opinion, not all opinions are created equal. Yet we accept this idea already in those we designate “good judges” and in those we identify as “good artists.” But getting the community to formalize these practical and proven ideas is difficult, and at present, improbable. Again, the best way to mediate this effect is to create our very best work every time, and trust that it’ll be noticed—because it will. If anything is predictable in this venue, it’s that truly great work always gets noticed.

Nonetheless, until a consensus is reached, we should understand that our definition of quality could be quite different from others. Our criteria may also be quite different. On top of that, our abilities to See deeply can be markedly different, too. All this means that substandard work can be equally successful, which can be frustrating for hardworking, thoughtful artists. Above all then, we should create work that inspires us and accentuates our artistic strengths. Honestly, there are only two people we should think about pleasing when creating our work: (1) ourselves and, (2) those who actually buy our work. Truth be told, the rest is mostly noise.

We may also experience the “false effect.” For example, when we focus primarily on creating unfinished resins then someone puts substandard workmanship on it, it may not place well under a judge who weights such things heavier than the actual sculpture. Subsequently, in show placings, people may get the wrong idea that it’s our sculpture that’s also substandard rather than the workmanship that went into it. Likewise, superior workmanship on a substandard sculpture may win, validating the idea that the sculpture itself is also exemplary. We’ve all seen a substandard sculpture with incredible finishwork. Ideally, the superior piece is excellent in both the workmanship and the sculpture (because the two really are under the same umbrella), but when many people have invisible blindspots, it’s more likely such disparities go unnoticed. Nonetheless, this contradiction can place us in a precarious position since we have no control in who finishes our works. Again, the only recourse is to create the best sculpture we can and let the chips fall where they may. It’s simply a part of catering to the unfinished resin market. Chances are our superior work will be noticed by those who know, and they’ll become our customers. So be patient and be diligent.

In the same vein, we may have shows that have a separate “workmanship” division aside from the usual breed categories. The idea is to separate out the sculpture from the finishwork in order to showcase those sculptures that may have flaws but have exemplary finishwork (which includes presswork). The breed classes are simply the standardized and simplest means to categorize entered works. Yet what can happen is that this idea gets confused and the sculpture is also factored into the equation, which is rational. The sculpture should be included in the concept of “workmanship.” It’s part of a painting artist’s job to pick those sculptures that best exemplify good work, then place their beautiful finishwork on it. So this can result in confusion among artists and judges only because we think, “Isn’t that what I already judged in the breed classes? Why are we holding another class based on the very same criteria?” This goes to prove that our best solution is to pick good sculptures to place our finishwork on because we’ll never know in which classes or divisions our work will be shown. And we want to be clear. Clarity in both the classes and results helps to move this activity forwards in positive ways whereas confusion only acts to muddle our communal expectations.

We’ll also find a contradiction in what buyers say they want and what they actually buy such as the “plain versus flashy” contradiction. Many claim that the proliferation of loud, flashy colors is an unrealistic representation of equine reality since most horses are either chestnut or bay. Therefore, our model horse population should reflect this same statistic. Yet any observant artist knows that flash always outsells plainer colors and the flashier, the better. The only conclusion is, that given a choice, most players prefer flash over plain. From this we can deduce that, boiled down, what players really want are their “dream horses,” and that’s a very different order for artists to fill. Players like features and aspects that make a piece novel and eye–catching so it stands out in the show ring and in their collection. But this also means that with each finished paint job, we’ll find that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. So in the end, we should create works that appeals to us and leave the rest to settle how ever it will. And besides, instilling novel aspects in every piece is fun!

Making matters worse, the “hobby” paradigm allows the venue to ignore what it’s actually doing, which sends mixed messages to artists. Specifically, it’s often maintained that a player is showing her model like a real horse in a real horse show when in fact we’re actually showing art based on realistic workmanship—and that’s a big difference! If we look back, we can see that as the expectations and skills advanced, fueled by the competitive format, the less like casual models winning work became, to the point where the very best original work can easily be regarded as fine equine art. Heck, simply cast any of the best resins in bronze, and voil√†—fine art! And finishwork has become so remarkable and hyperrealistic, it's evolved far beyond a “serviceable” finish and into the realm of fine art all by itself.

In partnership to this is a similar quandary peculiar to artists—a misinterpretation of what it is they’re actually doing, too. For instance, they can maintain that what they’re doing is simply a hobby—they’re just casually doing it for fun. Yet they routinely sell their work like a business, and often for sizable amounts. Sometimes they may even accept commissions. Some artists even claim they would never charge hefty prices for their work, yet they don’t refuse large sums when offered. But by being just a “hobby,” it can give one license to circumvent professional business standards. The truth is that business is business, whether we sell a $5 item or a $5,000 item. It’s important to send a consistent, transparent message to our customer base (and to potential new customers), and to always walk our talk; otherwise we contribute to an atmosphere of suspicion, confusion, and conspiracy.

It’s always a good idea to behave in a way that doesn’t cause additional friction between artists and players. We also don’t need tension to erupt between artists themselves since many employing professional behavior don’t appreciate being lumped into the same category as those who don’t. Indeed, some folks are quick to cast all artists in the same negative light due to the actions of just a few, and that’s unfortunate.

To worsen the situation, the “every artist for herself” mentality layers on another set of unfortunate contradictions. For instance, a communal welcoming system for developing artists is rarely encouraged and replaced by a less friendly environment. We see this in the hoarding of trade secrets to ensure an artificial market advantage, or a resistance to offer help when needed. And articles can only go so far. This creates a “have and have–not” effect with creative technologies that produces an unevenness of artistic development within the arts community. The inevitable result is a splintering in the arts community between those who appear to improve quickly and those who believe they’re being left behind. Let’s be honest—it’s easy for a successful artist to think, “Well, I did it, so why can’t they do it? Stop whining and work harder!” And it’s just as easy for a struggling artist to think, “Why can’t I create work like X does? I must not have what it takes to do it!” 

But here’s the thing: both assertions are correct! It’s true that the only means to improve is to work harder—and be patient! Years of mistakes, discipline, dedication, and sacrifice lie behind the skills and accomplishments of successful artists. Unless a developing artist is willing to walk down that same path—in the full breadth of what that means—it’s probably unlikely they’ll reach their goal. However, it should also be recognized that the venue is a very different place than it was twenty years ago, with far less tolerance for the arduous and mistake–laden process of artistic development. New artists literally have to hit the ground running at Mach 7 to be competitive today because the luxury of taking years to perfect one’s skills just doesn’t exist anymore. There’s a profound disenfranchisement of today’s DIYer as compared to twenty years ago, and that dampening of latent creativity in this venue is a tragedy and catastrophic for its long–term viability. Add to this an absence of Youth, Novice and Amateur divisions, and we have an equation stacked against the next generation of artists. It’s unfortunate how the casual “hobby” paradigm has made the community so ambivalent to those who are the most vulnerable among us. When we can say, “This is just a hobby” it’s far easier to dismiss deep core issues such as this. But when we say, “This is game competition” the idea shifts into new ideas, doesn’t it? 

Another contradiction that exists within the genre is the idea that players are dependent on realism to place well yet there's little consensus or deep knowledge of what constitutes realism, among artists, players, and judges. Many believe they know, or know enough, but put their knowledge to the test and we find knowledge gaps, misinterpretations, or mistaken ideas altogether. We also find eyes easily duped by "good convinces" or distracted by "prettiness." Now granted, it takes years of study, artistic exercises, and a finely–tuned Eye to distinguish what's factual and what's an error. It also takes great artistic diligence to translate all this information into a sculpture. Our methods and perceptions matter greatly in this. Indeed, every inch of a sculpture matters. There's also little understanding of physics as it plays out on the equine's body, or the mane and tail as there is regarding the various textures on an equine such as those found in the mane and tail, hooves, chestnuts, and flesh. And there's a multitude of options, exceptions, and possibilities, especially when it comes to movement. However, many participants simply don't wish to invest that level of OCD–like infatuation with such matters, and so don't immerse themselves in the topics at hand. This puts them at a marked disadvantage since they're unable to identify which sculptures are more factual, and so they tend to create or pick flawed work, especially if there are distracting "pretty" qualities about it. But it's understandable. If our participation is based on a casual, "hobby" attitude such things lie beyond our desires, or willingness to learn. And such materials are often bewildering and intimidating to the uninitiated. Many are simply satisfied with "HSOs" (Horse–Shaped Objects) that appeal to them. Yet we cannot ignore that as the arts have become more sophisticated, it's exactly this that has intensified over the years. Generally speaking, the most successful, in–demand game pieces are those that are most factual to a real horse, and this trend is expected to intensify. This puts artists in a tricky place. We may labor to make our pieces as factual as we understand them at the moment, yet these accuracies may be overlooked or invisible to others. The qualities we imbue may also be misunderstood or labeled as "wrong" by those who don't really know (though they think they do). That means that, ultimately, we're creating for ourselves. Framing our efforts as personal challenges is typically the best route, and which will help to improve our work best over time. We often have to become our own best critic, which is why learning to objectively evaluate our work becomes such a pressing skill to learn well.


The same can be said about color accuracy. In the early years colors and especially patterns were often just made up. The precise nature of color accuracy today really didn't exist. Yet again, this facet of the arts has intensified over the years into breath–taking examples of fine finishwork and color accuracy. Yet we still have some artists making up colors or patterns, or mistaking them, or interchanging them inaccurately. But since the rest of the finish work is exemplary, this causes a distraction that leads many astray into believe the entire paint job is accurate. "Prettiness" is a common reason why such "good convinces" get the nod when they shouldn't. These types of pieces not only muddle the concept of color accuracy, they put the artist and the player at a disadvantage since a savvy judge will spot such errors and dock the entry. Yet just enough of the game's judges are equally uninformed, giving these erroneous works a measure of success that allows them to persist. This is why reference photos that match the breed or type of the horse we're painting are so instrumental to ensuring a realistic outcome. It's also why educated judges are so critical to shaping the nature of the works validated within the game, something that applies to anatomy as well.


Accountability

Similarly, accountability isn’t a precondition in a casual “hobby” because there’s no sense of future investment. When it’s just a pastime, who really needs to care? Predictably, this effect has far–reaching consequences for artists in the venue.

For one, a general attitude towards personal responsibility in relation to success has a direct bearing on us as artists. Pro–active education takes hard work, diligence, and sacrifice, and it’s these qualities that pre–determine which artists will most likely become the most successful. Despite this, however, the venue appears to prefer answers handed out rather than having to earn them through independent effort. Let’s face it—everything we need to know on how to create a winning piece is already out there for the taking! But can we really blame this sentiment? Such materials can be confusing and mysterious to a beginner when a hands–on approach would be much more helpful. And within the context of a casual hobby, who really wants to work so hard for success? Not everyone who’s a casual participant wants to immerse themselves so fervently, to the level of OCD fanaticism it can take to achieve the highest degrees of success. Most people just want to have casual fun!

Regardless, this casual attitude is reinforced every time substandard work finds equal validation in the show ring, perpetuating the throwaway excuse, “It’s just the judge’s opinion.” In this way, the venue can conveniently overlook the long–term cumulative impact of every placing which, as expected, presents some philosophical challenges for artists. For example, this ambivalence can be immensely frustrating for those who invest greatly in creating meticulous, innovative, and accurate work. Because we demand so much of ourselves and make the necessary sacrifices, we expect everyone else to do the same. Really, if this is what it takes to create good work, why isn’t everyone doing it? But we must remember that any competitive endeavor has a certain percentage of “go–getters” and a larger percentage who play simply for casual fun. For example, only a comparatively few players compete at Wimbledon because most tennis enthusiasts simply play for recreation. And the same is true for the model horse game. So while it’s important for an artist to “know herself,” it’s also important for her to see the game from a casual player’s point of view. Nonetheless, if we wish to hedge our bets in the game, adopting the idea of accountability for our own learning will go far in our success. And since there exist no formalized training opportunities, each of us is responsible for undertaking our own education. How expansively and deeply we do often determines who's likely most to succeed, too.

Moreover, many of the venue’s top events, such as NAN, are dependent on an army of volunteers to run. Yet even here we find a small percentage of “do–ers” carrying the burden for everyone else, to the point of frustration and burn–out. Or we have people suggesting changes, programs, or events, but expecting an already overworked staff to implement them. What if every change was spearheaded by the one who suggested it? What if the community became the wave of change it demands of its organizations? It would be a very different landscape, wouldn’t it?

Along those lines, avoiding accountability may be another reason why consensus is so difficult. Once “quality” is defined and formalized, a bar appears for everyone to jump, making excuses or denials difficult to rationalize. On the other hand, it can be easily argued that once that bar is materialized and raised, only a few will be able to clear it, creating a kind of market and show ring monopoly. What’s the solution? Artists are in the middle of this conundrum, yet we do have a stake in the outcome. However, when each participant only has to care about how things impact her personal sphere of casual, “hobby” involvement, it’s easier to ignore the full extent of the problems. 

Judges are accountable to the game, too. It's through their decisions that work is validated, and that can have a tremendous influence on trends and perceptions. When a judge is highly educated and possessing a savvy Eye, the game is guided along progressive directions, those that benefit the arts in the long–term. However, when judges don't work to educate themselves, or only haphazardly or marginally do so, their placings reflect this deficiency. Perhaps they think they already know enough, or they've been judging so long, they don't need to learn more, or maybe they work with real horses and believe they're well–equipped already to handle the job. Whatever the reason, it's a disservice to the game, to the players, and especially to the artists. Judging little replicas of horses along realistic parameters is a totally different task than judging real horses. It's also one that always presents something new to learn or See. Quite literally, we can never know enough. If a judge isn't actively in learning mode all the time then, they're sliding backwards in relation to the game, since it's the game that's moving forward bit by bit.

As for new judges, we're all accountable for the creation of more. The game is suffering by an ongoing dearth of quality judges, and that problem is amplifying more every year. Quite literally, as the arts have developed, our quality judging pool has comparatively shrunk. As the arts have become more sophisticated, the amount of judges who have kept pace have decreased. We have too many judges who are only partially informed, or have just enough information to make big mistakes in the placings. Pair this with the non–standardized application of judging criteria and we have another reason why placings can be all over the map.

As for artists, we're accountable to the game and to our customers. We create the necessary game pieces so we have an obligation to create our best, most accurate work. When we fail to do so, it's not only our customers who pay, but we do as well. People talk, and they talk about their experiences with us and their game pieces even more. When we hurry through a piece, it shows, and that'll come back to haunt us eventually because word gets around. It's a mistake to base our popularity on only a few good pieces. We should commit ourselves to creating consistent quality work, no matter our circumstances. This builds a solid reputation, one that people can depend on and trust. Putting out spotty work is playing the short–game when we should always be playing the long one.


As artists we're also accountable to our subject, the horse. This not only means we're obliged to create the very best work we can, but that we think about portraying him compassionately and thoughtfully. We should think about how we depict him in our art, how certain training practices or grooming conventions may cause harm. Do we want to validate such things in our work? For example, false collection, docked or fixed tails, the Big Lick, "exotic" Arabian heads, pathological hooves, and other similar things should be given some rethinking. What we choose to portray in our work reveals a lot about our values and convictions. How we view our subject is clear as day in every piece we create. So if we claim we love horses, shouldn't we reflect that in our work? Not everything that happens in the horse world is worth of our validation in our artwork. And we're obliged to recognize that concept.

Most of all, we're accountable to each other. This is a competitive game, one which could so easily degenerate into outright hostility and vindictiveness within the current chaotic state of affairs. The fact that it hasn't en masse speaks to the inherent good nature of the players, and their outright friendliness and graciousness. But let's take it one step further! Let's go beyond the idea of casual, "hobby" attitudes and take an active role in this game we love. So let's think about how we're obliged to each other to encourage camaraderie, friendship, assistance, and the growth of the game in direct, pro–active ways. Imagine if more of us took a beginner under our wing, or more wrote how–to articles and made videos, if more artists openly supported each other and elevated their accomplishments, if more people volunteered and took an active, cheerful participation in the venue's organizations, if people helped new judges as mentors, if we had an enthusiastic and formalized system to welcome newcomers, if people spearheaded the change they endorse, if everyone became eager, pro–active learners in pursuit of actual, deep knowledge, if players and artists sponsored more experimental classes and divisions to further the cause of evolution, if community was the first priority rather than competition, if the Novice, Youth, and AO divisions were embraced, and if every player took an active, enthusiastic role in the infrastructure of the game? What a different landscape it would be, wouldn't it? How we treat each other isn't just about being cool to each other on a daily basis, it's also how we structure the game and participate actively in it that counts, too. Becoming an invested participant is critical for the long–term viability of the game, plus it's a load of fun, too. When we place ourselves in the position of a mover and a shaker, enthusiastically and courteously, we become a leader, and being a leader isn't such a scary thing. It's empowering, exhilarating, and lots of fun! But even if we're shy, pressed for time, leery of responsibility, or generally uneasy about a leadership position, there are still plenty of ways to contribute back in the background, and in smaller, but pivotal ways. If we each became personally responsible to this game, we make it better for everyone involved, and that has huge, immediate pay–offs for each of us, too.

Conclusion to Part 3

Now that we have a better idea of the contradictions and the idea of accountability under our belts, we're ready for Part 4. In this, we'll explore the concept of professionalism and how it conflicts with that of "hobby." These two ideas are in direct opposition, yet we need to understand how they conflict so that we can better manage our choices.

So until next time...crush out those contradictions and act accountably!

"When you conquer negative attitudes of doubt and fear you conquer failure."
~ Bryan Adams

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Friday, April 29, 2016

Precarious Lexicon; How A Simple Word Can Complicate An Artist's Life Part 2




Introduction

In Part 1 we explored some definitions, the underlying nature of the game of showing model horses, and some general sentiments that rest in the minds of many players. Now that we have that under our belt, let's explore further. In this Part 2 then, we'll take a look at how the term "hobby" directly affects artists and their work.

So let's get to it!...

Brass Tacks Issues

Clearly, “hobby” has serious repercussions for artists. So let’s discuss some specific problems we’ll encounter as a result so we can implement appropriate strategies.

For starters, a casual participant has no real vested interest in solving systemic problems within this activity simply because there’s little concern for the future. They just don’t have to take it seriously enough because it’s only “for fun”—they can walk away at any time. In contrast, the future is everything to an invested artist. Being established can make all the difference in the world. This creates a lop–sided push for interests as artists tend to seek change whereas participants tend to favor the status quo. This can create friction, making an artist’s position within the venue even more tenuous. For instance, not only are we an exclusive source for highly–desired game pieces, but now our interests can appear in opposition to those of the player base.

What’s more, while our art is most definitely admired, its primary function is that of a game piece. Yes—many collect our work as art pieces, but at some point most of them will still be shown since those who purchase without the intention of showing are rare indeed.

The model horse venue is also unique in that it’s populated largely by non–artistic types dependent on artistic types to provide them with the means necessary to play the game. Add in the unstructured, random setting of this game and our position within the activity can become tricky indeed.

For instance, there tends to be difficulty comprehending life behind the studio door, creating a kind of imbalance between the expectations of the artists and players. In this, our creations tend to also be viewed as functional, utilitarian objects so be prepared for these scenarios:
  • If a player cannot show something such as a bust or bas–relief, that kind of work becomes marginalized.
  • A player may immediately sell a piece or demand a refund if out piece isn't a winner.
  • Many players scramble after those pieces they believe are sure winners regardless if they love the piece itself.
  • The demand for winning artists is highly competitive, and so this demand may shift dramatically with the debut of each new anticipated piece.
This explains the venue’s general relative disinterest towards the creative journey, narrative, or process so important to artists. Not that it’s completely ambivalent, mind you, but in comparison to other art venues, it does have a more blas√© attitude. So if we find ourselves asking, “Why don’t showers just buy the models they love instead of those that win ribbons?,” we need to remember the reality of this venue. Now this isn’t to say that showers don’t love their pieces—many do, and quite a bit—but we should remember that our game pieces have a purpose, and that’s to perform well in the ring. To that end, it’s smart to invest 100% of ourselves into each piece to help ensure a shower finds success—that’s our obligation to the game.

In this light, we might also come across the attitude that an artist’s work is that of a service nature, as though we were hired help, something that can be common with commission work. While it’s easy to get offended by this, we must remember the nature of this market. In a very real sense, we are hired help because it’s only through us that a player can acquire her game piece to play. For this reason, some participants can become downright pushy or manipulative as they try to steer outcomes to their best advantage, even when such tactics are disadvantageous to us. So be patient and have fixed boundaries and policies to protect yourself.

This can also fuel a prevailing sense of entitlement among players since they truly want to play the game successfully—and who can blame them? Careful though! This sentiment can quickly morph into a belief that artists owe all players equal access to their works, especially if they’re believed to be winners. This desire can be so myopic, in fact, that it can dismiss our financial and logistical realities that present limiting factors in production, things an artist has to carefully balance. For example, we may hear the complaint that our pricing is “too high,” or that our sales methods are “unfair” despite the realities of our situation. It’s all about access, so anything interpreted as compromising can sometimes be regarded as unjust. So take it as a kind of backwards compliment. That said, however, we should find ways to mediate this effect without compromising our own limitations because who wants to antagonize collectors?

Yet this can also inspire apathy for our reality as self–employed artists. For example, we’ll be expected to operate as a business, but we won’t be treated like one. AWOL payments, excuses, and having to police our own customers are just some examples, and these things can compel us to enact stricter codes. Yet when we do—when we actually start acting more like a business—we may get harsher complaints! Some people simply want the deck stacked in their favor, so be firm and consistent.

We may also not encounter much recognition that our self–employed situation lacks the army of employees or the corporate departmental structure that does all the busy work for us. For example, our shipping may be slow simply because we lack employees that could take over for us in our busy, productive–oriented lives, or through times of hardship or health problems. We also don’t get paid if we don’t work, and we certainly don’t have someone to fill in for us on a sick day. We also don’t get paid vacations, benefits packages, or retirement plans. Yet some can become downright presumptuous in what they expect from us in terms of time, attention, and energy. Some simply won’t care that we have to wear all the hats in our business or that near every minute of our lives is usually filled by studio work, so being able to devote undue attention to any one customer is difficult at best. Again, we should be patient and make it clear that our time is best spent in the studio creating the work so many seek.

Being a self–employed artist based on a highly–specialized, highly–skilled, very–laborious, and time–intensive art form isn’t like working on a graphics project in a corporate setting either. The time management equation is radically different. For instance, the application of deadlines in our work schedule isn’t so simple and is prone to unforeseen obstacles since we’re the only one at the helm. So we should be extra mindful of our work habits and commitments. What we think will take a week will most likely take a month, and what will take a month will most likely take four. And that’s if everything goes as planned…and we all know they rarely do. So make appropriate adjustments and allot plenty of time for each project, especially when dealing with commissions.

We used to routinely hear about deep–pocket collectors ruining the hobby in the past, but this has subsided for the most part as quality has skyrocketed upward these last ten years. But every once and awhile we’ll hear it again, as “hobby” burbles up to demand more “reasonable” prices for the casual participant. But the truth is quality costs money, and generally the higher the quality, the higher the cost. Granted this isn’t always the case as plenty of fabulous, less–expensive pieces testify, but as a general rule it holds true. Subsequently, we can be described as “nice” and “fair” if we keep our prices “reasonable” while, conversely, we can be labeled as “arrogant” and “greedy” if we actually charge a living wage for our labor. Remember, what we do is intensely laborious and demanding of extreme levels of highly developed skills—it definitely doesn’t come to us overnight! The mere hours alone spent creating our works can jack up the price beyond the grasp of many. The best way to mediate all this is to offer a variety of pieces at different price brackets for as many pocketbooks as possible. For instance, various scales is a great way to achieve this since “minis” tend to be less expensive, generally speaking.

Moreover, as we start to create and implement protective policies, we might find ourselves labeled as “unreasonable,” or “difficult to deal with.” Keep in mind, however, that those who intend to play nice generally won’t have a problem with our policies and will seek to operate within them. Only those who tend to become problems chafe at our boundaries, so pay attention and act accordingly. We don’t need that kind of headache in our lives.

This also applies to how an we choose to sell our work. For example, in the past, lotteries were perceived as more fair while auctions tended to be interpreted as greedy. However, nowadays, lotteries have fallen out of favor in large part due to Paypal interpreting them as gambling and shutting down Paypal accounts as a result. For that reason, lotteries are discouraged as a means to sell work in favor of first–come–first–served or auctions. Indeed, auctions are now interpreted as the “most fair” means to sell work since it’s the buyers who essentially establish the price of the piece. So paying attention to how we sell our work can go far in helping our work sell well.

Nonetheless, this venue can be strangely presumptuous when it comes to the pricing of our work, with important implications for the artist. For instance, because this activity is supposed to be a “hobby,” no one is supposed to be making “too much.” For example, we may be accused of being “greedy” when we sell our work at good prices, even when our work clearly merits them. Clearly, such accusations don’t recognize the percentage taken out as a function of commerce—taxes, materials, and fees take a goodly chunk, then break it down to an hourly wage and, truly, one might be surprised just how little these “big ticket” pieces actually fund the artist. We may also encounter people asking us how long it took to create a piece. However, all they’re doing is breaking down the hourly cost to determine whether that cost is “reasonable.” So keep in mind that no matter how we price our piece according to our needs, we’ll encounter some complaints in some form. Just roll with it. Our realities just aren’t the same.

However, artists can be just as guilty. For instance, upon seeing the prices established artists make with their work sometimes compels new artists to expect that same prestige with their own creations, even when the quality of their work doesn’t warrant it. Earning respectable prices doesn’t happen overnight—an artist must earn her dues through hard work and sacrifice to achieve that kind of status. The value of our work can only be determined by what the market will pay for it, and sometimes what it will pay makes sense, but sometimes it doesn’t. Even the most successful artists experience wonky sales at times.

But along those lines, if a fabulous new artist comes onto the scene, don’t be surprised to see their prices hit the sky! One (of the many) good things about this venue is that it really doesn’t care about much else than the final product. The number of years we’ve been at this, our past successes (or failures), or our current status is of little relevant interest. What only matters is the quality of our last piece, and if it’s really good, then sales will be good. This is why putting 100% of ourselves into each piece is so critically important—we’re only as good as our latest piece! This is another reason why artistic plateaus can be so problematic for our long–term success.

Nonetheless, pricing is a tricky matter for any artist in any venue, but perhaps it’s trickier still within the “hobby.” That’s because pricing is determined—for the most part—by the value hierarchy gauged by random competition. So it’s best not to make any assumptions, but seek advice from experienced artists when it comes to pricing. And experimenting with a variety of sales methods can help us get a general bearing on the value of our work. For example, auctions can be particularly illuminating, given they’re presented and advertised well enough.

This brings us to an odd by–product of the pricing issues within the venue. We may find at times that some collectors (especially inexperienced collectors) assume that the amount of zeros on a price tag is a kind of guarantee of show wins. Sure, high quality is usually associated with higher prices, but it’s still no guarantee due to the randomized judging criteria. In turn, we may experience a collector’s disappointment in the show ring despite a piece’s price—and that’s always an awkward place to be. There’s really no solution, so the best we can do is offer support and encouragement for the next show. There’s always another show and another judge.

Indeed, this assumption puts us in a precarious position because what wins in the show ring is beyond our control, let alone our ability to predict. Indeed, it’s lack of structure practically guarantees that even the best piece ever created won’t win consistently. Yet if our piece fails in the show ring, the artist (in addition to the judge) is typically the one who’s blamed. This effect is difficult to mediate, and so the best we can do is continue to produce the very best work we can—and have very clear return policies to protect ourselves. It’s not so uncommon for someone to quickly want to return a piece (or sell it) after it didn’t place well at its first show.

Speaking of which, some buyers will purchase our work “on spec” for the express purpose of reselling it—sometimes almost immediately—on the secondary market, and at highly inflated, profiteering prices. Sometimes this is the only motivation for the sale! On the other hand, some people will buy “on spec” in anticipation of the expected championships a piece is predicted to win. Yet when these wins aren’t forthcoming, we’ll probably see our piece on the secondary market, quickly and at a deep discount. Have this happen enough times, and the value of our work can suffer catastrophically. And beware! “Spec” buying and selling can happen even before the piece is finished! This is most common with commission work. Sometimes the new selling price is inflated, obligating us to terms we didn’t agree to or get paid for. If this is a problem for us, it’s time to rethink our business policies. There’s little that can be done while this happens, so it’s best to take note of which customers engage in this behavior and refrain from selling to them in the future. It may even warrant a refund and cancellation of an order.

Despite everything else with spec buying, what’s particularly most alarming is that our pieces have little to no value outside the model horse venue. If the model horse market crashes then, so does the value of all the works within it—and that should give anyone pause. Here we see the wisdom of attracting many new participants—and keeping them—since they would help to stabilize the market, and make it more robust. Such a deliberately insular activity may improve the odds for the participants, but it does decrease them for all the works created for it. 

This in mind, it’s important to protect the resale value of our work on the secondary market. If our work’s value tanks there, our primary sales will suffer as people perceive a lost investment. Now while we can’t directly intercede in these sales, we can hedge our bets. How? First is to put 100% into each piece, to make it the very best we can make it. In other words, try to create a piece that can hold its value through its quality alone. Create a timeless piece. Second, don’t price work so high that only a couple of people will buy it. “Maxing out” a piece’s value may be great in the short–term, but it can be counterproductive in the long–term value of our work. Every buyer expects to sell a piece for at least what they paid for it, but if only one or two other people are willing to shell that out, chances are the piece will have to be discounted on the secondary market. Third, at the same time we shouldn’t price it so low that a horde is scrambling for it. Having too many buyers competing for the same piece is flattering—yes—but it does indicate that our pricing is too low. There’s a Goldilocks Zone of about ten eager buyers who would happily purchase the piece, especially on the secondary market, that indicates the right price point. So, fourth, pay attention to the interest level every piece generates because that’s valuable information for pricing.

And paying attention in general is important. Artists are a primary source of participation in the game and this can create some awkward scenarios with the more audacious players. For example, if we’ve been creating really great work, especially early on when we’re a bit more trusting and wide–eyed, we can be vulnerable to certain tactics designed to increase access to our work. For instance, some will try to ingratiate themselves, creating potentially exploitative conditions under the guise of “friendship.” First dibs on new work, discounts, special orders, or other conditional requests are common in this, but when we try to stick to our policies we find an upset or angry person who may use the friendship as leverage. Sadly, many artists have experienced a torn relationship for this very reason. At some point we’ll have to protect our interests, and that almost always means an unpleasant confrontation. Our only recourse is to be aware this can happen, and stick to our policies religiously without exception. Keep business and friendship separate. Yet don’t expect to find much sympathy in the general community. Because the issue of access is so touchy, there’s a shared sympathy among players with little left over for the artist. So keep business as business from Day One, with everyone.

Now this doesn’t mean we can’t find real friendships in the venue—we certainly can! There are great people involved in this activity who become terrific, respectful customers and wonderful friends. It’s important to identify and cater to them enthusiastically then filter out the rest with our policies. It also doesn’t mean that every person trying to be friendly with us will be exploitative either. Model horse people are a friendly bunch, eager to make new friends and contacts. So never spoil an opportunity to make new friends in this venue! But it does mean this: because we’re a means to an end, we should be very careful with whom we chose to associate as close friends. Often it’s like–minded colleagues or our most considerate customers who are the best candidates. There are plenty of friendships to be made…just be extra careful when making them.

This brings us to another peculiar phenomenon unique to the model horse venue. Because successful participation can be bought from an artist, players don’t necessary need the degree of Sight required to create such works. They can simply take it for granted in many cases. Instead, they buy what they like or what they think will win and expect the artist to, essentially, See for them, to do the work for them, in a sense.

While this seems like a trivial situation, it actually presents a real problem for artists by amplifying the chaos in the venue. When someone doesn’t experience the studio, they may be unable to See the features that differentiate good work from problematic work on their own. For instance, some participants cannot See the complex structure and flexions of the stifle joint or the neck, and so choose pieces with serious flaws in these areas. Many get muscles confused or aren’t aware of their natural planing, and so choose pieces with errors in these features. Likewise, they may not See all the hide details on a real horse so how can they be expected to See the same in a sculpture? Some participants don’t even know how the equine skeleton is built or actually functions, and so simply cannot See the fatal errors in some pieces. Many aspects of equine anatomy and biomechanics, as well as color genetics, are simply invisible to many participants and they get confused when certain pieces place and when others don’t. If such things are invisible to them, how can they determine which is more accurate? And this problem bleeds into buying and showing, which only heightens their frustration and bewilderment.

What this also means then is that work of a more cursory or less realistic nature can have an equal shot at market popularity as work that was thoughtfully crafted. Furthermore, this effect contributes to the apparent inability to define top quality judging criteria and also probably why consensus on “quality” has been so hard to reconcile. Indeed, when enough participants cannot See factual, actual quality in the same depth and breath a quality artist must, how can they form a consensual definition? Oddly enough, however, success in the game depends precisely on recognizing this kind of knowledge yet at the same time it’s precisely this that’s dampened by the interest of ensured mass access to desired works. That’s because the number of artists who create works with the least flaws are relatively low in number and so would dominate the show ring almost exclusively if such knowledge was applied, even codified en masse—and it seems the venue would rather avoid this.

So until the community decides on a solution, we must accept a setting in which our exacting perceptions may not match others who are engaged in the game. For example, we may take great pains to make sure the neck and stifle are articulating correctly for an equine, yet the judge may be unable to See this accuracy and award the prize to a piece riddled with anatomical flaws which the judge cannot See. Or we may diligently create an in–scale, meticulously ticked, accurate roan, but the judge will overlook this in favor of a pinto with an inaccurate—but flashy—pattern. There’s no rhyme or reason to it despite all our hard work, so be ready for confusion and frustration as our efforts aren’t consistently rewarded in the show ring, if at all. Certainly this isn’t “fair” to us, or to the owner who was savvy enough to recognize our quality, but it’s simply the nature of randomly applied, inconsistent criteria in judging. So we should just do the best work we can, and help other artists create their best work, too. When the artists work to elevate the pieces in competition, those raised stakes tend to ask others to rise to the occasion, and the whole activity benefits. And, in the end, being competitive against ourselves is often a better approach in the long–run by providing us with more fixed criteria and clearer goals.

Above all, however, we should know that our work won’t be judged by formally–trained, qualified, tested, or certified judges. Literally, anyone will do. While this may not seem like an issue—and it’s often a great way to introduce new people to the art of judging—it does mean that how our work is received in the venue, i.e. how healthy our sales are, isn’t necessarily a function of the quality of our work. Again, we have no control here, so the best we can do is create the best work we can, all the time. Really great work doesn’t just speak well for us as artists, but it presents some serious questions to each judge and shower each time it’s placed on the show table. It presses issues and gets people thinking on the nature of good work. When that happens, we help to advance this activity and help to educate. Good work not only speaks for itself, it speaks for all of us!

This unconscious conflict produces some interesting consequences for an artist. For starters, the division between “now” judges and “historical” judges is a common manifestation. “Now” judges maintain that models should duplicate current show ring conditions and requirements whereas “historical” judges claim that models should mirror the full scope of equine experience, even those outside the show ring or not qualified by registries. Essentially, if it’s happened, it’s showable. For the artist, this means that whenever we create a piece, we’ll either get people complaining it’s not “show ring appropriate,” or "it's not performance–friendly," or conversely, “Not another boring show horse!” It also means that despite the quality of our work, its success or failure in the show ring can be based on criteria completely out of our control, a result that certainly can test our sensibilities. The only solution is to create pieces from our heart and let everything else work itself out. 

Likewise, there’s a disparity in how our pieces are perceived. One faction tends to judge on the BCCs (Breed type, Conformation, and Color Correctness) whereas another faction tends to judge on the ABCs (Anatomy, Biomechanics, and Color Correctness). This creates a split in the community regarding the expectations our creations are supposed to fulfill. Granted it could be argued that a quality piece has all of this, from both categories, but the truth is that many pieces tend to best fulfill one or the other. So be ready for confusion. Our anatomically meticulous piece may not place well under a BCC judge whereas our breed–exemplary piece may not place well under an ABC judge. Until these two factions are rectified, artists will simply have to decide which “type” they wish to cater to, or cater to both simultaneously. Ideally, it’s the latter, but there’s no fault in catering to only one when there’s an apparent division.

What’s more, the model horse venue usually doesn’t value the “arty” aspect of the creation of their game pieces as a general rule. Players primarily want pieces that succeed in the game, which makes it a demanding and literal venue in which to create. It’s no mystery why artists here require skin twice as thick as any other! Our work will be compared and critiqued openly and competitively, even openly rated against other work. People can be quite vocal about our perceived creative deficiencies regardless of our feelings or priorities, too. This presents a challenging condition to artists, particularly to those who are sensitive or are insecure about their creations. Indeed, it can be brutal working conditions for any artist.

All personal convictions aside, however, this is exactly what buyers and judges are doing already—comparing our work against others—whether we like it or not. The show ring is a harsh taskmaster, and it’s often hardest on artists. So we should try not to take anything personally and distance ourselves from show placings so we don’t become unduly upset. Always remember that when we display our work in this harsh environment, we’re essentially putting a big target smack–dab in the middle of our foreheads. Can we dodge the arrows? Can we take a hit? Critics are often loud and not so sympathetic so can we cope well enough to keep working enthusiastically?

Unfortunately, new artists often fail to understand this aspect of the game. They cannot recognize that it’s a crocodile, not a kitten! And this beast is alarmingly quick to bite—and hard. In fact, for a highly–sensitive artist prone to self–doubt, this venue can be downright cruel. On the other hand, it’s important to notice that those artists who prosper have a “can–do” attitude. They don’t waste their energy bemoaning given situations, but get to fixing any genuine problems in their work. It’s definitely not easy, though! It does take a peculiar creative mind to thrive in this business because it’s certainly not for everyone.

Having said that, it should be noted that a “woe is me” attitude tends to drive away seasoned artists who could offer the most help. So if we want guidance, it’s more effective to adopt a similar “can–do” attitude when soliciting advice. There are many in the venue who can help, but we must first convey the impression that we can help ourselves. “Hand–holding” is exhausting and tedious, and not many successful, established artists are motivated to shore up such behavior, especially when they’re so busy in their own studios. Adopting a pro–active attitude helps to make sure our chances of getting assistance improve greatly.

Along those lines, one of the most unfortunate effects of the venue’s casual, "hobby" structure is turning artists into competitors rather than colleagues. Competition for the player’s dollar and recognition in the show ring promotes an antagonistic atmosphere within its arts community rather than a supportive and united front. Add to this the careless, unprofessional behavior the casual “hobby” attitude generates, the insular, small nature of the venue, and the occasional professional envy, and we have a powder keg of unsettling eventualities. This is why some artists are quick to attack other artists as a means to elevate themselves. The insular nature of the venue amplifies the situation and makes it difficult to escape—some artists will experience a public attack by another at some point. The “hobby” paradigm unfortunately keeps the arts community divided, though we're seeing a change in recent years, thankfully.

So the best way to intervene is to reach out to fellow artists and work to build bridges rather than burning them. Becoming a positive force in the arts community and refraining from hostile behavior are good choices, as is being careful what we type on our keyboards in public. Promoting camaraderie among our colleagues can go far in rebuilding the fun and sense of community that can be torn away in today’s harsh competition.

We may also run across some boorish type who believes they know all the points needed to place a superior piece—but in reality they really don’t. So we have them picking apart our work with an unlearned Eye, skewing the validity of our talents to those similarly unaware. They pollute the pool with their disguised lack of true, deep knowledge. It’s easy to believe that we know it all since what we presently know is the extent of our knowledge. However, there’s always something new to learn, some way in which we may be wrong, and this applies equally to players and artists. The best response is to weigh such comments objectively. We never know if we may be the ones in the wrong! If such claims don’t add up, then ignore them. However, if they’re powerful enough we may want to defend our work, but we should do so politely, rationally, and with examples to back us up. Being able to defend our work is a crucial skill for any artist just as much as being able to objectively evaluate our work. So we should contemplate our strong and weak points and work on those areas that need it, all while having a firm appreciation of those aspects that are good.

Now we come to an alarming consequence of the “hobby” paradigm, one which no artist can escape and will have to mediate throughout her career. Because of its odd structure, a strange undercurrent towards artists permeates the venue. Specifically, the dependency on artists breeds a love–hate relationship among some players, no matter how pleasant or even–handed we may be. And the more successful and popular we become, the more this effect amplifies. This also tends to breed a conspiratorial view on what we artists do, especially when we congregate together. Ideas that artists are ripping off players, that we’re cliquish, that we arbitrary in who we sell pieces to, or that we’re price fixing and generally up to shenanigans can happen, so be ready to assuage any such assertions. The truth is we’re all doing what we need to do for our own studios and we’re interacting with our colleagues for our enjoyment. Most of us aren’t cliquish, but happy to meet new people.

So understand that in the larger community we are both “friend and foe.” Some participants also have issues with popularity and perceived cliques which tends to color their attitude towards successful artists. And people can become increasingly intimidated by us the more popular our work becomes, and so can come to feel awkward by our presence. We can also appear inaccessible, testy, insecure, aloof, or quick to rile if we don’t take great care in how we interact with people, especially players. We can encounter a sense of indignation and contempt of us, too, particularly among those who don’t even know us, simply because our work has become a hot ticket. But our sales depend on our PR as much as the quality of our work, and they will suffer if we come across wrong, even unintentionally. So make an extra effort to be accessible, cheerful, empathetic, gracious, and friendly. Work to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone. We never know who could become a cool new friend, new customer, or colleague. Plus people are becoming new artists all the time and we never know if we’d ever come to depend on them for some reason, or they come up with some new technique from which we can learn.

Conclusion to Part 2

Phew! That was a lot to chew on, wasn't it? Apologies for that, but there are many issues at play that artists need to consider. We sail our little ships on choppy waters. But we can learn to navigate them if we're aware of the currents and winds. So in Part 3, we'll explore some inherent contradictions the "hobby" paradigm infuses into our community so we can start to make sense of some of the things that may bewilder or frustrate us.

So until next time...sail on!

"Some things cannot be spoken or discovered until we have been stuck, incapacitated, or blown off course for awhile. Plain sailing is pleasant, but you are not going to explore many unknown realms that way."
~ David Whyte

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Precarious Lexicon; How A Simple Word Can Complicate An Artist's Life Part 1





Introduction

What’s in a word? “Not much,” one would think. Yet a single word can encapsulate an idea so powerful that it shapes the nature of an entire community. 

Now a word has two meanings, a denotative and a connotative (Taflinger, 1996). The former is the descriptive meaning found in a dictionary. It’s the rational aspect of a word. In contrast, the more important meaning—the connotative—is the emotional response to the word. And there’s no amount of logic that can argue away the emotional response to a word (Taflinger, 1996), allowing it to shape our thoughts independent of our rational minds. If a word emotionally reinforces a negative idea then, it can become a pervasive force. 

Such is the case with a word long used in the model horse community: “hobby.” When objectively regarded, it’s clear its denotative and connotative meaning have been decoupled, creating a problematic philosophy that’s particularly worrisome for artists. Because recognized or not, every artist in the venue has been affected by “hobby,” and not necessarily for the better. Many have been blindsided by it, in fact, having to learn unspoken truths the hard way. 

In this, artists are in the unique position to protect themselves, but only when there’s a clear understanding of what needs to be anticipated. Therefore, this 7part series is a means for artists to gain a better understanding about the nature of the community they’ve chosen to work in to protect their personal interests and to perhaps become a force of positive change. Because this activity is peculiar, indeed. In fact, too many artists learn the reality of their predicament far too late, and suffer some unnecessary bruises in the process, some with unhappy customers to boot. So consider this series “A Public Service Announcement For Artists” designed specifically to identify some of the booby–traps the “hobby” paradigm has constructed so that we can avoid them. 

Now keep in mind this series isn’t about bemoaning or belittling the collecting and showing of model horses. It’s also not meant to demean the use of the word “hobby.” This activity is absolutely a “hobby” for most participants so the term totally applies here. So it’s quite the opposite: this series is meant to identify problem areas in order to promote better options that ensure a livelier future for us all, and specifically its artists. We can’t mediate things if we’re unwilling to recognize the issues at play. So onward!…

A Question of Definition

“Now wait a minute!,” you think, “‘Hobby’ is such an innocuous word—don’t be so silly!” Well, yes, “hobby” is a benign word, but only when properly applied to the activity it describes. When it doesn’t, it creates a conflict which is exactly the case with the model horse world. “Oh c’mon! You’re being ridiculous,” you’re thinking. 

Really? 

Let’s look at the definition of “hobby”:
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th edition, 2000): Hob-by (noun): An activity or interest pursued outside of one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure.
The New Illustrated Webster’s Dictionary (1992): A subject or pursuit that one takes absorbing interest.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary): A pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.

Notice the commonality? These definitions only partially describe what the model horse venue is doing. Sure—people may participate as a hobby, but that’s not actually what it is, yet “hobby” is used ubiquitously to describe the entire scope of the activity. Even artists in business freely use the term without knowing what they’re perpetrating. 

Yes—the activity may have started as an informal pastime, but it’s certainly a very different animal today. Indeed, if the activity genuinely was a hobby, participants would simply gather together at potlucks and passively share and trade their creations. But we all know this isn’t the case. Instead, we determine which are “better” within a show ring context, indirectly assigning value and creating a sophisticated, and often expensive, demand for creations that win. The truth is that the very basis of the model horse venue isn’t a “hobby,” it’s competition.

Let’s look at the definition of “competition”:
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th edition, 2000): Com-pe-ti-tion (noun): 1. The act of competing as for profit or a prize; rivalry. 2. A test of skill or ability; a contest. 3. Rivalry between two or more businesses striving for the same customer or market.
The New Illustrated Webster’s Dictionary (1992): Contention of two or more for the same object or for superiority; rivalry.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: 2: a contest between rivals.

Clearly, both the denotative and a connotative meaning of “competition” accurately describe what the model horse venue is actually doing for the most part. It describes the primary engine that runs it. The instant competition infused into casual play, the activity changed from a “hobby” to a kind of interactive role-playing competitive game. At that point, a brand new paradigm was needed to fit this metamorphosis, yet this failed to happen, even when the stakes rose every year. 

So how did this word insinuate itself so deeply into the community’s consciousness, to persist for over forty years despite radical changes within the activity? And why do artists still buy into this concept when it continues to work against them and their customers? 

A Question of Application

Competition demands a rational structure. Standards, rules, consensus, and goals are required to define the parameters of the game. This allows us to rationally strategize a predictable measure of success, reinforcing the legitimacy of the game and creating an accessible platform for new participants to learn how to play. 

Yet without meaningful structure, there are essentially no rules to the game, turning competition into a facsimile of evaluation, more a parade of random opinions. Moreover, the lack of structure means that model horse showing is actually a form of gambling. When a shower rolls her dice—enters a model horse show—what those dice will roll is anyone’s guess. What will the judge pin? What criteria will they use? We can even observe participants using gambling strategies to improve their chances such as playing statistics and stacking the deck. And we often hear “research the judge” before entering a show.

This status quo has become so ingrained that many go so far as to interpret this mechanism as “more fair” since no one is really guaranteed a win, leaving the placement of ribbons more as a crapshoot rather than a measured determination of quality. Because let’s flip it over—when we actually start instituting rules that allow specific pieces or artists to rise to the top, then the demand for those game pieces increases exponentially, bringing into question the issue of access and pricing. Many people want to avoid that scenario, and the gambling nature of the current structure artificially dampens this effect.

But compare this activity to other competitive venues and we see just how chaotic it truly is. Lesli Kathman wrote a brilliant piece on Game Mechanics on her blog, and it’s worth a good read and solid contemplation. Think about how this chaos affects the long term future of this activity, and whether it remains in the best interests of the participants. Keep in mind, too, that certain artists and pieces are already rising to the top, as demand for them clearly illustrates. The very best pieces already encapsulate the criteria that establish “quality” so ignoring the compounding reality of the situation may not be the best recourse. This scenario can be very frustrating for artists, in particular, since we put so much effort and energy into the creation of a truly great piece, only to have it subjected to random outcomes despite all our hard work.

Serious Business For Artists 

While “hobby” suggests casual participation, something done for fun, we artists tend to take our work and our business practices very seriously. It’s not just a “hobby” for us! No—it’s serious business, especially if we make a living at it. We labor to make our work the best it can be, making sacrifices and investing a great deal of ourselves into our craft. We’re disciplined and meticulous, trying our hardest to produce a piece the collector can be proud to own. This means that our priorities don’t always match up with those of the showers, since artists tend to favor more consistency in the placings as a reward for their efforts.

The problems inherent in the structure of the game can cause us more concern as a result, and we may seek to change the mechanics into a format that makes more rational sense despite the underlying sentiment that favors the chaotic status quo. So be ready for it. Just be patient and work to produce the best, most cutting edge work possible. Sometimes simply leading by example can get minds to change. Indeed, the hyperrealistic paint jobs of the last ten years have certainly got people rethinking the nature of this activity. When we have impeccable workmanship (and that includes both the nature of the sculpture as well as the finishwork) not being rewarded, that definitely shines a light on the ongoing issues with our infrastructure.

Above all, however, don’t take placings personally. Every collector and judge are doing their level best with the knowledge they have. So don’t indulge conspiracy theories or judge bashing. It’s simply the chaotic nature of the judging criteria at work. Also, the judge may be seeing things we aren’t and conversely we may be seeing things the judge cannot. Everyone is on a sliding scale of knowledge, and people are learning all the time. And yes—for these reasons a judge may really like a particular sculpture or artist’s work and therefore consistently place their work higher. There’s nothing suspicious about this and, in fact, this is exactly what we’d expect from good judging. Don’t we want judges picking the pieces that best synch with their sensibilities? That best meet their criteria? The only question that remains is whether we agree with their criteria and their application of it, but that’s again speaking to the chaos inherent in this rule–less game.

Why Are Things Stuck?

But why haven’t things evolved? Like a living thing, communities have an instinctive response to something it perceives as a threat: fight or flight. So when it’s faced with a challenge to its status quo, it either changes to incorporate the new ideas or it becomes resistant, grasping harder onto its conventional thinking. And if we look closely, we can see that while change has occurred in the model horse venue, it’s only superficial change. At its core, the activity still doggedly clasps onto its fundamentalist dogma. Why?

It’s a strange contradiction: the appeal of the activity would seem to guarantee a flood of participation from multiple demographics, but that’s not the case, is it? Perhaps the problem has less to do with the appeal of the activity than it does with its operating paradigm? Let’s dig deeper. 

As an artist, we soon discover there’s an underlying sentiment within the model horse community: fear. We hear it every day if we choose to listen. The fearful developing artist who cries, “But I’m not as good as the winners are! What will happen to me?” We hear it in the anxious established artist,”My work isn’t selling like it used to—people are stupid!” We hear it in the panicked shower, “But I can’t afford the big bucks to win! And what are the judges looking for?” 

What is the source of this fear? Are people worried the activity will develop into something beyond their capabilities? Are they concerned it’ll cease to be casual and become something more serious? That a formalized, organized activity presents a reality they’d rather avoid? 

Whatever the cause, it’s a potent force. This fear keeps the participants distracted and divided. It creates philosophical divisions, preventing the community from objective introspection and consensus. It inspires panic by convincing participants that a more “serious” setting will remove the fun and ultimately cause their alienation from an enjoyed activity.

Yet perhaps most significant, the fear keeps the activity insular and sequestered from the world. Shouldn’t the activity have more visibility? Shouldn’t it be more welcoming? Yet the formal welcoming treatment of newcomers is spotty at best. This becomes apparent when one compares how newcomers are welcomed in other venues such as Girl Scouts or Pony Club. It does seem that an undercurrent seeks to keep the activity a small pond, even when this scenario threatens to paralyze it. Why? 

In a gambling setting, it’s advantageous for showers to keep the game exclusive or insular by limiting the number of competitors in any given show. Doing so increases each individual’s chances of doing better in the game, i.e. the less players there are in any given class, the more chances there are for any given individual to get a ribbon. Now flip this equation over, create a boom in the number of participants, and the chances for any given player to ribbon in any given class goes down, and often dramatically. So the question then becomes—why would players opt for this scenario? This is of peculiar interest to artists.

We must remember that model horse showing is unique in that it promotes the showing of pieces often not created by the shower. It also combines a game setting based on the dream horses of the players. Participants are pretending to be showing their models as real horses. In other words, the game pieces—the creations of the artists—form the basis of participation within the game. Indeed, either a player has to create her own game pieces or buy them from an artist (or factory). Those game pieces predicted to be the most successful in the game are of particular interest to those players who are serious about doing well. And it’s an insular game that guarantees an unstable economic setting that slants the market towards the buyer, increasing a player’s access to those coveted winners. In the truest sense, the Small Pond Effect is the most advantageous scenario for a serious player to procure her desired game pieces and still have a reasonable level of success within an unstructured setting. 

Again, let’s see this situation on the flip side. If participation booms, the outcome is an explosive demand for the very limited creations by artists, especially those artists perceived to create winning game pieces. This new supply–demand equation is now slanted towards the artist, and it will drive prices up across the board, diminishing any given player’s accessibility to desired work and reducing her chances of succeeding in the game altogether. Now add in formalized rules and this dynamic compounds.

It’s precisely this scenario the “hobby” paradigm seeks to avoid. Proof can be heard in comments that imply the average player simply cannot gain what’s required to excel in a formally competitive environment. The cry of disenfranchisement is an old and steady cry, raised every time the status quo is challenged. We can even hear it in the contorted rationalizations that attempt to imbue meaning into a ribbon or qualifying card as proof of quality, yet conveniently overlook the fact that this comparison–based game lacks rules, standards, or formal training that would lend substance to those placings. At best we just have a series of random opinions rather than informed, codified, substantive judgments. And if we listen carefully enough, we can even hear it in every reactionary tirade launched at “hoity–toity” artists and “deep–pocket collectors.” Why? Could it be that participants are afraid they’ll be left behind if things progress beyond the current state of affairs?

Whatever the reason, this underlying sentiment has far–reaching consequences for artists. In many ways, how we negotiate them will determine whether we prosper or peter out. And while these consequences can be frustrating, and often beyond our control, we can come to a level of balance if we understand what’s generating them.

Conclusion To Part 1 

Now that we know these insights, cogitate them until Part 2. In that installment we'll explore more ideas, those about what the term "hobby" can mean for artists regarding consequences and influences. So think about the ideas presented here, and think about the flip side of the issues at play. We need to actively consider such concepts in order to navigate around them in a way that suits not only our personal needs, but the experience of others, too. 

So until next time...flip on over to the other side!

"It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed."
~Ram Dass

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