Thursday, April 28, 2016

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


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. 


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 ( 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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