Saturday, April 30, 2016

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


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'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!...


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 voilà—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.


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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