Sunday, May 1, 2016

Precarious Lexicon; How A Simple Word Can Complicate An Artist's Life Part 4

Welcome back to this 7–part series regarding the use of the term "hobby" in regards to an artist's experience within the game of showing model horses. This ubiquitous term has influenced how we think and behave within the venue so it bears thinking about in order to design a studio strategy that avoids its pitfalls and roadblocks. Artists are in a strange place because of the term, and so having such a strategy is good policy to protect not only our productivity, our sanity, but also our continued involvement in the game. In this Part 4 then, we'll explore the nature of professionalism as it relates to "hobby" so we cogitate those aspects of our conduct that could use some rethinking.

So onward to glory!...


Once we set up shop in the venue, we may discover that professional business practices can be a bit of a novelty. This is because “hobby” obscures the acknowledgement that the moment someone buys or sells something, what they’re practicing isn’t a pastime, it’s commerce. 

Consequently, artists should be prepared for a cavalier attitude regarding timely payment, particularly with commissions. Some buyer’s fail to recognize how important their promised on–time payments are to us, that they are the means for us to pay our own bills and to expand our studios. However, we also aren’t some “big scary” company with an aggressive collections department that can actually enforce repercussions for nonpayment. Indeed, we can’t turn the power off or ding their credit score rating, so to speak. So some buyers may regard our invoice as just a suggestion, which can become troublesome—and tiresome. The best way to mediate this is to create policies that protect us in the case of default or late payments—and sticking to them. That can be unsettling to do, but when we actually practice what we preach we tend to weed out those who are constant sources of frustration, so in the long–run, we hone our client list down to those who are dependable and respectful. This is definitely a “long game” strategy that eventually pays off.

Yet the obligations we owe customers can be similarly flawed. We should never treat any customer rudely or tersely, but generously and graciously, and do our best to make sure they're satisfied. This is another long game strategy that has definite pay–offs. And one aspect of such professionalism that gets routinely ignored is shipping our work. How we ship customer purchases says loads about us and our priorities so it should be professionally done not just from that standpoint, but to also ensure the safe travels of their pieces. That means new boxes of appropriate size, with new materials, adequately taped and labeled to ensure safe, proper, and speedy delivery. Reusing used boxes is unprofessional and shows we're cheap and uninvested in our customers. Sloppily slapping a box together with messy tape and mismatched box seams only demonstrates our laziness and lack of attention, and that begs questions not only about us, but our work, too. It's also a good idea to put in a business card and informational packet about the piece inside into the box to provide more information to the customer. Any little touches we can add is a good idea, so we should always keep quality shipping in mind.

Another phenomenon exists that an artist should be aware of, especially a new artist. The structure of the activity generates a problematic situation when popularity grows—and the greater the popularity, the faster this effect takes hold. What is it? Well, it’s the false sense of control that comes with the new clamor for our work. We may think we have the world by the tail at this point, but it’s really got us by the tail! So we must tread with great care here in order to preserve our long–term happiness. For example, when people are beating down the door to get our work, it would seem like the ideal opportunity to start accepting commissions, right? Nope! It’s the worst time! New artists often lack the practical experience to manage this situation well and to deal with the ramifications long down the road. Orders stack up, but our ability to fill those orders in a timely manner is a secondary thought, sometimes even ignored. Plus, the novel seduction of the limelight and the fast buck can blind us to the inherent dangers involved with such popularity. The same circumstances that make our work so hot are the same ones that can create debilitating long–term consequences such as impossible backlogs, frustrating customer relations, and eventual burn–out. When our work becomes so popular, that’s exactly the moment to stop and think twice! Instead, the better policy here is to create the work we love on our own time and terms, finish it, then sell it. Pacing ourselves and feeding that creative drive first, then worrying about sales later is often the best strategy. Obligating ourselves to countless commissions creates a yoke that’s often difficult and exhausting to throw off, and can quench our creativity quicker than we might expect.

But perhaps one of the worst effects of unprofessionalism is unpleasant behavior latent within the venue, especially online. Because “hobby” doesn’t inspire culpability within public settings, there’s little professional expectation of behavior. Let’s face it—if an activity is simply a disposable pastime, there’s no need to truly concern oneself with how we treat each other or how we come across to others. When we don’t take ourselves seriously, we don’t take our social settings seriously either. And so we see the result on many public forums and sometimes at shows, too. Vitriolic posts and emotionally charged tirades, bullying tactics or snide innuendoes, rampant misinformation, judge pressuring (even by other judges), conspiracy theories, judge blaming, unintentionally obnoxious or off–putting commentary, heresay and uninformed speculation, and lashing out born of insecurity can happen. Indeed, many forums or social settings have become so toxic that some participants just leave. 

Another aspect of social interaction we should be aware of is how different our standing becomes once we’re acknowledged as an artist, especially a popular, successful one. For better or worse, we’ll be regarded differently and therefore treated differently within the venue, which only intensifies as our popularity grows. So while we may see ourselves as just another person, many in the venue don’t view us so casually. This means that many public forums can be a worrisome place for us to socialize. Everything we post will be interpreted through prejudicial filters and so we can find ourselves the target of an unexpected attack. Our words also have far more weight and can unintentionally skew a discussion, too. Plus, those who agree with us will be interpreted as synchophants or brown–nosers, compromising their standing within the community. And the more successful we become, the more pronounced these effects. 

As for our own behavior, it’s good policy not to give the public too much information that gives others ammunition to fire back at us. For instance, giving out too much detail about our personal life, or "TMI," is a mistake. It can open us up to criticism or the "ick factor," and that just spells "headache" or "embarrassment." Try to keep highly personal aspects of our lives to ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can’t share our personal selves and show our fun sides like others, but we should be careful what we post in that regard. In addition, vulgarities erode our professional standing. If we can't make our point without cursing, we've already lost our argument. Cursing erodes our credibility and makes us come across as uneducated or overly aggressive. 

We also shouldn't to put words in other people's mouths or name–drop in our arguments. All the does is to irritate the artist invoked because when people speak for us they either give an incomplete picture of our beliefs, or a wrong one altogether. And if that artist is carefully cultivating a public image, such behavior can compromise it, or destroy it. So why antagonize colleagues? If we cannot defend ourselves and our beliefs on our own, we've already lost and should back out. Nonetheless, we should also be patient. We should understand where this reaction is coming from—the need for validation. It comes from vulnerability. So we shouldn't be quick to attack or vilify those who put words in our mouths, but politely and gently provide them with information and pointers that could help them defend their work more effectively. Lending a helping hand often is far better than turning into another attacker.

We also shouldn't beg questions about the work of others, or people themselves. Making leading statements causes others to doubt the credibility of someone, or their work. For instance, if we customize something and claim we "fixed" it or "improved" it, that means there was a flaw in the first place, disparaging the original artist who sculpted the piece. We have to be careful how we frame our statements to avoid unfairly besmirching others or their work. Instead, taking from the example, we should frame our customizing as "making it unique," or "making it different." Because that's exactly what we're doing, isn't it? There's no guarantee that we're actually improving the piece! Indeed, we could be making mistakes that diminish the original! In this way, making leading statements can reflect badly on us and our work, so avoid them. 

Basically it all boils down to this: how we come across to others. If our posts are off–putting, emotionally–charged, overly–sensitive, prickly, inflammatory, or derogatory, we’ll appear unpleasant or unbalanced. Unlike non–artists, we cannot post whatever we think or feel, but need to filter our words to maintain a sense of professionalism. Here, social media can be a blessing or a curse. We often work sequestered in our studios alone throughout the day, and it’s social media that allows us to share ourselves and our experiences in a convenient manner. When applied effectively, this can do much to humanize us, for making us more accessible and welcoming, which improves our image and sense of self within the community. However, when indulged irresponsibly, social media is a PR disaster. There's probably no faster way to damage our sales that to come across as unlikeable online. Passive–aggression, political or religious rants or attacks, consistently negative attitudes, coming across as insecure, combative, or touchy, or generally appearing unlikable and unpleasant will backfire in a big way. We have to moderate ourselves if we're to utilize social media to its best advantage. And when we do, we find it's a fabulous way to connect with people and share our work. 

Because we should never forget that our work is a part of us. When people buy and bring it into their home, a part of us is imbued in that piece. So whenever someone looks at our work in their home, they tend to think of us and the experience they had buying it. So make sure that feeling is good every time! But here’s the thing: everything we post in public has the potential to tarnish that experience, to wreck that feeling when they look at our work. So we should be very careful to ensure the long–term “like–ability” of our ourselves and, therefore, our art. Doesn’t mean we can’t be ourselves! We absolutely should be—but just our best selves. We are our art—we’re inseparably linked—so it’s a good idea to make sure that link is a positive, endearing one.

Plus, behaving in such a professional but accessible manner attracts like–minds to us—we attract happy, pro–active people, and that creates a circle of friends that inject our lives with positive vibes and helpful attitudes. In contrast, when we come across as inaccessible, dysfunctional, insecure, passive–aggressive, or prickly, we drive people away, especially those who have the most good energy. Pump out good energy into the community and we get it right back. All negativity does is breed more negativity, so make an effort to avoid it, whatever the reason.

That said, sometimes an artist is targeted for “leveling.” Some hivemind decides that an artist needs to be “brought back down to size” and so is targeted with criticism meant to chop them down. For example, labeling a knowledgeable presenter of a seminar as a “know–it–all,” or someone who also casts in bronze as “arrogant.” It may also be a complaint about how we sell our work, or at what price. It may be a swath of complaints about our work or working habits. Whatever the reason, the more popular we become, the more we should expect to be “leveled” at some point—but we shouldn’t let it get to us. In many ways, it’s a badge of honor, so we should just keep doing what we’re doing and damn the torpedoes.

We should also be aware that as the more successful or popular we become, the more like lightening rods we are for bad behavior. Everything we do or say will come to attract negative attention from some who thrive on such things, or harbor animosity towards us for whatever reason, even if our public image is good. As a result, we can meet with argumentative behavior, outright attacks, or snide insinuations when we post, and we may not understand why. Regardless, always take the high road, no matter how infuriating this can become. The more shrill others appear in contrast to our professional coolness, the better for us. For this reason, it's often a good idea to turn off the comments option on blogs or newsletters because more times than not, we'll attract the argumentative type. And if we're generating this back–blow with our own behavior, it's time for a rethinking in how we engage the public.

But it’s important to know that this behavior is found in the real world, too. There are always those who thrive on negativity, and the equine collectibles venue is no different. The real problem is the insular and casual nature of the venue that allows the behavior to persist while also making it difficult to escape. So we shouldn’t let it tarnish our life in the studio! Ignore it and avoid those places where it’s prevalent, seek out like–minded colleagues for social interaction, and then proceed forward according to our own prerogatives. And, most of all, be happily creative—that’s the best rebuttal! Joyful productivity is the best retort! Never give this kind of negativity more power than it deserves by responding with equal temerity. Shouting matches just bring us down to their level. Instead, it’s best to direct that energy towards the creation of the best work we can produce and helping others do the same. 

How does this unpleasant behavior prevail? It starts at the root of the issue: the incomplete competitive structure of the venue, one that currently tends to disenfranchise DIY creativity and dampen a sense of camaraderie. In turn, players tend to interpret each other as objectified opponents rather than fellow enthusiasts, especially online, and especially artists, ultimately culminating in an arena not typified by cohesion and inclusion. And, unfortunately, artists are often the convenient target. Players sometimes also tend to have an "us vs. them" attitude with artists largely because, at present, we're the primary means to procure game pieces. This can breed a level of resentment and hostility with some, and they can lash out online as a result. The same can be said about the venues big organizations, too. We often have players complaining or attacking such entities whole sale, yet rarely offer viable solutions in return. One begins to wonder if they simply like to hear themselves talk, especially with self–righteous indignation.

Add into this mix a prevailing belief on some forums that intelligent moderation gags free speech rather than protecting it, and things tend to get out of hand rather quickly. There’s no concept of model horse hate speech, so there’s no communal impetus to recognize and temper bullying or aggressive behavior. The thing is, open public forums only work well if everyone exercises professional courtesy for the sake of the greater community. If not, then firm moderation is required to act as a referee in a kind of benign dictatorship. But if all speech is regarded as free speech, is regarded as equal, those who naturally play nice are driven away. Rarely can a large public forum effectively police and moderate itself. So this causes the forum to degenerate even further, which may end up churning out a constant feed of bad vibes throughout the entire community. And because artists are the source of the game pieces for the game, we’re often the target. The point being that public forums usually aren’t the best place for an artist to socialize for this reason.

We should recognize that not everyone’s opinion has merit and not everyone’s presence is beneficial. As individuals, we make these judgments about people in our daily lives as a function of social interaction, so there’s nothing new here. Yet online we often find that people can post whatever thought or emotion they wish, no matter how toxic or irresponsible. Quite literally, it’s like being in a one–room party with some party–crashers who cannot be removed, so we end up having to leave the party altogether. One can argue to just ignore the bad behavior, but this overlooks the cumulative effect this behavior has on the community—it’s corrosive. Until there exists a defined standard of behavior within the venue, with an idea of model horse hate speech and bullying recognized, this will continue to be a problem.

As an artist, this means we have to be careful with our professional image, and that we have a stormy sea to pilot if we frequent open, public forums. Sadly, many artists come to realize this too late and suffer because of it. And many have found that the more time spent on some of these big forums, the less appealing the whole venue seems to become! Don’t get the wrong idea, however—there are wonderful people out there, and on wonderful forums. We just have to find them and focus our attentions there. Also, there's social media that's better designed to protect our sensibilities and allow us to better control our public image and meet these great people. For example, Facebook lets us set up a business page. If we set it to only posts our own posts, we cut down on potential backlashing and veiled attacks. We can also delete combative responses, or those that insinuate negative ideas. We can build and edit a friend–base of people who feed our positive energy rather than drain it. Beyond all that, however, we should also remember that our precious time and energy is better spent in the studio creating our work. Taking up too much of the clock on forums or social media can be equally destructive to our art as anything else. Remember what gives us the most joy: creating our work. Remember what gives our customers the most excitement: when we create new work. It's all about our art, so stay most focused on that and we can't go wrong.

Conclusion to Part 4

With this understanding about professionalism perhaps some aspects of "hobby' come into sharper focus. We can better understand that our experience isn't our own, but shared with everyone in the community. Once this happens, our paradigm shifts to think bigger thoughts and become more concerned about the inherent problems within the game. We become more invested and claim a stake in our shared outcome. And though it may not seem like it now, this is important for an artist to do. Each of us is tied directly to the nature of the community to which we cater. Whatever form it takes, for better or worse, impacts our well–being and development as well as our sales. For this reason, it pays to help shape it for the betterment of all involved, particularly for fellow artists. So ponder these ideas with an openmind and in the spirit of camaraderie and cohesion. From them we can glean a better understanding of what's generating some of the behavior out there and come to formulate healthier attitudes and strategies to mediate them.

So until next time...ponder professionalism!

"For success, attitude is equally as important as ability."
~ Harry F. Banks

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