Labels Are Like Ghost Blades

Aperture #4 by Epiphanio Alexander. 36″x 48″ Oil impasto on Board with UV Gloss Varnish.

So what is to be an artist? What is prestige, recognition, status? Why is it that every time I think about any of these labels, it feels like I’m putting on a prison suit?

In my first brick and mortar show, I was talking with a man looking at my work, at some point he asked if it was abstract something or whatever else, I don’t remember what.

“It’s nothing” I said, “…it’s just paint on a board. I paint until it makes me feel good, you can call it whatever you want but it’s really nothing.” He looked at me and smiled, I could feel a relief in his vibe, he also knew that it was nothing. I continued,“This is the problem… as soon as we put stuff under a label then it’s dead, that’s as far as it can go. I struggle with even naming them.”

At that moment I felt a connection with the man, we felt a surge of life, we both knew what nothing is. It’s what we all want, we don’t want things with labels and statuses and shit. We all just want to feel the intangible in life …within each other.

It is such a relief to let go of the tricks that the mind uses to subdue everything wild and true, to subtract life with compartmentalized meanings. This is what art does for me, it helps me break through my own prison of meanings to see something else, something new.

I understand that without labels we wouldn’t be able to search for artists that fly on similar wavelengths as Pollock, Rothko or even something that just goes with the furniture and the color of the wall, but I also believe that these labels have somewhat stilled the forward motion of these explorers’ discoveries as time passed by.

And who decides what’s worthy of recognition? These labels came into place after one successful explorer found another land, but how many explorers were out there that never got their labels? How many journeys we’ve never known because these wizards were never recognized? …and was that a good thing?

…maybe, …but we also missed them and their revelations, and whatever we could’ve received from their journey. We never had the opportunity to integrate their transmission into our lives.

Labels are like a ghost blade and the artist dances on its edge. He needs them, but also loathes them …and if she comes to believe they’re real …in the blink of an eye they may kill her.

For me art is just a tool to help us connect with ourselves, with each other. And yet like most valuable things, art is used to separate people. This is the way of the world: hierarchies, competitions, comparison at every turn, and there’s no better example than $$ price. Call it human nature or whatever you want but as we’ve become more “civilized”, we’ve turned value and worth into monopolies based on scarcity and status.

I believe this is the consequence of the lie of the world. It is how it operates, slyly sowing its seeds in the minds and hearts. Engendering cliques and gangs with rules and walls. It’s all about protection …but from what?

Let me illustrate…

As paintings where starting to crowd my little studio, I decided that it was time to figure out how I was going to sell them, after all I was done with them, now they belonged to someone else, who? I didn’t know, but I knew it was my job to make sure people could find them.

Among the many things I did was to check out an artist collective. That is, a gallery managed by the artists who show their own work there. I sent them my online gallery and was invited to one of their monthly meetings so they could all meet me and find out if they wanted me to join their collective.

At the meeting there were over 30 artists gathered. They gave me a chair surrounded by the group and started grilling me with questions. Now, since I’ve been a musician for over 20 years, I can handle being in front of crowds, but I couldn’t help to think how hard must that be for a shy artist.

They all seemed to like my work and be somewhat satisfied with my answers, that is until someone asked about my chosen prices and I said:

“They range from $900 to $3,600” (which by the way, don’t think is that much). I almost burst out a cackle after seeing the woman’s face. I don’t know what was going on through her mind but I could feel that she, and others within the group thought that my prices were preposterous. She continued in a dismissive tone:

“Are you charging more on some just because they have more paint?”

I didn’t understand what her question had to do with my prices because in terms of materials, a painting is pretty much just paint on a surface, and the cost of that can’t be very much no matter how much you put on it.

In my view, the value of art is in the living expression of the artist’s inner world, people find home in there and want to bring it with them. Buying art is something very intimate, it’s like making love, you have to be in love with the particular piece that you’ll be looking at day in and day out.

But this is also quite relative… If you don’t know how art is priced in the “real art world” check out this hilarious video:

So holding back my mirth, I replied that my prices just felt like the proper value for each piece.

A portion of the group seemed quite annoyed, as if I was some arrogant prick who doesn’t know that I’m supposed to suffer as a starving artist, paying my blues dues until Rivendell’s high council of elf curators anoint me with their mighty VIP approval to call myself a “real artist” and charge a fair price.

It all got weird from then on, they started interrupting and mocking my answers with subtle jabs. I began to feel a distinctive air of disdain weaving in throughout the group. I knew it was over but I stayed until the end of the inquisition, when they dismissed me with:

“We’ll review your application and let you know if you’re approved…”

I received a call that night and was informed that they had decided to pass on me because I didn’t have enough paintings to show, which sounded strange because most of my paintings are 36”x 48” and every wall of that gallery was almost full. In regards to supply, my idea had been to hang one or two paintings at a time until they sold and by then I would have more work available to replace them. In other words, I don’t know how to make sense of their reasoning.

After the call, I sat down and contemplated what I could’ve done wrong… maybe I had been somewhat nervous. After all, they were all long standing beautiful creators, and I was the newbie …maybe I came in too strong to compensate, but then I thought, even if that was the case, what would that have to do with my prices?

I may be totally off base but I think that I was rocking their boat and that was enough to keep me outside their walls. There I was, someone who has no clue as to what he’s painting, who assigns no importance to the meaning of his work, with no training, no resume, no pedigree if you will, and yet confident about the value of his work… —Isn’t this a contradiction?, how could that be?, he must think he’s above us! …well he’s wrong!, he needs to learn humility!, throw him off the boat! …I don’t know …I’m making this stuff up …lol!

However, what I do know is that the lie of the world runs under the collective social program that if you happen to recognize your own value and make a stand for yourself, then it means that you are above others, and this couldn’t be further from the truth because what is it to feel that you’re above others, but a veil for your own insecurity?

Labels and statuses maintain people separated from each other through hierarchies embedded in everything, from how we communicate one on one, to the manner in which groups are formed and sustained, all the way up to how nations deal with each other.

And yes, the lie is pervasive. Whenever I get the feeling that I’m above others, I have to pause and remember that what I’m really feeling is the lie of the world trying to hold me down, and that’s why I need to compare myself to others. So I take a deep breath and remove whatever label I’m believing that I am, just so that I can remember How I Discovered The Lie Of The World.


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