Monday, July 27, 2009

The Artist as Hustler

The following is taken from a recent publication, a monograph of highlights from the 2008 Furniture Society Conference at SUNY Purchase in Purchase, NY. The essay is a condensed transcript from a 45 minute lecture I gave titled, The Artist As Hustler. The President of the Furniture Society, Andy Glantz, was kind enough to introduce me:

Andy Glantz: I once heard Scott Braun say, “I’ve been a hustler since I was 12 years old.” I would describe him differently. I would describe him as a moral shyster, an intellectual street urchin, and a hot-headed peacemaker.

Scott Braun: The face in this first slide might be unfamiliar to you, I imagine. His name is John Kennedy Toole. He was a depressive, a loser, an unknown loner in the 60’s. He wrote a novel that no one else had seen when he killed himself in 1969, at the age of 32. His mother found the manuscript in a footlocker and convinced someone to publish it eleven years after his death. The book was called A Confederacy of Dunces, now one of the most widely respected novels in American history. Toole was an exception - don’t let this happen to you.

So let’s talk about the hustle. It’s a way to live, maybe a state of mind, it’s not about deception or being a con man, but about understanding who you are and how to use that to your advantage. I’m not here because I’m some master hustler – what I am is a student, I’m fascinated and constantly learning about it. This is not a sales seminar - hustler does not equal salesman, they’re two vastly different things. What hustler does equal is an awareness of self, of your work and its place in the world. It’s an awareness of how people perceive you and never leaving any of that to chance. Though we may hate the word, this is about branding, what you’re doing is branding you.

I was both careful and cavalier in choosing the word “hustler” – it’s a word loaded with negative connotations. But I wanted to knock you askew a bit, see if I could make you look at doing things from another angle. Why do this? Why am I here? To inspire you? To entertain you? Okay, maybe. But I do this because this is my hustle, this is how I perpetuate the perception of myself that I know exists, because I created it. I’m working right now to keep my name in your mouths – I don’t care what you think of me, as long as you think of me! Now that’s a part of my hustle, because it’s part of who I am – you have to know who you are and work that. You’ll see that there are infinite variations, it’s on you to find your own. You don’t just believe the hype, you create the hype. And all of this, all that we do, all our hard work and all our hustling, it’s all about doing anything to convince someone else to give us enough money to do it again tomorrow.

I was watching a documentary one night about Leonardo DaVinci. DaVinci was a huge hustler, creating myths and legends around himself and his work – it even theorized that the Shroud of Turin was an elaborate DaVinci hoax, among other things. Now, at the time of the commission for the Sistine Chapel, DaVinci’s hustle had made him the most important artist in all of Rome, absolutely unchallenged. So, really, that commission was in the bag, it was assumed that it was his gig to lose. But he pushed it too far. His bickering with the Church, his posturing, had backfired on him, and they left him cold. They went and found the hot young kid from Florence.

It’s fascinating to think that it’s always been this way – from the first moment someone strolled into the cave next door and said, “That’s a great cave drawing! Would you come to my cave and do one for me?” – we’ve been hustling for our next gig. That’s how it’s always been, and how it always will be – it’s about hustling. All the talk you hear about luck is bullshit – there’s no such thing. Successful people didn’t ‘get lucky.’ No, it’s about opportunity, recognizing the sound of the knock and being prepared to open the door and deliver.

And for us to talk about the hustle, we have to be able to put aside the deceivers, the hucksters and pimps and thieves – that’s not what we are. We’ve all seen the word “heirloom” tossed around to describe furniture built to last five years, or you know who’s a great example of the art of deception? Thomas Kinkade. The Painter of Light, the world’s most collected artist! That crap works, but there’s nothing behind it, it’s all smoke and mirrors, and that’s not who we’re here to talk about.

To pinpoint who we are talking about, we have to acknowledge that there’s an unspoken given – we have to be able to assume that you are a badass. I’ll explain. As a young musician, I walked into the studio one morning after having seen the most amazing drummer I’d ever seen the night before, a guy who no one had ever heard of. I came in all excited, asking all the older players why no one had heard of this guy, and the only way I could describe this man was “badass.” I wanted to know how he could possibly be so obscure. So they sat me down and explained, “Scott – being a badass is a given. Without that, don’t even bother. You aren’t even in the conversation until you can call yourself a badass, there’s so much hustle that’s got to happen from there.” And that became something of a mantra for me – I had learned where the starting point was, and until I could call myself that, I’d better get back in the shed and get to work.

Look around, look just in this room. How many incredibly talented people are sitting in this room right now? I’ve got lights in my eyes and I can see Tom Loeser, and John Makepeace, and Jack Larimore, and Garry Knox Bennett just over here. Now think of how many times you’ve made some piece that meant the world to you, you’d bled and sweat and put your soul into it, and eventually sold it to someone who just didn’t really get it. This is for us! We do this for ourselves! So if we can make an assumption of a basic bottom level of quality and talent and general badassery, then what actually is separating one from another? How do we differentiate our work, our selves from the dozens of great and talented people sitting in the same room next to you right now?!? How do I carve a path, how do I get to live my life the way I want to live, to do it again tomorrow and make sure I’m not getting rained on? I want to find a way to be who I am and still have a roof and a sandwich!

So let’s look through history at successful artists I would argue are not only iconic, but have changed history with their art – every single one of them brilliant hustlers. We talked about DaVinci and Michelangelo, let’s jump to the 20th century or we’ll be here all day. How about Dolly Parton – I once heard Dolly say, “Whitney honey, you just keep on singing that song and making me money. It costs a lot of money to look this tacky!” She knows who and what she is, and she understands how to play on that, to take advantage of it. Well, I’m my own brand of tacky, right? Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, William Morris and Oscar Wilde, who would hide little debates between them within their writings just to raise controversy, Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain? A hustler? Hell, he invented a whole other guy! Pablo Picasso, Annie Liebowitz, Maya Angelou, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock – you think Pollock didn’t know what he was doing when he got drunk and peed in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace in the middle of a party? Even when we try to talk about exceptions – people often say Judy McKie is an exception. She’s quiet and shy, she prefers to stay out of the limelight. I don’t think that’s Judy as exception, I think that’s Judy’s hustle!

Audience member: So who’s successful who’s not a hustler?

Scott: You see what I’m getting at?

What? The Pope? Did you say the Pope? That’s a 2,000 year old hustle! Let’s go on – Martha Graham, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, David Bowie, John Lennon, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Henry Moore, Louise Bourgeoise, Richard Serra, Bob Dylan. Dylan’s a great example. He came to NYC knowing only that he wanted to be a rebel and he wanted to play music. He understood that to do that he had to reinvent not only himself, but his music, and he had to continue to adjust it over time, to be fluid and steal a little bit from everyone and as the folk scene began to stagnate, he just kept right on going. The die hards hated him for it, which only helped him continue to be a rebel and still grow. Dylan understood how to pay attention and adjust your work to suit the world. Yeah, Dylan is a genius.

And we have our own group – Le Corbusier, Gropius, Van Der Rohe, Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright, and we’ve got Sam (Maloof) and George (Nakashima) and Wendell (Castle) and Garry (Knox Bennett), brilliant hustlers every one.

As we run out of time, let’s talk about our own work quickly, and how much energy we see wasted arguing about what to call ourselves, and what you are and what I’m not and all the continuous Art, Craft, Design bullshit. I read recently that Brad Pitt bought a Verhoeven Cinderella Table in marble for $293,000. That interested me. So I followed some links to the gallery that shows Verhoeven’s work, and found a show featuring what they called “Design Art,” entirely the type of work we would see in any Furniture Society exhibition, selling for huge prices. Now if you think you’re willing to stand fast and insist that you’re a “Craftsman” or whatever and not a “Designer,” then you have to also accept that someone is eating your lunch, man.

Look, we do what we do each for our own reasons – we love the process, we want it to exist in the world, we want to make a statement, our reasons are our own. But to do that, you have to convince somebody to let you. So what you call it or what you sell about it doesn’t matter. If you feel the need to climb up on the table and scream, “I made this myself!” Who cares? That’s not what’s making people buy these things right now. But they’re buying the same stuff that we’re selling, they’re just calling it something else.

If you’re going to take anything away from here, then realize that just because you’re not selling snake oil, something worthless, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to be a snake oil salesman. You have to know how to sell you, and to do that you have to figure out who you are.


Blogger GW said...

This is awesome. I can't tell you how helpful this is -- if simply in learning how to direct my intent the right way. Any recommendations on books to read that could help get a better grasp on this (I imagine biographies of the great artists lives would be a starting point)? Thanks so much for sharing this.

4:18 PM  
Blogger sb said...

That's exactly what I've been doing for years - studying the artists themselves. Biographies, looking at the context and circumstance of their work, understanding the personalities involved.
Watching and interpreting the growth of another artist is really helpful, as well - look at major changes and departures, and new directions, and ask yourself what made them happen.

And thanks for reading.

1:50 PM  

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