Written by arts advocate and community organizer Frances Cathryn/
Tips for establishing your role as an artist, putting your work in context, and defining the overall meaning and value of what you make.
In the art world, value is too often reduced to financial terms and delimited by barriers to access. But it doesn’t have to be this way: The right language can be a tool to reclaim your work in an industry that doesn’t always see its importance. This is not an easy task, so I’m here to guide you along in the process. With the below tips, I hope to help you redefine your value in an economy that unfairly benefits from what you make.
Tip 1: Establish your role as an artist
Learning how to confidently describe yourself as an artist is the first step to changing how the industry understands what you do. But before you pin down the importance of your art to others, you should first describe what you gain from whatever it is you make.
To get started, try answering these questions in your own words:
- What drives you to make what you do? Why do you stay dedicated to your practice?
- What does success look like for you? Is this interpretation different than how others might define it?
- As an artist, how do you understand your role in your community, or in society more broadly?
- Do you feel a sense of responsibility to engage a specific audience? Why or why not?
This list of prompts is not exhaustive, but it will help you begin characterizing your work as an artist in concrete terms. It’s also smart to continue redefining your role as you grow and your work evolves, so I would recommend introducing a regular writing or journaling routine into your creative practice and revisiting these sorts of questions frequently.
Tip 2: Tie your work into a critical conversation
It may not feel like it when you’re entering hour ten in the studio on a Friday night, but your art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As you pay attention to what’s going on around you, take note of ideas that challenge you, do further research into topics that feel related to your practice, and explore how your art can contribute to larger critical conversations. Building connections in this way will help you establish the context in which your art functions and connect what you make to a wider cultural narrative.
To place your work in a larger critical framework, answer these questions in your own way:
- What topics or cultural conversations are related to your work?
- How will the context in which your work is shown (a gallery wall, a public park, a computer screen) affect the meaning viewers take away from it?
- Where does your work fit in the history of art making, and of your community more broadly?
- Would including your voice in the conversation silence others?
Decoding the language used in and around the industry will teach you how to define your art making on your own terms, and help you avoid being taken advantage of by an economy that often prizes profits over creativity. And, remember that the industry is built on a framework of discrimination. As you consider your position in the art world, be mindful of how your role and what you make could further marginalize voices historically excluded from the conversation.
Tip 3: Champion your art’s value to society
The arts are not only underfunded but also continually misunderstood—a mutually reinforcing sidelining of the central role creativity can, and should, play in day-to-day life. Until we’re able to completely overhaul the conversation around art making in society at large, it’s in your best interest to guide the conversation around your work and how it should be supported. Clearly explaining what others can gain from your art will allow them to see its value as you understand it. Beyond this, you may also need to justify its utility to society, either in practical terms or more poetic ones.
The question of greater social impact may be easy to answer for those whose art makes a political statement, but for other artists, evaluating what they do can take some added effort. If you’re an interdisciplinary artist, for example, or your practice is conceptual in nature, this may be especially difficult. To start framing your work’s value within society, try to answer these questions:
- What can someone take away from the experience of interacting with your work?
- How could connecting with your art change viewers’ personal interpretations of themselves and their places in society?
- Who is your work for? Does your work empower others to find their voice, or to find more meaning in daily life?
Or, try to approach this question from a different angle and ask what is lost if no one is given an opportunity to engage with what you make. Repositioning your art in these frameworks may help you focus on its lasting impact, and determine its ultimate value independent of a profit-driven economy.
Creative work is hard enough before tackling the question of how to communicate its importance to a world that doesn’t always see the value in it. Being able to articulate your art’s worth in clear and compelling writing is a way of inviting others in, and of understanding the power of creativity in daily life. But in a capitalist society, there is little productive conversation around value, especially non-monetary value, that could serve as a useful frame of reference. Therefore, throughout your writing process, keep in mind that shaping a personal narrative you feel comfortable sharing with others can often be painstaking. Writing is a skill that takes time to learn, so be patient if it doesn’t immediately meet your expectations, pay attention to language that feels authentic, and give yourself space to fail.
Frances Cathryn is an arts advocate and community organizer currently based in Rosendale, New York. Her work is about helping people build equitable, inclusive, and anti-oppressive spaces (both digitally and in-person) for creating, healing, and being. Using the skills and experience she developed from nearly a decade working in publishing, nonprofits, and museums, Frances started wip projects to help people learn how to use their voice proudly and without shame. She also collaborates with arts-based organizations to celebrate creative expression and dismantle systems of institutional racism and patriarchy that exclude the voices of marginalized folks from the cultural conversation around art making. When she’s not working with others to shift how we define what it means to create valuable work in the world, you can find Frances chatting with friends and family over coffee or spending weekends hiking in the nearby Catskills.
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