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There's a Lot of Backbiting Among Artists

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One evening in June at the Cedar Tavern in 1956, a drunken Jackson Pollock pulled Franz Kline by the hair off his bar stool, and Kline responded by punching Pollock in the stomach, doubling him over. Just another night in the art world. The history of the New York School of abstract expressionists is replete with physical and verbal assaults and counterattacks. The first group of American artists to ever know critical and financial success (even in a limited form) in the lifetime of its members was broken up into warring factions by that very success. Mark Rothko criticized sculptor Tony Smith for praising a work by Pollock, saying "I thought you were committed to me." Ad Reinhardt publicly referred to Barnett Newman as "the avant-garde-huckster-handicraftsman and educational shopkeeper" and castigated his "transcendental nonsense." (Newman sued for slander but lost.) Clyfford Still wrote a letter to Pollock, claiming that Pollock was probably "ashamed" of his work. (Still also described the work of fellow abstract expressionists as "exercises in degradation.") Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still teamed up to pressure their dealer, Betty Parsons, to get rid of her other artists and only show them. Having grown up in a world in which almost no artists were able to make a living except illustrators and teachers, this group of artists suddenly found itself besieged by competing dealers and critics, as well as younger artists who looked to them for inspiration, magic and, perhaps, an entry into a gallery. The pressures they felt were intense, but probably no more than artists feel today; the main advantage of the artists succeeding the abstract expressionists has been that younger artists have grown up in an age of media and artistic fads, making them less likely to be befuddled by the vicissitudes of fame.

Today's artists generally have college degrees, sometimes postgraduate degrees, and understand that financial as well as critical success is possible for a wide range of artists. However, those degrees and that understanding raise the stakes for them. Regardless of what anyone says about creating art even if nobody ever buys it, no one gets a baccalaureate or a Masters degree in studio arts in order to accumulate canvases, sculptures, videos of performances or whatever the medium. Today's artists know something that the abstract expressionists did not -- that one could be a failure as an artist, not just a bad artist.

Fisticuffs is rare in the art world, but the pressures on artists to succeed -- to have something to show for all the years of study and sacrifice, making the rounds and maintaining an image of themselves as artists (a highly value-laden term in our culture) -- frequently leads to bitterness and backbiting. For example, painter Howardina Pindell once was given an award from the Studio Museum of Harlem and, shortly after that, the museum received a letter from another black artist claiming that "everything I ever learned as an artist I learned from him," she said, noting that a copy of the letter was sent to her by that artist. "I hardly knew this man, but I guess he was upset that I got this award and he didn't."

There are various forms in which backbiting takes place. Sometimes, it is a public forum, such as a letter. Pindell said that another artists has shown up at conferences where she has been a panelist, challenging whatever she says, "trying to make me look dumb or foolish. I see it as a personal attack from someone who felt I was getting too much attention." Gossip and spreading rumors is quite common, and is especially damaging in the art world where who-you-know counts for a lot and information is regularly passed through tips and asides. "Artists who show and sell a lot always seem to be coming in for complaints from other artists," painter Will Barnet said.

"They get called 'commercial artists.' People say, 'Their work has really declined a lot' or 'Keep away from that guy.' There's nothing like a little success to make all these people you thought were your friends want to cut you off at the knees."

The pecking order "was very important to Ken [Noland]," said Jules Olitski, also a color field artist.

"With Ken, it was always who's on top, who's getting more money, more press, more shows. There was always a competition between us to be the best, to excel, but sometimes we came close to blows. I certainly did not have a placid relationship with Ken. We're good friends now, because we don't see each other very much."

Competition may be an inherent problem for fine artists, since they work alone and are unused to collaborating with others. The drive to create artwork that is new and unique and have that work reach people in a crowded art environment may engender a war room mentality. As the experience of the abstract expressionists showed, critical and financial success does not make artists less competitive with one another and, in fact, increases the tensions. Keeping oneself in the public eye, which helps maintain at least the financial aspect of the success going, is vital in the media age where memory is so short, inverting the old Roman adage, "ars longa, vita brevis."

Juried competitions often bring out anxiety in artists, because they open themselves up for a possible rejection, and with that a sense that everything is decidedly political in the art world. Who the jurors are and discerning their preferences and prejudices become burning issues, fueling resentment. Marilyn Derwenskus, a midwest regional representative for the National Watercolor Society, noted that she prefers "a juror who is an artist rather than a museum person," because "museum people look for something different. They are trained as art historians and look for images that will endure. They are less interested in the craft of the piece." On the other hand, Warren Taylor, a painting instructor at Midland College in Texas, complained that "some shows value craft or tradition over originality." Yet other artists claimed that they are more or less likely to be accepted into a show based on whether a juror is male or female. Conversations at get-togethers of artists, especially those who are members of various societies, often veer onto the subject of who is judging what competition.

Another form of art world backbiting is simply to never offer praise for or speak about a particular artist. "Lack of positive reinforcement is just as perditious as saying something out of jealousy," painter Frank Webb said. An influential teacher, for instance, may go unmentioned in an artist's biography out of fear that unflattering comparisons will be made or that an artist's apparent originality is actually less than it might seem. Barbara Nechis, who regularly teaches workshops to serious amateurs and occasionally hears from them what other workshop instructors have said about her (often positive, sometimes not), said that she won't complain about that artist or even mention that person's name to her students, but "I'll spend a lot of time promoting my approach to painting, which may be the opposite of what the other artist taught. And, if the person who says something negative about me has a book, I will never mention the book and never recommend it."

Faith Ringgold, a painter and sculptor, noted that she didn't show in New York between 1969 and 1984, because "there was a concerted effort to ignore me and keep me out of things." That silence, she believed, is the result of envy ("you're doing something that they might be doing but aren't") or fear ("your work makes theirs look bad in contrast") or simply disapproval: "In the 1960s and '70s, when the art world was into abstraction, I was doing political art. It was politically incorrect to do political art then."

One of the prominent examples of success leading to rancor is Jules Olitski, whom the critic Clement Greenberg called "the best painter living" back in the early 1980s. Greenberg and his ideas about modern art came under heavy and sustained attack by a generation of artists, academicians and critics starting in the late 1970s, and this extended to Olitski by association in a strong way. "I'd get told about snide comments made about me by one person or another," he said, "or I'd read poison darts in the press, if my name was ever mentioned, which happened less and less."

At a gathering of artists in the mid-1990s, Olitski was talking with some friends when the subject of Greenberg's pronouncement came up:

"Suddenly, what had been a friendly and genial conversation turned ice cold," he said. "One after another artist said, in effect, 'it wasn't fair.' One of the artists said, 'He should have chosen me. He would have, but we weren't getting along at the time.' Another person, a sculptor, also said that it was unfair, but he wouldn't have minded if he had been named the greatest living artist. We all talked for a while about it, but I could see they were still angry about it, years later."

Backbiting is not exclusive to male artists -- a growing number of women artists have moved away from a notion of feminist cohesiveness to a more every-girl-for-herself outlook -- nor is it confined to the fine arts. Jealousy and envy are part of the art world, because of the uneven and sometimes unfair way that the art world hands out its favors. The largest worry that artists have when they hear of negative comments is that this may be only the tip of the iceberg, that everyone is criticizing them behind their backs and turning everyone else against them. Whisper campaigns and more public denunciations do cause damage, but it is rarely fatal to a career. Since it is aimed at artists with some standing in the artworld, emerging artists are less likely to be targets or affected by it.

The art world is relatively small, which allows remarks to spread quickly, but that also provides a reason to withhold comment, since one may not want to be associated with something mean-spirited. As a rule, artists succeed more often because of who their friends are rather than as a result of which enemies they have made. In addition, collectors don't want to become enmeshed in the political in-fighting of artists: They look to art to help them get away from their troubles, not to reveal to them a world as nasty as their day jobs. For artists thick in the stream of gossip and hearsay, developing discretion and a thicker skin may be the best antidote.