06/24/2013 06:53 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

Artists Need to Learn How to Deal With Backbiting


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 Master's 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.

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.

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."

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.