Interviewsand Articles

 

Ladislav R. Hanka: Some Thoughts Sent to Ted Orland

by Ladislav Hanka, Aug 17, 2009


 

 

I have read your book Art and Fear and have been moved by the deeply humane truths contained therein—enough so to reflect after thirty years as a printmaker, how it is that I survived into middle age as an artist, while nearly all of my colleagues from US art schools have not. What makes this situation all the more vexing, is that I attended art academy in Europe as well and nearly all of those colleagues still make art.  Why the difference? What can we learn from that dichotomy?

 
I imagine we all start as similarly talented and excited children, wanting to paint beautifully, to discover the face of God in a grain of sand and save the world. We come back from the ordeal of art school painfully aware of human fallibility and of the unequal distribution of wealth, talent, opportunity and pain. Making art in the face of environmental catastrophe and the marauding four horseman of the apocalypse is hardly a new moral conundrum nor is it primarily the domain of either European of American students to face it. Becoming the jaded cynic seems like a trap awaiting us all, yet the American kids seem to come out disproportionately damaged and unfit for survival in the next stage of life, while the equally cerebral and acerbic European students get over it—at least enough to be creative and stay with it for the rest of their three score and ten. 
 
My wife studied at the Art Academy in Prague and still goes back after 25 years to visit professors and assistants. She has contact with many student colleagues and when I ask her about this, she is quite matter of fact. "We all expected to become artists and we all still live that life. You might have kids, teach, raise sheep or restore facades and old family portraits, but that's filler around your calling. We were brought up to be artists and live that life. You visit your colleagues and retire to the studio—even if it's just a corner of a small room—and check out what your friends have been painting, not what their investments are accruing.
 
The students keep track of each other and are treated by the greater community with respect, as artists with something valuable to contribute. It is an honorable thing. You are expected to paint, and you do." My own experience confirms that the European art students years later live like artists and that their places have the flavor of the places we inhabited as grad students while my US colleagues tend to have middle class looking existences with nice homes, and new cars and vacation cabins, while they worry a great deal about health insurance and retirement accounts. 
 
My experience of art education in the USA was, like that of many students, often adversarial, dealing with bored and disappointed teachers who were more interested in drinking and the new crop of freshman girls than they were in art (which they mostly saw as a dead-end). I survived, in part because I first completed a liberal arts degree and an MS in Zoology, before moving on into art. I arrived in art school with adequate self-confidence to stand up for myself and make it through unimpaired. Since then, I have seen much of the spectrum of art education ranging from the savaged students, bludgeoning each other with art lingo in very competitive schools (like in the film Artschool Confidential), to those innocents being handled with kid gloves as paying customers at community colleges. They all seem to end up badly a few years' later.
 
I've certainly had lucky breaks, but none of them are unusual enough to explain my modest successes. Working hard and being prepared to make use of opportunity probably count for more. The secret is showing up and very prosaically doing the work, one day after the next. I am to this day far more productive than are 95% of my colleagues and I suspect that simple matter of just pushing a pencil around every day, of printing my own editions, of being in some way involved in the artist's life most hours of most every day, counts for much. I also regard the modest position I've achieved to indeed, be a success—and that is a crucial psychological moment. I make enough from my artwork to live. I like what I do and don't expect (or need to be) a star. I am fortunate that the work I have a passion to make looks like legitimate art to most everybody and it has always sold. I also graduated from college debt-free in a time when there were still scholarships and when tuition was modest enough to be handled with summer jobs and assistantships. (In most of Europe, schooling is free and students enter adulthood without debt). I had help from my parents, but that is hardly rare in a wealthy country with a large middle class. Today the students often have new cars and well-appointed apartments, but still fare no better after school. Therefore I surmise that money is hardly the whole answer to our conundrum—though money as a focus of one's concerns might be. I suspect that more important was the experience I had, of growing up belonging to a tribe of sorts. I studied in Europe and I have been an active participant in Czech culture—both here and back in the motherland.  
 
It isn't that far-fetched, in this examination of being an artist, to consider for whom it is we are making our artwork. And also to factor in the size of one's culture and the expectations that places upon an individual. Being Czech and speaking the language, knowing the literature and art, means one is a participant in a culture equivalent to the population of Michigan—nine million people. Michigan has maybe about a dozen universities, many small colleges, and several large cities outside the one metropol. In a culture of this more human scale, it doesn't take an untoward amount of effort to become known. You exhibit your work, attend some workshops, receive a few grants, jury a few shows and you are known among your peers. That is more important than it seems at first glance. Think of how we, the experienced aging and wizened professionals in the field, are still touched by the cult of personality when ostensibly we should be well past that: I look at some squirt and blob painting (which is far from anything I do or normally care about) and when I know the person doing it, I readjust my response. It is no longer an undisciplined mess of wanna-be 60's avant gardism but by now, work that has been made by somebody I know to be a thoughtful person. The work gets a second look with suspended judgment. It's human to filter the excess information to which we are today subjected and cut most of our influences down to palatable levels. Therefore it takes something more to break through the answering machines, voice mails, caller IDs and all else we use to keep the world at bay—it takes knowing somebody, a personal connection to get through to a fresh level of consciousness. 
 
Sitting on a jury awarding grants, I once saw a horrid piece of bombastic double-speak from a professor whom I happened to know, and it was all just too much. Others on the jury thought the verbiage sounded a bit dry and though they didn't understand, let it pass. But me, I knew the guy. He was well paid, well positioned and he'd been coming back asking for more grants with the same diatribes year after year. I had to call the old blowhard's bluff and bring it up for discussion. I also recall another juror telling us that an application with minor procedural flaws had come from a kid with great potential, who could really use the break. That too was worth knowing. There is indeed much to be said for our knowing one another and the arts community over which we are passing judgment and not being so completely disinterested and excruciatingly, correctly neutral. When we all know each other, there is a deeper level of convincing your peers with the real goods that has to take place. There are very real problems inhering in this subjectivism creeping in of course, much like life in the provincial town or village, where you can never be free of the past and what others think of you, your family and your kind, but today the problems of a society of strangers living in anonymity and separation from one another completely overwhelms any problems of excessive familiarity we may once have suffered. The human face put upon a name in a place where we all know each other is ultimately where salvation lies. 
 
I am only an occasional participant in the art of the Czech Republic and yet the various printmakers, professors, critics, dealers, curators and collectors have heard my name and I theirs. In Michigan it is much more so. That portion of the population interested in art is broader than one might think. People are interested. Newspapers will promote a local artist if one can only overcome the arrogance and self-pity that seem to come with this territory and just accept them all at their own level and be grateful they care. The Czech Republic, about the size of Michigan, has its own language and culture, with a publishing industry whose books mostly are being illustrated by their own artists and written by their own writers. There is a market for the works of their artists from the day they graduate. Imagine all the opportunities for illustrating literature, advertising, designing currency, postage stamps and all else that an independent culture offers. Artists there survive long enough to develop into maturity and thus a small number from a very modest sized nation evolve enough to break out and indeed make it internationally. 
 
We are however a massive nation and US culture is gigantic—a floodtide in which it is hard for a youngster to swim. There is a lot of lip service paid to diversity, yet I find our culture to be less diverse and more monolithic by the year. That is a curious observation with some contradictions. The common culture is being splintered into myriads of interest groups, while the healthy regionalism we once enjoyed seems to be disappearing.  
 
You either read Sci-Fi or environmentalist literature, but not both.  People in the same town are just as culturally "diverse" as is the whole country (meaning virtually identical), without the place itself having much distinct flavor any more. Southern music is not interestingly distinct from that of the Great Lakes. Every place in America has blues bands, hillbilly music stations and envies the Cajuns the remains of their distinct culture.
 
It's not just a US phenomenon of course, we just seem to be ahead of the curve, much like California is the harbinger of what will be the trend in the rest of states very soon. Recently in Latvia, I witnessed kids from the Russian minority broadcasting their Russian Hip-hop songs. They were pathetic with their pants hanging to their knees, trying to be bad and black. Be yourself, I kept thinking, plenty of room for creativity while staying genuine. The beauty of the genius loci is under great pressure, but I believe that it is still key to long-term psychic health. 
 
In Vienna I recall my fellow students expressing envy: how easy it must be for me with the shows I'd already had in Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. What were they supposed to do with their pitiful little shows in Berlin or Vienna? But the fact is, that they mostly stayed in Austria and are doing okay. They had a support system that allowed them to survive and some even to thrive. Several even made the big jump to Germany or France. Imagine—a support system and a frame of reference that would allow you to feel good about your show in Dubuque, Iowa.  
 
Here we allow most anyone to study and the marketplace does the remorseless culling afterwards. We produce a gazillion art school grads a year who then cannot find a place to grow in the sun. In Czechia or Austria by contrast, they operate under a numerus clausus system, accepting a very limited number of the very best (or perhaps best-connected) new art students, corresponding to what they think the nation can absorb, plus some foreigners for leavening. The system is stacked strongly against late bloomers and those with a broader approach to learning and making a life, but it is also arguably less cruel to those who never really had a chance and would find out only afterwards. The students in this atelier system of education benefit from having been cultivated to become the nations' artists and from the intimacy of a system where they all know one another well enough to be a support system for one another throughout their lives. They trace their lineages through professors who are widely respected and whom one encounters in the art history books, galleries and museums of that culture, and to whom they look when it comes time to award public commissions. 
 
The students scattering back to the provinces after graduation establish studios and use that education in an atmosphere of general expectation that they are the next generation of the nation whose work matters. They are expected to be participants in creating their nation's patrimony, but may also need to make a buck fixing the occasional Baroque cherub or illustrating a children's book. There is a lot of restoration to be done in a country which doesn't see the high-priced real estate of its city centers as merely pecuniary in value, but which also spends money to save ancient heritage trees and badly decayed historic structures rather than replacing them with car dealerships.
 
The contrast I see among American students is dramatic. They are often amazingly immodest in their expectations and demands and yet know next to nothing about the marketplace when they do enter it. I have taught briefly at colleges and in community art centers and occasionally I will give a guest lecture, usually with an exhibition. And I do see quite a few students passing through my studio, looking for the secret—which I gladly try to impart as best I can. Every young ceramist with a semester at a Community College behind them seems to be working towards a sale of pottery. All things that have been touched by their genial little hands go into some display space with a price affixed—often quite out of any relationship with the quality of the work being shown. My own work is widely visible—in part because I choose to sell it for prices which normal people are actually accustomed to paying for things on a regular basis-the price of lamps, TVs and sofas. Anybody with a job who really wants it, can afford it. What seems to be missing among many budding young artists is a sense that the place for money changing hands is at the point where skill supercedes that of the vast majority of people. They are often at a loss when it comes to realistic self-evaluation. 
 
Comparing these divergent systems, I see so many pluses and minuses, that it's hard to come to conclusions. The European systems are bound up in hierarchies and tradition—to the point of being inflexible and exclusive in ways that seem unfair and which do indeed generate emigration to more open and accepting societies-like ours. They demand excellence and can be quite cruel to the country bumpkin-to any outsider. The professors are well-known artists who receive these posts for a lifetime of achievement. They deign to see students here and there, while lowly assistants do all the grunt-work around the studios. Herr Professors shine and die, time and again, to be replaced by another famous artist who gets the big bucks and accolades. The graduating students proudly proclaim having studied under the great so and so. Sometimes the great so and so did them a lot of good and included them in the secrets of the guild and, just as often, he was merely there to register the incoming master class, to select a comely model or studio helper and occasionally to appear for a critique. This last was my experience, while my wife speaks in glowing terms of her kindly major professor. Europe is bound up with rules and permits—you get nowhere without proper credentials. The idea of artwork from an artist without proper pedigrees seems a proposition only an American would accept. It is a good system for those on the inside and a much harder system to break into. 
 
But so much seems to be less about the system and how things get done and much more about the expectations with which we engage the life—long vocation of being an artist. I've had the fortune to have been long enough in Europe to expect things eventually to work out. I believe that this exposure led me to truly accept in the depths of my soul, that which is said everywhere in the US as well: that making art has an intrinsic value not connected to the money. That European system seems to prepare one spiritually for the years of slim pickings in one's twenties and thirties in the expectation that it will have been worth it; that they will in all likelihood make it through this rough time and end up as have I; having learned a great deal in that time; having found my voice and developing at least a modest reputation. You know, I have believed all along that what I do has a deep spiritual value akin to meditation and prayer, and that is something we talked about often among the students in Europe. But it is mostly dismissed in the US as your personal baggage and not really open to discussion. The US academic scene finds such talk embarrassing or excessively controversial and instead deals with less troubling issues: sexual politics, racism and such concrete matters. The students graduate, eager to tilt at windmills and break down the doors of New York with the latest and newest groundbreaking art springing forth whole from the head of Jason or Jennifer. They leave these little Podunk burgs in the dust to prove their mettle in the belly of the beast and once there, are mostly digested by the beast. 
 
Our system here is not friendly to local and regional culture—seeing it more as a provincial backwater. But we do ourselves a disservice. Local and regional culture is the incubator from which the best art has always been born. This is especially true if the local museum and cultural institutions have some pride in their polis and take it as a responsibility to themselves and to the world to cultivate and promote what is best from among their own number—an admittedly uncommon situation. The local is what you actually encounter every day and the most genuine experience one has. It is the sensual world from which all observation and art must ultimately be born. I reflect again on my own experiences, which are modest and hardly universal, but which do have validity. At 56 years of age, I still hustle to make my livelihood, yet I do show across the world in mostly modest venues. If I were a snob about that, it would be hard on my ego indeed.
 
I think none of us is completely immune to hoping for the lucky break and we will always get excited over showing in New York, Barcelona or Berlin. That's where the stamp of approval comes from and where you expect your ego to get some recompense for putting itself on the line year after year. What I find more interesting though, is that when I show in Winona or Paducah, the physicians, lawyers and teachers come to hear what I have to say and view the show. The college president may look in and suggest to the special collections librarian that she buy something. My shows in Chicago have, on the other hand, generally been ill attended, largely because it is so troublesome to come in from the suburbs. There will always be another show tomorrow and so they flip on the TV and have a gin and tonic, instead of fighting the God-awful traffic.
 
My recent Prague show was also instructive; wonderfully attended and a success in everybody's eyes, but for mine. The curators cared not a whit for what I had to say. The show was limited to book arts—works I have produced in bilingual editions of Czech and English that somehow relate to being of Czech parentage living abroad. They were unimaginatively displayed in vitrines under glass, without so much as a mirror or an open book to show off my etchings or any text, just bindings. Meanwhile the liveried renaissance trumpeters and hors d'oeuvres were excellent and the speeches by various dignitaries, vapid but verbosely laudatory. Colleagues tried to put a good face on it, but mostly commiserated with similar stories of expositional woes. In contrast, when I have showed in provincial Czech towns with populations under 100,000 I got better shows and fewer perks (meaning lots more work), but more communication between myself and the modest audiences who did attend. 
 
We have mostly bought into unrealistic expectations that the best art is being made by stars of nearly unattainable status and that we should never settle for second rate—as if that were in any way susceptible to measurement. I suppose the common standard of greatness has become monetary. Thus it pains us all the more to read about all the speculative investment money being invested in art, while dealers are cited bemoaning the lack of worthwhile art to invest in. 
 
I contend that the vision is flawed and that nearly all art must necessarily come from a humbler place that is real, and be spawned by individuals in a place that is their own. It isn't just a fallback position to save one's ego, but a matter of who the audience is and why we make art. It feels great to walk into somebody's house and see your artwork up, knowing it has found its place and is making a difference. So much is based in attitude, on being able to find satisfaction in the audience of one's own people—those interested in what you're doing—and in the reciprocity of having your artwork engage those about whom you care.   
 
To see more of Ladislav Hanka's work visit:http://web.me.com/ladhanka/Site/Welcome_2.html
 
 
  
 

About the Author

 Ladislav Hanka is an artist living in Kalamazoo, Michigan 

 

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