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Should you share your secrets?

Your artistic secrets are your livelihood. You don't have to tell how you got the rabbit into the hat.
Should you share your secrets?
Your artistic secrets are your livelihood. You don't have to tell how you got the rabbit into the hat.

Imagine you are in a smoky club, mesmerised by the magician onstage. She removes her top hat, waves her magic wand and abracadabra! A rabbit appears. People immediately shout out questions. ‘Is the hat bottomless?’  ‘How much does the rabbit weigh?’ ‘Where did you buy it from?’ ‘Do they have a website?’

In this scenario the magician is under no obligation to reveal anything. After all, their business is illusion.

But in a culture that emphasises community over commerce many other artists feel under pressure to reveal the cogs behind their creativity and that issue is becoming tougher as the techniques become every more complex.

In a world of exponentially developing technologies the tools of art are expanding. New products and processes hit the street every day, waiting for adoption and possible subversion by forward thinking artists. 3D printing, advanced robotic sensors, smart fabric, communication technologies; all these developments lie in wait, ready to be shaped into profound artistic experiences for the keen art-goer.

In keeping up with these new possibilities it is necessary for artists to commit themselves to extensive research. This period of exploration and invention is a creative and dedicated process of seeking, identifying, imagining, problem-solving and prototyping.

When an artist finally exhibits their work they are usually asked to deconstruct it. They might be questioned on the meaning and inspiration behind the piece. They may also be asked more specific questions. How was the art made? Where were the parts from? How much did they cost? How was it put together?

An artist’s initial impulse may be to tell all. By passing on their research and methods it is an opportunity to contribute to a communal creative culture. They can help like-minded artists, learn from others and help build a thriving cultural scene.

There is, however, a small voice in their heads that may argue otherwise.

A voice saying: Hold on, I just spent six months figuring this stuff out. Should I just give that information away to anyone? Am I setting myself up to be copied, outmoded and forgotten before I have a chance to establish myself?

It can be difficult for an emerging artist to stake a claim in the art world. In order to make a living they need to get noticed. Protecting some level of their research and ideas may be a part of that.

If the artist remains tight-lipped about every aspect of their work they can come off as petty. It reveals a lack of confidence and a tendency to view other artists competitively. Many people asking technical questions are simply looking for an entry point to explore their own interests.

An unwillingness to share can stand in the way of creative partnerships and a sympathetic art scene. The historic and current influence of groups such as Critical Art Ensemble, Guerrilla Girls, Paper Rad and others, show us that there are exciting possibilities within creative collectives. An artist can market as a group, book big shows and create a vibrant following. They can see their idea change and develop through many hands until it becomes something far greater than what they initially imagined; and experience gratification from that process.

That said, revealing their entire artistic process step by step should by no means be the expectation. These are the artist’s ideas and it is every bit their right to protect their intellectual property. By over-sharing it encourages people to follow the artist’s exact path and mimic their choices, allowing the asker to achieve more in less time … and with a whole lot more money in their pockets.

The answer of how much to share lies in the artist negotiating a middle ground of transparency that they feel comfortable with. This may depend on who they are talking with, what the setting is and at what stage of their career they are at. By giving a more generalised answer regarding their tools and methods it can still give outsiders an entry point while reducing the risk of direct emulation.

This could mean giving someone key words to google instead of a direct phone number. Or explaining their own entry point into the art form and the names of other artists within the genre. Some artists may throw questions back to the asker: Why do you ask? What aspect of the work appeals to you?

At the end of the day it is the artist’s role to create art, not to teach it. This should be kept in mind the next time a curious patron flips open their notepad and ask for the manufacturer’s website. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions – but don’t be turned off if you don’t get the answer you were looking for. There’s something fun about joining the hunt for new ideas as well.

Melanie Sano

Thursday 8 August, 2013

About the author

Melanie Sano is an ArtsHub writer.