Thursday, October 31, 2013

DAVID AND GOLIATH: Why The Impressionists Triumphed

If you've never read a Malcolm Gladwell book, you should. You're in for a treat. Gladwell's book, BLINK, THE TIPPING POINT, THE OUTLIERS and his newest, DAVID AND GOLIATH take our common assumptions and frequently turn them on their head. Startlingly so!

As an artist I found his section on the French Salon vs Impressionists fascinating reading. While modern art is accepted today back then starting, around 1860 in France, it was anything but.  Sure throughout history painters have dabbled with similar ideas but finally, a group of French painters met, drank and discussed art, often painting together and changed the way we look at art forever. By taking on The Salon, the Goliath of their day, they proved the little man can triumph.

Yet this group struggled in abject poverty and if mentioned at all by the critics, was belittled. Their dilemma was what to do about the Salon? Art was important in France and regulated by the Ministry of the Imperial and Fine Arts.  To be a painter was like becoming a surgeon. Classes, exams and only those passing the highest sniff test progressed. Competition for Salon entries was fierce. Painters from around the world entered. To be accepted meant commissions and success.  To be rejected, as most were, meant artistic disgrace.

A million people would march through The Salons yearly six week show. An afternoon at The Salon was meant to be uplifting, entertaining. What the Impressionists offered was everyday life filled with color and clearly visible strokes. Compared to Salon painters their work looked amateurish, even shocking.

The Salon was the most important venue of its type in the world. However, to be there required them to create art not to their taste. They had a choice, be little fish in a big pond or big fish in their own little pond. They made the right choice by striking out on their own. While their own month long show attracted only 80,000 it changed the course of art forever. Debates raged but ultimately people found much to admire and embraced images of their everyday lives. Today their art hangs in every major museum in the world. Can you name a Salon painter off the tip of your tongue? I can't either.

This story is not new nor only for the arts. Any innovator who takes on the establishment can tell a similar story. David against all odds took on Goliath. By being nimble and daring he won. Creativity means taking risks, being able to transcend what we've been taught and told.

If you're a struggling artist, like I am, all I can offer is to stay the course. At 68 I'm late to the show yet find tremendous joy in what I create. That said I must also say I'm disheartened by how little my things are viewed, hearted on Etsy or sold.  Then a new idea comes along and it's back to the paints. I wish you all great success. No matter the story, whatever you create is your story and it matters.

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