Mar 21, 2010

Diaries of a Young Artist

Dear Diary,

Do you remember I once read Letters to a Young Artist? A great book. It contains twenty three letters by established artists, written in response to a letter from a fictional "young artist" asking for advice. The young artist's letter is not published, so the task of reconstructing it is left to the reader. This makes reading Letters a treasure hunt. The effect is reinforced by the letters themselves, which contain moments of frankness and intimacy, nuggets offered by the older artists to their younger selves. The resulting mixture of personal history, practical advice, and considered reflection make this a classic small book.

When I finished Letters, I wrote on my blog that "I would really love to find a book that contains text by artists before they become established." When I saw the sequel, Diaries of a Young Artist, I eagerly purchased it.

I was disappointed.

The second book is far less compelling that the first. It is well written, but the book fell flat. There were few "take homes." It would be easy to argue this is because younger artists have less to say than established artists, but I don't accept this. I think the editors got it wrong.

For Diaries, the editors asked the younger artists to contribute "dear diary" entries - and there's the nub. Many of the artists take the project literally, and write about their daily routines. Consequently, where first book was polemic, the second is prosaic. The trips to cafes, openings, and the doctors office are all very well, and many of the artists write enjoyably. Terrence Koh's entry is hilarious, or offensive, take your pick. But there are far fewer of the reflective and intimate moments found in Letters. The "dear diary" form is too open ended. It did not challenge the artists enough to address specific issues or to reflect on what art is or what it is to be an artist.

Another issue is that the diary form is exhausted by the web, which, with thousands of free art blogs, does diaristic better and cheaper, with video too. A book of diary entries must to do additional work to establish value - but this book contains no additional essays or information, not even bios of the artists or pictures of their work (far more significant in this book than the first, since the included artists are not yet household names).

And a third issue with the diary form. In Letters I believed the established artists wrote in order to help younger artists. It was a generous gesture, so I approached the book sympathetically. But publishing diary entries hints at self promotion more than altruism. There is nothing wrong with this (it is certainly one reason I blog). But it alters how I respond to the book. It sets a higher bar. I found myself more cynical. I expected to get my fifteen dollars worth.

I was primed for disappointment.

I finished the book blaming the editors. I wish they had instead reversed their original project: why not arrange for an established artist to write to younger artists, perhaps telling a story or two and relating issues from their career, and asking the younger artist to propose alternatives, or dream what a career in art could be. The same artists presented in this volume would, I am certain, have responded very differently to this call. The editors, distracted by treasure, forgot the treasure hunt.

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