When Australia’s version of the Wall Street Journal takes notice of a local artist, it’s a pretty good indication of a reputation on the rise. Three years ago, as nearly every Australian newspaper and glossy magazine delved into some aspect of Hazel Dooney’s young life and career, a headline on a full page article in the Australian Financial Review read, “Hazel Dooney walks the razor’s edge between respect and celebrity in today’s art world”.
She does a lot more than that. Globally famous as the first artist of any note to step completely outside the traditional commercial and institutional gallery system to manage her own career using the self-publishing and social networking tools of Web 2.0, Hazel Dooney has emerged not only as one of the most intriguing artists under 35 working in multiple media but also one of the most outspoken and controversial.
Just as her post-Pop figurative art is an ironic, critical response to the insidious influence entertainment and advertising media have had on identity and sexuality – as well as, in her recent works, the way identity and sexuality are defining new kinds of politics and religion – Hazel Dooney‘s intense, somewhat daunting, ascetic, Amazonian public persona is dedicated to blazing (and defending every inch of) a trail along which future generations of artists will trade with much greater control of their art, reputation, and income without having to rely on what she calls “phalanxes of self-important, self-interested intermediaries”.
WARNING: Depending on where you work, some of the images in this article may not be safe for work.
Intriguingly, Dooney encourages artists to give up trying to control the copyright of their images and to allow their work and ideas to flow freely, with few restrictions, across the web. This Warholian ethos is rooted in her conviction that the real “locus of value” in art has shifted – from the artwork to the artist – and that this value is increased exponentially with awareness. It’s up to the individual artist to work out how best to exploit this shift. Dooney doesn’t pretend it’s easy: as the subtitle of her widely read blog puts it, Art Is War.
Dooney came onto the Lateral Action radar via her interview with Hugh MacLeod on Gaping Void. We caught up with her at her beachside studio, one of two in which she works, an hour north of Sydney. During a brief break in a gruelling, 18-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week schedule, she answered our questions.
1. What inspires you?
There are persistent, recurrent ideas about the way contemporary women’s identities and sexuality have been shaped by a relentless, media-driven torrent of contradictory messages and images. There are also impressions of how politics, religion, and social trends tap into this torrent. I try to make sense of them through my art.
I’m loath to talk about inspiration. It’s associated with excuses people give themselves for not making art – “I’m just not inspired!”. In me, inspiration is replaced by self-discipline, deep thought, and hard work, every bloody day. And I’m never short of ideas. I have more than I’ll ever be able to explore fully. The busier I am, the faster they flow.
If there’s one area in which, maybe, I am seduced by the idea of inspiration, it’s in new materials, new media. When I’m drawn to a particular ink or or a type of clay or a different sort of camera, I take time out to see what I can do with it – not always successfully [laughs].
2. You’re something of an art world renegade — you sacked the highly regarded galleries who were representing you, and took the business and marketing of your work into your own hands. Why? How has that worked out for you?
The why of it is obvious. I no longer wanted to deal with – or through – intermediaries who were intent on keeping those who really cared about my art at a distance from me. I no longer trusted those intermediaries to properly communicate who I was and what I was trying to accomplish in my art. And I lost faith in their abilities to market my work – especially in a world in which the web is the main medium of communication, information distribution, and transaction.
Most art dealers I know still have only the most rudimentary understanding of online media.
As for how it has worked out for me, my reputation has amplified to an extent that my work exceeds even ambitious estimates for it at auction in London, despite the fact that I have yet to exhibit anywhere in the UK or Europe. My income has risen to mid-six figures and most of my large paintings are sold even before they’re finished. The value of my early work has risen over 1000 per cent in a decade. I’m able to work on what I want, the way I want, when I want.
But I haven’t achieved this alone. I so haven’t. I’ve had wise advisers, not the least of whom is my accountant. And I have a small, well-disciplined team of assistants.
3. So much for your relationship with the commercial side of the art world. What about the critics? How has the unconventional path you’ve taken affected the critical reception of your work?
My critical reception has always been mixed. In the past, it was largely because the underlying intent of my art, which was cute, candy-colored and accessible, was left up to the critics to work out by themselves. I didn’t feel the need to explain, let alone justify, my ideas. However, I realise now that was a naïve attitude, born out of youthful insecurity. It didn’t help that my representative galleries were just as stupid.
Over the past few years, I have made an effort to articulate what my work is really about, to expose my convictions and explain the reasons for them. This has prompted discussion among critics and other artists, and although this discussion doesn’t always resolve in my favour, my work (and my reputation) are now taken a lot more seriously.
The recent rise of a slightly older generation of Japanese artists also influenced by advertising, fashion, pornography, manga and anime – especially those who orbit Takashi Murakami’s so-called Shock Pop movement – has also argued for increased respect.
Another problem between critics and me is my very public attacks on institutional and commercial galleries. These galleries are a source of substantial secondary income for many critics, especially for the few of any note in Australia, and are a principal source of advertising revenue not only for the dwindling number of glossy art magazines but also the arts pages of urban newspapers. It’s not in their interests to see my views gain wider currency. So the best way to diminish them is to diminish me.
It hasn’t worked. Quite the opposite. Old art media – which, like the gallery system, once acted as an arbitrating intermediary between content and consumer – are doomed.
4. Your art is provocative, playful and subversive. It’s tempting to see your contrarian approach to business as all of a piece with your art. Would you agree? Or do you see the art and business as in completely separate categories?
They’re separate. And the word ‘playful’ is probably inappropriate to both.
My large enamel paintings are colorful, shiney and provocative, sure, but they’re intrinsically subversive. Similarly, I’m attempting to subvert the way the business of art operates – which is in the interests of everyone but the artist.
There’s nothing ironic about my engagement with the art business. It’s driven by an urgent desire to disintermediate the process of promoting and selling art, to encourage artists to communicate and transact more directly with those who are interested in their work. I also want to dismantle layers of obstruction that over the past century and a half, have been concocted by galleries to interfere in the relationship between collector and artist – not just physical but also intellectual and social obstruction.
5. So how do you bring your works to market? What part does social media play in your marketing? Do serious art collectors really hang out on Twitter?
I think it’s simplistic to see online media in terms of a ‘virtual shopfront’, a phrase you hear all too often from galleries that have online presences (and still don’t know how to use them). I rarely offer works for sale via the web – although, very recently, I offered two print series priced under $1,000 via Twitter and my blog as part of a process of ‘democratising’ my art for younger, less moneyed collectors. Prices for my large enamel and watercolour paintings are far out of reach for many now.
I use online media mainly to provoke conversations about what I am doing in my art and why, to explore some of the meanings and issues within (and without) the body of work. I also create a small window from my blog – and other online presences – to my creative process and those parts of it that occasionally intersect with my personal life. This increases both awareness and understanding of what I’m doing. There is a stone-in-the-pond effect that ripples out to those who are not particularly engaged in dialogues on the web and who browse only occasionally: often their interest is piqued enough to compel them to find out more about my work and me. Sometimes, they buy.
My web site, my blog and even my Twitter and Linked-In pages are intended more as resources from which potential collectors, critics, curators, and the merely curious to gain a better understanding of what I’m about. They can reference my entire output and its evolution. Naturally, there are different ‘nodes’ that resonate for different people. If they resonate strongly enough, an opportunity will often emerge for me.
That said, I have always had a broad base of collectors in Australia, New Zealand, S.E. Asia, China, Japan, the USA and Northern Europe. Many have more than one of my large enamel pieces and a few have ten or twenty.
6. When I enthuse about blogging and social media to fine artists, they often say it’s all very well but if they are seen to be too active in promoting their own work, it could actually damage their standing in the art world. Apparently the done thing is to have agents and galleries do the dirty work of marketing for you, and doing it yourself could lower your status. What would you say to them?
They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of the traditional system. The arts are no longer under the control of elitist cliques that have the power to arbitrate one’s success or failure. Which is not to say such cliques don’t still survive – in some places, like New York or London, they continue to thrive – but the web has given the many who aren’t ‘lucky’ (or well-connected) enough to be anointed by them the chance to emerge and gain some significant ‘surface’ and regard.
Yes, it involves a deal more hard work and maybe some re-adjustment of ingrained attitudes, especially among old artists. In return, you regain control of your career and you get to keep most of what it earns for you (instead of ceding 30 to 60 per cent in commissions – and that’s before the gallery bills you further expenses). You also have direct contact with your collectors, people who are so committed to your art that they’re willing to pay for it, instead of being cordoned off from them by an intermediary. If artists think this is beneath them, that it somehow devalues their art, they’re fucked.
The art world is in the process of radical change. The old systems are doomed, sinking. Those artists who still cling to them risk being dragged under.
7. Forgetting the art world gatekeepers for a moment, do you think there’s any danger that if an artist is too visible and accessible on social media, that we could lose some of their magical aura surrounding The Artist? Or is that a good thing?
Too much information? Maybe. But then that’s the ‘art’ in using them, the difference between those who are successful at it and those who aren’t. It’s a matter of proportion, of balance.
I do subscribe to the idea that there is not much to be gained by cloistering oneself. Distributing as much useful information as possible about one’s work can only enhance the experience of those who are taken by it. I make my study images – sketches, collages and Polaroid photographs – available to view on web site and blog and I write frankly about the imaginative or technical struggles I confront as I try to create a work. I also write about some of the stuff I do to relieve the stress of it [laughs]. My occasional confessions about my, um, eclectic sex life is probably way too much information.
As for the ‘magical aura surrounding The Artist’, this is a stale residue of 19th century Romanticism and the sooner we dispose of it the better. I do believe creative people have an elevated role in conemporary society – even the most primitive need their shamans – but I think there are some very urgent, pragmatic but revolutionary opportunities we should seize and the Romantic construct is entirely inappropriate to them.
My days are marked by what most would probably think of as dull routine. I get up early. I work late, often on several pieces at the same time. Two days a week are devoted to sales, marketing and general admin’. I update my blog every afternoon and tweet for an hour or so every morning and evening. I have one day off a week, during which I read, watch TV, go out for lunch or take long walks on the beach. I do this week in, week out, regardless of mood, health or God help me, inspiration.
My holidays are the periods in which I travel interstate or abroad to an exhibition of my work. I usually spend a couple of weeks wherever I’m showing, starting from a week or so before opening night. Of course, it’s work – I do a lot of PR (which always includes informal get-togethers with bloggers and editors of online ‘zines) as well as meet-and-greets with collectors, students, and others – but change is as good as a rest. I’d get bored fast just lying by a pool sipping drinks with umbrellas and fruit.
The truth is, I’m dug in for what I see as a long, arduous campaign that has not one but a whole series of creative and personal objectives. To take a holiday in the middle of it would feel like retreat rather than r’n’r. Besides, the last thing an artist needs to be is too comfortable or to take anything for granted.
9. What advice would you offer to someone setting out on a creative career, who is hesitating between (a) going the traditional route of approaching agents, editors, galleries etc, and (b) striking out on their own, using the web to reach an audience and build their reputation?
Why bother with a) at all? You’d just be investing precious energy and time into a disintegrating paradigm. b) is by far the better choice. However, it isn’t just a question of whether to use the web to the exclusion of all other media or opportunities; it’s about using the web as a platform on which to build greater flexibility and control over your career along with a more direct, disintermediated relationship with everyone with a potential interest in it.
It doesn’t mean avoiding galleries – there are some that recognise the changing environment and are adapting to it – but acquiring enough awareness through your own efforts to negotiate a more equitable relationship with them. It doesn’t mean excluding yourself from major art fairs or other venues but rather defining for yourself how they fit into your overall career arc, which, in turn (and most importantly) should be defined by the core of what you’re trying to achieve with your work. It does mean working as hard on communication and virtual relationships as you do on the conceptual development of your work.
It isn’t easy. But the rewards are significant. So are the freedoms.
Increasingly, I refer to the dictum, Art Is War. It’s a war of disparate ideologies and conflicting interests and ambitions. To succeed, you have to have clear objectives and be ready to devote time to planning and executing not only the work but the campaigns to support and win ground for the work (and, of course, the ideas within the work). Expect plenty of hostile opposition and don’t rely on your allies. Above all, take no prisoners.