Trade Secrets of the Atomic Artist: A Modern Fable

So, I should never have expected a consensus of mutual interest among artists (of all people!)…..

I almost called this post “a parody”, because it is so deeply rooted in the mythology of ‘The Self Made Man’, but perhaps that would have been unfair. Then again….


The story so far:

There once was an artist who through his own sweat and tears, his own personal perseverance and dedication, was able to make a living for himself making and selling art. His good fortune was all down to his own efforts. No favors were asked, and none given. He worked his audience with the sole purpose of transacting his goods for their cash. He gave value and was rewarded for it by the marketplace acknowledgment. Customers would sing his praises, while competitors looked on with envy.

And so one day an exhibiting organization asked him to do a demo of his work and his skills. “No, no!” he laughed. “I’m not giving away my trade secrets!” and the organizers turned to someone less experienced and less important in the scheme of things. This other artist, just making his way in the art world, and scraping for the crusts to earn his own living, thought to himself, “If I am to work this demonstration, perhaps I should get paid for my time?”. But the organizers assured him that they were doing him a favor, actually, by letting him get up on their stage, and that he should be grateful to even be considered. “Paid?! The exposure you will be getting from our prestigious event is worth more than mere money! We should be charging YOU for the privilege of doing a demo for us! Be thankful we don’t. Maybe next year we will!”

So the poor confused and struggling artist concedes his good fortune to be asked to work for free and does the demo. Perhaps he puts on a whiz bang performance, and word spreads far and wide about the new next best thing since sliced bread. Better, even, than toast. Or maybe he does his humble duty, half a day in the glare of the spotlight, and goes back to his undernourished underappreciated normal life with no recognizable benefit….. (It happens both ways, to some extent. But because this is the way the world seemingly works, these are the rules of the game, fair and equitable or not. Individual artists are simply not in a position to argue…..)

And the carnival of exploitation and promises continues on long into the night, deep into the tomorrows of our future. Artists line up to sink their heads and put their necks under the yoke…..

But the magazine editor sitting in the crowd perks up. He takes notice. Not of the performing bears and dancing elephants, not of the gew gaws and doo dads, but of the organization’s ability to get these services for free. And the editor ventures out into the collection of unsuspecting artists, a shark swimming in shallow waters, and solicits their contribution to his magazine either for free, for much less than what professional contributors would get, or maybe the big stars will earn a bit more than that. And when a young artist agrees to write an article for a pittance she is told “You have not earned your place. We are not paying you because nobody knows who you are. Really, we are being generous in considering an unknown like you. A nobody. If you get famous some day we might consider paying you then. But until that time just be thankful you are getting this exposure. You should be glad we are not charging you to publish your article!”

And the arts industry takes note: They can get a break on the services of hardworking artists for the mere ‘promise’ of exposure. They can pick off the stragglers in the herd as easy prey. The ones limping and on the fringes are unprotected. The weaker they are the less trouble it is to feast off their efforts, to use them up and toss out the spent carcass. And the wolves circle closer…..

Meanwhile, the self made artist toils along in his immaculate privacy and isolation. The atomic artist isn’t concerned with the health of anything as abstract as ‘the arts’ or even ‘the arts community’. As long as he can talk up his customers and earn their cash the rest of the art world might as well not even exist. In as much as they intrude on his thoughts at all, and in his life, they are competitors scrapping for the same slice of pie. And if he thinks about it, that slice belongs to him…..

The atomic artist isn’t a member of a community because he shares no common interests. He may graze the same slopes, but that’s other people’s problem. Other people’s interests are in direct competition to his own, so no wonder he looks out for himself. He doesn’t share glaze recipes. Why would he? He doesn’t talk to other artists about their concerns. Why would he be interested? He doesn’t help build other peoples kilns, or donate wood for a wood kiln firing. That’s too much effort directed away from his own self interest. And he never teaches! Why on earth would he help the competition? Why would he train others to go after the slice of his pie?

You see, the atomic artist came into this world through his own stubborn resilience and embattled genesis. From the moment he hatched from that egg he had to make his own way in the world. And born into a world filled with competitors he had to carve out his own livelihood with his own two bare hands. No one helped him. Why would they? His origin is pure and unblemished. A virgin birth if ever there was one. There never was a safety net. He has earned everything that ever came his way. Maybe it was his good looks and charm that counted more while he was developing his talents, but they were his charm, his good looks. Whatever he got was simply his due. The anonymous and impartial virtue of the marketplace….

No one taught him the skills necessary. He never looked at what other artists had done, and he still doesn’t. His world is a vacuum. It would be a creative black hole except that it is so independent that nothing actually gets in. He never had parents who helped him through college, or friends he bummed cigarettes from. No one gave him glaze recipes to copy or to experiment with because he invented glaze chemistry himself. His world is so pure and unadulterated that its a wonder he actually perceives other artists. Its only the genius of his understanding that he sees what they are doing and recognizes it as also being art. His competition. Its only some accident of the cosmos that other people are doing things that are remotely similar to what he’s doing. Then he thinks, “Maybe they are copying me?”. Perhaps he needs to do a better job hiding his trade secrets…..

There is no ‘art’.

There is no ‘art community’.

There are no common interests of artists.

Everyone is on their own, and has to make it or fail on their own efforts.

There is no shared responsibility for equity.

As long as I can get mine, those issues are other people’s problem.


And meanwhile in the background the pirates lick their chops and rub their hands in glee. “Divided they fall! Divided they fall!” And the wolves continue to circle in closer. The ground is littered with the spent carcasses of the artists who failed. The water has been chummed and the sharks scent a feast…..



A heartwarming fable for an Easter afternoon 😉

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Trade Secrets of the Atomic Artist: A Modern Fable

  1. zygote says:

    Can we wear the capes yet?

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