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Clifford Owens on what you really need as an artist

For a lot of young artists there’s still this notion that academia is the only reliable gateway for having a professional art career. Outside of that, what do you think of as being the most important resources for a young artist today?

My friend Saya Woolfolk says that graduate school is finishing school for artists. I thought that was really funny. When I went to college in the ’90s it was to get an education, and it seems like now people go to college to get a career. In the ’90s the last thing anybody wanted to be was a commercial artist. It was embarrassing at that political moment. Nobody gave a fuck about the gallery system. People were more interested in museums. I certainly was.

So, how do we make it? Certainly community is important, but for me I think the key is mentorship. That really does matter. Having a community of other artists around you is important, and most artists I know in New York do have a nice community of people that surround them. This sounds so corny, but I tell young people this all the time, you really have to have love in your life because the art world, the art system, is not necessarily a loving space. It is not a compassionate space. It is not an inclusive space. They don’t love you. They love what you produce maybe, but not you. You’ve got to have some semblance of love around you that is real.

I know that this is important. That’s the only way I survive, and mentorship has been very important to me. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mentors because I lost both of mine. Barbara DeGenevieve dropped dead two years before Terry Atkins did, and they were both so enormously important. She was my sort of undergrad mentor for 20 years, and he was my sort of early 40s mentor. I’m 46 years old now and I still long to have a mentor. Love, mentorship, community, however you define it. I’m interested in communities that I’m a part of, but not necessarily a singular community. I want more than that. I’m interested in communion with a lot of different kinds of people because a singular community can sort of flatten things out in terms of what your identity is.

I want to be a part of multiple communities. And not just art world communities. I’m interested in everyday communities as well. I think it’s so dangerous when young artists come here and they just surround themselves with people they think will promote their career or make them cool, whatever the motivation might be. For me, I’m still very good friends with people I met 17 years ago who are some of my dearest, most loving friends. I think the careerism here is so extreme that people sacrifice interpersonal relationships to achieve what they believe is success. That’s really a mistake.

About the Author

Clifford Owens is an artist known for creating work that not only engages physically and emotionally with the viewer but also frequently involves the use of his own body. This wisdom is excerpted from a discussion Owens had with The Creative Independent about writing your own history.