What contemporary female visual artists can learn from Taylor Swift

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49th Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards - Arrivals

Love her or hate her, it’s a fact that Taylor Swift has made some headlines this year.

I’ve moderately disliked Taylor Swift for many years. She is two years younger than me, but still within my age bracket. That meant that throughout high school, all the girls remotely near my grade loved her and her songs. I didn’t like her precisely because everyone did. She seemed so vanilla.  And I also found her songs overtly sentimental, her image so cutesy, princess like and cotton-candy-esque that I didn’t particularly find her interesting. Her songs all seemed to be sad ballads about unrequited love or bittersweet changes, always making her out to be the victim of heartbreak while some unattainable guy didn’t even notice her.

Her more recent songs like “We are Never Getting back Together,” I found a little more interesting because they showed more spunk. Also, the sound was changing into something more unique.

But when her new album came out, 1989, I, like everyone else, fell in love with the sound. The songs were exciting, vague enough to be intriguing, had lots of word pictures that stirred the imagination, and an upbeat, positive sound of someone who was in control of her life. True, a few of the songs do delve into heartbreak, but they never skew towards self-hatred or victimization. The lyrics that deal with emotions are more distilled, as if she can look at them through a lens of understanding and not take everything so personally anymore.

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So I found myself at her concert in Philadelphia with my sister, at a great seat purchased at discount the night before, with 150,000 other people all eager to be transported by the music. The show was truly great. To my surprise, I found myself inspired artistically.

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The graphics used in the show, the dancers, the lights, the props, the storytelling and the music all lent themselves to a rich and artistically beautiful immersive experience. I came away excited to get back into the studio—a response I did not expect.

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After thinking about why it inspired me, I’ve come up with a few tips I think that visual artists, particularly female visual artists, can take from Taylor Swift’s artistic evolution.

  1. It’s ok to take a break from showing your work. Swift did not release new music for an entire year as she worked on her new album, an album completely different from her earlier sound. Exceptions to this were one or two singles that gave people a taste of what was to come. This gave her time to really hone her craft, make sure it was the best it could be, and present it in a way that she wanted to at a time when it was ready. Sometimes it is stronger to step away from the public and hide away for a while as you work on a new body of work, to build up anticipation and also make a more complete statement when you do unveil a new body of work.
  2. Take inspiration from your artist friends whose work you admire. In Swift’s new album, there are traces of other artists to be found. She even called out “Clean” as a collaboration between her and Imogen Heap. Lorde was another musical friend who influenced her sound. As an artist, I think it’s great to collaborate with other artists whose work you find inspiring. The key is to make sure you’re not stepping on their toes, copying them, or being sneaky about it. Being upfront that you admire their work and want to collaborate and learn something from them is the way to go.  
    Imogen Heap

    Imogen Heap

  3. Be intentional with what places you associate yourself with. I noticed an ad that played during the show was for Keds, the shoe company, in which Taylor was seen walking about in. Part of the reason she chose Keds was because she loved to wear them, and also because she loved how Audrey Hepburn wore them with everything. Now, as a 26 year old pop star, I’m sure she is bombarded with opportunities to advertise from everything like Wheaties boxes to lingerie ads. But, she chose Keds because clearly she wants to be associated with what the brand represents: a cool comfortability. This translates for artists in what kind of places you show at, what kind of events you do, and how you promote your art. In the long run I believe it is better to stay true to who you are as an artist and to where you think your art belongs, than to participate in shows and events that you may not be proud of, just to gain exposure.
  4. Treat people well on your way to the top. One of her older songs writes about the experience of being “Fifteen,” in which she mentions a girl, Abigail, whom she becomes fast friends with. Fast forward to today, where that same girl, Abigail, is clearly still a part of Taylor’s life from her on-stage video presence, talking about their friendship. I believe it’s important to be authentic and be friends with people for who they are and for the bond you share, not to see what you can get out of them—because this girl, Abigail, is not a celebrity today by any means, but a regular girl that Taylor connected with.
  5. Give your art everything you got. I was amazed at the concert watching Taylor sing full-throttle for two hours, almost without a break. Most of the numbers involved complicated dance moves that had her running around the stage, into the audience, and over obstacles. Throughout all of that, I have never seen anybody perform with such fierce focus and intensity. She was all in, completely present and engaged, and giving everything she had. It looked exhausting! It made me feel a little lazy—all I do is paint, which is not nearly as acrobatic as what I was watching. However, I couldn’t help but feel that making artwork and performing are similar. They both involve a certain mental intensity that needs to be maintained throughout it. And I had to believe that she was exhausted about halfway through the show—anyone would be! But, she kept going until the end. How many times have I given up on a piece or not quite finished it to its true potential? How many sketches are left in my notebook because the concept is too challenging or the technicalities were to difficult to be worked out? How many times have I gotten bored of a piece before it had reached what it was meant to be? Watching her perform tirelessly made me want to go back and keep going on those pieces until they are gloriously, beautifully finished to their true potential.
  6. Distill your life experiences into creativity. Taylor’s songs are still themed around romance and heartbreak, but she has expanded her range to include songs that address other themes (“Welcome to New York” and “Bad Blood”). It’s as if no experience or relationship is wasted, because she can distill it and make it into music. I find that this is a useful approach to life as well—painting your experiences, feelings, moods, hopes, and dreams in your own artistic style makes your work authentic, real, and individual. And because you’re creating from your heart, other people are drawn to that passion and authenticity. Of course, it doesn’t need to be literal—but it certainly can be.
  7. Doing something imperfectly is better than doing nothing perfectly. If you look at Taylor’s career, some songs are better than others. Just as a visual artist, some artworks are going to be better than others—stronger, more interesting, more beautiful, more recognized. But, in order to get to those awesome pieces you have to keep creating piece after piece. I find that the act of creating inspires other ideas. When you are in the act of painting, or drawing, the mind seeks to make connections creatively in a way that it doesn’t when your body is at rest.
  8. Don’t feel like you have to compromise yourself to be recognized. Taylor for many years had one of the most conservative images in the music industry, and still was one of the most successful music artists. Today, she continues to make choices that separate her from many other female musicians, including how she portrays her image, costume choices, lyrics, and brands she associates herself with. To me, this shows that she isn’t afraid to be true to herself, no matter what else may be popular or expected. In visual arts, this translates into not doing things that you feel would degrade you or your work, just because it is expected, or because it may get you more recognition.  This will be different for everyone, but you know your limit.Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 4.35.17 PM

  9. Value your work. In a controversial move, Swift pulled her music from Spotify’s free music streaming service, believing that her music was valuable enough to be bought by her fans. This caused her album sales to skyrocket. For visual artists, that means being confident in what you think your artwork is worth, and sticking to that—not begging for sales, devaluing your work by underselling it, or being tentative in your prices. Said best by Taylor:  ”A lot of people were suggesting to me that I try putting new music on Spotify with “Shake It Off,” and so I was open-minded about it,” she told Yahoo! Music.  ”I thought, ‘I will try this; I’ll see how it feels.’  It didn’t feel right to me.  I felt like I was saying to my fans, ‘If you create music someday, if you create a painting someday, someone can just walk into a museum, take it off the wall, rip a corner off it, and it’s theirs now and they don’t have to pay for it.’ I didn’t like the perception that it was putting for my fans.  And so I decided to change the way I was doing things…music is art, and art is important and rare.  Important, rare things are valuable.  Valuable things should be paid for,” Swift wrote.  ”It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is.  I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”  

This translates into artists, particularly female visual artists, in a very tangible way.  In the June 2015 issue of ARTNEWS, there is an article by Maura Reilly that takes on the actual statistics the ratio of women to men who are represented in top galleries around the world.  Most of these galleries have a number lower than 30% as of this month, and some far below that.  The percentages for Solo Exhibitions, Tate Modern exhibitions (the numbers here are below 10%) and Venice Biennale all show numbers far below their male counterparts.

Venice Biennale

Venice Biennale

 To me, this translates into a cultural phenomenon that needs to be brought to the worlds’ attention, but also a wake up call to female artists: to get more aggressive with taking a stance behind their work.

Georgia O'Keefe in 1918

Georgia O’Keefe in 1918

 As Georgia O’Keefe said, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter.  I think I’m one of the best painters.”  And while you may not have such a grand view of your own painting skill, healthy esteem for your work is only a good thing.  People will tend to value your work as you value it.

But back to Taylor.  Who knows what’s real—with celebrities, we only see what we are shown, what we are meant to see. But from the outside, Taylor is a good example of someone who is being smart with their artistic career. May we as visual artists take it with a grain of salt and apply the tips that are useful to us in our own lives and careers. And as Taylor said so well:

My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet…is that they all realize their worth and ask for it.”

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Article written by Jessica Libor, visual artist.  Jessica is a Philadelphia-based artist who makes oil paintings, installation, and video art.   You can see her work and visit her online shop at www.jessicalibor.com.  She is also editor of Eyelevel Arts.  Contact Jessica at jlibor@jessicalibor.com.jessica in studio

1 Comment

  • Reply July 2, 2015

    Michael

    That was one of the most insightful, thoughtful, well-written and interesting takes on another artist that I have ever read. Nicely done!

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