Letter to a Young Artist

From the book Letters to a Young Artist, Date Publish, 2006

From a young artist to Xu Bing:

Dear Xu Bing:

I have considered writing you for several months, but have put it off out of fear of burdening you with a responsibility that is not yours and making myself vulnerable to someone who knows nothing about me. Nevertheless, there is a sensibility in your work and the way in which you have approached your career that I respond to -- that keeps me hopeful despite the solitude right now in the shadow of the sublime and invisible mountain that is my career. 

Last summer, after graduating from art school, I moved to New York from the West Coast. My friends and family discouraged me from doing so. They warned me how expensive New York would be, that I would spend all my time working to pay off my tiny apartment and that I would have very little time to make art. Unfortunately, their warnings have become my reality. I feel like I need to be here though, to absorb everything I can in the museums and galleries so that I can develop an historical awareness about my work. But the struggle is almost more than I can bear.

Over the past nine months, I have met many artists my own age who are in a similar situation with the exception that they have grandiose ideas about their future success. (It is true that gaining access to galleries is easier than I thought it would be.) Some of my friends are already showing and selling work. They claim that getting early recognition is important because it will be much harder to get farther down the road. Although I’ve had opportunities to show, I have been resistant to do so soon. I have always believed that it takes time to develop a true sense of self, and that that process should precede any commercial endeavors so as not to be tainted by them. Still, I wonder if I am my own worst enemy -- if I am sabotaging my future.

And that leads me to my question for you: is it possible to maintain one’s integrity and freedom of thought and participate in the art world? You appear to me as someone who has dealt with these issues successfully. How have you managed to reconcile what seems to me, at this point, to be irreconcilable?

Thank you for decades full of challenging work. That in and of itself is a gift to me and has given me inspiration. Hearing from you directly would be an unbelievable honor. 


Young Artist

From Xu Bing to the young artist:
Dear Young Artist,

I did not answer your letter sooner, first because I am very busy and second because the honest and specific questions in your letter cannot be answered simply, in a few words. The situation of each person who engages in art is an individual case, with individual conditions. In addition, even those artists who have already succeeded when asked why others have not, have trouble answering the question despite their natural talents.

One can see from your letter that you are a person who has courage when it comes to your future and your artistic responsibilities. This is not something that everyone possesses; but it is the first condition of being a successful, outstanding artist. You should recognize this. I have always thought that to be an artist, the first thing one must do is clarify what art is and what its principles are. Specifically speaking, she must identify what an artist does in this world and what relationship exists between herself, society, and culture. And even more specifically, she must determine her particular commutative relationship with society. If you want to be a person who can survive on her art, you must clarify what can be exchanged with society before society will repay you. I sometimes think: I have a house in which to live, a studio in which to work and food to eat, what has been exchanged? Museums and collectors are willing to buy my work for a high price, what have they purchased? The artwork itself is a mere lump of materials; is it worth that much? Does value derive from meticulously cultivated skill? Many artists work more meticulously than I do. Rather, that part of the work with value presents society with a valuable way of thinking and is associated with a new form of artistic expression. As this “new mode” is something that people need, it can become a marketable value; and only then can it constitute a conversion key. The discovery of this new mode springs from talent, a sensitivity to one’s time and an above average recognition of the current culture and environment. In this way, it restructures the methodologies of old art. Consequently, a good artist is a thinking person, and is a person adept at translating thoughts into the language of art.

From your letter it is clear that your goals are lofty. At the same time you are not an artist looking to quickly achieve market results. This is the right way of thinking. Of course any “value” will be transformed into a commodity and it will ultimately be sold. A street artist might sell one piece every ten minutes; an artist in a gift shop might sell one piece every day and an artist in a commercial gallery might sell one piece a month. Some people sell a piece as soon as it is finished, others sell only one idea for their entire lives. It all depends on what kind of artist you prefer to be. 

Some of the principles I have discussed above are a little broad and do not address the problems you are facing. Below I will bring up some specific examples from my experience, which you might find helpful.

Every person who has studied art wants to become a major artist, but every person’s conditions are different. This includes knowledge, artistic sensibility, financial and family background, etc. Everyone has strengths and limitations. One who knows how to work also understands that whatever limitations she meets can be transformed into things that are useful to her. Using a limitation well transforms it into a strength. I speak from personal experience. In China I received a very conservative art education, and I didn’t come to America to participate in Western contemporary art until I was 35 years old. Whereas you and the majority of young artists in America have received an open contemporary art education early on. In terms of their linguistic and cultural adaptations, it’s easier for these artists to meld into New York’s contemporary art scene. Compared to you, I was not naturally predisposed, but from this “inadequacy” I could extract something to utilize that others have not. Due to my socialist art-education background, I probably view contemporary art from a distinct perspective, which also stems from living in a new cultural environment and confronting language barriers. I am particularly sensitive to language, words and misreading. My art expresses these characteristics that other’s art does not.

My viewpoint is that wherever you live, you will face that place’s problems. If you have problems then you have art. Your plight and your problems are actually the source of your artistic creation. The majority of young artists who come to New York to develop their careers are eager to enter the mainstream. But a majority of people like you have to spend time working other jobs to support their costs of living here. It may seem like you are wasting time that could be used for creating art, but you needn’t actually worry about this too much. On the one hand, as long as you are a true artist every field that you are engaged in outside of art circles—living and working—will produce treasure, which sooner or later will be used in the creation of your art. On the other hand, for today’s artists it is not important to plunge headlong into this mainstream system. Instead they find a suitable position and relationship to it. But you should know that you must bring something new to this system, which is not already there, for the system to have a reason to accept you. And, it should be something that cannot be found in the system itself. Only if this thing is from some other realm or from the boundary between two regions, will it be possible for you to succeed. Today’s art has become, on the surface, rich and varied, but in terms of methodology more and more narrow. Too many artists know how to make “standard” contemporary art. The system really doesn’t need anymore of this kind of artist. 

Just work, and don’t worry whether your talent will be discovered. In fact, with the speed and ease of communication today, tragedies like those of Van Gogh’s time basically do not exist. Museums and curators are the same as artists: they are anxious that no interesting work will come out. So long as you can bring forth something good, museum curators will come to snatch it away for exhibition.  

I Wish You Success,

Xu Bing