People don’t tend to notice artists – even the famous ones.
That is, people tend to perceive us artists through the lenses of our artwork instead of seeing us as who wee really are.
For example, musician James Taylor has been described as representing “everything noble and dignified about American artistry.”
Well, why is he so dignified? Is it because Taylor has avoided the classic mistakes (drugs, infidelity, divorce) so many famous musicians make? Well no, he’s struggled with all those things. He doesn’t party hard or make a fool of himself the way some musicians of his generation do (Mick Jagger, Steve Tyler), but then James Taylor is a soft pop/folk musician. Soft pop and folk music suggests images of stability, old-fashioned values while hard rock suggests hard partying and volatile lifestyles. In other words, James Taylor is dignified because his music style creates a dignified persona.
The same thing seems to hold true in other art fields – painters who make darkly surreal art are goths, fantasy writers are people who never really grew up, etc. It would be nice to think maybe we could change that, convince audiences that we’re more than our art says about us – but since we can’t possibly talk with every single fan or person who views our work, that’s impossible.
So what can we do about this?
Well, we can try to be honest with people who are interested in our work. We can be upfront about who we are so people can see more than just the stereotypes our art suggests
But at the same time, we shouldn’t mind using stereotypes about artists to our advantage. We shouldn’t try to become more like the stereotypes, but we should know know them and not be afraid to play to them a little when we market ourselves.
An excellent example of this is Stephen King. King’s commented in at least one of his books how it irritates him that horror writers are always perceived as somehow disturbed, someone who needs to sit down for a good counseling session. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that if you get a copy of any of his horror novels (or Danse Macabre, his nonfiction thesis on horror), the book jacket photo of him always looks something like this:
Visually, these photos are interesting. They’re black and white (which creates some gothic shadows), King appears to be wearing black (which is often used to symbolize death), and he’s either not smiling or the smile doesn’t look very happy. In short, both of these photos are designed so King looks a little bit creepy, which plays off the “disturbed horror writer” stereotype.
In contrast to that, this is a photo of King from the cover of Parade magazine, and one from the inside book jacket of his memoir On Writing:
They’re both in color, and King is smiling in a way that seems genuinely happy. He may not have a classically handsome face, but he doesn’t look dangerous or off-kilter either. He could easily be someone’s favorite goofy uncle or grandfather. These photos play to a different side of King, for a different audience than his exclusively horror fans. He only ever acts like himself in interviews, but in his book designs he (or his publishing team anyway) subtly plays to reader expectations.
With a little ingenuity, anyone can do the same.
(and my own mediocre photo of the inside book jacket photo of King from “On Writing”)
Cover Image Source: