Whitehot Magazine

Advice for Artists: The Artist and Their Community: What is More Important? Nothing.

With Ron Cooper’s Car Collection, Taos, NM. 2023

By ERIC MINH SWENSON January 5, 2024

As far back as I can remember, I wanted to take pictures and make films. Through my career as a photojournalist, I was compelled to study history and learn how communities were shaped through division and unification. My mother and father met and married through the Vietnam war - so I was curious to know how that happened? I started to read books and watch films and that involvement led me to discover other revealing parts of history and get much closer to my own history, my community and the city I live in.

Initially, I thought that I could make a career and a business out of documenting Arts & Culture and posting them on YouTube and social media. As time went on, I started to realize there was something much bigger than being paid for my services. Mostly because a lot of the work that I was doing was gratis to the art world.

I spent a lot of my time photographing openings and filming artists in their studios. Because I feel it's important for the community or my audience to learn about what was going on around them. And also to show them aspects of the art world outside of the typical arts and entertainment things most cities invest in.

With David Zwirner at his Grand Opening, 2023

I discovered that community is the most important thing to sustain my life. Sadly, we lose our parents; kids outgrow us; our pets last a decade; friends come and go - yet life continues to evolve. Being part of a community gave me a higher sense of purpose, because not everyone is blessed with a family or can sustain friends or maintain pets.

At the least, I learned to cultivate my community through a sincere effort and over time the fruits of my labor bore witness to my reward. When the people around you trust you, then you’ve climbed the mountain top. This is of the utmost importance to an artist because the art is typically a reflection of the community and becomes a historical document of what the community is suffering or exalting.

Community has a broader context because it envelopes all the things I mentioned above, but it shows you actually care about the people and culture around you. Your community can be local (the best kind) or global, as in one who cares about the global family. But the complexity of trying to wrap your mind around the larger community can also drive one to the point of lunacy...

Let your community work for you, but you have to prove to them that you actually care, with little doubt, that you are there for them.

With Judy Baca, 2023

My attitude also determined the next round of opportunities given to me. Karma is earned. Serve your community and the community will give back was the key takeaway. Be a team player and the universe will keep score. Hide in despair and you will experience hell on earth and you will lose all purpose. You have unlimited output. Trust me. I have seen hell and it is not pretty, not worth documenting and best forgotten.

With Shaun Regen at her gallery, 2021

It is a new day and what happened last week or last month or earlier this year or during high school or your childhood does not really matter today, does it? Today is a new day and that is all that matters. Be grateful you survived yesterday and be thankful you are alive today and look forward to tomorrow. 

With Wayne Thiebaud in Sacramento, 2014

You need to set the tone because life is a calamity of ongoing suffering. Whether you are the one who suffers, or your neighbor, or family member, or a group of people half a world away. No one has it easy, especially that a-hole who honked at you because you are driving too slow and decided to aggressively drive around you - only to get stuck in traffic again.

You can be aggressive and make opportunities come your way, at your tempo, in complete disregard of the chaos around you and run people over and pretend not to give a shit because you want to be the boss. And you can reap every reward you believe you deserve. But in the end it does not matter because you will be irrelevant in a world that is unforgiving and moving on without you.

What you have is the - right here - and - right now - which is all that matters, because the growing pains of the past and the anxiety of future uncertainty will cause only maladies. It will cause affliction of the soul and a health quagmire that will ultimately destroy your dreams and wreck your relationships...and you do not want that, trust me, you do not. So when you feel like a natural born loser or a pseudo-superhero narcissist, calm down and relax. Harmonize with nature and your daily walk with art and culture and try to understand the complexities of the world that engulfs you. Sink or swim, my friend, because it's an abyss below and storm clouds above, fraught with sharks and lightning bolts ready to light a fire under your ass. WM

With Julian Schnabel at Miami Art Basel, 2014

With Anish Kapoor in Los Angeles, 2019

Eric Minh Swenson

Eric Minh Swenson is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and photographer who documents the arts and culture of Southern California, including arts in many communities throughout the country. He has filmed numerous documentaries on artists, exhibitions, and cultural events. He documents art openings and exhibitions. He focuses on process, concept and craft in his films, while finding humor and essence in his subjects.

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