Hans Aarsman (1951) is a Dutch photographer, author, and lecturer at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. He started his career as a photojournalist for the Dutch newspaper Trouw and delivered multiple photographic publications but also novels theater plays. Aarsman became mostly familiar through his comments on photos, a story behind it, as a columnist for de Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad but also TV-programme De Wereld Draait Door.
How to Make Art
Rejections and Disappointments
Although I never followed formal training in photography, I was briefly affiliated with an academy, just not as a student. In 1986, I was appointed the position of photography tutor at the Rietveld academy.
For the first assignment, I asked students to sit themselves in the canteen with their camera.
The time of day was up to them: early in the morning without a student in sight, at the busy lunch hours, or in the evening when the part time students entered. It was all up to them, my only demand was that they shut their eyes, clicked their camera, and filled up a whole roll of film. Hopefully, this exercise would loosen and relax their way of seeing.
I don’t remember what the assignment resulted in. However, I do know that I had a meeting with the supervisor at the end of that year. The supervisor let me know that they’d been under the impression that the bottom of my photographic knowledge had come into sight during my year of teaching. They would no longer be needing my services.
I can imagine that for many people it would be a huge blow to hear from the supervisor of an esteemed art academy that they’ve seen the bottom of your photographic knowledge. But I wasn’t too bothered. I asked them for a written statement to confirm the termination of my contract. Including the reason. I wasn’t bothered because I had my Red Folder: the folder where I collected all my Rejections and Disappointments.
As with all collections… once you start it, you need to complete it. I simply had to fill up the folder. And so, I perforated the Rietveld’s letter of rejection and stuck it in with the other rejections.
In retrospect, the Rejections and Disappointments folder may have been too big for its purpose. But the good thing was: to fill it up, I needed a whole lot of rejections. So I had to write applications, throw lines here and there, submit proposals, present my work, apply for jobs. Applications that were accepted were placed in the Green Folder. This is where I collected Grants and Other Successes. The fact that my folder for Successes was as big the folder for Disappointments might display some misplaced optimism.
Thanks to these two folders, I discovered that rejections positively affect your career. I can best demonstrate this correlation through a graph.
On the x-axis I’ve placed the years, from 1980 until now.
On the y-axis you’ll find my income in Euros.
There’s no better measure of success than turnover.
A small dip is visible in 1986, after my contract at the Rietveld was not renewed. I never made a lot of money there. Nobody did, and they still don’t. In 1995, when I quit photography and began to write, a much bigger dip entered.
It’s interesting to compare the yearly rejections in my Red Map to the above. Now we’ll enter a world of higher mathematics, as I’ll place these two graphs on top of one another: the scale of the number of rejections on top of my turnover.
But the point is: during the first fifteen years, the graph of rejections follows the same form as that of my turnover. There must be, then, a direct correlation between rejection and artistic success.
When I quit photography in 1995 and begin writing, rejections still follow turnover, albeit with less precision. Both decline because I still hadn’t mastered writing. I practiced all day, leaving me less time to write applications and in turn, fewer rejections were sent my way.
Slowly, after 2000, my income begins to rise again. As I begin receiving assignments, I write fewer and fewer applications. In 2003, I start writing a column for the website PhotoQ where I analyse photos like a detective. The column is a success and in 2004, the Volkskrant asks me to analyse a press photo each week. My income steadily begins to rise. While the amount of rejections dramatically drops, so does the amount of applications and proposals I write.
At this point, everything begins to calm down. The income rises even further, the rejections decrease until they cross one another, here, in February of 2012. It’s in this very month that the Rietveld asks me to open their graduation show.
The opening of the graduation show!
Yes, then you’ve got it made.
At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I can’t help but offer four tips to the budding artist:
1)Buy two folders, one green and one red. Place your rejections in the red folder, the successes in the green folder.
2)Don’t bother with self-promotion. Don’t over advertise your work. If you discover something, or stumble across something interesting while working, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell anyone who will listen. Your friends, your parents, the baker on the corner. And if someone’s around who can help you further (you know the type)… just keep talking.
3)Speak about your work clearly and directly. No jargon. If the baker stops listening, you’ll probably have to tell it differently the next time. This is how you start understanding your work better.
4)Don’t be too picky. Don’t just reach for the top. Starting at the bottom can have great advantages. You’ll have room to experiment and to find out what your work is about. It’ll be useful for the future, when you’ll be tossed into the lion’s den.
My name is Aarsman
They were stern, yet loving. He was never short of food, though it was rarely ever tasteful. Finishing off his plate was such a lengthy process that the last bites were usually cold. Nothing out of the ordinary happened while he played on the streets. Every now and then, his report card showed a fail. There was only one thing that worried him. Worry might be too strong a word; rather, something had occurred to him. Something must have gone wrong somewhere down the line. Something he could not grasp. No curse had befallen him, yet no blessing either.
The teacher often arranged the students in a line. After all, line was the most practical way to manoeuvre a group from A to B. From class to the schoolyard for recess, from the street to the swimming pool for swimming lessons. It was fun standing in line because at least you knew something unusual was bound to happen, unlike when sat your desk. But standing in line did not always foretell a pleasant event. If ever the class was suddenly asked to stand in line, one could rest assured that at the end of the hall you’d be awaited by a white coat holding an injection needle. And without fail, he was always the first to be called. To bare his arm, to stretch open his mouth. It took a while for him to notice. Initially he believed fate to be at work, until he began to realize that maybe there was something actually wrong with him.
At home and leaning over a never-ending plate of food, he began to inquire. His father took him aside, which was in itself a foreboding act. It must be something from the adult world, the scope of which was difficult to discern.
‘Thousands of years ago, in another country, the alphabet was invented. We’re not exactly sure why, but they decided that the letter A should come first. And it’s been like that ever since. Don’t think that the A will ever move to another spot in the alphabet. This is one of the few things in life that you can be certain of. Just like the A will always be the first letter of Aarsman. That’s why an Aarsman is usually at the front of a line. At least, when lines are arranged in alphabetical order. Of course, there are many other names that begin with an A. But, think about it, how many names do you know that begin with two As? That’s the reason Aarsmans usually are called up first. There may be times when this is unpleasant, but usually itturns out to be quite useful. Like when Sinterklaas comes to school, and you’re called up for presents. For example.’
Father saw wrinkles of thought forming on his son’s forehead.
‘You’ll have to bite the bullet, but you’ll see, in due time you’ll only ever want to be first. Why do you think we have sayings like the early bird catches the worm? And how about don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today?”
Holy smokes, Hans Aarsman thought. The name came from his father. And he went on and on about how wonderful it was to carry that name. But indeed, if something pleasant was to happen, the Aarsmans were always at the frontline.
“The early bird catches the worm.” And: “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” He repeated the idioms, tasted them, they lay ready on his lips. They came in handy if ever at a loss of words. He added a new one: “First come first served.” Some seemed to have been invented especially for little boys who had to stand at the front of the line against their will. But strangely, on his quest for new idioms, he encountered many that declared the very opposite. Like: “Haste makes waste,” and: “The first shall be the last.” In fact, idioms seemed to go in every possible direction. “Waste makes haste.”
The idioms were still contradicting themselves when one night it wasn’t he, but his brother, who was the last to finish his plate. He noticed this because the last bite to disappear into his mouth was not cold as usual, but in fact, lukewarm. Without truly deciding to, he started upping his tempo. For the first time, he saw the advantages to being fast. If something was to happen, he might as well get it over with immediately. The way he saw it was, when his classmates were standing, shivering standing in a row, he’d already had his injection. And while the others were still being examined, he could leisurely recline. Before he knew it, he’d gotten used to being a double A’d Aarsman.
And then things changed. He noticed how nervous he’d turn when not standing first for inoculations and dentists. He sped behind his desk the very moment he returned from school to do his homework. He scarfed down the food on his plate. With everything he did, he though: if it has to happen, then let’s have it done at once! And so, until this very day, he speeds through all, both the fun and the not-so-fun in record time. A birthday party? Don’t stick around too long. Don’t overstay your welcome. Should a bill or form arrive in the mail, Hans Aarsman will fill them in that very night and toss them into the nearest mailbox. Never owing anydebts. His name is always at the top of a list. There’s no avoiding that man! No group manifestation without his name at the top of the list. And that’s how I succeeded in being able to have my say right here. That’s one thing, but there’s another undeniable aspect to the last name.
It happened in the biology classroom. The first years of middle school were all about the body: blood circulation, digestion, the nervous system. Then came the other mammals, from big to small, from whale to mole. And then came the cold-blooded animals, the frogs and the crocodiles. He must have been sixteen when they came to the multicellular organisms. After which came the parasites, organisms that couldn’t sustain life on their own and needed a host to survive. This could be a plant, an animal, or a human. They crawled in, started their feeding, and laying their eggs. Ringworm, lintworm, hookworm. How they came from pigs, how cross contamination occurred. One by one, the teacher drew them on the blackboard. His thoughts were wandering – there were quite a few parasites to be named – when the sound of his classmates jeering jolted him back to reality. The teacher had drawn a creature on the board. A moon-shaped staff. Was it hairy? He doesn’t remember, but can clearly recall the title it was given: Aarsmade (n.b. translated from Dutch into: Arse Maggot.) The jeering was deafening, and they were pointing… at him. The precise nature of the aarsmade is still not entirely clear to him. When the teacher understood the cause for the uproar, she quickly wiped the drawing off the board. Never again was the aarsmade spoken of. By the teacher, that is. His fellow classmates eagerly entertained themselves for weeks, conjuring variations of his last name. How utterly inspirational nature can be. Go ahead, try it, it’s not hard to come up with a few yourself. At the time, buttguy and assdude were by far the most successful. Don’t react to their taunting, he had resolved, and he didn’t.
When the Americans started napalming Vietnam a few weeks later, man, plant, and animal were burnt to a cinder. The school was so caught up in these events that the creature and his unfortunate namesake were cast into the oblivion. Still, he was slightly fearful that the aarsmade would rear its head during examination week. What if one of the questions was: name three human parasites? But the teacher was sure to avoid, at all costs, any question that concerned that possibly hairy, moon-shaped little staff.
These days I sporadically hear a nearly inaudible chuckle when phoning an institution, or I’ll see the corner of a mouth turn upwards at a counter. The most spectacular would be the time I reported the disappearance of my bicycle. The policeman on duty pulled an earnest face: “I can’t believe they never told you that it hardly costs a thing to change your name! A strange name will even be changed for free!”
But I’d never do that. Above me and below me, the phonebook lists a plethora of Aarsmans. Do I abandon them? I know them all. They’re all descendents of my grandfather. Until recently, that is. In the 80’s, a small migration took place. Dozens of Aarsmans from outside Amsterdam moved into the city and connected themselves to a phone line. They, too, had understood the benefits of alphabetic order.
A few months ago, the newspaper wrote of an Olga Aarsman who competed in the miss Ajax pageants. She’s no cousin of mine, and she didn’t win.
The weapon holds a great power of attraction.
And not only for those hungry for power. The weapon is beautiful. Whether it’s a Roman catapult, a Indian axe, or an American fighter-bomber. I know of ugly paintings, deplorable cars, but an ugly weapon? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single one. Even the most murderous weapon is beautiful. How is this possible? Shouldn’t evil automatically be ugly? A landmine is ugly. Especially those embellished with Mickey Mouse dolls.
Little children pick them up and – boom – they’ve lost their hands. These mines find their market because there is nothing that upsets the enemy as much as sick, wounded, wailing children. But fighter jets are so beautiful.
Fighter jets are beautiful thanks to their organic form and their advanced technology. There's absolutely nothing I can about feeling this way. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The capitalist Americans retreated and left the communist Vietnamese at peace. I’m not sure how long the American army was stationed in Vietnam. All I know is that it was a long time. The carpet of bombs released by the F-4 Phantom set the country ablaze. What remained were ashes. I was in high school at the time. I sent letters to American airplane factories. I expressed my interest about certain types of fighter planes. I wrote to MacDonnel, Douglas, Northrop, Boeing, Lockheed, North American, Convair. They always responded.
This is all there is
I only started living once death entered my life. Don’t worry, this is a tale with a happy ending. Until death entered my life, I was constantly accompanied by a certain desire for something better, something far-reaching. I was certain I would meet people endlessly more interesting than those I already knew. I would find myself in infinitely more exciting worlds. The bottomless well of the unnamed desire. I would be admired, doors would open, actresses, sultry nights would ensue. I might be overdoing it a bit, but there’s not a soul out there who won’t understand what I’m getting at.
Opera singers, spotlights!
Essentially, there’s nothing wrong with these daydreams, after all, you’ve got to have something to look forward to. But the medallion has a flipside. Whatever I experienced, whatever I did, it held no importance because it was no match for what was waiting for me. When it finally came, I was bored. And I remained bored.
I sat slouched in chairs and grumbled unintelligible responses to questions or requests. I just could not be bothered. Some might be familiar with this state.
What, in God’s name, is a dynamic existence? Ask those who lead them. It’s not as great as you’d think, they’d say. If it were up to them, they’d rather be sitting on the sofa with a plate on their lap full of mash and a dimple of gravy. It’s a cliché, and it’s true.
We’re all aware of our mortality. But few truly fathom this knowledge, nor did I, in the least. Quite a few people around me have passed on, many of them being the same age as I. I’ve been reminded of the inevitability of death countless times, yet it took me ages until it truly hit me. Open the newspaper, turn on the television: they’re dropping like flies! But every morning my eyes would open once again and another day of limitless days would begin anew. Time, I spent her as if she’d never run out. Body, as though it could not be broken. I needed to see death through the passing of those around me. I have photos of me with them. With the same indestructible body, and the same endless sea of time as I have before me. First a friend, then another friend, then my thirty-eight year old sister, and a year later, my father. This is the point where it started dawning on me. This is it. This is all there is. This is what I have to make do with, for however long I have. That, in retrospect, whatever it is, it’s already quite substantial.
During this period, I ended up in Germany for a group exhibition. My pictures were being shown. Now I’ll have a real experience, I thought (I’ll never completely rid yourself of that daydream.) The international art world, and I’m a part of it! Beautiful, eloquent women! Behind a large mansion they stood in a big garden, holding a glass in one hand, an hors d’oeuvre in the other. Naturally, I knew no one. I forgot to tell you that besides being easily bored, I’m also shy. I’m normally not shy, except at moments when I don’t want to be. Needless to say, I struck few conversations in that garden. But I wasn’t too excited by the people I did manage to speak to. All that talk about art. The perpetual name dropping of famous people. If they weren’t speaking of wildly famous artists, they’d be speaking of themselves. Show me one artist who isn’t smitten with himself. I was lucky to have brought a good book with me; otherwise I’d have been completely and utterly bored.
Everyone stayed the night in that big mansion, including myself, it had gotten late and my nerves had led me to drink quite a bit. Driving 400 kilometres to Amsterdam didn’t seem like a very good idea. That night I was dreading the thought of reopening my eyes the next morning to find myself faced with the same art world characters all over again. In that same garden. And talk, talk, talk of art and international destinations.
After breakfast I wanted to speed off, but I was stopped. There must be football, the artists against each other! Football? What a load of nonsense. I tried to worm my way out of there but to no avail; they pushed a pair of boots into my hands and dragged me onto the field.
I don the boots, step onto the field, the ball is passed to me, I give it a kick and I’m sold. Ever since that day, I’ve played football every week with the exception of flues, vacations, and injuries. There’s nothing that makes you as conscious of your body as running after a ball for an hour. It makes you aware of your existence, of your fully functioning body. The exhaustion, the glow, wonderful. Thinking of nothing but the ball. It’s slightly late to start football at the age of thirty-eight. I’ll never be very good at it. I don’t play competitively. There’s a bumpy lawn in Amsterdam where I play against ten, twelve friends. Never a day of football without a whole lot of bitching, and the ball often seems to take a strange course when I’ve kicked it.
There was a time when I couldn’t play for a long while. It looked like I was ready to go (Death! There she is again.) It’s an illness that can rear its head at any time, it might return in twenty years, it might stay away forever, no one can say. Five weeks after the operation I was playing with the boys again. I shot two goals immediately. Me, who usually never scores, at most ten times a year. Could it be that God exists? That’s what I thought. That’s how simple it is. There’s nothing more to need. And who did I have to thank? Art. That first game, the morning after breakfast in Germany.