More thoughts on ‘Success’ for Visual Artists

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A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on my couch, entranced in Facebook, when I noticed an interesting challenge:

“How do you define success? What is a successful career? Is it being one of the 123 artists who are always in the same curated shows?” Okay artists, tell us (don’t talk about making money, however).”

I have a confession to make: I am having an intense facebook dalliance with Jerry Saltz, art critic extraordinaire, currently at NY Magazine, former critic for the Village Voice, married to Roberta Smith, the NY Times Art Critic and all-around superstar. I LOVE him! I worship him! I read his reviews! I facebook him! We are becoming really close (facebook) friends, OK?

Anyway, I wasn’t going to publish this because I KNOW what you’re all going to do. You’re not going to bother to read the rest of my post. You’re going to immediately get on facebook and friend request Jerry Saltz, so you can get in on the action. And he is MIIIINE!!!!! I friended him first. But, alas …

Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers got me started thinking about this rather sticky and nebulous topic. Early in the semester, I asked my art students to define their personal vision of success and I could tell it was an unnerving and slightly uncomfortable exercise for them to do. I thought this comment thread was absolutely priceless, in terms of the range of responses from artists from all over the world. In less than an hour, there were 55 comments, with tallies rising. Doubtless, there were many more by the end. Here are just a few of my favorite answers, with names removed to protect privacy from all you non f-booking wannabees:

Jerry Saltz on Facebook

According to Jerry Saltz, “For me “success” means having TIME to do my work.” Fair enough, Jerry. I suspect that he is being humble and is actually a tad more ambitious than this, but it’s a good start.

“Two people who recently purchased my paintings have told me that my work has enriched and enhanced their lives.” This one makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit, but maybe it is because I am jealous?

A humble and practical response: “For me success = the respect of those whose work I respect.” I think identifying your audience and community is important, as well as wanting to participate in that community.

“If I could live off my painting and spend tons of energy and time just doing that, I would feel successful. Until then, as long as I’m doing my best, working hard, pushing myself, researching, challenging then that is success. I think having shows, selling work, winning grants and getting written up in major publications is exciting and necessary for what I want to do but that doesn’t really define success. Success is a damn good painting.” This response is all over the place, but I do like that the author names specific goals, like sales, grants, and reviews.

“Success is unattainable, always just beyond reach. Pop singers have always done their best work when they were hungry, and desperate, like Bob Dylan. He now has all the money and time he could ever want, but let’s face it, he has not done anything good since 1975. Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed.” This response was bittersweet and paradoxical AND mentioned Bob Dylan, so I liked this one. However, it is a convenient stereotype and a cop-out, to believe that achievement of one’s goals makes you weak and less successful. From what I can tell, success leads to more success, as long as the work ethic remains unchanged. It is easy to look at someone else and think, ‘What a sellout!’ It is a lot more work to attain and then sustain a successful career.

A process-based approach: “Make it all, edit later. I love it when I hate the things I loved a few months ago, because I love the new work more.”

“Success (or at least feeling successful) is being deeply engaged in my painting, believing that my work is continuing to grow and is in a dialog with other artists and makers of culture that I admire. BUT, to really feel good, my studio practice must be part of a full, happy life. When my son runs into my arms for a hug after I’ve had a great day in the studio….. that’s bliss!” This one sounds pretty good – a full day in the studio, being engaged, PLUS a hug. It sounds like this artist is following her bliss and has few regrets.

“Success = making my last painting better than the previous = experimenting = taking risks = growing = challenging me and others to rethink visually = never lose the drive to be unsatisfied = unlearning what I’ve learned = making bad work work = unsatisfied with this ugly world and believing my work how ever insignificant it may be most of the time will make the world, yeah I’ll say it, a lil‘ more beautiful.” I think that linking the idea of success with drive and experimentation, with growth, is very healthy. Also, breaking out the ‘B’ word can be perceived as trite, and I respect this artist for using it anyway.

“Such an interesting and complex question. The outside world might define success as money, and to the extent that money gives you time, that’s part of success. But we artists have very finely tuned antennae for the nuances of accomplishment in our work- recognition is great, but smaller triumphs, in creating work that you feel is “successful … where you’ve solved the problem, knit together the pieces, made something wonderful- that’s success on a deeper level.” Sounds good to me, especially on a daily level.

“If one defines success only as being one of the 123, one is bound to feel like a failure much of the time.” One does need to apply the same creativity we use in our process to the way it is manifested. Competition and fame can present a very narrow prescription for being a success in the art world and it is good to recognize that there are many different ways to be successful.

“I think of an integration. Making art. Making dinner. Taking a walk. A daily activity. That is one kind of success for me. Another is when I make something that feels right on to me, but seems difficult for viewers, and I meet someone who seems to get it. This makes me feel crazy successful.” I suspect that the person who wrote this is actually pretty successful.

“I want people to love my work. That’s more important to me than critical success.” This person scares me a bit. There is NO WAY everyone is going to love your work. I mean, what percentage of art that you see is even remotely interesting to you? I guess we would need to better define who these ‘people’ are to figure this out, but it just sounds naive to me. I would argue that it is much more important for YOU to love your work, but that, paradoxically, this somehow translates into others loving it. Bottom line, though, if you want public adoration, being a visual artist is not the job for you.

“Success is a dirty word. It cant be quantified, it is subjective. I say avoid it all together. One persons success could be another persons nightmare and vice versa. Whatever it is, never ever equate it with happiness.” I am pretty sure success CAN be quantified, but it doesn’t mean it will apply evenly to anyone. I do not, however, think success is a dirty word. The more you think about it, the more thoughtful you will be in your approach to achieving your goals.

I HAD to leave the name on this next post. I mean, come on! This person truly knows about success, right? I know, it could be someone pretending on f-book to be Kara Walker, but it sounds pretty authentic and interesting to me.

Kara E. Walker: “Sorry, I probably should shut my trap on this one, but the feeling of having worked successfully on a project is sometimes much more elusive the greater the external rewards. What rewards count? Probably the more problematic ones, you did something that elicited or inspired another to try and drown you out, you made some thing that fired up a long drawn out conversation, spun a yarn that spiraled out of your control.

The feeling of success, that deep sigh inside- that you can barely touch for destroying it- is like – have you seen Man on Wire? Philippe Petit planning and completing his tightrope walk across the Twin Towers= success… the sad aftermath of his journey, loss of friends, loss of inspiration, loss of towers also a part of this success.

Of course, I am saying this from the cushy luxury of having Oprah’s stamp of approval. But even so, I dream of one day spending several uninterrupted weeks working on a comic book memoir. To reclaim my childhood fantasy of success.” I LOVE that Kara Walker dreams of doing her own comic book, someday, when she has more free time. The idea of going back and accomplishing your childhood dream is really cool, even cooler than having Oprah’s blessing.

“If you do your best work and do your best to have it shown to the public. That is it.” Possibly a simplistic and even cheesy approach, but I like it. Maybe even thinking about success is cheesy? It has got to be at least as cheesy as the image above of the triumphant hiker in front of the sunset. But so what? I think we all need to get over feeling embarrassed about achieving the things that we want. Doing your best work is certainly admirable, and there is something energizing about having strangers understand and experience it. Saying you want to make good work AND show it is the first step in doing so.

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