“What ultimate quality does an artist have to have in order to succeed?” I could tell that my student’s mom, who was asking this question, was hoping that her son’s talent would be obvious to everyone and be enough to be successful. And that once he had a body of work completed and accepted by a major gallery, his career would take off.
If only it was that simple.
I thought for a minute and agreed that he does, indeed, have a talent. But I also know a number of gifted artists who gave up their creative careers along the way. Talent is not enough. So I said, “I believe that every artist has to be naively optimistic in order to keep at it. Because he will undoubtedly face rejection after rejection for years to come, and have to define his own practice with very little guidance.”
Any artist will tell you that, for a hundred gallery or project applications he sends out, he will receive only a few positive replies, especially in the first ten years of his career. And now that the web has made finding opportunities easy, this has dramatically increased the number of applicants, and the number of rejections.
He will also have to decide for himself how to find his way through the maze of the art worlds because there are many ways to be an artist – and many ways to make a living at it. He could be a commercial gallery artist who creates work that appeals to home owners and collectors. He can be a public gallery artist who creates experimental work. With in those, he can be a graphic or new media artist, a sculptor, a photographer, a painter or an installation artist. If he studies art in post-secondary school he might get a glimpse of some of those possibilities but, even then, it’s really only a glimpse, and it will require lengthy investigation and introspection to figure out where he might fit.
He will have to be comfortable with the unknown. There are few veterans of the arts who have the time to show aspiring talents the way forward. He will have to piece his career together as he goes, scavenging information and knowledge where he can find it. He will have to be adaptable throughout his career because most successes are happy accidents that follow relentless dedication and experimentation. Success relies on recognizing and chasing opportunities when they appear. Those opportunities are as much the result of risk taking and quick decision making as they are of planning and a dedicated work ethic.
Today the dramatic changes occurring in the art markets represent new challenges for all artists. The rapid growth of online sales, the decline of gallery sales, the new marketing practices all present new opportunities for the artist. They have the potential to put the power in the hands of the artist, bypassing the system’s validation. But today the artist is hard pressed to invest his energy in the right place at the right time… all the time. Keeping up is almost impossible and by the time he’s figured it out, he’s likely lagging behind the trend.
He will also have to develop an immunity from criticism. He can’t please everyone. As an artist, half the people he meets will dislike his work or be completely indifferent to it. Some might passionately hate it! (I still wonder why people care so much? It’s just paint after all!) There will be times when his best friend or his brother tells him, “I really don’t get what you’re doing,” despite having discussed it many times.
And I’m afraid that early in his career he’ll find himself living in a world that defines success in a very different way than he does. But that’s a subject of its own and better suited for a future blog. So, suffice it to say, if you want to be an artist, you have to be naive enough to face the reality of the art business and not let it get in your way. Most art school graduates around the world don’t last more than a couple of years in the art world. They give up for a number of reasons. To tough it out you have to ignore the difficulties, the unclear destination, the negative feedback, and the isolation due to your work being misunderstood. There’s a huge commitment required to establish your presence as an artist. You just have to keep moving forward in search of answers you may never find.
I say all this with no resentment or regrets. Twenty years into it, I love my job and would not trade it for the world. Over the years, an artist’s work leads the way forward and he discovers who he is as a person and as an artist. And as he does, people start taking him seriously and opportunities multiply. That takes time, a lot of it.
For me though, all of that makes the work worth doing. I’m searching, looking for meaning and answers and discovering more about life and about who I am, who we are, along the way. But ultimately, the answers themselves don’t really matter. The thrill of pursuit is what keeps me going. Because being on that quest for meaning is what artists do; it’s the ultimate joy!