This Saturday, I went to The Success Question, a panel moderated and organanized by LA Times critic Holly Myers. According to the email announcement, this panel was going to discuss questions such as:
How do we conceive of success in the art world? Who sets the terms? Who should set the terms? What is the role of the market? How does the press figure in? Have art schools shifted expectations of success? Is a coherent notion of success even possible in a world defined by such a pluralistic array of practices? How has the rising profile of the LA art scene changed the way that success is understood here? What is the difference between successful and popular? Is success satisfying? What is it that really matters in the end?
Those are some big questions. And to answer these questions Myers brought in some big players: Mark Bradford, Eileen Cowin, Anna Sew Hoy, Paul Schimmel and Susanne Vielmetter. Yes, Myers was aware of this irony, and the panel did a good job of giving balanced and interesting answers despite the glaring handicap that all the participants are traditionally successful. Next time I would like to see a panel that includes a 28-year-old who holds down three jobs to pay for her studio -which gallerists rarely visit; a 60-year-old who has never had a single solo show but really likes what she makes, and a mid-career artist who went straight to the Whitney Biennial from graduate school and has only shown a handful of times –and only in the Pacific Northwest– ever since. Then we could have the kind of raw and uncomfortable conversation that the topic of success really deserves. But until then, this panel was a good start.
Distilled into easy-to-remember sound bite form, the ideas from this event were:
- Success is an ever receding point.
- Staying afloat means staying fluid.
- Nurture and participate in dialogue.
- Don’t chase the market; wait until the market comes back to you.
- LA is a friendlier art scene than NY.
- LA needs more writing about art. Which means we need publications to pay writers. So we need a market that will fund these publications. But it is our perceived distance from the market that keeps us friendly. Hmm.
- Financial success, critical success and actually making good work have very little to do with each other.
- Make the work. Accept when you have no ideas: don’t embarrass yourself by making crap. But do risk making crap because otherwise you won’t do anything new.
- Make the work.
Eileen Cowen brought up the infamous orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. It ends with a woman in the deli saying “I’ll have what she’s having,” ordering what she believes will give her the same experience as Ryan, though of course the irony of the scene is that Ryan was faking it. Cowen’s point was that many of us are chasing a fake orgasm, and that what we think will make us happy, might not. This is probably true for every profession, but artists –who, let’s face it, are much less likely to have a pragmatic outlook– might have a particularly idealized view of “making it.”
The panel took place at LAX art, surrounded by Kelly Poe’s For the Wild. To create this series of photographs, Poe befriended a group of jailed environmental activists and asked them to describe the image of the wilderness that they turn to for solace. She then traveled to these same spots and attempted to capture each location as it had been described by the prisoner. In the photos, each landscape sings as an untouched paradise, lush and vivid and personal –embodying a pristine fantasy. And, as the title suggests, the activists Poe interviewed have all sacrificed their freedom for this idea of the wild.
As I listened to the speakers, I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between Poe’s images and the discussion of success underway. As anyone who has ventured off the beaten path knows, the wilderness, though exhilarating and beautiful, is usually also messy and uncomfortable, involving some combination of bugs, shitting in holes and sweat soaked clothing. Some people disappear into it forever, but most are happy to return to a solid roof and a hot shower at some point.
The art world, to those who venture in, was probably once a fantasy. My particular fantasy, was that “The Art World” was populated by supremely intelligent, sensitive beings who cared more about ideas and beauty, then money and facts. These mystical beings would respect my desire to be left alone in my studio –a large, light filled attic in a Victorian building in London– but when I wanted, would appear, ready to discuss philosophy, poetry, theatre… And of course, surrounded by that earnest brilliance, I would make paintings that shot straight to the root of the human experience.
Needless to say, that is not the world that I currently inhabit. But, in the right light, from one particular spot, on the right day, if you squint a little bit, some aspect of that absurd fantasy is my life. I do know a circle of people who value aesthetics and ideas, with whom I can meander through literature, art, politics etc. I do have a small drywall box to call my own, and, when I make a painting, there are a couple of people who will happily discuss my technical choices. I set my own hours, I follow my nose, and I can justify spending my Monday reading Guston’s collected writings…or whatever else I want. But I absolutely couldn’t do it alone. It takes people to push you on (or maybe even carry you for a little while) when your strength of will fails. Also luck.
So I would like to add the following to the list of success sound bites:
- Just keep swimming.
- Get comfortable with contradictions.
- Find a good therapist, preferably one who will trade sessions for artwork.
- Establish good karma and be generous with what you have.
- Focus on the process and its by-products.
- Remember that there is no art world, other than the one that you inhabit.