Success: What is it? Who gets it? Why do I want it so badly…or do I?

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 8.12.59 AM“Success is not the key to happiness.  Happiness is the key to success.  If you love what you are doing, you are successful.”

If you haven’t taken the time to think about how YOU define success, you are doing your career a disservice.  With all the artists I have talked to over the years, I have found there is a wide spectrum of what an artist wants.  Some artists could care less about ever showing in a museum or gaining any historical significance, they just want to make enough money so they can quit their day job. Other artists may have an independent source of income, money is not an important factor in their definition of success.  They want recognition from their peers, critics and curators to write about their work and the museum or gallery shows that go along with it.  It true most artists fall somewhere in between and want a little of both.  But, before you can develop a strategy to acheive your goals, you need to identify them…and, you need to decide which one of these two definitions resonates to you.  Occasionally the path to each may overlap, but, more often than not, you will need to make very different decisions depending on which of these areas is MOST important.  So, take a moment to really think about what it is that you want.

Your next job is to take an honest appraisal of your work to see if your work is congruent with your goals. This is a little reality testing here.  This can not be just your opinion, as we know, artists may often have an under inflated or over inflated sense of their work.  You need to get the opinion of 3 other people…another artist whose work you admire, a gallery person that is NOT a potential gallery for you, and a friend of a friend who likes art.  Remember, this is important: You are NOT asking them if they like your work. You are merely asking them to confirm your assessment of your career goals.  Assuming they agree that the goals for your work are realistic, i.e., to aim for museum recognition or go the commercial sales route, then you can start to develop your definition of success and create a methodology to acheive it.

It’s no accident that artists seldom, if ever, make a diligent effort to market themselves or promote their work.  It is completely against their nature to do so.  If you have read my previous post Whose Got the Remote? you would know that I believe artists are genetically different.  The results of their creativity are so integrally a part of who they are as a person, it would be like someone saying “Hey, I’m left handed, so can I have that job?”  or  “I’m left handed, why isn’t anyone buying me dinner?”  The irony of this state of affairs, is that every artist wants and needs recognition and validation for their work, i.e., validation for who they ARE…but, can’t bring themselves to ask for it because they can’t recognize that IT even exists. Therefore, when an artist tries to define success for themselves, it can sound like wanting to have shows, reviews, recognition and even sales, but in reality, success for most artists already exists by the mere fact that they have acknowledged that they are artists and have the ability to create.

So next time you are sitting around your studio, getting depressed because you think no one will ever see/buy/experience your work and you keep asking yourself “Why am I even doing this?” remember that the mere act of doing it, makes you one of the luckiest people on earth.


18 Responses to “Success: What is it? Who gets it? Why do I want it so badly…or do I?”

  1. Lihting Li said:

    Apr 07, 10 at 4:57 pm

    I fully agree with you, finally someone can redefine success for an artist. When artists spend hours in a studio to create, they are actually to communicate their soul to a piece of artwork. They give meanings and life to their art. They have experienced the accomplishment of highest communication of human soul.

  2. randal stringer said:

    Apr 08, 10 at 7:15 pm

    I agree that most artist don’t realize that getting to create and express themselves is the success…the rest is just ups and extras.

  3. Kim Clarke said:

    Apr 08, 10 at 7:45 pm

    WOW!!! thanks

  4. edward said:

    Apr 10, 10 at 2:18 pm

    I believe the need for financial return, so often dismissed by artists, is largely a myth. A significant part of my satisfaction in being an artist (in my case unfortunately that’s commercial art) is in producing something that someone will pay for.

  5. Marian Fortunati said:

    Apr 10, 10 at 3:15 pm

    I know it will come as no surprise that I have been discussing just this topic (defining our own success) with several of my artist friends and it’s a REALLY difficult thing to wrap our minds and hearts around.
    Although money and prizes aren’t REALLY the end goal for me… they ARE part of having my work validated.
    Also problematic is finding those three “critics” (another artist whose work you admire, a gallery person that is NOT a potential gallery for you, and a friend of a friend who likes art). How does one go about doing THAT?? Those people would have to know enough about the art world and how your defined goals fit into them to give you valuable critical advice.

    Needless to say your post resonated with me… And it must have resonated with others I’ve talked to because not only did I get your original post, but it was copied to me from friends as well.

    And, yes… I already know I’m a VERY LUCKY PERSON!! Thanks!

  6. Ginger Hendler said:

    Apr 10, 10 at 3:17 pm

    This needed to be said. It resonates with me as an important reminder, especially when people are always asking if I’ve sold something and that becomes the criteria for success. Many artists who do sell may be compromising in order to better market themselves.

  7. Antonio Sorcini said:

    Apr 10, 10 at 3:28 pm

    I agree, no matter what your passion is getting a good assessment of your talent and resources is just the beginning the next step is getting help to set reasonable goals and objectives. Having a reliable person that will coach and give you a progress report on your efforts is a must. Art is a business that most artists are ill equipped by nature to deal with but those that have a plan for success and failure are most able to achieve the success they are seeking.

  8. Robert Bent said:

    Apr 10, 10 at 4:14 pm

    Great insights! I’m motivated! Can’t wait to initiate that three person review. Thanks.

  9. Karen Mortensen said:

    Apr 10, 10 at 8:17 pm

    I was thrilled by your exceptional insight into the artistic temperament in your previous article, and now this one; wonderful. Ravi Shankar was once asked about the purpose of music and he said: my music is not for intertainment but for spiritual nourishment. Personally I feel my art-making is completely divorced from the business of art which to me is on another planet entirely. A planet far away and totally foreign. So if I define my goals for success as you say in between making money and acknowledgement, I would then be forced to deal with this unenteligable planet I have no stomach for. Of course like most artists like me, I wish I had the cash to hire someone to ‘handle’ me.

  10. Demetrios Papakostas said:

    Apr 11, 10 at 6:17 am

    It’s sometimes hard to differenciate between making art and making art as a living. You have to juggle both in order to difine your own success. Sure I can go to my studio and paint all day and feel really good about it, but at the end of the day, I still have to pay my bills. I think if you make art that’s about you, the commercial aspect will come. Be it by force or by recognition. The problem sometimes is being afraid of the acknowledgement and even worst, the success.

  11. Jean Laszuk said:

    Apr 11, 10 at 11:21 am

    Thank you for your article. I agree with what you say. The whole $$$ thing is a whole other world, but a very necessary one for us, I think, as artists to learn about. I’ve decided to change my definition of “success” to now include being able to make a living off of my art without having an extra job on the side.

    Thank you also for the 3-other-people appraisal. Great idea!

  12. Jan Allen Correll said:

    Apr 11, 10 at 4:22 pm

    I agree, that art feeds the artist’s soul. Unfortunately, if you never make a sale, it does nothing for the belly. Striking a happy balance is often the best that an artist can hope for. And yes, I feel very fortunate to have the gift, yet still stymied that I must struggle so hard to survive.

    Being an artist is both a blessing and a curse.

  13. Zia Gipson said:

    Apr 11, 10 at 8:08 pm

    I wish I could remember who said, that her definition of success was having enough money to make the art she wanted to make (however she happened to make the money.)

  14. Andrea Auletta said:

    Apr 12, 10 at 8:57 am

    Thank you for your article.
    I really enjoyed reading it.

  15. rejected « So Cal Julie K. said:

    Apr 12, 10 at 10:13 am

    [...] rejection brings me back to the reality that you have to know what you want your work to be. Sylvia White says artists need to decide what kind of artist they want to be. Some artists don’t care [...]

  16. Lynda Lehmann said:

    Apr 12, 10 at 11:27 am

    Your last statement is the idea that I always return to. My joy in creating far surpasses any joy in this life that I might expect or consider to be “my due,” if there is such a thing.

    I know I’m VERY fortunate to experience so much passion and joy. When I’m creating, I’m happy to the core. And thankfully, I don’t need to sell enough art to pay the bills.

    Thanks for an incisive and very wise and relevant post.

  17. Raya said:

    Apr 12, 10 at 2:18 pm

    I cultivate happiness. I indulge myself in the colors, forms, textures and medias in my art which add to my happiness. I simplify and eliminate things in my life that intrude on my happiness. Happiness for me is creating and exploring my art.
    Four decades ago I was very focused on winning awards and critical acclaim…I worked hard at it and only found an empty place within that no top award was able to fill.
    Two decades ago I embraced the concept that the making of the art is My Art and what’s found at the end of that process is just the residue of my art; it’s been wonderfully freeing. I’ve made a lot of art and the resultant residue is scattered across the globe, living and dying, appreciated or not as the Fates will play it.
    For me:
    Success means having the funds, studio and materials to continue creating my art.
    Success means maintaining the ever evolving dialog within my art making…and I reject the idea of one-artist/one-style …it would be creative death for me.
    Success means that virtually all the residue I create leaves me (meaning I sell it); making room for the next session and exploration of art making.
    Success means that the residue of my art moves, inspires, sooths, brings happiness and otherwise adds positively to the environments and people who come in contact with it.
    I’ll leave it to others (after I’m gone) as to my place (if any) within the lexicon of “Notable Artists”. Here and now I only know I must follow my heart and mind’s eye where it needs to go.

  18. Jeremiah Hatcher said:

    Apr 25, 10 at 5:14 pm

    Good/meaningful/investigative/ ART = TIME
    Job/career/peg for $ = TIME
    Job = less TIME for ART

    This means if I sell my ART then I can create more ART
    The most prolific scenario: ART = Job

    If you don’t care about making money on your ART, you are wealthy or just a hobbyist. I would trade my left hand in a heartbeat so that my right could paint and draw indefinitely.