Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Not so fast, Chris ...

... Why I am thankful for artistic failure.

I don't think this is an account of artistic failure. It is an account of not committing oneself obsessively to self-promotion. The latter can actually get in the way of artistic creation -- and usually does.


  1. I dunno. I think this explains his last couple of columns, which seemed incredibly wrong-headed to me at the time. (And still do.) He's living with the paradox of making or not-making his living from his creativity. The very mixed feelings revealed here go a long way to explain his very Romantic notions about the artist unentangled by real-world necessities, such as paying the bills. I've commented before on what working artists think about all that, so I wont' repeat that again.

    And it's not all about aggressive self-promotion, although that can of course make a difference. It's also very much about luck: about being in the right place at the right time, and taking advantage of the opportunities that come up for you. All the self-promotion in the world means zip, without the luck to get noticed, too.

    It's about making your art purely to make your art, whether anyone else cares or not. I've been reading William Stafford's essays about poetry, and he says much the same thing. That's not to say that I even slightly agree with the Romantic stereotype, heretofore recycled, of the lone artist starving in isolation and obscurity.

    What all this really comes seems like to me, in the end, is some pretty immature attitudes towards art-making, a sense of entitled fame, and those equally immature Romantic stereotypes about what artists are supposed to be like, none of which are particularly real-world. The artist who has grown up and lives in the real world comes to realize that you have to work hard for everything, literally everything. None of it comes automatically, and it all has to be worked for.

  2. I am definitely with you in dismissing the Romantic-artist fantasy. I also definitely agree that you do the art for the sake of doing it, because the doing of it is satisfying in itself (else, why bother?). Back in the '70s, when I mostly a freelancer, I also had a family to support. So I took whatever jobs came along. You know what? Best thing that ever happened to me. Got to learn things -- how to do abstracts, a bit of carpentry, how stores are built -- that proved very useful later on. Also got to meet people I would never have met otherwise. This has a salutary effect on my writing, since it greatly widened my experience.
    My point in commenting on Chris's piece was simply that not making a living off one's art does not equal artistic failure. Artistic failure is the failure to do your art with all of the integrity that you can bring to it.

  3. I strongly agree with you, Frank, that artistic failure consists only of not doing your art with integrity. Or of abandoning it because of circumstances.

    I guess I might be still reacting to Chris' previous column on this topic, in which he opined that artists might be artistically better off if they were unknown to the world. That is, it's better for their art if they're unknown, and they are, too. Well, that's a kind of "freedom" in obscurity that I don't know a single artist who really would choose. All the working artists I know are engaged with the world, one way or another, and don't separate their art from that engagement.

    Having those other jobs used to be the classic apprenticeship for a writer. I did the same sorts of variety jobs, too, as you describe. These days apprenticeship seems to be getting a workshop MFA. LOL Which I'm not sure is any kind of real apprenticeship at all, because it's not real-world.

    So, on the level of artists being engaged with the world, I'm with you, Frank, and not with Chris' earlier notions about the joys of obscurity.

  4. What disturbs me most is the subtext of me vs. them in this sort of discussion: Working Artist vs. immature Romantic. There is nothing inherently empowering (yes, I considered saying 'noble'!) about either making a living solely from one's art, earning nothing from one's art, or like the majority of us, falling somewhere in between. And I'm with Frank here - integrity (and quality) can be found anywhere along the spectrum; equally, the lack of it.

  5. Art, our comments just crossed, and therefore I'd like to add something about obscurity.

    First of all, I'm beginning to dislike the words 'art' and 'artist', but I'll continue to use them here for the sake of convenience.

    Almost all artists are working, one way or another, unless they happen to have a hefty inheritance or a rich spouse or whatever, which means they by necessity engage with the workaday world. The desire for obscurity may, of course, be the remnant of a Romantic stereotype, but just as equally may be a question of temperament or even self-delusion related to a sense of failure.

    I actually do prefer obscurity (or at least relative obscurity) so I reckon that means I'm not a true artist, by your definition. That's fine with me. I don't like to think of myself as an artist in any case - at most, someone working towards a certain competence or craft.

  6. Gentlemen -- one thing I hoped I had made clear (in this and others)is that I am NOT supporting or lauding the Romantic idea of the struggling artist -- someone who fills the traditional bohemian parameters. I think the problem, as Lee seems to see, is that artists do fall into that notion that they need to "struggle" for art. One of my points is that I am glad to have engaged with the world in a way that allows me to look at it through many lenses, not just the eye of a composer, musician or writer. Engaging with the world on many levels, as Frank alludes to with his own early freelance work(and lack thereof at times), has made me a better artist and has kept my art fresh. I fully agree with Lee and Frank that "integrity (and quality) can be found anywhere along the spectrum" -- for me, my work thrives as an oasis and as a focal point for my social and professional experiences. All artists need freedom of mind to create; we find it in different places. And I do point out that obscurity is not a preferred place (I would take over for Williams) but it is a productive place and a place that is likely to produce honest work.

  7. By the way, Frank -- many thanks for the links.