As I attempt to take my art more seriously and step out from the safety of ‘oh, it’s just a little something I do in my spare time’, I find myself my own worst enemy.
Is there a reason to make art if you’re not a success? If no one likes what you do, if no one buys your work, if you can’t make a living at it?
Last year I started to take and post iPhone photos. It started out small, which also meant safe, and gradually expanded from there. With expansion though the safety dwindled, until it got to the point where I felt anxious to create and share. In a small pond it was easy to shine, to feel successful and special. In the move from hobbyist to self-proclaiming artist the stakes become higher and the chorus of voices about why I shouldn’t bother is LOUD.
This is not easy. Modern, mainstream culture as well as my sensible, suburban background maintains a chorus of: ‘Why are you bothering? No one cares, or values this stuff. You’re not called to do this or you would have done it by now. You’re nothing special, you won’t be a success at this, stop wasting your time.’
I figure I need to create my own sense of success, rather than buying wholesale a version from a capitalist society that sees no value in anything beyond the bottom line.
It is gratifying to get some ‘yeses’ from the universe, to find a few people that respond to your work – but is it essential?
Why do we make art? Why did Henry Darger toil his entire life on The Realms of the Unreal and never reveal it to anybody? Why did The Holy Modal Rounders never give up on music? Why have Anvil kept at it all these years? Of all the artists in the world only a tiny handful can be ‘successful’ in the conventional sense of the word and yet we stick at it.
It seems to me the chief motivation for making art cannot be to make yourself feel special via the world’s love (fame, money, status). Surely that is unsustainable, or a recipe for misery.
If I’m honest, I am attracted to art for those reasons. Growing up I thought my artist brother was so special, and I wanted some of that too. But as I make my own art, I realise that making art so that people think you’re special is a fool’s game, and one destined to failure. That old chestnut persists: all the love in the world isn’t going to fill you up if you can’t love yourself.
So what is art good for? Why continue, even when other people don’t get it? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me making art helps with the grief of existence. It helps me to figure out who I am, and to accept what I find. It’s a welcome break from rationality (which seems so dominant in modern, Western life). It pushes me to engage more deeply with the world, to be more curious and open. Plus, it’s FUN.
The practice of art isn’t to make a living. It’s to make your soul grow. – Kurt Vonnegut Jr
If I look at it this way ideas about what makes a ‘successful’ artist become redundant. But if I have to measure maybe the only criteria is that you keep creating, in spite of all the voices (internal and external) that tell you it’s a waste of time.