What is artistic success?

,  17 May 2013

What does success in the art world mean? Artists at Artquest's 'For the Love of It' conference discussed whether it involves fame, integrity, or selling enough work to live off your practice.

The question of what success means can be a complex one for many artists.
The question of what success means can be a complex one for many artists.

At a discussion hosted by Artquest, three artists – Doug Fishbone, David Blandy and Edwina fitzPatrick – shared their views on the topic of success, followed by an audience discussion. 

What artistic success means

Doug Fishbone: "A couple of years ago, I did a project in Trafalgar Square involving a large pile of bananas.

"That led to me being asked to be on a gameshow called Test the Nation in which different professions competed with each other.

"In the artists' group, I was the only one whose practice could be categorised as 'contemporary'. The others did portraiture, for example – many other kinds of art.

"It really opened my eyes to the diversity of the art world. There are many ways to make a living within it.

"There are many ways to make a living in the art world. Any discussion of success has to take into consideration its audience."

"Any discussion of success, therefore, has to take into consideration its audience.

"Someone once said you can't get rich on Wall Street – you just reach new levels of relative poverty.

"As artists, I think we might be particularly at risk of that way of thinking, where you could be wildly successful on general estimates, but still not feel that your career is taking off.

"If your goal as an artist is to win the Turner Prize, that's probably a bad goal! If you don't do it, you're going to think you've failed.

"I think those kinds of goals can really pervert what being an artist is. If your goal is to pursue your interests, on the other hand, with space to interrogate who you are, that's more attainable."

Success and survival in the art world

David Blandy: "I've been pondering over success. For me, personally, success is just survival: 'Am I paying the bills? Do my kids have something to eat? Are we still in our house? Yes? Success!'

"You just keep on trucking, and try to maintain your practice and the integrity of what you're doing. That's all it is.

"For me, personally, success is just survival. Am I paying the bills? Success!"

"As an artist, I think it's very frustrating that so much is embedded in invisibility. Often your practice as a whole is very nailed down to one little bit – the most visible bit – of what you do.

"I guess what I'm saying is: I'd like a salary. If we all had one, we could get on and make real change!"

Edwina fitzPatrick: "As someone who works with site-based art practice, context is very important to me.

"I wonder whether success operates differently according to context. One of the things you can often say about artists is that we often multitask.

"As well as our practice, we often support ourselves with teaching. 

"I was looking on the AN website, and I found some maps – flowcharts showing how a career in the visual arts can progress, from art school onwards.

"I run an MFA Fine Art course, and I'm very aware that art and design courses can set people up to fail, potentially, by the ways we grade.

"We can also set people up to fail with the way that imperatives like 'employability' are imposed on the curriculum, and through creating false expectations about being creative businesspeople.

"How does the concept of 'professional practice' impact on your work, and on your view of the future?

"For example, I think it's notable that one of these career maps I found puts 'art school' right at the beginning of the artist's career, and nowhere else.

"The ultimate accolade of success on the same chart is 'bequest of your work to galleries'.

"That would mean you would have to be dead, presumably, to finally succeed!"

Making an impact as an artist

Edwina fitzPatrick: "Another visual map of this sort, this time from Arts Council England, implies that if you are 'recognised' as an artist, you are often more critically disengaged.

"Similarly, the chart implies that if you are 'avant garde', you are highly critically engaged.

"I think that often what we do as artists is make a difference quite locally, because a national impact is hard to effect."

Doug Fishbone: "Artfacts is a website where you can look up artists – and they're ranked! You can look up artist number 3,008. Number one is usually Andy Warhol.

"If your goal as an artist is to win the Turner Prize, that's a bad goal! If you don't do it, you're going to think you've failed."

"It's a bit like ranking tennis players. I'm not sure what they calculate the ranking from."

David Blandy: "It's probably secondary market stuff, like exhibitions and numbers of sales of work at auction."

Edwina fitzPatrick: "This does raise a very important question about how you change your practice according to what you view as success, and how you value and perceive that.

"I think it's important to work out what you perceive as success."

5 ways of defining artistic success

Following this discussion, participants came together to compile a list of different ways they defined 'success'. 

Some were idealistic, while others were more practical. 

These included:

1. Being able to earn money as an artist

  • "The judgement of success can come in a number of ways, but I still need financial security"
  • "You can achieve a lot in particular sectors of the art world, even if on someone else's map you are nowhere".

2. Holding on to artistic integrity

  • "The notion of having pride in what you do is important"
  • "Being satisfied with your work could cross over with external 'markers' of success such as sales, but could also act as a counterpoint to these, in spite of them"
  • "If you don't sell much but are invested in your work, that's a form of success"
  • "Ideology is important to me: the work should be about things other than market success".

3. The sustainability of an artistic career

  • "Success for many artists depends on access to affordable artistic spaces"
  • "Are we moving back into university-led artistic careers to compensate for the loss of funded public art spaces?"

4. Finding acclaim as an artist

  • "How does having your name known matter? The artist's signature, after all, is a stamp of authenticity. However, an artist might use a title or collective name for their projects despite being only one individual, or might use different names for different kinds of work"
  • "The scepticism around success creates awkwardness in itself for artists, who are afraid of 'selling out'" 
  • "Some forms of visual art rely on acclaim to generate more work. As an illustrator I want to attract more briefs from writers and creators who want to work with me. Generating acclaim is crucial to how I operate".

5. The pleasure of creating

  • "There is no 'recipe' for career success as an artist"
  • "The quality of the work I make is the most important thing to me"
  • "Acknowledge your own power as an artist. Artists do have power, but many don't know how to deal with that, and hide it rather than use it. What you make is your responsibility"
  • "Above all I want to enjoy the experience of creating art".

Finding your own definition of success

Doug Fishbone: "There's a quote from the photographer AE Coleman I always give to my students.

"It goes: 'If recognition – or, even worse, fame – is your goal, you are again in the wrong profession. Modesty is another of the artist’s tools.

"'If you’re lucky, any recognition you gain will be merely commensurate with your achievement, and any fame that afflicts you will pass quickly, leaving your sense of self undamaged, so that you can get on with your work.

"'And, finally: Get on with your work.'

"That's the full quote. I find it very useful!"

Edwina fitzPatrick: "I suspended my architectural training to be an artist. 

"I decided that if I wasn't as successful as an artist after a decade, I was going to return to being an architect.

"Years later, I'm still doing art. I've no idea about success, but I'm still here!"


Do you agree? How do you define success as a creative?

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