Deep Thought Thursday: Success and mediocrity

When asked what advice she would give to the current generation of aspiring artists, artist Shirin Neshat said:

My only advice is to spend less time on thinking about success and put all the energy in making art itself. Otherwise your relationship to your art changes. It becomes less genuine and honest. Art should not be born from a pressure of becoming successful but something deeper. This is always a danger and the cause for mediocrity in art. . . .

Source: Interview with Linda Weintraub for her book In the Making: Creative Options for Contemporary Art.

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13 thoughts on “Deep Thought Thursday: Success and mediocrity”

  1. Shirin Neshat very eloquently speaks truth. Commerce is important to be sure, but too often the desire to make money supercedes the desire to communicate beautifully or painfully with another human being. For those who want cash, go make widgets. It’s easier, and you can plan ahead. If you really want to make art you have to dig deeper than your pocket.

  2. Ah, to be able to be so submissive of the need for income. I want cash. And Patricia, I don’t make widgets, nor do I want to. It seriously irks me that art and cash cannot be said in the same sentence without being called a sellout. Makes me want to apologize for having a roof over my head and food to eat…and/or not having planned ahead enough to have married or inherited “well.”

  3. Oh, Tammy, I think you have some anger going on there, lol. I certainly didn’t get an exclusively esoteric vibe from Patricia’s comment. Alyson’s blog, and her business, seems totally genuine to me (its why I joined just yesterday). I absolutely do believe that we can get so wrapped up in feeding and sheltering ourselves that we HAVE to focus on taking care of our basic needs. But, when you allow that to become what drives your art, your art (and you) will lose. And, ultimately, you will shoot yourself in the foot, because art that is ingenuous is bad art, and it will not sell, and you will still need to find a way to feed yourself. I dream that one day I will be able to support myself with my art. I’m not there now. I am one of those fortunate people who has a partner who is willing and able to let my income slide, so I may pursue my passion and need to make art. But, I cannot, in good conscious, give up my “paying” job at this point. How can I ask him to totally change the lifestyle we’ve developed together, over nearly 25 years, so I can be fulfilled? So, I work at a job which brings in cash (I’ve taken a 50% pay cut), and I devote the rest of my time to making art. I wish, wish, wish, that I could afford the luxury of not worrying about the roof over my head, but such is my destiny. You need to set your priorities and goals, and you need to work toward them. But, the minute you walk into your studio, you have to invest yourself in your art. If your purpose in making art is to make money, then you will produce bad art. If you make art from your soul, and then you work to “get it out there”, if it’s good art, and you are very lucky, someone will recognize its value & will buy it. That’s life. And it ain’t easy. Virginia

  4. I totally agree with this quote. I don’t think it says we can’t think about selling our work but to do the work first and do the work honestly and with our whole heart. Keep the creative elements of your artist life separate from your marketing life (not that marketing can’t be creative but it’s different than the energy going into your art work) Go into the studio as an artist, not a marketer, not someone trying to figure out what will sell. Just go be yourself, do your best work, be your best artist. The rest will follow once we’re out of the studio and looking at where the work belongs now….an artist may find a certain success creating work for a certain market but I think most really successful artists just do the work they are driven to do and the selling happens later.

  5. Like other commenters, I am trying to make a living from my art — and I believe that art creation and commerce can coexist, if you are careful and dilligent. But I’d agree with this quote, if you define “success” as “fame.” In my opinion, an artist’s dream of fame (getting the big show, the big gallery, the big write up) can be more detrimental to their work than the attempt to make a living.

  6. Michael Lynn Adams

    Degas once explained that when he needed cash he would paint more of his “little dancers” because he knew that they would sell. It is an appealing and romantic notion that art is only about personal expression. Ask art dealers, curators and collectors whether or not art is also a business. But creating art that you intend to sell is not THE source of mediocrity. Lowering your standards, laziness, and lack of discipline are sources of mediocrity. Degas didn’t lower his standards or create schlock work to sell. He just understood that there was a market for a particular subject that he loved to paint. So he chose to paint dancers – exquisitely – over painting, say, horses. The art market is one of the most competitive businesses in the world. I believe that there is great pressure to create high quality work for artists truly want to be break into and successful in that market, especially at the high end. Not finding the right collectors for your art is a failure of marketing (one of the business disciplines of art). I believe that marketing is a learned skill that all artists can learn, just like working with the material used in your art. It is not easy, but essential. Create what you love. Do it well. Challenge your self to do it even better. The artists who sell do.

  7. Alyson B. Stanfield

    I think it’s interesting what is read into these quotes out of context–what emotions they stir–even if unintended. Michael: I love this: “But creating art that you intend to sell is not THE source of mediocrity. Lowering your standards, laziness, and lack of discipline are sources of mediocrity.” This is so true. And I am certain that’s what the artist had in mind.

  8. when someone asks me to paint something, i always feel that the painting turns out mediocre… i think, it just doesn’t feel like ‘my art’.. and in the process, i often don’t feel like i’m painting it.

  9. This is true and very poetic. I will try to keep this in mind as I struggle in the New World that George Bush has made which is a lot harder than the pre George Bush World

  10. We are incredibly fortunate in the western world of developed countries to have the opportunity to making a living from art, without a benevolent patron to feed and house us. I am always struck by that. And yet, as Shea says, this administration has dragged us into a very deep hole, where only the Medici’s can still afford art, and average folk have to scrimp to pay their looming mortgages. I constantly have to kick myself in the butt to stop judging what I start on by the “will this sell? criterion. The most surprising things do sell sometimes, usually the ones that spring from the deepest part of my heart. Who was it who said we just have to keep on keeping on? I quit my day job two years ago and I REALLY miss that paycheck, but I’m happier and healthier and more creative than I’ve ever been.

  11. I love what Michael said. And in this current atmosphere of people talking so much about “recession”–I think it’s wise to remember that the rich have always been the major art patrons….so maybe it’s time to raise your prices.

  12. These points of view are revealing. I would add that one has to go deeper when listening to advice: always consider the source; do not rely on secondhand information; sincerity can be wrong (and often is); and prove the important matters to yourself. Art and ‘success’ are not mutually exclusive.

  13. Michael Newberry

    I had one great art teacher, Edgar Ewing. I met him when I was 17, and In the first day of class, within the first 2 minutes he told us “art is like making love.” Later he told me “always paint what you love, and if you need money work at something else.” Edgar was 64 at that time, he had a big gray mustache and sparkling eyes.
    The pressure to follow the above especially when your painting is backfiring is sometimes almost unbearable, yet, you probably all have felt that if one of the solutions “clicks” it makes all of the dedication, and struggle worthwhile.
    For years marketing as been a dirty word for me, and not undeservedly so. It seems that 99% of professionals, marketing people, mothers, don’t know the meaning of artistic integrity, and their first reaction is to have you compromise your art to appeal to other people’s taste.
    Alyson is a great exception. And her efforts to excite, engage, educate, and help artists discover the art of reaching out to the right audience is priceless.

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