From terms such as “starving” and “sell-out” clichés of artist's identity hinge on the success they may or may not attain through their work. Makers in our contemporary culture are often told that one must struggle for their art to be a true artist, but also that if their work does not sell or win certain acclaim that they are not good enough. The contemporary art world—as an ecosystem of makers, buyers, critics, gallery and museum workers, patrons, systems of education, etc.—has grappled with how success is measured and what it truly means as an artist to find success. It seems that in the North American and Western European contemporary art world, achieving consensus on how to determine artistic success has been and continues to be impeded by a few inconsistencies with regard to how the profession is viewed, what is meant (and is not meant) by “success,” and a disconnect about the role of intent in valuation of work.
The precarious nature of understanding success within art is not new, as evidenced by an 1885 publication of The Art Union Journal (known now as London’s The Art Journal) which includes an article simply titled “Success”. Author unknown, the piece is striking to read as an historical text because of its relevance; if not for the antiquated language, the same piece could have been printed today without seeming out of step. The author keys into what I consider the root of the inconsistency and uncertainty around artist success: art is considered to be set apart from other professions and is, therefore, judged by different measures (or at the very least the art world wishes it to be so). On page 10 of the journal the author writes,
I cannot measure an artist's success by the same rule as that of [other professions]. I cannot always call the “fortunate” artist successful. He has fair enjoyment of his surroundings...spends money like a prince,...is a great man - yet does not appear to me to stand Saul-like above the herd. As he is an artist, I dare not call him successful (1885).
The situation has changed little since 1885—as capitalism has become further embedded in culture, most professions associate success with the elevation of wealth or status. Considering one who is (or is thought to be) the most skilled craftsman, the most reliable serviceman, or the most capable physician, it is expected that these qualities are met with higher pay, higher esteem, and a generally improved quality of life. We hesitate to translate this expectation to artists because it is understood that the skill or ingenuity of an artist is not always compensated financially. A painter with expert skills may make less for her work than another whose work is of lower formal quality, but which finds favor with market forces. While it is understandable that artists’ success should not be evaluated strictly by their income or popularity, this separation from other professions and from the capitalist tilt of society makes it near impossible to communicate effectively about success using the same terms. The tendency or desire to judge artists according to a set of standards set apart from all other professions is just one roadblock to a more functional conversation of success. The second is that as a culture we seem to be limiting ourselves to this terminology which does not adequately convey what we mean.
So, what does the word “success” mean? Depending on where you look, you may see the common capitalistic use: “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame” or you may find a definition focused on success as achievement of a goal—“the correct or desired result of an attempt” (Mirriam-Webster 2017). If we choose to apply the latter, success is no longer determined or discussed based on capitalistic intentions, but instead upon whether or not the desired result of an effort has been accomplished. On one hand, this change may seem to complicate understanding, as what the term designates depends an individual’s goal. It is true that using the word “success” in this way would require a dedication to more explicit communication. I would argue that this is for the better. We can choose to say, “this financial planner is the most successful at growing client funds” or, “this sculptor has been successful at having work accepted into galleries but not at making consistent profit.” In addition, instead of using “successful” as a label without context, i.e. “the successful artist,” we can choose to apply more acute qualifiers like famous, rich, talented, proficient, or respected. This is a necessary change to moving forward the manner in which we talk and write about outcomes for artists, and has the added benefit of deconstructing inherent subservience to a culture which deifies capital gain.
A definition of success which is goal-oriented requires that attention is paid to what exactly those goals are before determining if something has been successful or not. In some cases, an artist may set out to make a piece which engages the audience, communicates a message, or inspires action while another might seek to win an award, receive media attention, or sell work for profit. It is common for an artist to seek multiple outcomes, and furthermore the intention in the act of making may be different than the intention of the work produced. I would argue that this separates the success of the artist from the success of the piece. There is a substantial rift between those who argue that the intention of an artist should be considered when determining if an artist has succeeded, and those who would say that only the outcome, what can be measured and perceived, should be considered. In spite of unresolved debates of intention, I would suggest that some consensus can still be reached about the manner in which success is considered and discussed, and in fact that this could lend to a more fruitful discourse. By communicating what an artist has succeeded at we can discuss success in appropriate context while still having the ability to remain outside of intent.
I suggest that artists should not be evaluated by the same capitalistic standards we see applied to other fields, nor to a wholly independent measure of success. Instead, by observing that not only art, but all fields have a variety of desired outcomes, the art world and society as a whole could move towards a mode of discussion which communicates success with clarity. Perhaps the measures of success in the art world do not need to be so separate, but rather the way in which we name success should evolve to better account for diversity among makers.
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Smith, Terry. "The State of Art History: Contemporary Art." The Art Bulletin 92, no. 4 (2010): 366-83.
"Success." The Art Union 2, no. 1 (1885): 10-11.
"Success." Merriam-Webster Dictionary. November 30, 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/success.
Wolf, Reva. "Homer Simpson as Outsider Artist, or How I Learned to Accept Ambivalence (Maybe)." Art Journal 65, no. 3 (2006): 100-11.