I was having a nice visit with a friend of mine. She's a fiction writer, and we like to commiserate - how's the book coming, how was your last show, that sort of thing. As she was preparing to leave she said something that left me hanging: " Well, you know we're just doing it for the internal satisfaction..." with her unspoken addendum being "because the market doesn't value what we do."
What she seemed to be saying - and what I seemed to be accepting - was an idea that isn't true: that doing it for internal satisfaction is somehow settling for less than what we should be settling for. I mean, isn't that the ultimate justification for not achieving your goals - I do it because I get some intrinsic value?
As uncomfortable as it is, our society reinforces the belief that value in creative work comes from external acceptance and reward. And this is wrong. Especially when research suggests that we're more likely to interact with something like art over the long term if we're motivated intrinsically, rather than through the external promise of a gold star. In this article on the overjustification effect, when we pay more attention to the incentive (reward) than to the satisfaction and enjoyment we get from the activity, we actually lessen our interest in the activity over time, particularly if there are fewer and fewer rewards.
I've decided to call this way of thinking the Am I Lucky Syndrome. It's a trap that's totally about the reward, whether we get it or not, and why. It comes from an insight I gained after reading this article by John Yau on The Brooklyn Rail, titled Jean Crotti: Inhabiting Abstraction. Jean Crotti was Marcel Duchamp's brother-in-law, and since I've always been fond of Marcel, this small Duchamp quote jumped out at me:
"A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favors. There is no outward sign explaining why a Fra Angelico and a Leonardo are equally 'recognized.' It all takes place at the level of our old friend luck."
I won't argue here against Duchamp, because he makes a valid point about luck playing a role in success. But it is a trap, none the less, to connect art and the artist to the luck of market, because it leads to thinking like this: why do this if I'm not lucky, if I didn't go to a great art school, if I don't live in New York, if I'm not a man, if I'm too old, if my work isn't right...and on and on...
This is why I have a private argument with every success book that comes along, because - however well intentioned and fully informed - the reinforcement of success in terms of external circumstance ultimately works counter to the stated goal: of achieving success. That is, if the research is right, and we do tend to lose interest in something faster if we are motivated by the desire for that (eventually meaningless) gold star reward and don't get it.
Of course we know that there are many overlooked stories of artists who work for decades and produce stunning bodies of work that are not widely recognized until late in the artist's career. These stories are often characterized by the artist's fidelity to his or her own artistic vision throughout the years. California painter Karl Benjamin is profiled in this 2007 New York Times article, written by Jori Finkel, which reads in part:
"Except for the immaculate condition of the brushes, there is no sign that the artist, now 81, stopped painting in 1995. 'A bad back, a bad hip and years of drinking too much,' he said, made handling the canvases difficult. 'I started getting too creaky to haul these things around.'
And yet, after decades of "painting prolifically and selling sporadically," Mr. Benjamin's work was featured in a retrospective at the Claremont Museum of Art.
In another article from The Brooklyn Rail, titled Emily Mason: Recent Paintings, by Phong Bui, there is a related story about contemporary artist Emily Mason, daughter of Alice Trumbull Mason, where the author offers this:
"I have perused Mason’s work for 25 years, and after all this time I am still struck by the way she manages to carve out an in-between space that cherishes—while resisting—all of the above ideas and ways of thinking about form and content, and other related issues that contributed so indelibly to the painting culture that she was brought up with; how she allows her own internal rhythm to harmonize with the demands of painting’s process."
All this leads me back to how I am defeating that purpose if I buy into the Am I Lucky Syndrome and don't focus on the intrinsic values that motivate me as an artist. It isn't always easy, and sometimes it takes more fortitude than I expect to stick to what I know to be true - at least for me. Somehow we must find ways to keep the process at the forefront, to find a path and maintain fidelity to our unique vision. Here is another quote from Karl Benjamin:
“As an abstract painter, you’re always flying in the face of your country’s values,” he said. “All of a sudden Louis [Stern Fine Art] is selling a lot, but I’ve never made a lot of money. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting the colors right.”
So here's another quote for the Ancient Artist Manifesto: It's about getting the colors right.
Now it's your turn:
How do you keep your vision alive?