Thursday, May 3, 2018

What Is Artistic Success?

There isn't only one way to be successful as an artist. Even though making a living through one's art and getting praise seems like a universal ideal, it is not. So what is your definition of artistic success? Here are some thoughts ...

Chaliapin was an extremely successful opera singer. And for a reason!
He indeed was very talented and had a beautiful voice.

There are artists and artists. Some are considered successful, but in reality are unhappy. Some are unknown, but happy. Some can pay their bills from what they earn. Some don't earn anything. Some dream of worldwide fame, but never get it. Some don't even think about getting famous, but they get "discovered". Some have talent, others not really. Some love their art, others think it's never good enough.

There isn't only one way to be successful as an artist. Everything depends on how you define success yourself.

A Successful Artist Living in a Cave

There is one quote I still remember, even through I read it over 10 years ago:

"[T]here was the fact that no one would ever see his paintings. That was a foregone conclusion, but rather than torment Effing with a sense of futility, it actually seemed to liberate him. He was working for himself now, no longer burdened by the threat of other people's opinion, and that alone was enough to produce a fundamental change in how he approached his art. For the first time in his life, he stopped worrying about the results, and as a consequence the terms "success" and "failure" had suddenly lost their meaning for him. The true purpose of art was not to create beautiful objects, he discovered. It was a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one's place in it, and whatever aesthetic qualities an individual canvas might have were almost an incidental by-product of the effort to engage oneself in this struggle, to enter into the thick of things." 
Paul Auster: Moon Palace, Chapter Five.

The artist Effing is living in a cave, and even though "success" and "failure" have lost their meaning for him, one can still say he is successful: He is free to follow what he has discovered to be "the true purpose of art". - A luxury many famous artists can't afford.

Conflicting Desires

Artists want to create art. Artists want to make their living. Artists want recognition.

The quote above seems to hint that these desires aren't always compatible.

Sometimes certain desires are even considered evil. The Russian writers Vladimir Odoevsky and Nikolai Gogol both have written stories (The Improvisator and The Portrait) about artists who make a pact with a diabolical character in order to become financially successful. But they pay a high price: Their art loses its artistic value and both eventually lose their sanity.

I don't think it has to end like this. There's nothing wrong with getting rich through one's art. J. K. Rowling is a good example. Her books have become a worldwide phenomenon, a whole generation grew up with them, and the Harry Potter series is just great! Rowling became rich through her art, yes, but she has deserved every penny. All those desires artists harbour don't have to be in conflict.

So Many Artistic Lifestyles

The internet makes it possible to glimpse into the life of successful artists, artists who want to become successful and artists who are pretty okay with remaining unknown forever. And it's fascinating how different the individual definitions of success can be. Even though making a living through one's art and getting praise seems like a universal ideal, it is not.

So is there even such a thing as "artistic success" apart from an artist's own feeling? Apart from perceiving oneself as successful or not successful?

There are just too many ways one can be successful or not successful. And, in its core, the word "success" means that one has succeeded in something. To succeed in something means that one has reached a goal. No matter what that goal might be.

What Is Artistic Success for You?

Personally I remember publishing a story about two people meeting regularly on a platform. Every week they have a couple of minutes while waiting for the train. And even though they're both interested in each other they never really talk. In the end they get one last chance to get acquainted, but I left it open whether they make use of it.

One reader's reaction was: "I really should start talking to him." For me, this was a "Yeah, mission accomplished!" moment. It was a full success for me. Motivation was all I ever wanted to achieve with that story, and it actually worked! This is why that particular comment is one of my favourite reader reactions of all time. It is something I like to think of when feeling down.

So what are your goals when creating art? What is your definition of success? Let me know in the comments below!


  1. I just make stuff. I like when others to appreciate it but that's not essential. I would say I am examining my life and my understanding of my life, through images and objects. To say it differently, I am thinking about what I think about and what I feel, how I relate to the parts of existence that are not me. Success is to be satisfied that I tell myself the truth, at least some of the time.

    1. I like this definition. Examining one's life is what most (if not all) artists actually do, even if they don't intend it. We can't help it. We're products of our lives, so when we create art it always has to do with our life and who we are. Yet still, being honest with oneself can be extremely hard. So I think being satisfied with an honest piece of art is a very healthy way to define success.

  2. Well, I think it's time to give up on this blog. Have a nice day.

  3. For me success is being able to do art without having to rely on genre laws or cliches too much, without copycatting anyone and be satisfied with result.

    Or the way it changes you think about things it even goes into other non-art aspects of life.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.