There’s a brilliant cartoon called Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller that ran a few weeks ago. It starts with a caption, “The Get-Rich-Quick Correspondence Art School” and shows an artist standing before a huge empty canvas, paintbrush in hand, reading the first page of the instruction book:
“Step 1: Fill in blank canvas.
Step 2: Sell it for $1,000,000*
*Price triples if you die first!”
Funny? Not funny? Sad? All of the above!
We all know about Vincent Van Gogh, who sold maybe one painting in his lifetime, whose work (one painting) sold in 1990 for a record $82.5 million dollars.
Then there’s the most popular artist of the Victorian era, whose work, within a few decades after his death, was deemed saccharine and trite. He is so forgotten I can’t easily find him by Googling, I just remember that story from one of my art history books.
We have our own Thomas Kinkade, arguably the most commercially successful artist of our time, mass-producing paintings that look like a sickeningly-sweet Christmas card my grandmother might have sent out. Love him, hate him, he certainly knew how to manipulate the market, to the extent it’s estimated that 1 in 20 households in the U.S. own a print of his work. Will his work stand the test of time? We’ll see.
The irony is, we tend to concern ourselves with achieving fame and fortune, or at least a presence in the world. (Yes, I secretly dream of a time when people will clamor for my work!)
But we actually have very little control over that.
Oh, we participate in art events, we self-promote, we strive to work with the best galleries. We work for good publicity, we work our social media, we are delighted when the rich and famous buy our work. (Double publicity!)
Some of us use more extreme measures.
We could be famous for cutting off an ear (this was not done for publicity, of course, but this is how many ordinary people identify Van Gogh), or inserting a crucifix upside down in a bottle of urine. We could be famous for trademarking “Painter of Light”, (except that all painters, technically, are recording light.) It can be difficult to think of a more disturbing painting than Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, and yet, it has held its place in time. In my recent column about finding an audience, I shared how the attention actress/writer April Winchell’s now-archived website Regretsy actually brought attention—and sales—to truly awful handmade items sold on Etsy.
So maybe we’ll be famous after we’ve been dead awhile. Maybe, if we manipulate the media cleverly, we can be famous now.
If not, well, maybe our art, like the images in those prehistoric Ice Age caves, will survive for thousands of years, to be discovered by an entirely new race of humans (or…..aliens??) who will marvel at our work, find its full beauty, and wonder what the heck we were trying to say.
We’re not wrong to feel this way. We’re just humans.
We all want to believe we matter.
We all want to believe we have made a difference in this world.
We all want to believe the work of our heart matters.
That is the central core of my artist statement, realizing that we all want to leave our mark in the world.
That’s not wrong. That’s achingly beautiful. It’s extremely human.
Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.
In the end, though, all we can do is to do the best we can.
We have to work at our own pace, in our own manner, with our own style. We have to make a little room in our lives to do that work.
We must respect the work we do, and try not to be envious of the work of others, nor their reputation, income, or celebrity.
We have to discover the stories that mean everything to us, and share them, through our creative work, with the world.
In a perfect world, all creative work would foster tolerance, harmony, love, respect for our earth and all the people on it, and be a force for good in the world.
But there is also a darkness in every heart, just as there is a bit of light within the greatest evil.
That, too, is what it means to be human.
And so my hope for you, today, is that this helps you set aside your agonizing about fame and fortune. I hope it can change your definition of success, so you feel fulfilled with your efforts to make art.
I hope we can create our work today and let go of focusing only on where it lands in the world.
I hope we can all find a way, and a reason, to keep on ‘making’. I hope we can let go of envy of the success of others, and our own fears of failure, and simply rejoice that we have the luxury, and the privilege, to be able to do this work.
Our only real obligation is to make it. And then share it with the world, through sales (yes!), through connection, through relationships, and mostly through our love for what we do.
And have hope that this will be enough.
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