Will The Real Artists Among Us Please Stand Up?

I’ve been thinking about what I might want to say about the disruptions in my life here on the blog… disruptions which have sidetracked me from my normal writing routines.

I’ve been considering what it means for me to be a writer. I’ve talked about this with other writer /artist friends and we all have our way of dealing with the situation of juggling responsibilities (pay the rent, buy food, keep the lights on) and our desires to create art.

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But… I don’t know if I’m a REAL writer.

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I know you won’t agree with me putting forth such an outrageous comment, but hear me out.

What I mean is:

  • I write a blog;
  • I’ve had my stories published in online literary journals;
  • I am compelled to produce fiction;

So yes, I write things. That much is true.

But of what consequence are these writings? I’m not dedicating my life to my writing. I’m not making essential sacrifices to be a full time writer. I’m not doing my utmost to achieve visible success.

I know many artists who are so obsessed and compelled to produce art they are incapable of doing anything else. They cannot work at a regular job because it does not give them sufficient time to produce their art. Many of them (most?) live in poverty and undergo terrible intellectual suffering wondering if they will “make it.”

And sadly, many of us (most?) won’t achieve large-scale success like Stephen King, JK Rowling or Richard Russo. We will never sell enough of our books to be wealthy, we will not be published by a well known publisher, or make the NY Times bestseller list, or reviewed in the NY Times or LA Times Book Reviews, have our book (or story) picked up by a movie studio, or selected by the Oprah book club, given the Pulitzer Prize or provided with any other socially visible signs of artistic success as a writer.

And for artists such as painters and sculptors it’s the same. Many (most?) may never have a major gallery pick up their work, they won’t sell enough paintings at a sufficient price to make a full time living, they will not have their works collected by museums, and they will not achieve the visible success of people like the Chuck Close’s, Damien Hurst’s or Jeff Koons of the world.

A writer friend complained to me recently that there is too much content being produced nowadays. There are too many blogs in the world, he said, spewing out stuff (much of it mediocre he postulated) and overwhelming any potential audience from finding the “good” content. But who will be the first to stop producing their content if they do not believe it is of the highest quality? And then we must multiply blogs by the Facebook accounts, Twitter tweetings, and all manner of other mechanisms belching out relatively meaningless content day after day.

To what end, should we dare ask?

All of the people who call themselves artists: writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, actors, musicians, singers, songwriters… all of us… what chance do we have to become a successful version of our best artistic selves?

Or should we accept that, perhaps, we are nothing more than dedicated hobbyists? Do we pitter, patter and piddle around producing stuff to be burped out of the massive gut of an online machine of similar hobbyists in a world-wide act of continuous public mental masturbation?

What is the mechanism we must trigger to achieve success?

What does it mean to be successful?

To close, I’m going to turn this entire post on its head by quoting the Wikipedia article about Mark Rothko, an internationally acclaimed abstract expressionist (he hated that label, by the way) and whose work hangs in the most important museums all over the world.

Despite his fame, Rothko felt a growing personal seclusion, and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist. He feared that people purchased his paintings simply out of fashion, and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by collectors, audiences or critics.

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22 Responses

  1. Dear Carol,

    Our blog posts today run strangely parallel.

    You are a writer. You just have more common sense than most and as a result you have a house and a grasp on reality that may, in the dim future, find you free of the predominant occupational hazards of writers; alcoholism and depression.

    I write because if I don’t ask, the answer is always ‘no’. Being ‘published’ means my checks might not bounce and that would be great, but I’ve come to learn that no one person can ever truly understand another persons motivation, intent, goal or other reasons for producing what may one day be called art. I’m glad the internet has provided a forum for the circulation of my writing and feel fortunate that I live in these times, despite the mass of ‘writers’ out there clogging up the works with ‘content’. Three decades ago I would have had to collect my work in shoebox and put it in a dusty corner of the closet. If that is where it belongs, well, welcome to my closet. If someone finds joy or learns something from what I write, I am enriched. I am happy to go head to head with the mob.

    Success is defined differently by different people. Most strive for the conventional version of ‘success’, and find it nebulous and hard to hold on to. “The cream rises to the top…and rots.” If I had a nickel for every published author whose first work was undoubtedly their best and whose every follow on effort was a train wreck, I’d have a lot of nickels. These writers cannot be blamed for continuing to produce ‘content’ either, propped up by their ego and the frantic effort of agents and editors trying to ride the train to it’s end. It’s their train.

    As the tried and, I think, true saying goes, it is not the destination, but the journey. The value of our ‘content’ can be found along that sometimes lonely, but invariably fulfilling path.

    I am a writer and I am also the engineer and conductor on this train. There is no brakeman.

    Tickets please.

    • So if I read between the lines of what you are saying, you may agree with Rilke that you accept the burden of being an artist / writer, and you do not ask for monetary recompense for your work. Your success comes as a result of your own satisfaction with your writings, and the interactions you have with your readership (in this case, on your blog) as a way to be fulfilled as a writer.

      One of the things I didn’t get into in the blog post too deeply was the idea of legacy. So I’d ask, can a writing legacy be built based on an internet platform of information sharing?

      For example, if you found a defunct literary magazine who still posted their archives online, would you go there and read stories published by mostly unknown writers from five years ago?

      Using the internet as a content distribution platform has a severe bias to anything that was published “today” or “this month” or “this year” as opposed to something several years old. I may be rambling (it’s late) but I’m trying to say success in an internet based venue is probably much more transitory than printed material.

      Either that or I’m full of hooey. Also a distinct possibility.

  2. An excellent post. I think the age of the “romantic” artist has passed for most. Now, I think, art is like most things: a market.

    But, I always see artists as people who process the world through their craft. Each time they leave a canvas or a page, they are different than when they first came. They’ve found some new truth or unearthed a deeper reality.

    Trouble is, I don’t think people can really quantify that for a market.

    • I really agree with you Brett about the process of an artist. Artists take their emotions and observations about the world and try to communicate how they see and feel about it.

      But for as long as I can remember, artists do not create the market for their work, that is done by other organizxations and institutions which have been put in place as a filter to determine which art is deemed “sufficient” to be given more resources and encouraging of success.

      We might say that literary agents and book publishers have been the biggest traditional filters we have as writers, determining whose work would be made available to the public and which would fall into the dustbin of history.

      This traditional model has been SOMEWHAT turned on its head with digital self-publishing of books because the marketplace to publish a book has been opened up to anyone, basically.

      However, all of the resources that publishing houses have (for example a huge distribution infrastructure ensuring physical books get into stores like Barnes and Noble) and marketing budgets, and access to other resources I’m not even aware of, still give a huge advantage to authors “selected” by these publishing houses over those that decide to self-publish.

      Self-publishing a book without a significant marketing plan and budget is probably little more than publishing a blog post. If the author does not have an established audience and platform, what are the chances of their success – REGARDLESS of the quality of the work?

      • Thanks for the reply, Carol. Sorry I’m so late. My internet is rather limited lately.

        To be honest, I do not know much about the market for writers. It’s like a big void of oportunities and questions to me, so I really appreciate your comment I think it makes a lot of sense and has clarified my own view.

        I guess I was thinking that there’s a distinction between the piece of art itself and the piece of art on the market. Even though they are similar, people view them in different ways. That to me is the difference.

        Art for the artist is a creation, while for publishers it’s a product, regardless of how its marketed or by whom. It’s like putting a price on things that exceed value

        But I’m probably just overthinking.

  3. A related concern with the proliferation of ‘content’ and screens is whether average readers are able to focus and connect deeply to what they are reading. And this may be the reason for a deterioration in quality. Every suspense novel is the same. Every mystery is the same. Every epic…pretty much the same.

    I have been startled that a porn book (50 Shades) is far and away the best seller around. The Steig Larsson books were dark porn, and also sold widely.

    Have we abandoned insight, inspiration, romance and hope?

    • I will say this, when you are shouting to be heard about the cacaphony of our over-saturated media culture which is rife with sexual imagery, it doesn’t surprise me that popular culture embraces “alternative” sex practices as part of pop culture to sell stuff. This has been going on a long time.

      Madonna published a book called Sex in 1992 detailing in photographs her most intimate fantasies.

      BUT we should also consider…

      Tropic of Cancer was published in 1931 by Henry Miller. It was so sexual, the US deemed it pornographic and it was banned in the United States until 1961, which was then battled in the courts all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1964 when they determined it was non-obscene.

      Lolita was also a bombshell book. Again, published first in Paris, 1955. Published in the U.S. in 1958.

      Lady Chatterly’s Lover, D H Lawrence needed to find a private printer in Italy in 1928, and it wasn’t widely published in the U.K. until 1960. There were words printed in the book that had never been published prior (I don’t know exactly what the words were by the way.)

      Delta of Venus, short stories written by Anais Nin for a private “collector” in the 1940’s, but then the book was published after Nin’s death in 1978.

      Sex has been depicted throughout the decades and prior to the 1960’s sexual revolution in this country it was much more underground, censored, etc.

      The books I mention above (in bold) are considered classics, taught on college campuses and accepted as a part of the canon of erotically themed literature.

      Maybe I could ask a different question?

      In 25 years from now, will anyone care that some book called 50 shades blah blah was published? I’ve heard rumors that the writing is crap, despite its success.

    • Okay, now a totally different response to your same comment, just the “other part” of the comment about all mystery novels being the same. Without going too far since the Genre Police will probably come and beat me up, YES, I agree with you … there is a basic genre structure for mystery, suspense, noir, horror, fantasy, etc. There are rules of the road and then it becomes very difficult to write genre fiction that defies those rules.

      If we get away from genre fiction of the type written by the John Grisham’s,Tom Clancy’s, Nora Roberts, and George RR Martin’s of the world and we go back into Literary Fiction (a smaller and unfortunately diminishing market) now we get to the intellectual works being considered as “serious literature” … the works that could qualify for a major prize.

      These books are, if well written, distinctly different from the vast majority of all else being published…but unfortunately as you point out Patrick, may not be read by too many people.

      We could discuss whether Jonathan Franzen’s work is interesting, or whether we enjoyed reading Joan Didion, or Richard Russo or Jeffrey Eugenides. We could debate the merits of Middlesex vs. Empire Falls.

      But no matter how many copies of Middlesex were sold (by the way, it’s a book whose main character is a hermaphrodite and yes it won the Pulitzer) there is NO WAY Eugenides, even with that major prize under his belt, will sell as many copies as 50 shades of crap.

      Unfortunately, it’s just not who the main reading audience is these days….

  4. People in blogs like friends on a table in front of a frappe coffee like to give compliments and tell someone “ya you are a writer…move on, you are so great. I never liked to be complimented and I don’t compliment friends. If I compliment someone is when I am trying to get something…The true is that if you dont feel like a writer then you are not. If you feel that you are then well…you will be when you get published. Until then you “just write a novel” or you just write poetry or you just dream to be a writer. If someone studies to get into the Law School is not a Barrister. If you want to be president of a country or a company, an actress, a professor, wealthy or succesful you need to be willing to sacrifice. Sacrifice means that you must be willing to stay single, to give up a well paid job for a less paid job that leads to your dream…..every success including a writing needs more than talent and skill, it takes willingness to sacrifice things and persons we like and love. The same way as a supermondel or an athlete cannot eat junk food drink a bottle of soda and not excericise the same way everybody who wants to achieve something s/he must be determined to go for it
    even if s/he needs to make personal sacrifices. This is what makes the difference between the succesful career and hobby….I respect someone who writes fro hobby. There is nothing wrong about it but s/he is not a writer. Simply s/he writes for hobby while s/he works in xyz job.

  5. What people call reality…is what we perceive as real at this moment based on our past conditioning. Those who decide to make their own show, they write the script, they become the producers, directors, actors and play…if the show will have a success or failure we know after the curtain falls. But we have to be prepared to go for it. We have also to remember that we CANNOT judge ourselves for not being consistent….creative people are not and should not be consistent. Industrial writing with no organic essence may be is consistent. Militaristic approaches like “sit down and pursue and such are sales pitch of sales-managers. Everything in business and everything creative that is worth has ups and downs, days of intensity and weeks of inactivity and lethargy. Special Commando units or SWAT FORCE may have months reading football news and have one operation in weeks or months. A writer is not an office secretary a pizza parlor cook or a computer programmer…creativity comes when it decides to come the way it chooses, at our dreams, while we walk or when we have our dinner…it comes intuitively we dont produce it. If we decide to make it well, then we make another Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton show…
    So instead beating ourselves we should do what we have to do and writing will come when we are available and decides to come…

    • George, I think I disagree with you about the consistency comment. This reminds me of many blog posts and online conversations about writer’s block. “Oh, I can’t write…I’m not inspired…” someone will write.

      This is complete nonsense. Full time writers sit down and write with regularity. They hone their craft daily, just as painters paint and sculptors sculpt.

      I don’t sit around waiting for the spirit to move me when I know I have to make myself sit down and DO the WORK. It’s hard work to write and create, but it’s the persistence and dedication that make the difference not some elusive “inspiration” that does it.

      I’m not saying I can turn my creativity on and off like a light switch. I’m not always going to produce something great. But I AM saying that professional artists train themselves to get into their mental mindset to create and they form a process of put a structure in their lives that allows themselves to create.

      Again Mark Rothko for whatever it is worth. The guy was known for keeping “banker’s hours.” He treated painting like a JOB. He went to his studio in the morning, changed out of his suit into his painting clothes, worked all day, then changed back into his suit and went home to his wife and children. This kind of highly “corporate-ized” life structure might not work for most artists, they may use some other process or structure for their time to be productive but no one can claim Rothko wasn’t productive or successful doing what he did.

      I’m tempted to write about Stephen King yet again, but I think you might yell at me George because SK is always my go-to example… I’ll leave that one alone for now.

      Your turn.

  6. An excellent meditation on why we write. I’ve asked myself the same question many times, especially when the bathroom needs painting and the backyard fence is begging for repairs. Writing is a communicative art form, so I do want people to read my work (and yes I want them to like it and praise me if I’m honest). I suppose if I write long enough I might write something that is pure and honest and satisfying. I haven’t done that yet, so I trudge on.

    • Exactly so Sean…the daily responsibilities of life are often pushed to the side when you have to choose between painting the bathroom versus having time to write. In more severe cases, it’s even more difficult decisions, such as: get a menial paying job, perhaps a waiter since that is the stereotype, while eating rice and beans for dinner for years at a time, in order to make time to create. From that vantage point, the broken backyard fence seems a more manageable choice!

  7. Artists create – we create something out of nothing, which makes us artists.
    Writers write – we write, which makes us writers.
    There is no ‘real’ or ‘not real’, whether you write 5 words a day squeezed in between chores or 5000 a day while chained to the chair.

    Yes, this is a simplified view, but it works for me. Just keep writing 🙂

  8. It would be nice to have a definition on “art” and “artist”, but as we know: The moment we had such a clear-cut definition, somebody would to the exact opposite and call THAT art.

    Still, probably, there is some general definition of art possible, such as “a certain way of communication”, but HOW that “certain way of communication” is played out, differs historically and sociologically.

    If it is difficult to establish a clear definition on the concept of “art” itself, it gets no better when we discuss the topic of “real” art, the “real artist” meaning “true” art, meaning “GOOD art”, the “true Artist” etc. Any qualitative judgement clearly suffers, if the essence of the subject matter is not clearly defined.

    As some of the sociologists and Art-theoreticians point out, art takes place in several different sociological circles. One might think of the war between “fine art” and “popular art” that was articulated in the 50ties and 60-ties, but which really is an ever ongoing “war”. AND MANY OTHER subsystems can be proven to exist within the art-world.
    Basically there is only one answer to the question of standing up for art. That answer is not within the realm of word, even if the artist is a writer. That answer is within the world of doing. The true artist is the one standing up. Unless, of cause, it is within the art of sitting down.

    And I am sorry that this answer in some way is avoiding the problem’s complexity. However, the problem of “real art” IS that complex, that it takes much more space than is allowed in blogs etc. just to get near any scientific or “true” and consistent philosophy about the matter. However, admitting that the question is complex, is also a beginning of an attempt to answer it fully.

    It might be helpful to think of different models for evaluating art formulated by academia: One model use distinction between Originality of the work, Social importance or impact and Skills.

    Now, let me risk to be crucified by the occasional geniuses and sudden sociological needs (and trends) for certain works, and say that in general, the idea of skill is highly underestimated. A good artist is someone who persistently works on creating art, thus accumulating more skills and more original works from knowing and evaluating his /hers own work, and gradually achieving a communicative and social platform for the work. But that “skill”-evaluation remains a “rule of thumb”, it can easily be counter-proven by singular examples of the genius or sociological (or economical) needs for certain works.

    Art Theory provides several clever analysis of “the function of art” including the historical development from art as symbolic to representational and recently “Formal play”. We talk about self-referential art, process-art etc. but art remains a double-sided form between the work itself and the social communication. If the outside of that form is the work as it presents itself to us (the words, the surface of the painting etc.) then the inside of that form is the social construction in which that specific work communicates. The work is NEITHER one or the other. The work IS that RELATION between the two, that specific relation, which is specific to that particular work. This is one way of trying to illustrate the extremely difficult transcendental nature of the works: This is maybe as close to a generalized description of the function of art, as one can get, without getting into the specific, and thus lose the general.

    I just promised Carol to make some comment from my many hours of theoretical studies of art-philosophy, and I am sorry I can’t make it any better, cause I have some stupid art-pieces that I have to move to Europe. 😉

    • So I agree that even my underlying question of who is a “real” artist has no answer. It depends who is asking the question.

      Since I was the one asking the question, my frame of reference was not the very educated, academic frame of reference you talk about so eloquently Christian, it was (as is my nature) some very personal and I thought practical question … a question which I use to beat myself up sometimes too because I decide I cannot possibly be a “real artist” etc.

      But you’ve said quite a few things that make sense to me. For example, if we are to examine which artists/writers have the most skills and then determine (somehow) which works are the most skillful, and call those art – that would be fine by me. Of course the very second we say that we both know it is not possible because again the question will come – then who will be the judge of what is skillful and why is X more skillful than Y?

      I am also very interested in what you are talking about in the interplay between formalized “fine art” (in writing terms: literary fiction / literature) vs. “popular art” (popular fiction.) There is an ongoing “war” (maybe war is not the right word? maybe dynamic tension gets to the idea more?) and right now, as far as I can tell, popular art is winning many times over.

      Since there is no answer to my question (and Harry knows this by saying he will never be a “Real Dentist”) I will just have to accept that maybe, just maybe, my writings fall into the -GASP- popular art forms commonly available via mass media distribution platforms including the blogosphere and the internet as publishing platform of the small literary magazines where my work appears.

      Some writers have made the jump backwards from these popular mass distribution platforms to the old formal distribution platforms (i.e. the printed novel, anthology, chapbook, screenplay) and have achieved success in both arenas. Perhaps I should have admitted from the start that is my ultimate hope, to make a jump from a small fish in an ocean of online publishing, to being a small fish in an ocean of print publishing.

  9. I’m an artist and so are you Ms. Deminski! Don’t you dare doubt it.

  10. When we view arts from the arena angle we see struggling artists some of them dying in poverty, some becoming pensioners as teachers or even worse 60 years old catering waiters or housewives who produce art or iliterature on their free time vs people who become known and succesful. this happens in most competitve professions and this is a pretty depressing picture of competition a few successes vs broken unfulifilled dreams….however we could see the artistic expression from the eyes of each individual. Only the individual -may be knows why s/he produces arts, s/he has her/his own life and the arts are part of her or his own eveolutionary path.
    If we see from the individual’s point of view there is nothing to comment..if the individual has what it takes and the proper karma s/he will become one trillion dollar artist or may be she/he will become the Nobel Prize winner. Every individual story is the person’s story and her or his success will be the result of multiple parameters

    • Sorry George, I don’t think karma has anything to do with it…

      There are complex social structures in place that do determine who will be successful at a certain level. Some artists get to that level, and due to other factors we probably cannot quantify, they reach a “tipping point” and become mega-stars, aka JK Rowling.

      But please, for goodness sake, don’t say that it was JK Rowling’s “karma” to be successful in this lifetime because she spent the earlier part of her life as a single mother on welfare, blah blah blah. That is just baloney to me.

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