Marketing Mondays: Careerism

"Devotion to a successful career, often at the expense of one's personal life or ethics." (

"The practice of advancing one's career at the expense of one's personal integrity." (
When I was in art school, "careerism" was a dirty word. It still is, although the definition and parameters of career ambition have changed.
Back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s, the mere admission of wanting to have a career was careerism. God forbid you talked about prices, creating a network of gallery representation for yourself or, horrors, earning a living from what you do. If you were so fortunate to achieve this kind of success, you would have been branded a sellout--because if the public responded favorably to your work, it couldn't be any good, could it? That notion was fostered by the professors (who all had jobs, thank you very much) and foisted on the students, who eagerly used the careerism cudgel to bash any of their peers who dared to go after, or achieve, what they were all secretly hoping for.
Now, polished resumes, well-crafted exhibition proposals, business cards, a website, regular postcard mailings and even an e-newsletter are the welcome norm for professionals who want a piece of the pie. What used to be looked down on as "careerism" is now just ambition organized into a professional plan.
The two dictionary definitions, above, of "careerism" are interesting to me. Neither is warm and fuzzy, but while the first suggests obsessiveness with a bit of nasty thrown in, the second is seriously pathological. Frankly I don't think either describes most ambitious artists, who are hard working and, yes, devoted to the pursuit of having a career in what they were trained to do. Creating a successful career takes a tremendous amount of work, precisely because we often must create not only the art but the opportunities to get it out into the world.
Yet that c-word is often lurking.
So today's Marketing Mondays poses some questions to you:
. Is there a good reason artists shouldn't promote themselves or want critical and financial success for what we have been trained to do?
. Where does ambition end and careerism begin?
. Does age make a difference in the perception of careerism? That is, are mid-career artists still clinging to outdated and negative notions about self promotion, ambition and success? And, if so, is that outmoded thinking detrimental to their careers?
. Are there any young artists uninterested in creating a career for themselves?
. And finally, ethics: If you're driven but ethical, it is still careerism?

This is an open forum.

27 comments: said...

I get where you are coming from. All I could say is "People still need money for food." =)

prism said...

That's funny, because I remember in college the existence of the mostly unstated notion of the "sell-out" successful artist. I don't know if it came from the professors or the students, or if it was just one of those things that had been circulating for years... who knows.

It took me a long time before I figured that out and decided it was ok if I wanted to be an artist AND be successful, career-wise at it. And I was kind of mad at myself for listening to the other notion.

I'm finally at the point now where I *can* do something about it and *am* (still keeping my family as priority and a generally balanced life). I have just started painting again. It's wonderful, and I'm truly loving it... I'm not at the so-called "successful art career" point yet, but for me it's a triumph to have gotten past the stigma... That is a success for me. (I'm 35, with husband & school-age kids, just for an age & life situation perspective.)

Sheree Rensel said...

Oh boy! I understand this! I heard those professors’ voices back in the late 70's. Ha! I remember during a grad school seminar, the M.F.A. candidates were humiliated just for wanting that degree. I too thought like you. (Ah...hey buddy. You already have an M.F.A. so shut up!)

Coming from that era has made it challenging to embrace the art career ways of today. I have been online since the beginning of the web. I have used the internet as a brilliant source to get my name and work out there via blogging, web pages, art forums, message boards, and even using Twitter. Even so, I still feel a cloak of reluctance. I still feel "dirty" when I attempt to promote myself. It is due to the brainwashing I experienced in those early years. However with the passing of time, I have become more willing to jump on the “careerism” bandwagon.

Rationally, I see no problem with yelling from the rooftops and being a "career art careerist". Regardless of your age, the trickiest part is to maintain your personal values. I carefully pick and choose how I promote my work. In other words, I am not going to sell my work at the flea market or buy a late night time slot TV commercial to hawk my studio wares like I am selling used cars! LOL I seek a fine balance. This philosophy makes me happiest.

lisa bayne said...

Thanks for posting this. At Artful Home we are starting an emerging artist program, and talking to schools around the country. To some professors, you would think we were talking about trying to kill the arts, to kill the creative process. Marketing one's work is critical to artists in all fields, whether the activity is liked or not. The better the marketing, the more time for the artist to work on his or her work.

Bill said...

At my school there wasn't much talk about careers. My professors mostly talked about "doing the work". It was "work, work, work and keep working." At the end of my senior year, I asked my painting Professor "What now?" He said "Keep painting... you'll be all right... what about grad school, teaching?" Among my friends and peers, who were mostly from NYC, it was talk about getting a studio/loft space, keep painting and try to break in to the gallery system. But it wasn't like we had been prepared. There was no course on "being an artist."

My answers to questions:
1. There's no good reason (or excuse) not to promote oneself, and to want to achieve critical and financial success if that's what's important to the individual. It does seem that achieving (and sustaining) critical and financial success is getting more difficult for everyone.
2. Ambition/careerism... inextricably intertwined.
3. Some people do get stuck, and a refusal to change outmoded thinking, or learn and embrace new ways of doing things (whatever they may be) can be detrimental to ones career, but it can always be turned around. Some artists achieve success early on, for other's it comes late(r) in life or maybe never.
4. N/A
5. I'm driven and ethical.

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

Those artists who are accused of careerism are usually successful enough that they don't have to worry about or do not pay attention to criticisms they receive. In terms of art school, there should definitely be a very practical art business course that is required in every MFA program. How can it hurt? Will it pollute the purity of the students' creative urges? I don't think so. It would be helpful and healthy for students to receive some information about how things work in the outside world.

Donna Dodson said...

Careerism has always had the connotation in my mind of marketing the work despite the quality/integrity of the work so that's my benchmark, if the work is good, then promote, promote, promote! Although there is also the more subtle questions about if you can promote your work yourself while you are working with commercial galleries and the perception of quality in relation to scarcity and also context of the work and affect on its meaning and value.

Is there a good reason artists shouldn't promote themselves or want critical and financial success for what we have been trained to do? Not really...

. Where does ambition end and careerism begin? It depends on the work- ambition should exist in relation to the quality and strength of the work- it's careerism to me if the work is weak in relation to the marketing and promoting of it

. Does age make a difference in the perception of careerism? That is, are mid-career artists still clinging to outdated and negative notions about self promotion, ambition and success? And, if so, is that outmoded thinking detrimental to their careers? Probably still thinking it will come to them and might miss out on taking risks to get into bigger ponds if it means risking jeopardizing their reputation, or feelings of discomfort & failure.

. Are there any young artists uninterested in creating a career for themselves? My attitude was very humble when I was younger...

. And finally, ethics: If you're driven but ethical, it is still careerism? I think it depends on the work- good work and great work need to resonate with the audience i.e. people you respect and who evoke a serious response from art critics, dealers, curators and other artists. A house of cards will eventually fall down.

Stephanie Sachs said...

I graduated Art School in 1988 and spent the next dozen years slowly unwinding the brainwashing of professors who did not need to make a living selling their art but believe in this rarely attainable ideal of being an artist. Hey no curators, gallery owners, or art critics came to my shack in the woods so I finally realized I needed to get out there.

For over a dozen years I have made a living solely on my art work and here are some conclusions.

1. Get rid of the words "Selling Out" from your vocabulary. I have sold paintings at the flee market in my earlier years and made over $500 a day. I would not do it now but it sure helped me get to where I am.

2. Being an artist is a full time plus job. If I added up my hours doing bookwork, emailing clients, packing, shipping, framing getting my website together, contacting galleries etc I would be at well over 50 hours a week. Not into labels but if others want to call it careerism so be it. I think of it as passion.

3. Continue to stay excited about what you are creating and enjoy the ride. I am in my forties now and just starting to create work that has its own voice. I could not have known in my twenties where my work would take me. It takes many people years to develop their craft and then have something to say.

I do hope that this new generation of artists after paying even more for school is provided with more skills than we were to move on to a career in the arts.

Kate Beck said...

Careerism = ambition(2) + ethics(1)...

I see gender as a possible factor here. And if so, then age (or age as the passage of time) as well, because attitudes and trends do change over time. One consideration may be that successful, professional, career-focused women are more prevalent now than in any other time in history. The polished resumes and well-crafted proposals may actually relate to just that. Confidence. Even so, I admit I have made certain choices in my professional life because I have run into self-promotion as being 'macho' -- as opposed to an appropriate business strategy -- more often than not. And being brutally honest, although it grieves me, women have been perpetrators of this more often then men... Not women who are artists per se, but there still exists that nagging little idiom about being seen and not heard out there. Maybe Camille Paglia should weigh in on this one.

Joanne Mattera said...

Honestly, I'd like to keep this a Camille Paglia-free zone.

Eva said...

These words still exist: Who does she think she is? Isn't there a new film called exactly that, about women artists?

I don't think you stop hearing that until you are all wrinkled and shriveled up and then they can all say "Oh but we always liked her! So influential!" But I digress (and of course I am joking a little too)....

Careerism is a dirty word when you are living in a romance about art. And if you're young enough and taken care of some other way, or fine about being a waitress, then be romantic. One of the reasons so many artists drop out - they are one at 30 but no longer at 40 - is because they can no longer work at all the things it takes to hold on to art making. Like promotion, selling, connections and networking and all those evils of careerism.

Nancy Ewart said...

I sure wish there had been more talk -heck, ANY talk - of a career when I went to art school. How you were to make a living was not a topic that ever came up. I think it was accepted that the men would paint and the women would support them by working as waitresses and secretaries. There wasn't a lot of support for women artists in the 60's (at least in SF) and if there was any, I sure missed it. As far as the rest of your questions, the one that resonates the most to me is the one about age. I'm in my mid-60's and find that I am just not that ambitious any more. I am ambitions to paint well, to write well about art - but the gallery game - which I was never very successful at - is one that matters less and less. Maybe I'm just being pragmatic because if you haven't "made it" by 65, it's not very likely that you will. I never got past the first rung of the ladder but the time that I could have done that is long gone - due to SFAI's lack of any information about artistic careers (circa 1965-1971). Of course, when I look back, I realize that I was always very pragmatic, always had that day job and was very skeptical about getting anywhere in the art world. I do think it's a very good idea that young artists be educated about money, about markets, PR and playing the game but who can say what's outmoded and what's not? What works in Chicago may not work in NY, etc.

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

Camille Paglia defended Sarah Palin...SARAH PALIN! 'nuf said forever.

Ian MacLeod said...

Joanne, this is a great topic and very timely with regard to the economy.
I believe that as artists, personal integrity is all we have. We may have talent. We may have great ideas. And we may have ambition.
I do think promotion is necessary but this subject (for me) brings to mind the 'wave' of artists who produce multiple copy giclee prints and reproductions on canvas - hoping to sell many 'copies' of their work - with some clients believing the work to be original. Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong or even dishonest about the making or selling of this type of “art”- but at what price. The artist must represent the work correctly and provide proper information to a gallery and the purchaser(s). Could the original art become redundant.
So at the expense of my financial success I choose not to produce them.

Catherine Carter said...

I think the answer to your question, "If you're driven but ethical, is it still careerism?" lies in the studio.

If you're making art that you care about and that is truly a reflection of your experience, then you're fine.

If you are making a particular kind of art because you think it might sell, or it has sold, or it fits someone else's mold (a curator, a particular show, a gallerist) then you're on the wrong track. (This doesn't include experimentation simply for the sake of it, if you're genuinely curious about a new style, technique or medium.)

Deborah said...

Hi Joanne- You ask, "does age make a difference in the perception of careerism? That is, are mid-career artists still clinging to outdated and negative notions about self promotion, ambition and success?" Although it shouldn't, I think age does make a difference in the openness and ability to share that mid-career artists seem to have. I have struggled for years with the ideas that were drilled into my head about self promotion - "don't be a braggart - don't sell out - wait to be discovered". I still hear that chatter in my head. In my college days (dare I say 25+ years ago) we actually had a "secret" course (not sanctioned by the school) called "Life After RISD" It was taught by a professor who insisted that it was vital for us to understand a few basic marketing techniques for survival! I guess I was one of the lucky ones! Of course back in those days there was nothing available as powerful as the internet marketing we have now. I feel fortunate to have that tool to connect with other artists. It is funny though - my careerism brainwashing went even deeper - to my high school days. I was very inspired & motivated to study art by a teacher who oddly enough told me she had to hide all her artistic ideas so no one would copy them. That one still puzzles me to this day?? I continually work on "un-clinging" the outdated and negative notions that were planted long ago.

Rob said...

Having never set foot in an art class (at least not since 8th grade) my mind hasn't been filled with romantically self-destructive ideas like trying to be an artist uninterested in making a career as an artist.

Joanne, your questions makes me ask a variation of your questions -- Is it possible to be an artist without being interested in developing a career as an artist?

I think, in most cases, you would classified as a hobbyist, perhaps with another profession, perhaps independently wealthy, or perhaps just someone who thinks being an "artist" is a great excuse to sit around all day and smoke dope; but I don't think you become an artist until you've committed yourself to making it a career. And making it a career requires finding a way to make money doing it, which requires marketing. If someone isn't doing it for you and you don't want to get yourself "dirty" with self-promotion, you had better have another source of money because the art world isn't going to come knocking on your door to hand you a briefcase full of cash.

I don't think there is anything wrong with being a hobbyist, having a hobby is a healthy addition to ones life, but there is a big difference between being someone who makes art and being an artist. There may not even be a financial difference between the two but there is a huge mental difference. Making money doesn't make you an artist, but being professional does.

Because it is so difficult making money making art I have great admiration for anyone who can do it, even if I hate their art. I suggest artist not resent successful artists, rather they should be studied. It would make for a great art school class.

Joanne Mattera said...

A few thoughts:

. I love Deborah's story about the "secret course" at RISD that provided career information.

. Namastenancy says: "Maybe I'm just being pragmatic because if you haven't 'made it' by 65, it's not very likely that you will." Interesting. What exactly constitutes making it? I'm going to post that topic in a future Marketing Modays post. Thanks.

. Eva says: "One of the reasons so many artists drop out . . .is because they can no longer work at all the things it takes to hold on to art making. Like promotion, selling, connections and networking." Yes, one does get ground down . . .

. Stephanie says: "Get rid of the words "Selling Out" from your vocabulary." Love that!

. Bill says: " I'm driven and ethical." Love that!

. Among her many nuggets, Sheree says: "I still feel 'dirty' when I attempt to promote myself." Yes, those old prefessors really did a job, didn't they?

Rob asks a question: "Is it possible to be an artist without being interested in developing a career as an artist?"

Well, yes, I think there are many artists who work, work, work in the studio but never do that other thing, promote, promote, promote in the world.

I think I shared this anecdote in a post once, but here it is again: Until its recent conversion to hair salons and fashion design ateliers, my studio building in Manhattan had contained the studios of about 100 artists. Every once in a while I'd be walking in the building and come across a dumpster outside a studio. Inevitably, it was that an elderly artist had died and the contents of her/his studio were being thrown away. It was always heartwrenching to see. I wanted to save it all, but how could I? The artist was not known to me or, most likely, to anyone outside of a small circle of friends. Still it was a life's work.

(EAG did a related poignant comic on the topic recently, but I can't find it on his blog. Eric: if you're reading this, send the link. Better still, if you can figure out how to post the image here, please do.)

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

You mean the dumpster one or a different one? Describe it and I will find it for you. I haven't deleted any of them.

Joanne Mattera said...

Yes, the dumpster one. It so relates to the exact situation I describe.

Neanderthals Destroyed Atlantis said...

I couldn't find it either. I must have lost it when I switched over from livejournal. I just did a new version and posted it on my blog. I am not sure how to post an image in a blog comment. Here is the link.


Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

I believe the path of the artist is a unique one and our culture ask us to wear many hats in order to be financially successful and make our work. I know many artists who make wonderful work but just don't have the personality to go after the exposure they deserve. In my eyes this does not make them hobbyist any more than selling thousands of dollars worth of art every year would make them Jackson Pollack.

Joanne Mattera said...

That's the one. Thanks. Folks, two responses above you'll find the link to the comic I was thinking of.

And, Terry, I totally agree with you. I was just lamenting, as EAG's comic says visually and succinctly, that without the marketing component a life's work may find a sad end.

Anonymous said...

Although not familiar with the word 'careerism,' I know the phrase 'selling out.'
After telling a friend (who's yet to give herself permission to make art) recently about the enormous Dale Chilhuly sculpture at a CT casino, her reply was, 'oh, so he sold-out.'
My response was, "no, he was just commissioned to do a sculpture."
My definition of selling out is if you make art not for yourself but because of what you think will sell.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, Anon, for your comment.
Imagine how ridiculous it would be if we applied your friend's outmoded thinking to other careers:

. A talented dentist with a thriving practice because she does good work and provides follow-up care. Sellout or good dentist?

. A brilliant opera singer who performs regularly, and to critical acclaim, at the Met (and whose appearances, not incidentally, sell to Standing Room crowds). Sellout or gifted performer?

. Athletes whose matches fill a stadium. Sellouts, or trained team members who've practiced hard to be able to play well?

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margeeth said...

This certainly is an interesting question.
I used to work as a financial officer for an art association in the Netherlands. The artist always treated me with a little contempt, because I wasn't an artist but just 'did the money', but every one of them thought it important that their work got sold and if it did were very eager to get their money asap, they would have liked to get it the day before the work was sold if that was possible because they were all broke most of the time. So, you can get all hoity toity about art, but if you have to live from it, than making a career and earning in income with it is just as important as creating it.