Marketing Mondays: The Pinnacle

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Alexandre Masino, Brumes lumineuses 1, 2010, encaustic monotype on Kozo paper, 13 x 12 inches (33 x 51 cm)

I’ve been thinking about the idea of career success. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the idea of the artists who are placed at the pinnacle—the very few ones on top. The very distinction of top assumes that something has to be underneath it, supporting it in the case of a structure, or more existentially, part of a larger mass that’s not and may never be the pinnacle. Given the structure of the art world—in which there are just so many galleries, art fairs, grants, art magazines, museums—most artists (and gallerists, curators, critics) are somewhere in the middle, perhaps even at the bottom, of the pile.

In a culture of Top-Ten, One-Hundred Most, best-selling, most famous, newest, youngest, greatest living, and other superlatives, if you’re not on top you have failed. (Who's generating these lists and doling out the superlatives is another issue.)

Art in America, for instance, publishes 10 issues a year. That’s 10 covers. Ten artists. How many artists are there in the United States right now? How many artists each year join their ranks, churned out by art schools? So by conventional standards—the art magazine cover, or other such pinnacles as the Whitney Biennial, the McArthur Grant, the solo show at a blue chip gallery—failure is the default mode.  

But nothing could be farther from the truth. 

Look at the resume of the “average” unsung artist in New York City or elsewhere. There are solo exhibitions, museum shows, grants and awards, residencies, travel abroad with international exhibitions, private collectors and good collections, sales, perhaps even enough sales to support one’s studio or actually pay the bills. Perhaps support oneself entirely. Perhaps even support a family. And some very good work as well. 

So I’d like to suggest a geographical way of thinking about the art world and our place in it: the mountain range. The topography of the mountain range allows for many pinnacles. Among the peaks there are varying degrees of elevation. Over the course of a career there are languid paths and steep grades, broad mesas and narrow ledges. And a fair amount of movement up and down the slopes.  

This concept doesn't make one richer or more well known, of course, but it gives all of us greater latitude to consider and appreciate the talents and achievements of more than the few who are annointed at any one time.


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Anonymous said...

This is a great topic! We should keep in mind that there are many, many different "art worlds" out there. One can be a pretty well-respected cowboy artist, for example, and never make it into a listing in Art in America. Sometimes, the powers-that-be make choices for Art in America, Art Forum, etc. that make my jaw drop - newly-minted MFAs that make it to the cover and are never heard from again. I admire the artists I've met who never make it into the heights of art world celebrity but continue making their art without the money and applause. Most that I know don't even have assistants/employees making their actual art. They aren't in it for the glory and I respect them so much more because of it. The others, I hate to admit it but I mostly hold them in contempt because it really is NOT what being an artist is all about. Yes! Let's market our art and, hopefully, receive compensation, (and it's very doable) but to be on a cover of a noted art magazine? That's really deviating from the purity of art that most of us can actually lay claim to. Someone is behind those people and making them an "art star". I'll pass, thanks.

Debra Ramsay said...

I appreciate the healthy perspective in this post. It's too easy to focus on the superlative not attained. Many thanks for the reminder.

Kevan Lunney said...

Got my hiking boots on and a spare pair in the backpack.

Fiona the Artist said...

This is a marvellous way to look at this idea of 'top' and 'failure.' As an artist, my ultimate idea of failure would be if I ever stopped painting, or stopped believing in my driving vision. I would rather be true to myself, even if it doesn't 'fit' current trends or markets. As long as I can show the work, and it's improving, I feel that I am not at the 'bottom' of the pile. I try to avoid tags, especially when painting! I know artists who 'sold out' commercially, and became very rich. But there are so many really good artists out there, and it's more positive to learn from them, and keep putting your own work out to be seen, than to feel defeated by world hierarchies. There's always someone above or below us!

Emily Cobb said...

Yes! Seeking "success" in a very narrow sort of way discounts all the wonderful directions art can take.

I consider an artist successful if she is able to continue to make work. That's it. It's not so simple to accomplish this, so I really am inspired by those who consistently make art throughout their lives. Everything else is secondary, or perhaps in support of this primary success.

Ravenna Taylor said...

Yes; I have a similar way of thinking of it, although I've used an ecological analogy, figuring that the "highest order" of creature on the planet still depends on the existence of the least; the insects, even the most despised, are needed to pollinate and propagate the world's life forms.

Anonymous said...

The real issue here is that we, the art community as a whole, need to stop letting the NY art world define success for us. We need to demand that institutions look at art with a wider scope. As for Art in America and the like... with enough money you can land the cover. You know damn well those rags are ad sale magnets.

Joanne Mattera said...

Anonymous 1:48,
You raise two issues:
1) If you don't want the NY art world to define success, do something about it. You can demand that institutions do this or that, but the real change comes when artists, dealers, critics and curators make those changes.
. Write a blog (one of the great hierarchy flatteners if ever there was one) that's so good people will read about art that's not about established New York artists
. Get funding for a publication
. Or, more realistically, write for a publication, bringing a point of view that specifically looks for the non hierarchical. Look at how Holland Cotter has changed the face of arts coverage at the New York Times, writing about "ethnic" art, craft, covering art made by women; in other words, looking for, and finding, topics that are not part of the established order. Look at what Jerry Saltz has done in creating a FB dialog with artist, dealers, critics, curators.
. Look at the DIY and popup galleries that are doing interesting things and getting attention. (I recently wrote a long post on DIY; Google it on the "Search" feature on the sidebar of this blog.)
. Complainting bitterly does you no good. Work to make change. Occupy something, even if it's a slice of cyberspace.

2) As for the art magazines, while I don't doubt there's some back scratching (yes, the advertisers have to be kept happy so that they keep putting their ad dollars into the magazine--so that its subscription rate remains affordable, BTW--it is insulting to the editors and writers who write with integrity and passion (and for relatively low pay) to suggest that the whole thing is a vanity publication.

I don't mean to jump on you. I appreciate that you took the time to respond. But complaining that "we need to demand" this or that will not change anything. Formulate a plan, make it interesting, enlist others to work with you, and DO SOMETHING.

Cora said...

Interesting to think of success in a topographical sense. We all go through hills and valleys in life. If the life includes art, well, that's an elevation in itself. You can stop right there and define it as a success. All the rest- though not unimportant (money, fame, recognition)- pales. said...

Why just the other month I was explaining to another artist that I see the art as a world with many places to get to. I figure out where I am standing , where I want to go and then look at the roads that can take you there. I start walking one foot in front of the other. I always get somewhere.

Philip Koch said...

Sometime ago I was talking with a colleague at my art school about her career- she had had a couple of shows in decent New York galleries, had landed some impressive grants, and at my school was considered a "successful" artist. She confessed to me she had never managed to cover the expenses she incurred having a show. Eventually she got tired of struggling to pay the bills and raise her kids and became a lawyer.

One thing she said though stuck out in my mind- "I've resolved never to be bitter." I like that idea very much and make that one of my primary goals. Life is just too short to spend a lot of time wrapped up in that emotion.

Allen C. Smith said...

I consider myself an elder artist and an emerging artist. As a curator and a gallerist, I’ve advised artists on this kind of issue for nearly 40 years. Joanne, I have to say that your metaphor is apt. Just last night I climbed to the top of a small peak (a previous collector emailed to ask about availability and a possible commission), only to stumble into the chasm this morning (rejection from an important regional art fair). You’d think that by now my ego could take it, but it took an afternoon of angry painting to let it pass. I only hope I wasn’t too abusive in the studio. I did come home with paint on a good sport jacket.

Nancy Natale said...

As Allen Smith said, the peaks and valleys can come very close together. I guess it's a bipolar occupation we're in because it can go from the sublime to the desperate in very short order depending on occurrences from the worlds both inside and outside the studio.

And I agree with Emily Cobb that success is being able to continue making work. Sometimes it's hard to remember that.

Meltemi. said...

Perhaps the next time sitting around in your studio depressing yourself thinking that no one will ever see your artworks or experience them, let alone buy your artwork, the question: why am I doing this? The answer is: I am an artist. I’m one of the luckiest people alive. I have the best job in the world I’m an independent artist making those paintings that are uniquely mine alone. Do I worry about what the world thinks about me and my art? Err...No.

Anonymous said...

What a really amazing way to think about "success"! I love your blog, and this post has really resonated with me. Everything about it has put things into perspective. Thank you!

annell4 said...

Really good post!

Diane McGregor said...

As a young art student, discovering the poetry and revelation of abstract painting, I promised myself that "by hook or by crook" I would devote my life to painting. It has been over 30 years since then, and I'm still seriously engaged with abstract painting. Not making much money at it (yet) but I feel successful. And I have the undying hope of someday being able to be compensated financially for what I do. I agree with Emily and Nancy - as long as we are able to find a way to keep at it, we have achieved success.

Tim McFarlane said...

In much the same way as Diane, I said to myself that I was going to be an artist while still in high school. I've never deviated from that goal, even at the leanest of times with my confidence or lack of money. Everything that I've done in my life has been around the goal of making sure that I could make work and get it seen.

I feel immensely successful just being able to do what I want to, even if I can't do it full time yet. When I look back and see that I have been making work for 30 years and still get a high from doing it, then I know that I have made the right decisions in my life.

I recently gave a presentation about what it's like being an artist out in the world to a group of students at an alternative high school (a "last chance" school for students who had dropped out or had other issues in their regular schools). One of them asked me whether I had sold any works and what was my biggest sale was. I gave a ballpark figure for one sale I had 6 years ago. The kids were duly impressed, although I then had to impress upon them that it would take many of those big sales to make a true living every year. The student then asked if I "did it for the money or the love". I said, "for the love".

"The love" is what it's all about: if you don't have that, then surviving the peaks and valleys will be that much harder. The love of art making is only one component of the whole, but it makes this life a lot easier to deal with.