I know a lot of artists, all of whom have had varying degrees of success. Some have been downright unlucky, but some have done pretty well and continue to live the life of an artist. Many people wonder what the secret of making it as an artist is. According to one of my friends, it’s simple. You spend all of your time pursuing your artist goals, instead of money. You can never have enough money, because it is scarce by design. So don’t fall into that trap. You can’t win it without first redesigning money.
The caveat to this is that if you really have the goal of bringing up a family, pursuit of that valid goal will mean some dilution of your single minded pursuit of artistic success. You might have to chase money, simply because raising a family requires that you do. The result (a wonderful family) is a rewarding goal, for all of the sacrifice. Sometimes, your greatest creative works are your offspring and family life.
All of my artist friends have worked damn hard. It turns out not to be a sufficient condition for success, even though our teachers always told us “work hard and you will succeed”. It’s not a sufficient condition, but it turns out to be a necessary condition. I don’t know any successful artists that have not worked damn hard. In fact, the struggle and the poverty sometimes produce their best art. There’s something about a comfortable life that lowers the stakes and subconsciously allows you to not try so hard. When you are desperate for some success, your work reflects the added urgency, attention, care and need to create something dramatically noticeable.
In the past, because there were monopolistic gatekeepers that controlled which artworks reached mass audiences, all you had to do was produce a work of art better than all the other available works of art, sometimes only that week (in the case of the Top 40, for example). That was a limited number of works, because it was designed that way. Many artists never had the chance to show their works to a mass audience, because the gatekeepers wouldn’t admit them. Those artists that were in the public gaze only had to compete with each other. All the other artists and art were effectively invisible.
Because of the Internet, however, people can compare your work against everybody’s work, not just in the present, but across all time. To succeed as an artist today, your work has to be outstanding compared to all of the millions of artists producing works today, and ever. They’re all on the Internet. That’s daunting, but it’s also a stimulating challenge, don’t you think? The quality bar has been raised, but reaching it has never been easier either, because of the lower cost of the tools and materials and the wealth of learning materials and things to inspire you that are also available, due to the Internet. The bigger challenge is to avoid becoming swamped or overwhelmed by all of the information and competition. Every artist is visible and is competing for attention, but attention is diluted. You have to be even more outstanding to attract attention.
People who have had some success haven’t made it, either; at least not in a permanent sense of being able to quit and be satisfied. No matter how successful their work, the next work has to be successful too. The bills never go away. Money is designed to be scarce, so it doesn’t last forever. However successful you have been, you need to keep working, to be successful again. If, by some good fortune, you get so wealthy, that you never have to work again, the need to keep working toward success is one that your soul demands. It’s all wrapped up with your identity as an artist. Nobody wants to feel like a washed-up, no-longer-relevant, has-been. What could feel worse than never producing anything ever again that matched your earlier brilliance? I think that would drive you forward, as an artist, no matter what. Making it isn’t a destination. It’s a temporary base camp. There is always another peak to scale. There is always a new goal and always a struggle to make it all over again, but perhaps on different terms. The struggle to make it is never ending.
On the other hand, any success, however small, is a measure of the fact that you have made it in some sense. So many artists undervalue their own skills, knowledge, experience and output. What artists do is remarkable, by any measure. The more renowned artists are only fifteen percent or so better than the rest of us. They get there because they work hard, they strive and they get a little lucky too.
So I hope you make it. But when you do, I hope you make it again and again.