Here’s another one of those “traps for artists” that can stop an artist dead in their tracks, rendering them unable to produce a thing. Let’s say you’re the kind of person that eventually, through hard work and perseverance, coupled with a healthy dose of imagination and insight produces an amazing work of art. Perhaps you’ve done that in many spheres of your life. That might be the kind of person you are. You like to succeed in a task you set yourself, so you deep dive into it, whatever it happens to be and produce something genuinely good because of your immersion and dedication. Let’s say, for example, that the art you produced was awesome enough to earn you a little money, through doing it. Now people think that everything you do can and should earn a little money.
Alternatively, imagine that you are an artist, but an amateur one, whose work impresses all those that encounter it, to the extent that people begin to say you ought to be doing it for a living.
Consider a third category of artist who has had a big hit and is now being expected to produce another one.
This is the trap all of those artists can fall into: the expectation to produce miracles on demand.
People often have obligations and relationships and artists are no less prone to this than other people. They might have agents, or a record company, or gallery representation or a family or spouse. All of these people count on the artist. They need the artist to succeed, for their own well being.
The artist, of course, cannot guarantee that having been good at one thing, they will be good at producing the miracle now required to avoid letting these people, many of whom may be beloved to the artist, down. Being good at one thing doesn’t mean you will automatically be good at all things. Each one takes its own peculiar learning and dedication.
The artist can’t approach the task as a part timer, because miracles take more application than a hobbyist can necessarily give. In any case, the non-working time has to be devoted to art very sparingly, because there are relationships to maintain, body and soul to hold together and perhaps children to rear. An artist can’t become a machine, working all day, being artistic all night and sleeping in whatever time remains. The relationships they cherish and their health will deteriorate, in such an intense situation.
If the artist was the third kind, that already had a very big hit, how on earth do you follow your own spectacular success? That first hit might have been the result of a supreme effort and putting everything you know into it. What do you do to top that? What else is left?
In any case, the obligations and expectations begin to exert pressure. A big commercial hit is required, but the artist might not know how to produce one (or another one). There’s a lot riding on it. For one thing, if you fail to deliver the miracle required, you’ll let a lot of people down, perhaps financially. The weight of obligation and expectation begins to become crushing. You have to have a hit to save the record company, or the management company, or the gallery, or the family fortunes. It’s all on your shoulders and on your ability to create something remarkable.
If you fail, you might also have to finally admit defeat and give up on the thing you love most. The judgement will be in and it will be summary. If you don’t produce the hit required, you’re obviously all washed up, even if you were good at other things, even if your amateur work was remarkable, even if your last effort was a runaway smash. There will be pressure on you, then, to pack up and do something else, even if this thing is the thing you love to do most. You might even be forcibly expelled from the field, when your option is not picked up, you are not renewed or you’re simply fired.
People, perhaps even your nearest and dearest, or your most trusted business partners, may withdraw their support. If you take a lot of time and investment to make your art, then people will grow tired of giving you that time and be unwilling to make the investments. If that applies to your family situation, your own family may grow weary of the time between successes, the sacrifices in home life and the expense of supporting your art.
The longer you take and the more you spend on your art, in order to guarantee the next, miraculous success, the worse it will be if you fail. You’re simply raising the stakes, as well as increasing your odds of success materially. The more time and money you spend trying to produce something awesome, the bigger the failure and its repercussions, if you don’t. There had better be a good return on all this spending and procrastinating/percolating.
With the impatience, a change in relationships might also occur. People that were formerly loving and supportive can become cold, distant, and even resentful. They feel they are owed that hit. They have an entitlement, for all of their previous support. You need to come through and if you aren’t, then you’re being wilfully difficult and denying them the fruits of your art. You aren’t being fair. You are just delaying the release of your art, or delaying starting on it, because you don’t love them. They might even begin to doubt your ability to produce the miracle they require you to produce.
That’s a pretty lonely and isolating feeling for an artist. The sanctions are severe and painful. There is a lot at stake, failure will be accompanied by utter ruin and banishment from the artistic life you love, people are losing their faith in you and yet only your own output can save the day. You’re on your own, staring into the abyss and you have to come up with an awesome, commercially successful, miraculous hit. No wonder so many artists go crazy, self harm, resort to drugs and alcohol, flee or simply fail to make a single impression on their next planned project. No wonder they are frozen and unable to produce.
The doubts begin to corrode your own self confidence. What if people expect you to be better than you think you can be? What if you feel under-prepared or that you are still learning and have a lot more you need to learn, before you have the confidence to produce a hit? What if you are mystified by what made your previous output successful and that you don’t, therefore, have a good understanding of what you will have to do to create the next big commercial hit? What if you truly believe you were just lucky and that no matter how good your next effort is, you cannot control the zeitgeist or whether or not your art will still be in tune with it? What if fashion has moved on?
Having produced miraculous things in the past doesn’t mean it’s easy to produce another miracle. People don’t appreciate that, especially if they are not artists. You pour your entire being into your art and so a rejection of what you make is tacitly a rejection of all you are. It takes hard work; it takes a great deal of planning and of imagination. You have to find a way to be original. You have to do something that nobody has ever done before, but in such a way that lots of people will come to appreciate it.
It can be much harder to produce another miraculous thing, because if your previous one was outstanding, the quality bar has now been raised and you have to do even better than that. You might have influenced a whole raft of other artists, all of whom are now producing works equivalent to or better than your first successful work. Now you have to be better than all of them. You may have slain one dragon, but now you are required to slay three other ones and a gremlin, to boot.
Just because you had a hit, it doesn’t mean you figured out the secret recipe for having guaranteed hits. It might have just come together fortuitously. Reproducing that success might not be something that yields to analysis. Besides, a recipe or formula is the last thing you need. You already did whatever could possibly be in that formula last time. Doing it again might not produce the same result. You are expected to do something new and miraculous this time.
It has to be unlike anything that went before, yet familiar enough to be accessible to a wide audience. That’s a difficult circle to square. If you make it so avant-garde that nobody understands it, it won’t be a commercial success. If you go the other way and make it so formulaic and banal that it will appeal to the lowest common denominator, then people are going to find it unremarkable and so it won’t be a commercial success either.
You might get frustrated yourself. You might be so hungry for some success, or a repeat of your previous success, that you begin to lose your own bearings and start getting angry and unhappy with your art. The art might now feel like an onerous obligation, drudgery and an unrequited love. This will make your inspiration evaporate and your creativity vanish faster than anything else. Frustration with yourself, or with your current limitations, or lack of knowledge, or technique is a sure fire way to produce absolutely nothing. The temptation might be to throw in the towel, or to throw your toys out of the pram or to give up entirely, beaten and defeated.
All of this, in large part, explains why we get difficult second and third albums or contractual obligation records. It tells us why some artists are one hit wonders, or lose their way, artistically, alienating their former audience along the way. It also tells us why so many artists try so hard to constantly reinvent themselves and what a risky venture these reinventions are, every damn time. The crushing weight of expectations can explain them all.
Having a whole host of people expecting you to produce a hit can really dry up your creativity and put you off your art. It can turn what was a pleasure into an utter chore. “Just make something awesome”, they say. Yeah? You try. Awesome is difficult.
It turns out that any effort expended in the pursuit of making sure your next work will be a sure fire hit is largely wasted. People are not so uniform and are already bored with what has gone before. They want something fresh and new, produced with courage and there is no predictability in that task at all. Trying for a hit almost always guarantees you won’t have one. What you have to try for, instead, is to make art that you feel is worthwhile, pleasing to yourself and as authentic as you can make it. It has to be an extension of you and all that you are. People can take it or leave it. Hopefully they’ll take it, but that cannot be the goal.
An interesting experiment was performed with artists that made both commissioned and non-commissioned work. They were asked to provide their best works of both types and these were hung in a gallery, without identifying which paintings were commissioned and which were not. Then people were invited into the gallery and asked to evaluate the paintings on the basis of which they thought were the best, the most original and the most artistically valuable. Interestingly, the audience was consistent in showing a distinct preference for the non-commissioned work. It showed that when the artist was trying to please, they compromised the quality of their output and that the difference was clearly visible.
Every commercially successful piece of art is a miracle, resulting from an act of supreme courage. The artist had to bravely venture into territory that was unknown to anybody, in the hope that they were doing something of worth. What they couldn’t do is guarantee that they would take an audience with them. The fact that they had, by chance, appealed to a large audience was more to do with their willingness to be bold, adventurous, novel and original than it was to thinking about how to please an audience.
The weight of other people’s expectations on your ability to turn a commercial profit on your miraculous artistic works can sour and crush your expectations about what your artistic life was going to be like, too. You might have expected more respect for your humanity, appreciation of your hard work and freedom from interference or the need to make a lot of money in all you do. You might not have expected judgement.
“Art must be an expression of love or it is nothing.” – Marc Chagall
“The object of art is not to make saleable pictures. It is to save yourself.” – Sherwood Anderson
“The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces. There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.” – Sherwood Anderson
How do you continue to produce art, if you are in this kind of expectation trap and are being crushed under its weight? It’s not easy, but here are some things that might help. Firstly, approach all of your art as an experiment and have some fun with it. Set yourself small challenges, like “can you write a song with only three chords and make it interesting”, or “can you express sadness in a painting with only very bright colours”? Experiments don’t have to succeed. An experiment that fails is as informative as one that succeeds. Just do lots of experiments and keep the ones that turn out well. That’s your best route to making art of value and originality. Keep experimenting, in small steps and keep enjoying the experimental process.
A second tactic is to say, “To hell with it all” and go and play. Just play. Do whatever the hell you want. If that happens to involve your art, then mess with your stuff and see what happens. You might enjoy playing so much that it results in some genuinely new things, which are the things you really want to offer, as your next magnum opus anyway, aren’t they? If your play is unrelated to your art, you might feel refreshed and invigorated enough to tackle the art thing again later. It beats sitting there and suffering with the angst. At least you get to have some fun.
Queen, the band, famously retold the stories of how one member or another would leave a note in the studio saying, “Gone to Bali”, so another would say, “Well, if he’s gone to Bali, I’m going to Monaco”. I think this was nothing more than survival tactics, to say “To hell with it all”, so that they could face the weight of expectations, which must have been tremendous, to come up with the next highly successful Queen album. In retrospect, the tactic worked.
Everyone harbours a precious idea that will not work. Get it out and get past it quickly. You might think you have the recipe for success or can second guess what your audience will like, but your idea might be wrong. It’s often wrong. Try it out on a small audience and see how it goes. If they don’t respond, get over yourself and try something else. You could call this experimentation or you could call it play. I think it’s actually road testing. Play and experimentation are more personal and can be achieved alone. Road testing involves probing other humans for their reaction to what you made. It might not be completely reliable or indicative of reaction in a mass audience, but it’s a data point and a guide. It’s worth listening to some feedback, even if you subsequently decide to ignore that data and go ahead in the same direction anyway. Just be careful to not let a small amount of feedback crush you even more than the expectations of success already are. Nobody can or should be expected to withstand continuous, long term rejection or indifference. Use sparingly.
Finally, inspire people with your actions. If you want to make better art, then make it and demonstrate that, through your dedication, application and commitment, you are at least attempting to make something worthwhile and of artistic value. Often, because people buy into the story of the artist rather than what the artist makes, that’s enough to guarantee an interested audience. Living the life of an artist and striving to succeed in making the miraculous might mean more to an audience than anything you actually ever produce. Not only that, but whatever you produce will be seen through the lens of that commitment anyway. It will rose colour your art.
The crushing expectation of producing a viable, commercial hit, with your art, can be overwhelming. It might be the thing that stops you from finishing your tracks, completing your paintings, writing the final stanza of your poem or of publishing the final draft of your novel. It might prevent you from even starting. I know how heavy this rock can be, on your shoulders. I know how hard it can be to get past the inertia and to just try. Nobody wants to fail epically, on a grand scale and be totally wiped out as a consequence, but that’s the deal. If you want to produce art of value to people, then you have to flirt with gigantic failure. There’s no way around it. Accept it. Deal with it. Proceed.
One final thought: Success, in art, is not compulsory. If you are happy to produce art for your own pleasure, then that’s fine too. Nobody said you had to be the next big thing. Be kind to yourself. You can quit anytime you like. But if you go on, then go on because it makes you happy and do what you can. No other reason is good enough. No other reason really matters.