Is there any external standard for what represents success in art? How can I know when I’ve reached a new level of expertise?
Monthly, I publish an article in the Stone Mountain Village Artists’ e-newsletter. The topic for my article in March was about how I have a tendency to see my creations as not all that they could or should be. I referenced Malcom Gladwell, who, in Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), explains that greatness requires an enormous amount of time and much practice. Through careful research and ample examples, he demonstrates the “10,000-hour rule,” which he considers the key to success in any field. Practically speaking, one must practice a specific skill twenty hours a week for ten years to be able to claim any sort of greatness. Based on this guideline, I’m not yet even halfway there. Therefore, I feel justified in being hesitant to promote myself and my collages.
The Big Break
In the April/May 2015 edition of Professional Artist, there is an article about how to avoid being sucked in by the myth of the “Big Break.” I hear about it from other artists: the belief that someone will just “discover” you without needing to promote your artwork. One of the four tips provided is to “recognize the importance of time observed”: “You don’t become an artist overnight. Or rather, you may do so in your mind, but, to many you will be just one more dabbler for years . . . because plenty of people dip into art . . . for a period of their life but eventually give up on it as a career. The consequence of this is that we’re all seen as almost certainly being not serious artists. The only way to combat this perception is to keep at it. The more people see you doing your work, the more they’ll believe you’re committed and that you’re the real thing, and the less you’ll need the myth of the big break to sustain you.” This notion seems also to corroborate my need to remain humble at this stage.
So here’s my challenge: how do I push myself to a higher level of accomplishment, and how do I recognize when I’ve reached it? Gallery and/or show sales are not a good indicator because many circumstances are beyond my control (e.g., the economy of the village in which my studio/gallery is located, the clientele that visit a particular show, etc.). I have generally viewed my success at exhibitions as an indicator as to whether my work has any quality, but the results of that are so erratic that I’m beginning to believe that that’s a false indicator, too. For example, my collage of the Canadian Rockies in winter has been rejected from shows as often as it’s been accepted. In March it won a first place ribbon from a judge who is supposed to be a big deal in and around Atlanta, but after looking at his artist’s statement online, it’s pretty clear that he liked my work because it embodies what he does in his own artwork. He calls himself “a topophiliac” (a made-up word), with an “affection for place and all things geographic.” He states, “Through my art, I tend to focus on the fundamental qualities of mapping—the . . . ability to simultaneously represent and distort reality.” Just because I happened to enter a collage in a show that simulates his idea of what art should do, I won first place. I was in the right place at the right time with the right collage. That still doesn’t mean my art is any good.
Most days, with my sleeves rolled up and my fingers sticky with glue, I am simply grateful to have an outlet for working with my hands. I crank up Pandora, playing music to suit my mood, and I stand and shake my booty between cutting, aligning, and pasting little pieces of paper. In the moment, all is good, but during the rest of the hours of daily life, I’m not so sure. Maybe all we can ask for are those hours of complete absorption in what we are doing, regardless of the outcome. The challenge is giving ourselves permission to use precious time this way.