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How we define artistic success

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

By Team IMA

During this pandemic the entire world has been shaken up. In every sector there has been loss; of jobs and of business. Almost each and every industry has had to rethink how it operates, and the art world is no different.

Here in the UK, in the ebb of the first wave, degree shows have taken place online, art fairs are creating online portals to sell artist work, and galleries are figuring out how to the public can access their space with social distancing restrictions.

It's not what we imagined being an artist was going to be like but here we are, having to think about the 'how' we do what we do, even more so than the 'why'. Perhaps now more than ever it is important that we artists need to take time to think about and re-evaluate our own measures of success?

IMA Studio's own Mark Tamer shares his thoughts on the various ways we define 'success', and that perhaps, success is something much closer than we realise.

How do we define artistic success?

So what does artistic success feel like? For some it may be world-wide recognition and a healthy bank balance along with 100K Instagram followers, but for others it may just be making or creating something that has artistic value. We spend much of our time slogging away at the coal-face but how often do we pause to wonder why? What is it that we get out of the creative act?

I gave this topic some thought as I’d recently had my first solo exhibition at a small but popular gallery in London. Does this mean that I’ve made it? That I’m now successful? If you’d told me two years ago I’d have my own gallery show in the near future I’d have been bouncing up and down like an ecstatic puppy thinking I’d hit the big time. But I think we grow into our success. By the time I have reached this point, I’m already thinking of what to do next. So the definition shifts and changes as we move through time and as our expectations change.

It’s good to have goals, a bigger better show, more and/or better work, financial independence, etc. And the benefits don’t have to be material: learning a new skill, meeting new people, passing on your knowledge and experience to others, finding a better work-life balance - are all just as important.

For some of us, it’s simply a compulsion - something that must be done, for others it may be a career choice based on skills and opportunities. Without wanting to sound too new-agey, perhaps it is being true to ourselves that is most important. Living a life that is in harmony with our beliefs and gives something positive to the world.

Remember we are in the business of communicating. We produce work because we have something to say. So if there comes a moment when someone “gets” your work, or they react in some way then this is a measure of success. If someone goes away moved, stimulated, annoyed/overjoyed after engaging with your work, then we’ve achieved something. If they end up buying it and recommending you to their friends - then that’s the full monty.

For me personally, it is the sensation that I am in some way moving forward. That I’m not repeating the same work but that I am pushing myself and my work in a new direction. But this can be tiring sometimes - we can’t be groundbreaking and unique every day of the week, so I allow myself to judge this momentum over a much greater time period. Have I developed over the course of the last year? It doesn’t have to be an enormous success - just knowing that I’ve moved from A to B in some way.

If I were to be really honest - what I would like more than anything is to have financial independence. I’d like to be able to concentrate one hundred percent on my art and not be thinking about paying the bills. That’s certainly one of the top criteria for feeling successful. But that’s a desire that’s hardly unique to the art world.

It is possible people will look at you and judge you on the number of sales you’ve made or where you’ve shown. But is that the true measure of success? Surely looking back on what we’ve achieved and feeling that we’ve fulfilled our potential counts for something? Even better if we’ve made a few friends and our work has connected with people along the way. For some, success will be quite modest - selling a couple of prints to a friend or having work shown in the local library, for others it will be having their work acquired by one the big art museums. Ultimately though, it is you that decides on whether you are successful or if there’s more work to be done.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that art is very subjective - some people will like it, some will hate it and many will be indifferent. To some you may be a genius, to others a worthless hack. But if you can find your people, your tribe if you like, the ones who connect with what you do then the others do not matter. These are the relationships to nourish and the ones who will come with you on your journey.

"It’s tempting to think of success as the ultimate destination that lingers like a dangling carrot someway into the future..."

To flip the question over, we could ask what would be the definition of being unsuccessful? I suspect for many the answer wouldn’t be not selling or not winning awards but would be the failure to follow the path we have chosen. It would be not doing the thing we love. It would be doing something else while we gaze out of the window wishing we were some place else.

It’s better to travel hopefully…

Could it be that just waking up and being happy you are doing something you love is as good as any measure of success? And if you keep on showing up and keep on doing your thing then surely we are already successful.

For most, it’s a privilege to be able to do what we do. Yes, it can be tough at times, but would you really want to be doing something different? It’s tempting to think of success as the ultimate destination that lingers like a dangling carrot someway into the future. But perhaps it is the journey that is the most important and not the destination. And if we are already on that journey we should take the time to enjoy the ride.

Team IMA

re-IMAgining the art world

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