The Unforced Force of the Greater Truth
by Greg Ruth
SO. You say you want to be an artist... to which I say often, for how long? Being a professional artist is by all measure, really an act of publicity of some sort or another. The work you make is to be seen and regarded positively or negatively. Like as not positively more than the other thing or you tend to have a short go at it. For me personally art is by its own definition an act of public participation- it needs to be seen to be art. Art is a social act, a community endeavor. Making something privately for yourself that no one else will ever see... that's something else. There's not a word for it, it's too intangible for one and shouldn't be named. It's a private act and relationship with the self that is no one else's business. But that's not what we're here to talk about today. Today is all about art and a career in art.
Each artist no matter their selfsame starting points will go in their own unique direction. The same as anything really, so advice rules of the road and all that jazz are really just indicators rather than mandates. Someone tells you you can't have a career without going to a well respected art school, tell them they're wrong. Does it help? Sure. Do you need to be in NYC to to have a solid professional artistic career? no, but it can help.. or it doesn't matter. It depends. So hefty grains of salt for anything you here from me or anyone telling you how you should make or break your own artistic path. There are commonalities that exist and there are mistakes that are mistakes. It's not pure anarchy out there. There are laws to break and abide by and courses that more often than not lead to success or failure. And there's one that is more important for making sure you have a long and fruitful career. Ready for it? Here it goes:
Ultimately the most important and essential guiding post for you art career is finding, nurturing and growing your own vision.
That's it. Sounds trite and too close to the lyrics of a terrible Celine Dion song, but it is true. You have a unique vision of the world as an artist- everyone does and everyone has the potential of turning that vision of the world into a gigantic all crushing world eating career of humongousness. The hard part is seeing clearly and identifying that essential vision and then developing it int he right way. And here's the scary bit, and by scary I mean it should truly terrify you: developing that vision correctly can only be known after you've done it. Being a professional artist... it's like walking in the dark on a tightrope. Each footstep has the potential to find purchase on the rope , and even more potential to miss it and send you tumbling into the bleak. And this is the game until you stop or are stopped hopefully by the last breath you ever take because life as an artist should and never can really come to a halt otherwise. There really isn;t a retirement plan or some sunny vision where you play golf everyday and pass out in your orchard putting orange peels in your mouth whilst playing with your grandkids. it is like life a mission you have to fulfill until life escapes you. And there are far more ways to get it wrong than right.
So what to do? Well you can increase the odds of your success by learning a few things. And by success I mean the miracle opportunity of being allowed to do it again and again... Here's a few:
1.) Find you moral compass and go north.
As subjective as one's own artist morality is, this is the keystone of your career. Know what it is you do and want to do, get an honest picture of yourself and your own moral code and stick to it. This isn't to say you need to make yourself into a nice sweet person who always does everything right. I myself can be honestly described as a deeply honest, sometimes impolite but kind, respectful and awkwardly hard-working pain in the ass. I make that work for me as best I can. We're not all angels nor do we need to be, and most of the superstar creatives I know are not the sweetest petals of the bloom. Some are as well. Just figure out where you are and know it and don't apologize for it. Unless you're a real jerk in which case, fix that business. Nobody likes a jerk.
This compass is what will lead you along the rope step by step through hard times and good. It will be tested by the most alluring opportunities and betrayed by success far more than by its trials. Hard times make a diamond of the soul, soft times encourage its rot. Ideally you want to find a middle ground in between.
2.) Early success is more dangerous than none.
We're in a culture that loves both youth and youthful success- we're obsessed with it. There's a sense of extra reward in the young turk who changes the world with their art before they hit twenty, but it comes at great cost and carries huge burdens to start out at the top. Your career then becomes about maintaining you lofty spot on the mountaintop rather than climbing towards it- and that's not a healthy or safe fighting vantage. Your fall is inevitable. It's baked into the cake, and where or when that comes is not usually up to you. It can warp the way you see yourself, obfuscate your own ability to track and hone your vision and can lock you in a cultural moment that when it passes- and it always passes, faster and faster these days- you can find yourself spending the rest of your career clawing at the glass wall between you and your former glory. Some manage to pull this thing off, but those successes can be counted on a single hand, and one that's holding a pencil. Mu advice is don't come charging out of the gate to be the best artist under twenty or whatever- just don't even go there in your mind. Despite what just about every aspect of our culture tells you, celebrity is not success, it is the price of success. Celebrity like that coming before you've had a chance to know yourself, your vision and gain the kind of tough hide experience and age can provide makes for an exciting and short lived rocket ride. Sure Slim Pickins looks like he's having a ball riding that rocket to the ground, but it's not a ride that lasts long no matter how big the boom boom he makes on impact. Sure you can potentially build upon your early success and make a greater one from it knowing it's limitations and looking ahead- just ask the Olsen twins how that's going as evidence of this possibility. But really this is neither a goal nor a desired outcome if you're an artist. This is chess, not checkers.
3.) It's all about relationships
Like most things in our short lives, one's career is foundationally strong from how we relate to others and the community in which we exist. Being a genius artist who's a real dick is not that. Being pretty good and having a strong peer group and a professional work ethic. As per my own personality deficits mentioned previously, You don't need to be polite, but you must be kind. Your peer group is where you get feedback advice, guidance and support from. They are there to cheer you when you rise and catch you when you fall. They are there to get drunk with and to share each others work between. You wife, husband kids, friends peers and fans are they of the world for whom you dance in making art, and everyone else is just a potential to being part of that club. Being able to work with show and hear edits and feedback from your peers or working partners can alter the course of your career immensely. And it isn't easy and it takes time for that last bit especially. But if you can stay on course there is no greater watering hole for your ability to go forward. This is fundamentally why I believe art is and should be a public act by definition. If you had two parallel universes and in one put an artist in a cabin on the mountain and that same artist in a career in the world I absolutely guarantee you the second guy will make better work. We are fed the notion of the isolated artist on the hill as a nobel ideal, and it makes for a very romantic picture... for non artists. Artmaking is inherently a lonely or lonesome act, so you got that ground covered already and more so than most people who work with other humans all day long. So despite our nervous awkward selves, get out there and make pals, share your work and get better at making it.
4.) You yourself in public
How you act, especially how you act publicly online or elsewhere, will determine that level and potential for a long growing career. There are of course tons of folk out there who love to fight online, make scenes at a show and exact revenge off curtain who enjoy decent careers. But that is an accident of our entropic universe, not a goal and I venture to say that those atrophied folk are neither especially happy nor are enjoying the full measure of what their creative lives could be had they decided to be less dickish. We're in a time where public opinion demands public attention, and confuses relevancy with immediacy. Don't get suckered into it if you can. We're also in a time where for better or worse it is upon us to promote and sell ourselves. We are expected to and encouraged and assumed to do so by publishers and others to put the work we make into the hands of buyers or clients- fair or not. It is a divide I have seen cut a line between the old and young and it is a fairly new phenomenon. Yes, in the old days your publisher took care of all this and you got to be the affected young libertine making grand works under patronage. Them times are over largely and it's not such a terrifically bad thing. It means more work for you as the artist who now must also sell the work both to your publisher but also now to your audience, and this might cut against your natural shyness as a hyper-self aware creative, and it's more work certainly it may not come easy, but being able to control your message, navigate your own public persona and the way your work is presented and discussed is also a good thing. Roll with the times, use them to your advantage and get out of your comfort zone. Which reminds me...
5.) Comfort equals death.
Most hardcore patriotic Amuricans claim our ability to navigate difficult times without our society breaking down into chaos is a result of our deeply ingrained Amurican Exceptionlism.. but really it's because there's probably a game on that night and we need to buy more chips. Comfort is delivered to us as a goal as an ideal to chase after until we are snug in the coffins that will never find us. While not true for us in general this is especially untrue for the creative artist. Comfort is coasting and coasting is not moving forward by a power that had any kind of future. This awkward nervousness I previously claimed you should push against? It can be your greatest asset. It keeps you questioning and guessing and seeking out a better way. Bravery is just fear in action, so take that fear and stay uncomfortable with your work as long as you are able. This is not to say you should not form time to time take a rest, get a whiskey and congratulate yourself for a job well done, just don't make that your daily experience. Whiskey is expensive and the work will suffer for the lack of attention you give it whilst drunk on your own ego. This is largely why I reject this idea of knowing your style or developing a "style" as that is a not at all what matters. The moment you get pegged for being the guy who does Teddy bears perfectly, go draw a car. You make murky spooky and mildly psychotic horror comics, go get into children's book and do something colorful and fun. I find earlier work by artists to possess the most energy and searchingness over their latter day work because it is at those early times where they are at their most uncomfortable. It's natural for us to fall into habits and hug long developed tools and craft but it's not inherently a good thing for making better work. So make sure if you do really gorgeous classical oil paintings to see about making a portrait out of your own fingernail clippings, or if you rely upon your right hand, use then your left. You can keep things fresh and alive this way and even upon returning to the comfortable environs of your own usual style, you come home reinvigorated and reaffirmed.
6.) Learn to roll with the punches and use every crisis for the opportunity it brings.
Taking criticism is the HARDEST thing sometimes. It always stings in the inverse manner that high praise delights on its immediate arrival. I don't think that ever goes away and anyone who says they are immune to it is either lying or is no longer actually alive- check for a pulse. That's not the issue, but what is is what you do with it and how you take it in. I can always tell when someone hasn't been weathered enough by criticism by the way they respond to it when I bring it down. I find myself more hesitant when I get the vibe of a fragile sense of ego at play or a delicate sensibility. I am after all a loudmouthed American from Texas and as such tend to say what I'm thinking if I'm doing it right. But it's hard to learn and it has taken me a long time to roll with being shown when you're doing something poorly or wrongly- or especially when by your reckoning, you aren't. I still get a boil of fury/hurt in me everytime. It gets smaller week by week, but it's still there, so I get it. Thing is, before you learn how to tame that particular beast, learn how to cage it. But I see so often when I'm walking around and giving students advice how few take it and instead continue on their merry way. It's fine and normal and really in the end the lessons we learn are the ones we learn ourselves. Wisdom cannot be taught, it must be found. On trick I heartily recommend is my rule for internet fighting: never answer in anger and try to wait until the next day to respond. Time is the fire extinguisher of fury, and if you're still hot about it the next day, it may then in fact be something worth being hot about. But usually it quiets down and you have given yourself a breath to avoid making an ass out of yourself by responding as a troll. This too can work for your art- I never for example, consider a piece as finished, (barring a deadline demand that prevents me form doing so), until I've gone to bed and seen it fresh the next day. Often there's something I needed to do to make it better, or even a new direction to take it that only the fresh eyes of a new day can see. Sometimes I awake and look at it and see it as done- that doesn't mean it has to be the end all be all of your career- though you should strive for that with every project you do- but it has to be the best it can and will be in its own context.
Bad times come to us all and what we do with them and how we see and manage them is the most important part of that. S0me of my best pieces have come amidst times of great struggle- some of my worst as well. It is all about how one wrestles with the situation and the older you get the better you get at navigating it. Both because you have had enough previous disasters to know as fact there is life on the other side of them, and also because you have come to know yourself and your vision enough to know how to hang on to it in a storm. This is largely why I encourage seeking long term success rather than early career ones- the old war horses I know are far stronger than the aging superstars each and every one.
I myself am a professional working artist. It's the job I do every day and I don't have another one nor at this late stage seem remotely qualified to have another. Part of it is hard work, assets of an early start as a white American male whose mom made him go to that art high school he initially rejected, and a lot of it is a simple combination of dumb and smart luck. (Smart luck is the luck you make for yourself, dumb luck is the luck you trip over going somewhere else). I love drawing a piece to celebrate my love of Star Wars as much as I want to make one that brings about awareness to the impact of the coal mining industry on the lives of those who work the mines. I like children's books and hard edged adult stories, sci fi work and political cartoons. It may nor may not serve my career to hop around like this, but I cannot help myself. I don't now live in the middle of Times Square with the world revolving around me like the orbits of planets, but instead live in a tiny small town you could easily fit into one of those Times Square office buildings. And I don't live like this as an accident or because I am hiding from the black helicopters, it's a choice and like all choices it brings benefits and costs. I'm neither a superstar success or even close to it, am not a celebrity by any means nor am commanding a Neil Gaiman sized army of followers. But I do finish each piece I do largely and mostly certain that it's the best I could do that day, clean my hands and get ready for the chance to do it better tomorrow. It's fulfilling and steady work and yes it may not last and next year I may be out on the streets but right now its working enough so I get the rare opportunity to do it again, so so I shall. I don't know where it's going or if it's going towards anything at all- I could be walking a circle in the dark disguised as a path forward, but each day step by step I keep walking. And there's nothing at all special or unique about it other than perhaps the lunacy that incites me to continue to doing it. So get out there and put your foot on some rope today. Kill it and maybe you'll find purchase there again tomorrow for your next footfall. And if you don't, there's always the day after.