Art History

Failure… or Not (WordPress Writing 101 Prompt #14)

Today’s assignment was to pick up the nearest book, turn to page twenty-nine, and write a post based on the first word that you notice on that page. In a fashion that should not surprise anyone who knows anything about me, my nearest book was Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men. I’m nothing if not predictable. My word was “failing”. What a fun word to write about! (Not.) It started me thinking, though, about what failing means in the world of art, and whether, in fact, failing is always clear or permanent. We might be able to say definitively that some artists fail, if by that we mean that they are unable to sell their work, have it exhibited, gain representation, or achieve recognition. That definition is flawed because it does not take into account the many possible non-monetary motives and goals that artists may have, such as self-expression, activism, and simple enjoyment. The correlation between financial success as an artist and personal satisfaction with one’s work is not always direct. We also cannot assume that all artists aim to support themselves through their art; you don’t have to be a full-time artist in order to be a successful one.

Even if we stick with that financial and commercial definition of success, because it’s very difficult to think of a less-problematic way of defining the term, it can still be difficult to say who succeeded and who failed. Quite a few of the most important names in art history did not achieve commercial success or widespread acclaim until after their deaths. Some were nearly unable to sell their work during their lives. This is probably most true of artists who pushed the envelope and made innovations in style or subject matter that were not fully accepted until much later on. Conversely, some artists who were highly successful during their careers have largely fallen out of favor today. Artists in this category include academic artists of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, whose strongly-traditional work was later supplanted in the hierarchy of art history by the aforementioned avant-garde innovators. It is interesting to me to think that the artists who were rejected from the French salons of the late-nineteenth century, severely mocked and criticized by the media, and rejected from the academies now regularly break auction records, while the darlings of the academic tradition are now relegated to much lower-grossing and smaller sales that few people outside the specialized collecting market ever hear about. So who succeeded and who failed? The French Impressionists had to start their own salon because they were rejected from mainstream shows, and Vincent van Gogh died in an asylum having sold almost none of his work, but most twenty-first century art lovers would characterize them as far more successful than artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who was highly regarded in his day. I would love to know what my readers particularly artists of any and all varieties think about how we define success and failure in the arts.

3 thoughts on “Failure… or Not (WordPress Writing 101 Prompt #14)

  1. I definitely think that the verb “to fail” requires a compliment (to fail at, to fail to) even if knowing what people were trying to do is hard. For example, we can say that Emily Carr’s pottery was more financially successful for her than her paintings during the middle part of her life, but that her writing and painting were more successful at attracting attention from artists and art critics by the end of her life. But I have a subjectivist theory of aesthetics.

    1. That’s a really good point, and I definitely agree. It’s interesting to notice, though, how often people speak of failure, particularly the fear of it, in the general rather than collective sense. It’s as though the idea of failure is what has the most power to them.

  2. That is a good thought! Many people are very scared of ‘being a failure.’ I just try to question where ideas of success and failure come from, and if they really match with what I value and what I am trying to do.

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