Sunday, July 19, 2009

A New Definition of Artistic Success

Thanks to my position with the Cultural Affairs Department of a major U.S. City, I get a peek into the art-world that has become overwhelmingly telling: Every day, my Email box is filled with messages from all over the world from artists...desperately looking for work.

I don't mean the normal kind of job-hunting that we all must do, but the new kind of hunting. The kind we must do when many galleries can no longer stay afloat and when grants are no longer being offered. The kind when many collectors-as supportive and enthusiastic as they may be- have altered their buying habits. Yes, the successes are still there. The money is still there, and the sales still occur. Yet, all I have to do is open my Email to see that the world is not as it once was. There is a new kind of under-laying tone to these artist's pleas: It is fear.

Now, the issues of money and making a living are as vital as ever, and the inner apprehension we feel as artists is still as natural as rain. But the fear that I sense from these artists is coming from a different place. It is not "fear of the blank canvas" or "fear of creativity" or "fear of not getting accepted into a gallery". it is far more human; much more compelling. It seems that many of us are being challenged with questions of identity. We are hungry for a new definition of meaning.

In many of our minds, there exists a beautiful image of the artist as a passive, poetic being and for a generation now, we have had this image enhanced by a proliferation of art-business savvy. Thus, we may now be poetic and business-wise.
So what happens when the poetry is replaced by unemployment and the business of selling art becomes harder and harder? We think: "This was not supposed to happen to us."

The thing that we must remember is that we are part of a long lineage of artists who overcame this fear. The part of us that we need to reconnect with is the recollection that artists in all cultures throughout history were faced with circumstances just as challenging, or more challenging- than our own.

Art is our essence- not our job. We must begin to redefine what art represents in our lives. Artists are risk-takers and players in a larger game. We are in this for the long haul. Over the next few weeks I will outline the possibilities, and share examples of what our peers are doing to reshape their careers and redefine their own self-image.

John Paul Thornton is a painter and the author of "Art And Courage: Stories to Inspire the Artist-Warrior Within." Published by Fire Opal, and distributed through Atlas Books.