A proposition on artistic success

We spent yesterday afternoon at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). Prior to hitting the corridors of culture I had a little “discussion” with Simone. Here is a proposition she vehemently disagreed with – for you to critique or agree with. Please, join in in the comments.

The true difference between a great artist and a successful artist is marketing.

I’m defining “success” as being “featured in a gallery” and I’m describing “great” as in “of a quality suitable to be featured in a gallery”. I think that for every artist that makes it there are several others of an equivalent level of ability who do not taste success.

I’ll share some further thoughts either in the comments (if you join in) or in a subsequent post.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

28 thoughts on “A proposition on artistic success”

  1. Plenty of artists who are now considered 'greats' died in poverty without any recognition at all.

    I guess many artists (myself included) wouldn't see success necessarily as being in a gallery. The desire to create is the driving factor.

  2. It wasn't too crowded. And we went on Sunday. I tried to post this pre midnight. Didn't work…

    Anyway, I'm glad someone has entered the discussion.

    I would suggest that those artists who died in poverty only to be posthumously discovered were posthumously discovered because they were marketed by someone who went through their belongings and wanted to create value from their work. Creating value in art is about creating buzz. Buzz is much easier to create when the artist is dead and that can become the story. Value is also created because the artist can not produce any more work and thus you have immediate scarcity. It works for writers too – the Stieg Larsson trilogy would not have sold nearly as well had Stieg not been dead. That is part of the mystique. It's part of the "buzz" – sure they're great novels, but their are many great writers out there who don't crack it into the big time.

    The desire to create is the driving factor.

    But every artist has that. Are you suggesting that the truly great are somehow transcendent, and that their work will discover itself? Explain Jackson Pollock…
    My recent post Six questions that make you a better writer

  3. I guess I would say that while you can create a market or success for something through 'buzz', unless there is something behind it that buzz won't last long. Something like The Pieta appeals over centuries and in and out of trends; Austen or Wodehouse or Shakespeare seem to have a universal appeal that lasts.

    The dead artist argument works in some ways, but can also be about the world having come to terms with the new styles etc once a certain amount of time has passed (this is more for artworks than books) – Impressionism was not well understood when it began, but with time came understanding and an appreciation of the style and meaning behind it. Same for Cubism and Jackson Pollock.

    Contrast that with a group like the Pre Raphaelites, who taped directly into trends at the time, but are generally seen now as naff and over the top.

    Plenty of movies have buzz but flop because the underlying thing isn't good.

  4. So yes, I think some art (of whatever form) is transcendent – taps into something in the human psyche.

  5. I think the whole 'dead artist' thing is far too simplistic, and generally doesn't reflect reality. I also think that creating a dichotomy between 'great' and 'successful' is unnecessary, and indeed, I think your definitions require that if an artists is 'successful' then they are necessarily 'great' as well.
    There is certainly an element of marketing (and I realise that personal Marketing is vital these days) – there are many attempts to take 'buried' works and revive them – and sometimes they work.. after all, some of the pieces we now consider great, were utterly reviled at their premiere, and it took time for their worth to be realised. But many of the pieces that are 'revived' don't enter into the repertory (I should point out that I'm speaking in terms of operatic works in this instance). So if it was purely marketing, then all of the forgotten pieces should enter the repertory, but they don't, so there's something else as well.
    Perhaps in the past, the only way to even be an artist, let alone a great one, was to have some kind of commercial 'success' (in the way you define it). Without patronage, people like Michaelangelo and Mozart may not have had the means to write what they did. But even artists with patronage have been forgotten, because time generally shows what the great works are.
    And while I would generally agree that there are many talented artists who do not necessarily taste success, I don't think it is all due to marketing, as there are so many different issue involved such as personality and personal issues through to general tastes. Plus, it's not just about skill. Perhaps I could create a Rothko-esque canvas, but it would still suck compared to his… why? Well, that's art, isn't it!

  6. "The true difference between a great artist and a successful artist is marketing."

    Except that's not what you said in our 'discussion'. What you said was:

    'The true difference between any art and successful art is marketing.'

    1. That's not really what I said. That may have been what you thought I said, and may have led to the disagreement – but I didn't say any monkey can pick up a paintbrush and become an artist with marketing (although I think that's probably true) – I was comparing people of equal technical ability. I even said "art school graduates" – the thing that separates people with talent from people who make it is marketing. It's not always true that the most talented artist (in any field) will be the most successful.
      My recent post It pays to pay attention

  7. Being an art school graduate doesn't mean you have the same level of technical ability across the graduates. Not even close. And those who do well in art school often don't succeed in the real world, because what is rewarded in art school isn't what is rewarded outside it, marketing or no.

    I'm not sure you can state that artistic talent is a technical ability either. Training can improve artistry but as far as I can see there is always some sort of natural talent behind it.

    1. "Training can improve artistry but as far as I can see there is always some sort of natural talent behind it. "

      That depends greatly on how you define both art and talent.

      The K foundation burned a million pounds and called it art.

      I would even suggest that post modernity's fascination with art as conversation – where each new piece contributes somehow to an ongoing dialogue and people want to buy in to parts of it – has recognised the "emperor's new clothes" element of art and just run with it. It's all marketing no talent.

      Art is now just currency with the name of the artist attached to give an item value to his followers.

    2. "Training can improve artistry but as far as I can see there is always some sort of natural talent behind it. "

      That depends greatly on how you define both art and talent.

      The K foundation burned a million pounds and called it art.

      I would even suggest that post modernity's fascination with art as conversation – where each new piece contributes somehow to an ongoing dialogue and people want to buy in to parts of it – has recognised the "emperor's new clothes" element of art and just run with it. It's all marketing no talent.

      Art is now just currency with the name of the artist attached to give an item value to his followers.

      1. I could give you a long history lesson about how the advent of photography changed the artistic landscape and rendered 'realistic' painting as irrelevant leading to postmodernism but I don't think there's much point…

        Marketing isn't everything, and I think people see through it far more often than you'd think.

        1. Marketing isn't everything, and I think people see through it far more often than you'd think.

          This depends largely on how broadly you understand marketing.

          The marketing imbues the art with meaning. Didactic or interpretive signs on gallery walls are marketing. Lets face it, the actual value of a piece of art is the sum of the cost of the raw materials and the time the artist spends producing the work – the price of a piece of art is that + economic principles of scarcity + marketing.

          Marketing is what makes us see value in the artists work, it's what frames our understanding of aesthetics (or trends), and it's what makes us want to tell our friends about the new piece hanging on our loungeroom wall. While you may think there's some sort of intrinsic buzz that happens when you see a piece of work you like this piece gives you that reaction because of marketing. Society creates "aesthetics" by group think. Group think is created by marketing.

          Sure. Some things need less explaining away, justification, or excuses than others – but all are discovered, exhibited, and purchased, as a result of marketing.

          Marketing is one of the three basic elements of every transaction. No transaction happens without it.
          My recent post It pays to pay attention

  8. I will now make that more extreme statement. I think perceived quality is achieved through marketing. Because I think marketing sets trends and describes quality so that the masses understand it.

    While there is some internal aesthetic response to a display of sublime skill – modern and postmodern art prove my point. And almost everyone prior to that who tasted success did so through the system of patronage that was predicated on marketing – painters had to market themselves to patrons, who in turn used the painters to market themselves (hence we have paintings where the patrons are depicted close to Jesus in order to promote their holiness).

    This isn't actually a controversial statement at all. Every transaction includes an element of marketing. The base form of marketing is the act of showing something to someone. This must happen in order for any painting to receive an audience.

    1. I will now make that more extreme statement. I think perceived quality is achieved through marketing. Because I think marketing sets trends and describes quality so that the masses understand it.

      In the popular market, I would generally agree. I wish I knew the reference, but I heard that the renowned Lieder pianist Gerald Moore said that 'people like what they know, and what they know is crap'. This is of course most obvious with teenagers and "Top40" pop music – they like what they are familiar with, and they are familiar with it because middle aged executives decide what these teens will be familiar with. But I think it's also seen with 'popular classics' – there are particular classical works that most non-classical-music-buffs are familiar with, and probably enjoy when heard in, say, a New Years concert (or as background music to an ad). What this means, I think, is that the ability to perceive quality in art actually comes from a fluency in the artistic 'language' and medium. Pop music is easy to understand, as it's very simple, as is pop-art. The classical music that enjoys popularity is understood widely because people are somewhat 'fluent' in understanding the harmonic language that something like the Beethoven 9 employs. But turn to Britten, for example, and you've got a very different, complex harmonic language, that takes time to become fluent in. Back to visual art, because we're all fairly fluent and familiar with realism, and also impressionism and expressionism, we can look at Turner and Monet and understand and perceive the quality, and indeed, with enough fluency we can even see the difference between different pieces by the same artist. But much modernist and post-modern contemporary art uses a completely different 'language' – one that doesn't fit well on greeting cards (ok, maybe in some circles they do!) and so we are in general, not so fluent, and it makes it more difficult to percieve the quality of say a Pollock or a Rothko piece.
      Personally, I'm not so interested in performance art which generally abandons most concepts of asthetics (e.g. the Turner winner from a few years ago: Shed Boat Shed) and certainly a great deal of modern art will be forgotten, and for good reason, but I think that statements like 'my kid can do that' or 'I can scribble on a napkin for money' generally betray a lack of fluency in the artistic language. There could, of course, be works that 'my kid' could do… and perhaps if they did, the parent would be rich, but a Rothko colour canvas is not one of them.
      So I suppose in one sense, yes, public perception is 'achieved' through marketing, but in the sense that the public's fluency is built up via exposure.

      1. Andrew, I second Simone.

        You could make a similar example out of coffee or wine – some people would see/taste no difference between a Starbucks and a 'real' coffee, or between cask wine and a Penfold Grange…

  9. Give me a $10,000 grant and I reckon I could turn out something that people walking through GoMA would think was brilliant. And I'd pocket $9,998 in change. Possibly less, I'd want to spend good money on the frame, because art is about framing your work properly – framing is marketing. Put a good frame on some scribbles on a serviette and you've got art.

    1. "Just give me a $10,000 grant and I could write a symphony… just a lot of notes strung together… that's not hard…"

    2. 'My kid could do that'…

      You might have 'art', but I don't know that you'd have Art. Maybe you should do your little scribble test and see if you can get yourself picked up.

      Otherwise that statement is just a lot of hot air.

      Anyway, a good frame costs at least $300 nowadays.

  10. I'd even argue that "marketing" is fundamental to the act of creating. Marketing is communicating, or selling, your ideas, or product, to an audience.

    Unless you're creating simply as an outlet – and not as expression – you're engaging in marketing every time you produce a work.
    My recent post It pays to pay attention

  11. Andrew – Love it! That's what I would have said to Nathan (though not so well) if I could have been bothered. I couldn't, so I called him a Philistine and moved on.

    1. "You could make a similar example out of coffee or wine – some people would see/taste no difference between a Starbucks and a 'real' coffee, or between cask wine and a Penfold Grange…"

      And indeed – no such difference would be apparent, or we wouldn't know which was preferred, but for marketing. Obviously they taste different. But how do we decide which one is the better one? We look at the price, or we talk to somebody in the know. This is how I know that Jackson Pollock is better than a five year old. I've been told by art experts, I've seen the price his paintings sell for, and I've seen them in galleries.

      This is why rich people continue to eat disgusting food because it has been sold to them with a story.

      Most education (being largely subjective) is a form of marketing. This is what we see in the "history wars" – "facts" are bits of information spun as truth. What we believe to be true is the result of someone marketing their truth to us, or us investigating on the framework that "marketing" has instilled in us. Our values systems are the result of marketing.

      If you understand marketing broadly… basically the whole universe can be summed up as the tension created by God's marketing and Satan's.
      My recent post It pays to pay attention

      1. I think the difference is that it seems you are suggesting that people only like stuff because they're told to, where as I'm saying that with education, people are able to recognise quality. And this is a process – one doesn't develop a palette for coffee overnight, but through exposure and education. Sure, one should be able to see an immediate difference between a Starbucks coffee and one from Findo's Cafe, but it takes time to build up the kind of palette that can taste different flavours in the coffee and tell the difference between different origins etc. And it takes education, often from experts. But I don't think experts should be so interested in just telling us what is good, so much as teaching the skills to appreciate and understand and find out what is good.

        This is how I know that Jackson Pollock is better than a five year old. I've been told by art experts, I've seen the price his paintings sell for, and I've seen them in galleries.

        I wouldn't worry too much about price, but I think the opinion of experts in any field has certain value. But again I think it comes down to education and exposure rather than marketing (and perhaps I'm taking a wrong-headed view of marketing as a cynical, selfish promotion mechanism). I don't think the curator at the Tate Modern is so interested in making sure I know that Pollock is good and can list his name in an exam, rather, I think that he or she, as an expert (who is highly fluent) wants to share and expose the work to the public so that they can see and learn to appreciate it for themselves.
        I suppose there is something about a gallery that makes us focus on the works more, in the same way that a concert hall makes us focus on the symphony more so than when it is background music, or that a myriad other settings help us focus. But I do distinctly remember seeing the Pollock work that is in the Tate Modern, and looking at it for some time and realising that it was not simply the dribble it might first appear to be – I certainly could not do such a work – and this was the result of education and exposure that helped me understand the visual language.

    2. I once sang at an afternoon 'soiree' of a group who consisted of retirees from the Sydney arts scene, including several well known Australian opera singers, and instead of a grace, they had their own hymn, which was basically about telling the Philistines to get stuffed! It actually had the word 'Philistines' in there… all very tongue-in-cheek and lots of fun.

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