Everyone has their favourite saying about what it takes to be a successful artist. They talk about work, grit, determination, talent, self-promotion, persistence and a host of other things. What only some of them will admit is that a massive amount of success is down to an intangible factor.
Call it fate, ju-ju, something written in the stars, your past life catching up with you or just old fashioned luck, a huge amount of what will make you a success or a failure is being in the right place at the right time. Everything listed at the top will better your odds of course, but if that magic factor is missing then it all comes to nothing.
To be published as a writer, for example, your submission has to reach the right editor at the right time on the right day, and it has to be the submission they want before they knew they wanted it. If they already knew they wanted it then they’ll have pulled something off of the heap (and there’ll be something close enough to work with) or they’ll have reached out to someone they already know. If you’re submitting work based on what everyone’s reading now (fantasy, dragons, apocalyptic fiction or whatever) then you’ll simply be drowned out in the deluge. Same thing for galleries – right person, right place, right work, right time. Any of those are off, then that’s it. You might make a connection for further down the trail, get some networking done. But the last artist I heard speak publically said that his break came when one of his pieces won first prize in a local exhibition. Well done him, but again it’s a case of the right piece for the right judges. The only thing you can’t change is luck.
The reverse works as well. You can have everything completely done and ready to go, finished and polished to the best of your ability only to have it derailed by something completely out of your control. To take an example from my recent Amazon Prime viewing, I direct your attention to Gregor Jordan’s 2001 film Buffalo Soldiers. Based on the novel by Robert O’Connor it is set on a US Army base in West Germany in the final years of the Cold War. The Soviet Empire is imploding, the Berlin Wall is falling, the enemy they’ve been trained to fight is fading before their eyes. And on the ancient principle of the devil finding work for idle hands we follow our antiheroical protagonist Specialist Ray Elwood as he busies himself with refining heroin, selling government property on the black market and sleeping with his commanding officer’s wife. The whole thing is darkly funny, subversive and very well cast – as well as Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, you get to see Ed Harris playing against type as Elwood’s well meaning but over-promoted CO. I watched it and enjoyed it, but couldn’t help wondering why I’d not come across it before – it’s very much my kind of film. The answer, according to IMDB, is pretty simple. Buffalo Soldiers premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on the 9th of September 2001. A few hours later, on September 11th 2001, the world changed. All of a sudden a film depicting America’s fighting men as drug-crazed criminals was so out of step with public taste that it was unscreenable. It was pulled from distribution, and after a limited release some years later it went to DVD.
The point I’m making here, is that even the best work in the world will do no good if some intangible force means there’s no market for it. And that’s more the case in the arts than in most other industries. That luxury car some manufacturer brought out just before the economy tanked won’t do them much good, but that amount of steel and engineering is still worth something. A piece of art is worth what someone’s prepared to pay for it – if nobody wants a painting then it’s worth the resale value of whatever it’s painted on. By that logic one of my digital photographs has no value at all, which while very Zen isn’t a statement I want to hear as an artist.
Two things you can take from this little diatribe.
First thing – if you are creating your work for sale (rather than for your own amusement) be sure at the outset that what you have to sell is what someone wants to buy. As mentioned above this is not always easy to quantify, so I would advise a combination of market study and devout prayer.
The second is that after expending the blood and sweat on your creation you will most likely see it consigned to the dustbin for reasons beyond your control. You probably won’t be told what these reasons are (a literary agent’s favourite phrase is the old classic “we will not engage in correspondence regarding rejected works”) but it will almost certainly happen to you a great deal. If that’s something you can’t deal with, then you’re in the wrong game. Kindly leave quietly so that the rest of us have a clearer field. If you’re going to survive and thrive in all of this, then my best advice is this.
Try not to take it personally.
The problem is that if you have any emotional connection to your work, then there’s no other way to take it. And if you don’t have an emotional connection to your work then you’re not an artist, you’re a hack. Which brings me full circle to one of my own favourite sayings: “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”