Art & Development

the unreasonable optimist

“Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

–Conan O’Brien (by way of M)

Sergio De La Torre
Sergio De La Torre, “(Don Bergfors) Waiting for Gabriel Orozco, San Diego Airport,” from the series “10 Artists, 10 Drivers, 10 Cities,” 2005-07, work in progress, C-Print photograph, 2005-07 (Image source: Emergency Biennial)

Is having a life in the arts like marriage? Psychologist John Gottman has found that a key indicator of successful marriages is not how well you and your partner get along, but how well you make up after a fight. Maybe a more telling indicator for a successful life in the arts is how well you stay engaged when opportunities are lean and rejections rife. Clearly talent and capacity are necessary, but so are resilience and the ability to recover efficiently from disappointments.

I’ve been doing my part in “collecting no’s” — sending out lots of applications to competitions and residencies, and getting an equal amount of rejections. This week, I received the equivalent of a light petting followed by a heavy slap. It was a rejection/commendation combination: I was informed that my application to a residency program was among the top 50 out of 570 applications. That means my application was among the top 8%. Unfortunately, the committee could award only 4 residencies, which comprises less than 1% of all applications. Put another way, only 1 out of 142 applicants were successful.

Those are harsh odds. And yet I have to recover, stay optimistic, and keep trying. I don’t believe that I’m entitled to anything because I’m an artist and artists are special. I don’t believe that art patrons are obligated to make my life easier. I think crybaby artists — who elevate the value of their work over others’ — play into horrible myths that further alienate the public from enjoying and participating in art.

Still, I’d love to see more deserving art recognized. This means there need to be more art opportunities for more artists, rather than the current state of hyper-stratification, which is sort of like the concentration of wealth in this country: there’s the top 6% of biennial-circuit Hirsts, Cattelans, Tirivanijas and the other 94% of us. Like Sergio De La Torre’s brilliant series of performance photographs, “10 Artists, 10 Drivers, 10 Cities” (2005-07, work in progress), there’s a futility and misdirection in waiting for art stars (who never arrive). Life, and art, go on without them.

I don’t want to be rich and famous. I want to be respected, and for the quality of my work to be acknowledged. I want to be just, and to love and be loved. I want to have a lifelong practice. I’ll admit, a detached studio in a French chateau would be sweet, but ultimately I’d be happy with being happy: having a satisfying art practice, the esteem of my work and ideas by rigorous colleagues and institutions equipped to share and archive them, and the time and flexibility to enjoy my family and environs.

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