Artist for life

July 24, 2007

Dear Rodney,

Yesterday Alexis Ramos wrote, "I'm impressed that you've worked
as an artist full time for all of your life. What would you
recommend to a young person like me who wants to make a decent
living as an artist?"

Thanks, Alexis. Your letter reminded me of something said
recently by one of my dealers. I was actually trying to get him
to take on a couple of promising young painters. He turned them
down. "These artists have not yet ripened, Robert," he said.
"They're not yet marked for destiny."

The "destiny" remark was unusual, so I asked him about it. "The
artists I believe in are those who eat and sleep their art," he
said. "They compulsively chip away at their statues, and this
gives value in both the short and long term. They need to be
lifers, like you, Robert."

I protested that I wasn't always a lifer. When I was in art
school I had the distinct idea that fine art was a sham.
Somewhere along the way I somehow fell in love with my
art-making process. After that, sham or not, I just had to do
it. Sometimes I think I did it because I was incompetent at
everything else.

To answer your question Alexis, here are a few ideas:

Know that others have gone where you wish to go.
Put "getting good" ahead of "making a living."
Learn to be alone and to be your own best critic.
Cut back on impedimenta and outside distractions.
Work more hours than the average factory worker.
Notice interesting directions and go there again.
Become a perpetual student of your own progress.
Don't expect too much help from anyone or anything.
Stick to your vision, but don't fear change.
Do not be adverse to developing skills.
Know that raising standards has to be chronic.
Know that marketing is easier when you have quality.
Be curious about everything, including how you turn out.
If you fall in love, accept the gift, surrender.

Thriving is all about self-education. "Go to your room," is my
advice that has had the most significant effect. Funnily, all
kinds of would-be lifers somehow neglect to do just that.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: "When love and skill work together expect a masterpiece."
(John Ruskin)

Esoterica: "Starving artist" is one of our popular myths.
Dentists would starve too if they didn't know a molar from a
bicuspid. Getting into the mode of perpetual self-generated
studenthood may not immediately make all of us thrive. The
human psyche has too many other frailties for that. But it's a
direction that gives maximum satisfaction--a feeling of
personal accomplishment and the possibility of worthwhile
public enthusiasm. You can try other directions like spin,
shock, extreme narcissism, smoke, mirrors, etc. While some of
these may very well work for you, they might also represent the
sort of sham that I noticed when I was your age.