For an artist, the idea that your work might have no intrinsic, tradable worth is a bitter pill to swallow, especially when you're starting out in your career and you've been reminded for years now that everything you do is important. But that kind of encounter with Life is, in many ways, a perfect place to start.
Lenny is a tenant in a rent-controlled apartment in a building nearby. Because of the tenant-friendly housing laws of New York City, he pays a fraction—somewhere around 25% of what free-market tenants would expect to pay for the same apartment. So if I were to move into his place, my rent would be around $4400, whereas his is locked in at around $1100. The interesting thing about this equation is that Lenny, who works in the IT department of a Wall Street firm said to me one day that it's not fair to him that the rent is that much, and that the rent is too high. I had to smile.
I was recently on the phone with an artist friend from my college days who has been steadily building a resume of shows, while holding down a job as a project manager for an advertising agency. She called me to express her jealousy about a mutual friend of ours, who is apparently going to be in an important show in Europe this summer. This mutual friend finished a couple of years after us, and then through the benefit of her family's resources, was able to work without interruption and accomplish in a few short years for her career what for the rest of us would take over a decade. I have a friend on the phone who is angry because she thinks that is an unfair advantage.
But here's the problem. For someone like Lenny, it took years of spending on lawyers, showing up to court and feeling his cortisol levels go up on a daily basis. This went on for months at a time as he fought his landlord to stay in the apartment at the lower rate. In the meantime, things were not fixed, parts of the building were sabotaged, and he had health problems. This uncertain lifestyle went on until they came to a resolution. But if tomorrow this landlord decides to sell the building, the next owner could decide to try an entirely different strategy to get him out of there, the same circus all over again. It would happen suddenly, and Lenny doesn't have the vigor he had in his 30s, about 28 years ago. Worse still, for Lenny to turn to pay market-rate rent, is unimaginable, he'd have to leave the city. He's never worked to bring his income level high enough to be able to afford a free market rate—he's never had to negotiate that.
For my jealous friend too, she is frustrated by how unrelenting her own circumstances have been, with one demand after another from family and friends as she pushes forward making her art quietly, patiently and with as much care today as she ever did. It burns her that there is absolutely nothing she can do to match our peer who grew up not having to stretch a dollar, or cultivate the imagination to consider the hole of an apartment that most people have to manage with in New York City after art college until something better comes along.
At the heart of these two stories, is a very naked concept that people, especially creative people, are taught to ignore: the reality of Competition.
In college, students in the medical, business and legal fields are exposed to the reality of competing for their qualifications and eventually for business. Art students, on the other hand, are often led in the exact opposite direction: to believe that what they do is unique and therefore outside the scope of comparison, outside any kind of competition. They are aided by well-meaning college professors, peers and family to develop a sense of self-importance, to see how special they are. They wind up with the notion that their artistic output is the most significant factor in determining their success, and then confirmation bias nudges them to ignore the bad art out there that happens to do well at openings and auctions. Or it teaches them to disparage successful artists as likely sellouts. For this group, working in a competitive environment is unfamiliar territory, so it is rejected.
It takes a minute to realize that conditions for success in the arts are often determined by factors other than simply the quality of the work. The ability to navigate the art world, to network with artists, curators and galleries, to engage in practices that increase the market value of your work, and to bring illumination to the topics of your specialty, these are all factors that determine how much time and attention an artist will receive in the community. These are also the things that, to some degree, an artist can learn to manage and improve with some practice.
But for artists, this layer of necessary business is often viewed reluctantly, it's seen as a curveball, or something to delegate to people who “handle the business side of things.” That's not so good, in the same way that in order to keep a shop open and running, a mechanic has to love working on engines as much as he (or she) loves putting together good estimates for clients. It comes with the territory. Either you adjust to that or you just declared a hobby.
So what determines whether an artist will eventually decide to expand their vocabulary to include “the business stuff”? According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her work, it comes down to whether or not an artist has a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
A fixed mindset assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are fixed, unchangeable. To a person with this view of the world, success is the result of these static characteristics, and you can't get any more than what you've been given.
A growth mindset on the other hand, thrives on challenge and problem solving. You might have some talent or skill, but you can always improve it. Any failure toward improvement is seen as a step toward getting it right eventually. More importantly, it is not as a lack of intelligence, but as a means for stretching existing knowledge and growing it.
These two mindsets, developed from a very early age, determine how we relate to success and failure for both professional and personal circumstances. According to Dweck's work, it's important to work with a growth mindset, to understand that a person's true potential for learning and adapting is unlimited. With the right motivation and education, the chances of having a successful, self-sustaining career as an artist are much improved.
An artist who produces thoughtful and engaging work, and embraces all the tasks of bringing the right attention to that work will fare much better in the marketplace than another artist who has wonderful work, but lacks these skills and resources or won't do those things.
Nothing is fair. And nobody cares. It's a hard climb up the wall for some, and flight of privilege for others. And it's up to you to decide what you want, and then do the things that will get you there. But understand that this is how it's always been. You don't have to turn into someone you don't like on your way there. In fact it's important to keep yourself in one piece, maintain a moral and civic compass, and just quietly do the work.
I've always found it a scary thing to believe that you are intrinsically special and that what you have to offer is somehow more shiny than what any other artist has to offer. So what?
The world only responds to action. It only cares about whether you can make your case, and if you can do it with consistency. If you are able to thoroughly be thrilled at the prospect of making the case for the value of your work, day after day, you stand to increase the worth of work. Pull that off and you might just be special enough, and all reward will have been worth the labor.