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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

to create art or to sell art, that is the question. a discussion.

Shakespeare wasn’t a successful artist, by all the accounts that I’ve read. Though he managed to sell some of his plays for meager sums and earned a small amount as an actor, William Shakespeare never had a thriving business. No one who knew him considered him a successful artist, but did he feel that way? What we can assume is that his writing was dependant on more than his success at writing, because as we all know, he kept at it.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of novels such as Committed, The Signature of All Things and the little-known Eat, Pray, Love, says that irrespective of great success or great failure, success for her means continuing to write. She refers to the place where an artist creates as the “artist’s normal”. This is the place where the artist lives and where the artist should fight to remain whether many or few people receive the artwork well.

Who is a successful artist? Is successful art only a success when someone else has attached a value to it, or is the creation already a success because it has been created? Who defines the success of art? And what happens when an artist achieves great monetary success with one piece and absolutely none with another – is that artist successful or not?

The internet is filled with links advising artists how to market and sell their work in order to achieve success. Bruce Allen, president of an artist management firm in Vancouver, says that “the big vote is the cash register.” An artist is successful if they sell. But, how many songs, words, landscapes, or sonnets does an artist need to sell to be successful? Does the manager, agent or Billboard decide when an artist is successful?

Kim Thiessen has a different view of success. Thiessen, a Canadian best-selling recording artist who some of you have heard of explains “that our success is so often tied to the people we are next to.  Success at the expense of someone else is utter failure in my mind.  Success in community, partnership, relationship...that's pretty amazing.” She says that success, even after raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the AIDS awareness project as part of the non-profit organization Mennonite Central Committee, is achieved when others benefit and community is enhanced.

The visual artist, Paul Klein, who owns and operates a thriving gallery in Chicago, also believes that success comes not from a certain arbitrary number of pieces sold, but from relationships. Many artists are more interested in just getting their work out into the public; sharing it with others who might be impacted by it in small or big ways.

Is it naïve to tell myself that it doesn’t matter if someone buys my work; that it only matters that I write? Maybe. Do I need to be able to support myself to be a successful writer? Possibly. But, if I’m thrilled to survive on Kraft Dinner, living in a tent in a shabby, roadside campground because I have only sold one short story and have endless time to write, am I successful? Surely.

Bruce Allen eventually flips on his vehement idea that success is registered by the number of dings of the cash register, admitting “who am I to say how much money earned is success.” The artist determines their level of satisfaction and success. Unfortunately, the most predominant measure of mainstream success is determined by the number of opening weekend tickets, debut downloads, and books sold. Some artists fight back against these strong yardsticks, bending ideas and targets, such as Autumn Hays. She says, “I do think there is a clear way to know if you are a successful artist. That after all the pressure, aversions, and struggles, you still keep making art. The continuation and advancement of your artwork and practice itself is the mark of a truly successful artist.”

As one artist, whose words have stood the test of critics and time, once said, “to thine own self be true.” That is success.

Works Cited:

Allen, B. (2006, May). What makes an artist successful? (Video file). 
Retrieved from

Gilbert, E. (2014, March). Success, failure and the drive to keep creating (Video file).
Retrieved from    failure_and_the_drive_to_keep_creating

Hays, A. (2014, January 24). Becoming the successful artist. (Web log post).
Retrieved from

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