Thursday, April 26, 2012

For artists, success is an illusion

After she published her first novel, a friend of mine went back to the summer writer's conference where she'd workshopped a part of it a couple years before. Formerly a mere attendee, she was now a published "alumnus" who got to give a reading from her published work and hang out with the writing program teachers and other published writers who make up the event's faculty. So she got to talk to several other women who were about her age or a little older, women who had published not just one novel but four or five.

And what she found was that no one was satisfied; no one considered herself a success. The woman who'd published five novels was dissatisfied because the publisher had been decreasing her advances and print runs for the last three books in a row. The woman who'd published two novels was dissatisfied because her publisher wouldn't spend any money to promote her next book. And so on. That's not even counting the universal bitching from writers about the strains and indignities of book tours. (You flew to 14 cities, stayed in fancy hotels, and were chauffeured from event to event? Really breaks my heart.)

In that light, I draw your attention to this article on, No Sympathy for the Creative Class. It has the usual comparisons with European countries where artists are "appreciated" and receive state support. Excerpt:

Europeans, says (painter Peter) Plagens, have a very different relationship to the arts because of a high culture going back to the Renaissance and before. "Over here, America is more tied to pragmatism -- clearing the land, putting the railroad through... And artists don't really help with that, so we're suspect."

Novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose father was what the writer describes as "a non-famous artist," sees the American artist as living in internal exile. American history is stamped with "a distrust of the urban, the historical, the bookish in favor of a fantasy of frontier libertarian purity. And the Protestant work ethic has a distrust of what's perceived as decadence." ... "Cultural elite," says Lethem, is "a code word for people who are getting away with something for far too long. It's a term of distrust -- you can almost hear a plan for vengeance in it. Republican politics hardened these impulses and made them more virulent and paranoid."

All true as far as it goes. But nowhere does it describe the cooptation that state-supported artists have to deal with. Suppose the state gives you an artist-in-residence gig in Rainbow City, including an apartment and a studio, and all you have to do is agree to show your work in a gallery at the end of the period. Awesome -- except when you feel pressure, either overt or covert, to create art that will make your sponsors happy. And even when there's no pressure as such -- and I believe there usually is -- wouldn't living in Rainbow City on their dime make you identify with its residents and the locale, so that the artist's crucial role as a cultural critic is weakened? Wouldn't you be likely to turn out art that celebrates Rainbow City? If that's too abstract for you, imagine being the artist-in-residence in Damascus right now. No, I think I'll just struggle along, thanks.

The thing is, any success is an illusion. You think Stephen King thinks he's successful? No, he chafes against the universal conception of him as a hack. Jonathan Franzen is is almost the same boat; he was appalled at Oprah's designation of his work as acceptably bourgeois, and then slammed for being ungrateful. Philip Roth? He wouldn't be still turning out novels almost annually unless he thinks he has left some things unexpressed. David Foster Wallace? The unhappiest man on earth, until he killed himself.

Being an artist is a prescription for misery. A real artist is never truly satisfied with her work; anyone who is satisfied is probably either finished creatively or delusional. State support won't help that problem; it will only provide a different illusion, that one is a real artist because one is certified by the state. Commercial success won't help either; it will only make one doubt oneself. Or it will make you happy for a day; and then the work begins again.

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