Can your artistic pursuits survive the realization that you have modest talents and limited prospects?
May 30, 2007 11:15 AM   Subscribe

You set out to be a writer, a musician, a painter, a filmmaker, an actor, something creative. Somehow you didn't become the success you once envisioned. Have you been able to maintain an interest and participation in artistic pursuits as a hobby or small sideline, or have you needed to let the spark fade away completely?

In the your favourite band sucks threads, the critical posters can be brutal towards creators who they feel don't have anything original to say, or whose best days were long ago. How dare they record that music, write that book, make that film, why aren't they pumping gas somewhere? And that commentary is being directed towards artists who have already realized the kind of commercial and critical interest that only a tiny fraction of people with artistic aspirations will ever know. If Paul McCartney is attacked for continuing to do what made him a Knight, what right do you have to even bother? Perhaps art should only be for the elite, for the truly gifted, for those so committed that they couldn't think of doing anything else with their life, for those who can honestly dare to make something that might stand the test of time. There is probably an opposing line of thought that says the creative impulse is one of the most basic aspects of being human, that everyone should be encouraged to explore their voice.

There are many people here who are active artists. Maybe some are successes, paying their rent writing the books they always wanted to write, raising a family through their music. Some naturally incorporate creative play into their lives. Some others may be working day jobs in their field, writing ad copy while working on their novel at night. Others may have hit a ceiling in their original efforts, but successfully transferred their creative skills into new pursuits they discovered they were better suited for. Others, still young perhaps, are presently struggling towards their goals. But what if along the line you realized you probably don't have the drive, that you probably don't have anything that striking to say, and you don't have talents any greater than a bunch of kids on Deviant Art? Have you been able to forget about the saxophone locked in the attic? Have you been able to burn the unpublishable novel and move on as an insurance salesperson? Or can you be satisfied as a Sunday painter? Can you spend your evenings plugging away on that play that doesn't have an audience?

I'd feel better if I had an effective creative outlet. I'd be a more rounded person. I'd occupy my weekends better. Maybe I could happily go work on the line from now to retirement, making my small contribution to the output of one hundred widgets per hour, if I knew that back home I was working on something for myself, something that will never be world shattering or income producing but won't be total crap either, some loose bundle of sketches that maybe I can tape to a tree in the park one summer weekend. Maybe someone would appreciate them. But whenever I try to work on anything I'm undermined by the thoughts that I'm perpetuating adolescent fantasies well into a time of life where they become sad sad sad. I'm immediately frustrated by continuing to trip over fundamentals that I should have mastered long ago. Then there's the nagging embarrassment of poor life choices (art school) that left me without marketable skills. And that suspicion that I'm an uncommitted hack. I guess I want to hear from people who have been able to overcome their frustrations, who learned to work within their own acknowledged limitations and lessened dreams. Or from those who have managed to accept that their time has passed, who found another focus for themselves so that they wouldn't reach 60 still hoping to become the new Elvis.
posted by TimTypeZed to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
My husband stopped playing saxophone for nine years after it became clear to him that he didn't love practicing enough to achieve professional perfection, and he really didn't have the social skills to succeed in music. In the interim, he found other hobbies to fill his time: volleyball, role playing games, roller blading, video games.

About a year ago he canceled his video game subscriptions, picked up the horn and spent quite a bit of money getting it working again, then called his high-school music teacher for some lessons. After he was feeling less rusty, he got in touch with a long-lost friend who is making it as a musician. She agreed to tutor him some more.

She put him in touch with an informal big band. He practices four or five times a week. He goes to weekly jam sessions.

He's not trying to become Elvis or anything like it, but I think he has a deeper love of music now that he's able to aspire to become the best version of Mr. Supafreak, saxophone player, rather than someone else's version of superstar sax player.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:35 AM on May 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a forty-eight year old songwriter. And a very occasional artist.

I think the key is that you have to be willing to create for YOURSELF. Whether or not anyone else likes, appreciates, or understands what you create, you have to make YOURSELF happy.

YOu have to forget about money. Forget about fame. Forget about anything but communicating through your chosen medium. The minute you try to come up with What Sells or What Someone In Nashville Wants to Hear or what makes you SEEN as an artist, the more likely you are to have "hack" results.

The interesting thing is that if you can actually do that, the money, the recognition, etc actually can and many times does show up.

If we take McCartney as an example-even the most talented of us has an inner "hack." Too much fame or money can make us very susceptible to it. Look at how many groups have an awesome first album but their sophomore effort falls flat. There is a reason for that.

If a person wants to be famous, if he or she wants to make money, that is a different wish than that of wanting to be an artist. You have to look in your own heart and know that creation is a goal in itself and not just a way to obtain money or fame or love.

I actually did get a song on a CD. I was paid for it, and I was happy about it. I got good feedback and I enjoyed it. But that is not the reason I write. I have songs that will never be heard by anyone but me (and perhaps a few close friends) and I love them as much or more, and I feel privileged to have composed them. OTOH any time I try to write to meet any goal other than artistic fulfillment? Utter and total crap. My artwork is the same way.

I guess what I am saying is whatever you do?

Do it for love.
posted by konolia at 11:41 AM on May 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you have a drive to create, create. In the end this is something one can only do for oneself. "It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions."
posted by yohko at 11:42 AM on May 30, 2007

I think everyone needs to be creative, no matter how talentless they are. That doesn't mean people don't have the right to criticize; it means that art that isn't very good is good for the artist, even if not for the world at large.

I think everyone needs to make hard choices about how much time and effort they're willing to give their art, and what that time/effort is for.

I go through phases of being very committed to my writing and phases of not caring about it at all. That's doesn't mean that I'm letting myself down; it means I'm trying to prioritize, and those priorities won't always be the same as they used to be.

You really have to be doing what you're doing for its own sake, because if your ego is involved in it at all then you're going to be disappointed and frustrated. And I find that even if I'm spectacularly unmotivated, a week when I've spent at least some time working on something creative is better than a week when I've been watching too much television.
posted by Jeanne at 11:50 AM on May 30, 2007

I think for most artists there is some drive in them that keeps them going despite not having acheived 'commercial' success. So if you've got it inside you to be an artist, keep at it and don't worry about how its perceived. I think that's the difference between those who make it and those who don't - those who make it are the ones that didn't give up. I'm not sure what making it is - maybe achieving the goals the artist has set for themselves? I think the idea of artistic success is highly subjective and personal, but I would do what you want to do and not worry about perpetuating adolescent fantasies. That sounds to me like you are more worried about what others think of you than what you need to do to be happy.
posted by drobot at 11:50 AM on May 30, 2007

Oh, I went through this. I decided that since I was an utter "failure" as an artist and, moreover, that since art was clearly a decadent bourgeois pursuit that was unavailable to the great masses of the world, I would give it up. And a helpful ex boyfriend told me that I couldn't be a writer and an artist; it was impossible and who did I think I was, anyway, William Blake? Ha ha! And thus I got all blocked, too, and had kids and dogs and lousy jobs and divorces and so on and somehow I just sort of slowed down and almost (but not quite) stopped painting. That was my early 30s, not the best time of my life.

Fast forward a few years. I got into therapy and started thinking a lot about what I was doing with my life and what made me happy and what was, like, purely for me and not for other people, since the focus of my life had become other people. And I did a couple of drawings and it was great. Then I got all panicky about being one of those horrible middle aged ladies who dabbles in pottery or gets self actualized and starts wearing draperies (I can way overthink a plate of beans, god knows) but with my guru therapist, I managed to get over even that. And I started working again.

There were two other things that got me going again, too. One was the blog - I started it for discipline, to make myself write every day, and it worked wonders and once I really started writing it made me want to make art again. The second was photography: I started taking photos pretty obsessively and that also segued back into printmaking and painting. Flickr helped with that - making myself put up pictures all the time, and I put my drawings up on Flickr sometimes as well.

The upshot of all this is that I'm happier and that's what really counts. I have discovered that even if my art sucks, truly sucks, it doesn't matter. What matters is that I'm doing it for myself. No, I'm not making money with it (I have managed to get a poorly paid job that lets me fiddle around with graphic design and photoshop and stuff and that keeps me happy too - slowly tweaking posters is almost as good as smearing paint for the time-slipping-away-absorptedness of serious art making) but it's keeping me sane, which, I have slowly, slowly realized, is what sent me to art school in the first place. I mean, you can go on and on about the nature of art and why it's there and the creative process and communication and all that stuff but at the end of the day I think art is all about the artist and what s/he needs to do. And by need, I mean need, as in if you have this drive (and no, I don't think everyone has it; I know lots of people who have never made anything even vaguely art like in their lives and they're fine with that, but that's not me and neither, judging from this question, is it you,) then it's like food or drink or sex or beer or something: you can maybe sort of live without doing it, for a while, but it won't be much fun and you'll be cutting out a vital part of yourself, which leads to, oh, I don't know, serial murdering or silent, bitter, unhappiness along the line.

To quote an old art teacher maxim: it's the process, not the product, dude. Seriously. Just make the marks. Who cares if noone likes it? It's for you. If other people like it, that's bonus. That's gravy. That's the product: the process, the important part, is for you.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:56 AM on May 30, 2007 [10 favorites]

The world owes one nothing. If you are going to so audacious as to wring enjoyment from living on your own terms, then you simply must accept yourself as a purveyor of foolish adolescent romantic fantasies, and unapologetically sink your teeth in all the way to the gums, even if no one understands. You must gladly faily, gleefully depart from form, and gratefully sacrifice your aspirations of a creative legacy. There is no such thing. Humans remember all of the wrong things, we celebrate ourselves poorly, we choose our goals naïvely.

I'm a failed idealist, a failed playwright, an untalented painter, a prolific and opinionated observer, and a very flawed person. I have been dragged behind the bumpers of so many dreams that it seemed like a good idea to tie myself to at the time, and I currently occupy solid status as a middle-of-the-bottom-of-the heap low-rung class of employed professionals with interesting personal lives. As I get older, I get pulled into more projects, featured in more venues, and appreciated in small doses, but I will never be more than this, which is to say, not much.

But my life is mine, and I can spoil endless hours taking pictures that few will ever see, drawing pictures that even fewer will see, writing comments on the palimpsestic internet bathroom-wall, etc. I guess it could end there-- for many it does. But I really, genuinely believe that one's self and one's creative life are as real as anything we see around us, and so I live my life under the tireless impression that everything I do and make manifests in this world or in others, that my dreams are real and meaningful whether I have them while asleep or awake, that I can transport items, characters, and elements from one world to the other with complete freedom and in the amount of detail I choose.

The limitations on me are so few. I work for eight hours a day, and having paid my debt to society and to my own material security, I am turned loose into the world to do whatever I want. I could drink beers and lay in one place for the rest of the day-- sometimes I do this just to marvel that this option really exists, and is in fact how many people spend their time. But usually it is impossible for me to forget that the world I want to live in does not wholly exist, and that the only way to change that is to either discover or build it. And once I've done so, it's mine, to share or hoard or exploit as I see fit.

Eight hours a day is such a small price to pay for a staggeringly rich personal life, the content of which being wholly self-generated. Fuck freelance. Fuck "effective creative outlets". That phrase speaks toward controlling and appraising your efforts as you initiate them. What's the point? If you stop evaluating yourself and your place in the scope of your art, your era, your personal progress, and a million other concerns, you may just wind up discovering ideas that thrill you and make your life worth living, whether you ever get to share them with anyone. You don't need an outlet, you ARE an outlet.

I know this comment is gushy and hoarse, but really, there is more to life than having a million people tell you how great your stuff is, or even how bad it is. If there is something in you that needs to be done or made, it is not your gift to the world, it is life's gift to you-- and even if you think that's crap, believing that crap is what will put that gift in your hands.
posted by hermitosis at 11:57 AM on May 30, 2007 [39 favorites]

Don't look at artistic pursuits as economic or social pursuits. Humans create things, humans destroy things. We manipulate the world to see how it works. We're curious and adventurous. Creating art keeps you balanced, it lets you know yourself.

I think you are getting overwhelmed by the idea that there is some concept of "talent" that you could never contain. I don't agree that "talent" actually exists. Successful artists probably have a more refined craft (due to hard work), a fair bit of luck (getting noticed), and a unique perspective (to keep them relevant). But "talent" is a sort of catch-all that makes art seem predetermined and inscrutable.
posted by lubujackson at 12:05 PM on May 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

"You must commit to that secret, urgent, radiant idea. You must have faith in yourself and give it your all, or at least your most, or whatever you have available without having to make special arrangements. You will not foresee what labor and resources will be required, but you must persevere, because you are inspired.
Besides, what's the worst that can happen? You destroy your health, waste your finances, devestate the lives of those around you and eventually either die in miserable penury or forestall that fate by taking your own life? Well, boo, hoo, hoo! Nobody said life was fair."
Ellis Weiner.
posted by Floydd at 12:09 PM on May 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think people are harder on Paul McCartney because they want him to always give them the same kind of transcendant experience they had from him before. Every time you create something, it's different. He's exploring things that are interesting to him, not necessarily trying to please whoever is complaining.

If your life is more like a "normal" life, more like the lives of whatever your potential audience is, you may be able to make something even more relevant.

Both you and Sir Paul are lucky to be able to create intelligently. Don't waste your chance by giving up.
posted by amtho at 12:11 PM on May 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

get a copy of the artist's way, it is all about stuff like this and helped me a lot. if possible, get a group of similarly minded friends together to work through it together. in fact, even if you don't like the book, get the friends. if you have a supportive group of assorted artists getting together to share their work, it can go a long way toward making it feel meaningful. and if they like your stuff, it's not just because they're being nice-- it's because the aspects of art that make it genuinely enjoyable and worthwhile aren't necessarily the same as those that make it commercially viable.

of course i agree with all the "do it for yourself" type comments as well, but try not to get too bogged down in the "real artists have this unstoppable inner urge to make art no matter what" thought patterns. some real artists are like that, and others need encouragement or have to force or trick themselves into sitting down to actually do the work every once in a while. if you want to do it, if you think you might want to do it, to me that is a good enough reason to try to motivate yourself.
posted by lgyre at 12:15 PM on May 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Everyone faces their own path. Are you being creative to entertain yourself/express yourself or to become RICH AND FAMOUS AND WORLD LOVED?

If it's the former, relax. Create shit. No, really, give yourself permission to create shit. Every 'successful' artist spent YEARS tinkering, playing, adjusting, recreating their works. Maybe you care enough to do so. Maybe you don't. Who cares what i think if you're work is GOLDEN - only you have to care. Give yourself permission for your first draft of anything creative to SUCK. Same with the tenth draft (if you can handle it.) Care less about 'perfect' and more about expressing yourself.

If it's the latter, it takes an amazing amount of luck/talent/etc to even make a short term mark, much less a long term mark.
posted by filmgeek at 12:15 PM on May 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

A lot of my film major friends are going through this. Many have downsized their goals to be the next Tarantino/spielbergo,etc and now enter local film contests and festivals, send in submissions for art galleries, go to see a lot of films, and many became interested in other skills that would support the more creative types.

For example, one is going into entertainment law, another works at commercial production house.

They've manged to happily do things that are related to what they studied. So far none have regrets about majoring in film; they just didn't anticipate how hard it is to find work and support themselves outside of LA or NYC.

I think if you're brutally realistic about your circumstances and creative, you will be able to revise your goals without too much disappointment. These people accept that some people are luckier or more talented but that they can do something worthwile. I think this is a sign of intelligence, actually.
posted by Freecola at 12:50 PM on May 30, 2007

But whenever I try to work on anything I'm undermined by the thoughts that I'm perpetuating adolescent fantasies well into a time of life where they become sad sad sad. I'm immediately frustrated by continuing to trip over fundamentals that I should have mastered long ago. Then there's the nagging embarrassment of poor life choices (art school) that left me without marketable skills. And that suspicion that I'm an uncommitted hack.

This is a "strange" point of view. I put "strange" is quotes, because I fear your view is shared by many people, so it's not so much abnormal as unnatural.

You are stopping yourself from doing things that make you happy! There can be valid reasons for doing this (e.g. what makes me happy harms other people or myself), but you haven't hit on any of them. If it makes you happy, do it.

There are two sensible reasons to make art:

1) because you enjoy the process.

2) because you have to. (It's a compulsion.)

Bad reasons include...

1) for the money.

2) for the results.

The first is bad because (a) it doesn't work for most people, and (b) because when it does, many people find that they don't enjoy the money as much as they thought they would.

"Bad" may be too harsh a label for the second. There's nothing wrong with a feeling of accomplishment. But it's not enough. If you spend a year on an art project solely for a couple weeks of pride when it's done, it's not worth it. Love the process or need the process.

I need it (sometimes I love it, but love isn't what drives me). I do it because I have to do it and because I can't imagine not doing it.

I direct plays. I direct plays in a glutted market (NYC). I only enjoy directing classics (which are out of vogue), and I only enjoy directing classics in really minimal ways, without any flashy directorial flairs (as our of vogue as you can get). The chances of me making money are next to zilch. (The changes of me not losing money are next to zilch.)

I have dealt with that by totally accepting it. One day, I imagined a future in which I'm 60, still directing plays at night and still working a day-job by day. I told myself that this is going to be my life. (I don't believe in fate. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised by a different outcome, but I'm not expecting one.)

Once I realized that this was going to be my life -- even though it wasn't the life I wanted most -- it was like a huge weight fell off me.

I'm relaxed about my career while most of my theatre friends are anxious. They spend more time courting agents, sending out headshots and taking boring extra jobs than they do creating art.

My art is better. It's devoid of commercial concerns. I do what's best for the play, not what's best for my career.

I have a good day job. When I realized that was going to be doing my day job for the rest of my life, I realized that I needed to be happy doing. I couldn't live for the day when I could quit and do theatre full time, because that days wasn't likely to come. So I was determined to do what it takes to get a good day job. I worked up some ladders, educated myself, etc. Now theatre isn't the dessert that I get as a reward for finishing my vegetables. Theatre is one of two interesting things that I do.

Does it sound like nirvana? Well, there is one big problem: I can't have a family. Truthfully, this isn't a big problem for me, because my wife and I would probably choose not to have kids anyway. But it would be nice to feel like I at least had a choice.

But I can't see a way that I could have kids, a day job, and do theatre at night. When would I see the kids? Who would take care of them. Maybe it's possible if you have a family support system, but my family lives hundreds of miles away.
posted by grumblebee at 12:53 PM on May 30, 2007

Fortunately, it's really cheap and easy these to make very high quality recordings all by onself. I find it very rewarding to create recordings, little infinitely copiable non-destructible musical artifacts, whether or not I get paid a lot of money for them (but I do like to get paid for them, and sometimes other people want to do that - fortunately it's quite cheap and easy to distribute and sell recordings, too). If you find it rewarding to create something, to bring something into the world that wasn't there before, you should do it. If not, you shouldn't.

And please leave Sir Paul out of this.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:57 PM on May 30, 2007

By the way, I tend to think my work sucks. Yet within my small, off-off-Broadway community, I get a lot of positive reinforcement. People (not friends or family) come back multiple times to see my plays, actors want to work with me, etc.

I have another career as a writer. It also earns me little money, but I get good reviews, I get invited to speak at conferences, and I get continually asked, by publishers, to write more books. But I hate my writing.

I'm positive that I'd rate myself just as poorly if I was a Tony-award-winning director and a best-selling writer. It's great to get praise and recognition, but in the end all that matters is how you judge yourself.
posted by grumblebee at 12:58 PM on May 30, 2007

Every weekend watercolorist and garage band is a joyous "fuck you" to the corporate entertainment industry, which tells us that only the elite few deserve the pleasures of artistic expression, and that art is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it.

Don't let some dyspeptic reviewers, along with a load of Romantic horseshit about the Great Artist, and your own narcissistic self-sabotage, rob you of your creative birthright as a human being.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:34 PM on May 30, 2007 [10 favorites]

Not all creative fruit needs to be Art. Some of it has practical value. A lot of ex-future-artists are graphic designers, and a lot of ex-future-authors are technical writers.

Some of it, too, has social value. When I gave up on ever being a rock star, I took up folk dancing. Now when I think about music, I don't have to worry about whether it's great, whether it says anything, whether it changes anything — all I need to care about is whether it makes my friends happy and keeps the dance going. Those are much smaller questions, and much more manageable for an amateur.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:22 PM on May 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers. I asked the question here because I often see mentions by many people of their various creative pursuits. And to me those people often seem enviable because they appear committed to and energized by their works, outside of whatever level of external validation they receive. When I was considering the question, grumblebee, with his theatre efforts, was one of those I was thinking of as successful in his artistic explorations. I'm trying to reframe my thinking so I'm less concerned with the accounting of time and effort measured against what I think others are capable of producing. For what it's worth, my initial hope was never to be a rich and famous rock star or a Great Artist, but I was interested here in perhaps hearing from people who once had those bigger dreams, who have since downsized ambitions but still maintain their early spirit.
posted by TimTypeZed at 12:10 AM on May 31, 2007

I spent years and years doing music at a pretty decent level in Australia as a musician and dropped out of it when I felt that I didn't want to repeat myself, rehearse, or pander.

Fucked off and did a PhD in French.

I find having a hit once a week or so with random guys (eg, whoever shows up to my regular jam) on my instrument cheers me up through most of the rest of the stuff. It's cool fun, and my organism needs it, but unless you have the structures and the dough super well organised, doing your art shit is generally a pretty crap way to earn not much of a living.

That said, express yourself!
posted by Wolof at 5:53 AM on May 31, 2007

Cary tennises words come to mind. He's not answering your question directly.

What you're talking about is a sense of futility.....

.....caught in that intellectual labyrinth of magical futility that excludes, as by a magician's practiced misdirection, the easy cure of simply accepting radical chaos. (If Joseph K had only stopped and said, "Hey, shit happens!" If only. Like, in your dreams.)

In revolt against modernist despair, I take as a motto those words of the great American modernist poet Wallace Stevens: "The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly."

That is, divide like Jehovah the light from the dark and say this, this here, this is the unfathomable shit and I am going to let it be because I have no clue what it could possibly mean. It might mean hoo-ha or hee-hee. And, for the rest, I am going to stick to the stuff I can understand, which isn't much, but it's enough.

Because I am busy enough constructing fictions that allow me to function. I am busy enough constructing the fiction of my next footfall. I am busy enough, moment by moment, constructing the world, without which constant work the air hisses out of our dream and we asphyxiate like fish. And who would choose that? So we work hard at our comforting fictions; we pretend as hard as we can that we are actually alive. Having murdered all our gods, we work hard on our home brew of mercy.

What I take from this is you need to practice art without serious worry about outcome. The act itself is sufficient.
posted by lalochezia at 6:51 AM on June 1, 2007 [3 favorites]

Being creative is not about financial success, it's about inner exhilaration. It's about incorporating vision (however small) into even the most mundane aspects of life. It's about realizing our own need to express, regardless of critical review.

Spent most of my life raising a family and working insignificant, unrewarding jobs. But managed to keep the spark alive in everyday mom things (making Halloween costumes, having themed parties, hosting neighborhood treasure hunts).

Went back to school much later in life and got a fine arts degree, which brought validation, but not many job offers. Ended up teaching art...not as a regular teacher, but in non-profit environments. There is nothing more rewarding than encouraging others to be creative. The satisfaction of seeing them light up with delight at their creations, coupled with their awe of your "talent" is a win win situation! It's especially gratifying when the students are adults who are much like you...they want to do it, but are afraid that they'll fail.

Get back in the game. Pick up a brush. Take a class. Being around others who are yearning to create has a very euphoric affect, lifting the whole to greater possiblities. Do!
posted by 2lostsoles at 6:22 AM on June 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

I try not to dwell on this sort of thing. I just keep playing and teaching; thankfully, people keep listening to my gigs and showing up for lessons.
posted by chuckdarwin at 9:15 AM on June 7, 2007

« Older Using Facebook "For the Web" applications   |   Premature grey hair--what to do? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.