Less than Successful as an Artist? Consider Reducing your Output

As you may know, there is currently a glut of advice to artists. It doesn’t matter what sort of artist you are, or what medium you work in, advice is abundant and easily found. Some advisors want to charge you for their words of wisdom; others will happily give you their opinion for free. Almost all of the advice out there boils down to one thing: be prolific; produce and then produce some more. This is always followed by sales advice, which is a whole subject unto itself. Lately, however, I have come across suggestions that perhaps high-volume output may not be exactly what we need to be doing.

This is not to suggest that you can become an expert in any less than the 10,000 hours that studies suggest are required to gain expertise in any field. But it is to suggest that in order to be successful, or influential, or even famous, you do not necessarily have to produce a new piece of art every week. Real art takes time, and often requires repeated tries to get it right. And unless you are a hack, my guess is what you want to put out into the world is work that is right, or as close to right as you can get it.

And I am serious about the successful, influential or famous part. Consider, for example, that Dutch painter Jan Vermeer produced less than 40 canvases during his lifetime, or that award-winning poet Grace Paley produced only three books in her thirty-year career, all three of which were critical successes. Robert M. Pirsig has written exactly two books, at least one of which may be the one of the most influential philosophical writings of the twentieth century.  Harper Lee produced a single book: To Kill a Mockingbird. Even Leonardo da Vinci completed “only about 15 paintings in his whole lifetime.”

There are a number of reasons for this level of output. Some artists may have said what they have to say and feel that to keep making unsubstantial work is a waste of time and energy. Some are involved in other equally important activities. Such was the case with Grace Paley: “Part of the reason she had such a small output is that she was busy with other things , not just raising kids but working as a peace activist.”

Sometimes it’s the nature of the work. Daniel Grant in his article “The Art World’s Slowpokes” lists seven contemporary artists with relatively small annual output: William Beckman, Barbara Dixon Drewa, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, Candace Jans, Scott Pryor, Douglas Safranek. All of these artists are photorealistic painters, an art which require painstakingly detailed painting, which, of course takes enormous amounts of time.

Christina Patterson says that, based on his writing in his notebooks, Leonardo “thought, like all great artists, that nothing he did was ever good enough. He knew that people who thought their work was good enough were nearly always wrong.”

So it’s a matter of quality and judging what is good enough to show other people, at least according to Leonardo. It’s a novel concept in an era when every image that a photographer produces and every painting that an artist makes appears instantly on Tumblr, or whatever the current “in” website is. And if we’re so busy producing that we lose sight of quality, maybe it’s time we reevaluate. Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Maybe that’s something that we should all think about.



Date: Monday, 12. December 2011 1:38
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