Before I divulge the secret of being a successful artist to the young people out there wondering if it’s a viable career path I should start by mentioning that I make large, obstinately autobiographical, narrative, representational drawings. So from the outset I’ve locked myself out of most contemporary art markets. I make art out of need, not money. I think most successful artists would say that. But artists are notorious liars, so like Pliny the Elder said, take everything I say with a grain of salt.
I believe that being born and living in the world is a trauma for human beings. We are, by nature, at odds with our environment and with each other. Love is rare and our ability to accept death is rarer still. I believe that this trauma is universal and that while our cultural attempts to cope with it vary greatly, the paradox remains that we are simultaneously and forever murderers, racists, thieves and liars, as well as daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, and lovers.
I make art in an effort to ease my pain and anger in the recognition of that trauma and paradox. As humans we are often blind to the love around us, and because even if we find it, we often forget that it’s there after a little while—so I make art to continually rediscover where the love in my life exists. I make art to prevent the decay of my memory. It’s through art that I think, experience and understand my circumstances. I hope, but don’t quite believe, that that anyone can find a corner in one of my drawings in which they can live. My job is to go for the big truths.
But my commitment—my compulsive need—to ease my own fears and anxieties and to cement my life in history happens through the making of art and not through the daily community of family and friends. Even as I imagine that I am getting closer to an understanding of my place in this trauma, I find myself alienated from those I love. I skip holidays, parties and openings, and turn down invitations to lunch and dinner with friends in order to preserve every minute I can for the studio. I recreate my history but in the present moment, my wife, my aging mother, and even the grandmother who helped raise me are neglected as I work to immortalize them on paper. Real life isn’t real for me until I’ve made work about it.
And this, I think, is the clearest reason I can offer for what can just barely be described as my success as an artist. I put the work and the studio above and before anything else because I don’t have a choice. Making art is breathing for me. If I could do something else and be fulfilled I would have quit a long time ago because making art is not worth it by any reasonable, measurable standard. The odds of showing your work regularly are slim and the odds of making a living from your work are slimmer still. If you’re lucky enough (and yes, it’s mostly luck) to find yourself in the position of making a living making art, the anxiety only increases with the uncertainty of sustaining that precarious position. Galleries abandon you, show offers stop, people you trust talk shit about you, and trivial oversights grow into lasting grudges. Because I don’t have a career with any kind of guaranteed market, I wake up most days with a low level of panic, wondering if people will just stop giving a shit about what I do.
This isn’t a healthy way to live. I don’t recommend it. It’s semi-toxic, not only for you but also for the people who love you. You should get a full time job—search out a tenured post in the Ozarks or something—instead of picking up piecemeal work when the bank account hemorrhage looks grave. But in the ten years since I graduated, I have never worked a 9-to-5 job. I’ve never spent a whole day answering emails or taking phone calls. I’ve never ended my day thinking of myself as just one more moving part in a machine, although ultimately that’s what I am. Perception is everything.
As an artist, whatever precarious balance you’ve achieved can disappear overnight. Nobody owes artists anything, including the people who care about us. It comes with the privilege of being selfish enough to do the thing. Nobody owes you a laugh if you’re not funny. If you’re not an artist this all probably sounds terrible and terrifying. If you are an artist, it still sounds terrible, but you’re going to do it anyway.