How to Become a Successful Artist

by Michael Bise December 30, 2015
James Ensor, The Skeleton Painter, 1896

James Ensor, The Skeleton Painter, 1896

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 Ive 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. Its 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 thats 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 youre 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.


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N.A.A. December 30, 2015 - 12:30

Could not agree more with this article.

angela December 30, 2015 - 22:04

nothing here sounds terrible or terrifying, really, but this certainly sounds snide:

“You should get a full time job—search out a tenured post in the Ozarks or something”

and this sounds self-congratulatory:

“But in the ten years since I graduated, I have never worked a 9-to-5 job.”

I guess perception *is* everything.

Shane Tolbert December 31, 2015 - 14:57

Preach it, Michael!

Angela, if you’ve been through the post MFA adjunct ringer, you’d get it. Coveted inner city tenured jobs are rare and either for the art market inner sanctum or the over eager CAA interviewees who would rather teach than make. There’s nothing snide about Michael’s remark. It’s just a sobering truth that the journey(wo)men artists are left with options in bum fuck nowhere and when they land it, we’re all thrilled for them. Yes, you’re in a flyover state or a cornfield, but at least you have dental. If you yourself happen to be teaching in the Ozarks, congrats! My advice to all the green artists soon to matriculate: Throw that piece of paper away, move to New York and work on Wall Street.

Dan Havel January 1, 2016 - 09:49

Although it is frowned upon in the art academic world, I have been teaching art in a high school for 20+ years now. Sometimes I feel this stigma of being “just a high school teacher” has tarnished my gold standard as a collectable artist, but I haven’t regretted the experience once. I tell my students who want to go into art as a profession to find a day job to help support the thing you love to do. Do not rely on the market to make a living. Hopefully it will be job that involves a creative endeavor or allows you the chance to be around art and artists. A day job has allowed me the freedom to make ephemral art experiences that have NO market value as a commodity. Although, my full time job has been inhibiting for my ability to expand my career and take time off to travel and propose art projects outside of Houston. Advice to young artists, don’t be cynical about the art world. Get out there and make things happen.

Liza Littlefield February 23, 2016 - 11:28

Thank you for your thoughts. Since my husband died I have found that I must be in my studio every day. Time and making art healed my heart and it still does, every day. Success is the joy I get in return for art making. It is as simple and as complex as that. Of course, at this point in my life I don’t NEED to sell art, but it feels fine when I do. And Dan, teaching art in high school is a wonderful job. I did for 11 years and loved it. Where else are students going to learn about art especially if their families don’t introduce it to them?

Becky eddy phillips April 17, 2016 - 13:39

Thank you, Michael Bise, for your endeavors in art and writing. That your last 2 articles, this and “What the Hell is the Anthropecene” brought a stir in me of truths. I now know that for one, I AM an art conceptualizing/making machine beyond relief and two, a reference to Nicolas Bourriaud informs us on how to be contemporary no matter where we are. Thanks for the great reads on subjects so private, so dear.


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