Every now and then I come across one of those “Which character from [insert: Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, Star Wars etc.] are you?” quizzes. Buzzfeed seems particularly relentless at producing them, often as many as several per day. As fun as they are, I usually ignore them, however I have taken four or five Myer-Briggs tests, which generally earn more respect than “What Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry house do you belong in?”. Taken by about 2 million people annually, and especially popular in the corporate world and on dating sites, they have actually been proved completely meaningless, as this article explains. According to Joseph Stromberg and Estelle Caswell, the Myer-Briggs test, which was developed in the 1940s, was “based on the totally untested theories of Carl Jung and is now thoroughly disregarded by the psychology community. Even Jung warned that his personality ‘types’ were just rough tendencies he’d observed, rather than strict classifications. Several analyses have shown the test is totally ineffective at predicting people’s success in various jobs, and that about half of the people who take it twice get different results each time”. Which was exactly my experience, although it didn’t stop me from taking the test a few times, just like “getting” a random character from a TV series or film won’t stop people from enthusiastically clicking on yet another link as it pops up in their newsfeed. Why is that? It’s simple: our brains love tribalism. We are wired at birth to pick and favor our own group over others. Henri Tajfel’s minimal group paradigm experiment from 1970s proved just how easy it is for discrimination to occur between groups. He demonstrated that the minimal condition needed for group favoritism is simply categorization, no matter how arbitrary the criteria, which in the case of the experiment was merely flipping a coin.
So what personality quizzes do is really responding to that need. We are attracted to the idea of finding our group based on our personality, rather than geography (like a family), on what we value and cherish. So instead of writing that long overdue email to someone, finishing an article or paying a bill, we will engage in a quiz, no matter how stupid, and then we will share our results, asking “I got so-and-so, and what about you?” to find our tribemates. But there’s a certain value to be found in those quizzes, for we can actually learn about ourselves — and not from the result we get but from our response to it. People who take a test over and over again because they got Charlotte York although they identified themselves with Carrie Bradshaw, have a certain idea of themselves which needs validation. And if they try to investigate why that is, they have a chance of getting a better understanding of their ideals and shortcomings. Perhaps they would like to be free and spontaneous but are in fact rigid and constrained, and instead of either accepting this trait or working on changing it, they want a test to tell them that they’re indeed who they want to be. If they realise that this is the case, then I would say the quiz did its job. Whatever gives us the incentive to be honest with ourselves is good.
What I am proposing below is not exactly a quiz per se, for there are no answers and questions, but you can think of it more like a result sheet. It comes from a lot of observations of artists, as well as numerous conversations, books and articles I’ve read about people’s approach to making art, their goals, routines, and efforts. A lot of people make some form of art, some of them calling themselves artists, others not. And while I’m not saying that categorisation or labelling is important, I believe that knowing what we want to be as artists and where we want to get, is crucial to taking the right steps and shaping our life according to our goals. So the aim of my post is this: get us to look at ourselves and ask some important questions.
The “Overnight” Success
This type is a frequent object of attention from fellow artists. Whether it’s to gain confidence (“So it is possible to make a living from one’s art!”) or wallow in frustration (“Yeah, if only I… [lived in NYC / had rich parents / knew so-and-so] I would be the same!”), we often concentrate on those few (literally a few) lucky people who managed to get high up the career and prestige ladder relatively quickly. Of course, I’m using the term “overnight” ironically, for nothing really happens overnight. Every success, bar the kind that stems from participating in a reality show, is preceded by hard work, but there are some people who get to find their audience, patrons and collaborators early in their career. So who are these lucky ones? They’re in their 20s, have thousands of Instagram fans, extraordinary collaborations, high-profile clients, exhibitions in reputable galleries, extensive media coverage, and stay on top of various “10 Artists to Watch This Year” listings. They’re bold, outspoken, extrovert, attractive, flamboyant and desirable. They’re the people we envy, wondering why we didn’t become successful a decade ago. But the truth is, we don’t know what price they’ve paid, are paying or will pay for their early success. And what sacrifices they had to make to get to where they are, in terms of their personal life, family, friends and health. Jessica Walsh, who was 25 when she became a partner at Sagmeister Inc, one of the world’s most iconic studios which subsequently changed its name to Sagmeister & Walsh, suffered from eating disorders, anxiety and depression. Despite her claims that she’s overcome the problems, one of the Instagram accounts dedicated to “personal style and travel” (which translates to meticulously stylised photographs showing her in the most flattering and glamorous poses, wearing extravagant clothes), would suggest otherwise. Which only shows that when you’re considered an icon, the pressure to stay cool and trendy is even higher. She also suffers from insomnia, often sleeping no more than 3-5 hours, which is most likely affecting her health. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who left Nigeria for America, becoming one of the most successful contemporary artists within the past few years (her paintings sell for millions of dollars to private collectors and museums like LACMA, the Whitney and the Tate Modern), is very much torn between the two countries, considering Nigeria her home and worrying about “leaving her people” being married to a non-lgbo person, a white man from Texas. With an unemployed husband and two kids, Zoe Pawlak, who grossed more than $100,000 at the age of 30, simply had to find a way to make her paintings sell, and she used every possibility she could to get to people, including swapping her paintings for services and goods. All that whilst struggling with alcohol abuse.
The Late Bloomer
Unlike the “Overnight” Success people, Late Bloomers didn’t find themselves at the right place and time to get the kind of ultra rare opportunity that would telescope them up the game. They’re just as dedicated and passionate, but perhaps a bit more shy, secluded and patient in waiting for their moment. Working away from the spotlight, they’ve adopted the baby steps approach, for they often have to juggle creative work, paid work and personal life, not wanting for the latter to be too affected by their passion. Late Bloomers are the people who often raise eyebrows among their “well-meaning” friends who are comfortably paying their house mortgage and grapple with why their artist friend, who lives in a rented accommodation and takes public transport, “still bothers with the art thing” when they could just focus on getting themselves a proper career. But for the Late Bloomers this is not an option. Their goal isn’t money or extravagant holidays and showing off the latest car, but pursuing their creative dreams. That’s why paid work is not perceived as a career in itself but only a way to support themselves while they’re doing projects which are not yet bringing sufficient income. And while they’re working towards a success, they accept the fact that there’s no certainty as to if and when that success happens. It might be in their thirties, forties, fifties or perhaps nineties. Or perhaps never — or not the kind of success that would make the news. Late Bloomer is prepared for a long bumpy road with no shortcuts. After interviewing the 32-years old LA-based painter Sojourner Truth Parsons two years ago, Fiona Duncan wrote: “She’s patient. As Parsons and I walked (…), the artist mused that what professional success she seeks may not land for decades. She projects herself as a woman revered solely in old age.” (Perhaps the British painter Rose Wylie, who only got discovered when she was in her 70s, has a point when she says that “artists should only be shown when they are 80, turning the shameless ageism of our world on its head”.) As High MacLeod says in his book, Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity: “Doing anything worthwhile takes forever. 90% of what separates successful people and failed people is time, effort, and stamina. (…) Put the hours in, do it for long enough and magical, life-transforming things happen eventually. Sure, that means less time watching TV, internet surfing, going out or whatever. But who cares?” As long as he keeps working towards his goals, Late Bloomer is happy.
Hobbyists are people who either might have had ambitions to turn art into a career but gave up on the Big Dream or never really considered doing art professionally in the first place although they have the skills and take great pleasure from doing it. So they are working on their projects in their free time, without any particular goals or pressure. They’re happy with whatever other jobs they have and are not actively trying to get to a certain place or put themselves out there, just continue to work with little or no exposure. Hobbyists are the people everyone likes. They don’t have grand ambitions which often annoy their well-off friends (who gave up on theirs as soon as they got promoted at the office and decided that they enjoy eating sushi more than canned beans), keeping their hobby at bay. And of course, if there is no burning desire to make art, that is ok, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a hobby. But sometimes the Hobbyist is a Late Bloomer who was told that his passion is ridiculous, and will never work out, and that they’ll never make it. Or it can also be a self-deluding artist, the one who thinks that just by saying “I’m working on a novel”, the book will magically appear written, printed and leather-bound, with a cover designed by Jessica Walsh. Nope. Doing something once in a blue moon can be lots of fun, relaxing and enjoyable, but this won’t get us far. While a Late Bloomer will be getting up an hour earlier each day before his child wakes up to write half a page, and in a year’s time will have a manuscript ready, a self-deluding Hobbyist will hit “snooze” and turn the other way, thinking to themselves “I’ll get to that book later.” Which might be in a month or year, or perhaps never.
The Tortured Artist
Tortured Artists are not necessarily undiscovered geniuses like Van Gogh, they’re just people for whom a life in the shadows is a reason to be bitter and unhappy. They’re the ones who gave up on their artistic journey, and whilst they never really made peace with art being merely a hobby, they lack sufficient determination and discipline to take it out of the hobbyzone. These are talented people who might have started well, been considered promising at school, got shiny diplomas and lots of words of encouragement but weren’t able to deal with the reality of trying to make a living as an artist. Despite loving what they do, they couldn’t push through what Seth Godin defined as the dip and decided that the art world is horrible, brutal and calculated, that you need to have connections, money and become a sellout — all in a desperate attempt to justify quitting something that is so dear to their heart. They’re envious of everyone around them — the “Overnight” Success people (“Why did this totally mediocre artist get successful and not me?!”), Late Bloomers (who will eventually start getting more and more exposure thanks to their dedication) and Hobbyists, because those seem truly at ease with not having a vision of a solo exhibition at the Tate. This group is a very bad environment to be in. I’ve met a few extremely talented people who had adopted this attitude, become bitter and started limiting their friends to those who are equally frustrated. It’s a road to nowhere but a mental illness.
So, what type of artist are you? And, more importantly, what type do you want to be?