Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Artist's Predicament

All artist are under-appreciated. There isn't enough quality praise to go around. I don't mean gratuitous praise, I mean the kind of praise that makes the artist feel they connected, they are understood, and their art can move people. In my experience, this kind of praise makes up less than 5% of all praise.

No one understands your genius as you do. You are simply too intimate with the art. They would have to dedicate themselves to a study of your work to catch up.

Robert Crumb once commented that having money made you worry less. He didn't say anything about happiness. Sociologists have found that people quickly adjust to rising income. Euphoria from windfalls is short-lived.

Success in art is more removed from success in other endeavors, because even the successful artist finds that people still don't truly understand.

Smart comics artists I know do not understand my strip. Who does? A retired nun, a lifelong friend, a former employee and pal. I hope there will be more, but I must be satisfied with people who merely enjoy it.

I can tell by how most people read it that they are interpreting at fewer levels. The dwell time on complex panels is insufficient. They don't re-read. They don't cherish it. Few seem to have given themselves over to something the way an artist commits to a comic.

We value being understood more than any other reward, though we don't often realize it until the money is rolling in. Then we become rueful, seeing that money is merely a tool, not a validation.

The Fan Feedback Pyramid, below, places types of praise in decreasing order of value:

it made
me feel;
Why I did
not like it;
Why I did like it;
The fact I liked it;
What it reminds me of;
How it compares to earlier;
They don't comment but keep buying;
They don't comment and stop buying;
There is no discernible interest from anyone;
Your art is blacklisted by a totalitarian regime.

With happiness an elusive return on our endeavors, what are we to do?

We must take pleasure in our work. If you're not liking what you are doing, you can't expect to be happy.

We must take pleasure in our freedom: freedom from memos, and meetings, and working to make someone else rich. Sure, freedom can feel an awful lot like unemployment and starvation, and you either have to move to a shack or make compromises.

We must find pleasure in collaborations of understanding, in which other artists develop a deep rapport with our work, and we with theirs.

You can work in secrecy, like Wyeth with the Helga paintings. This puts off the days of reckoning. It doesn't resolve them. Throwing open the barn doors, he was taciturn.

To the extent that you are smarter and more talented and more creative than others, you have to reconcile yourself to being a freak. This is part of the artist's alienation. Alienation breeds loneliness and unhappiness. You must reinforce the bonds you do have with the common person by setting aside your artist persona at times and being "normal." One of the best ideas I've heard lately: the cartoonist who volunteers with a Scout troop.

Sitting in cafes, dressed in black, with other artists and denouncing normal people as an infestation of a pretty good planet does not work. I had a go at that lifestyle. Soon you're thinking about suicide.

You have to mingle where your status as an artist is unknown. When my dad doesn't want to discuss his career, he tells people he sells insurance products.

Maintain you Normal Person ID Card. Express interest in the endeavors of others. Park your IQ, your artistic brilliance and highbrow interests and get down with some kids, or colorful townsfolk. Practice taking satisfaction from those interactions and you will be anchored against the artistic vicissitudes.

And for the sake of grace, never publicly whine. It cheapens the aspirations of those who wish they had your gifts.