Carrie Miller reflects on the pernicious effects of jealousy in the art world – but finds a ray of sunshine in the attitudes of a younger crew…
An artist I once knew was always complaining about the fact that they weren’t successful. Nothing unusual about that. But then their career took off; they won a couple of major prizes, became a media darling and the sales started pouring in.
The strange thing was they still acted like a miserable bastard, still viciously critical of other artists who achieved success – the same success they were now enjoying. As someone still struggling in my own career, their attitude frustrated me. So I asked them why they weren’t finally happy now they had everything they had ever wanted. The artist snapped back, “You just don’t understand. They only thing more difficult than being an unsuccessful artist is being a successful one”.
After years of being immersed in the art world, hanging around both struggling and successful artists, this reaction to success made me wonder if professional satisfaction was something that was necessarily elusive for artists because of the nature of their egos. And to be honest, as much as I love artists, in my pretty lengthy experience of them they are screwed up bunch when it comes to their careers.
I’ve worked in all sorts of jobs, including writing and academia, both professions filled with self-obsessed neurotics, and yet I reckon the professional jealousy and insecurity that pervades the art world trumps all others.
It’s made even more intense because the art world is covered by a superficial veneer of gentility and an expectation that civilised practitioners of the aesthetic should be above ordinary and crass emotional responses such as jealousy. So on the surface at least, everyone seems so nice and supportive of each other.
Scratch that surface though, and there are people wanting to scratch each other’s eyes out. Admit it. Haven’t you at least once indulged in nasty gossip about someone who’s hitting a few more home runs than you? Haven’t you ever trashed someone’s work that was well received, whined about someone winning yet another prize, getting picked up by a prestigious gallery or hogging all the media attention?
I’m not an artist and I’ve done it. And as much as I love my friends that are artists, a large number of them spend a large amount of time ruminating over other people’s successes.
It’s not all bad news however. In the last few years I’ve noticed a bit of a sea change in the arts community. Some of the newer generation of artists that I professionally and personally encounter seem a little less neurotic about their peers. It’s hard to say what’s driving this move away from the near obsessional focus on other artists to a more self-contained attitude and focus on one’s own career. Perhaps it’s the shift away from the romantic view of art-making as a life or death existential struggle to a career choice not any fancier than many others. If I think of the various artists I know, there seems to be some truth to this. Those that hang on to the idea that what they are doing is somehow more meaningful or more important than what the average person does are more likely to see the stakes as higher and therefore feel pitted against those who are in the same game.
By the same token, those who are more pragmatic about their choice of vocation are less likely to have their entire egos implicated in what they do and can be a little more relaxed when others do well.
But in reality, most artists continue to be a fragile lot. I still field almost daily calls from my artist friends in the midst of some existential crisis which inevitably includes a touch of bitterness about the achievements of their colleagues. While I can understand it’s frustrating that it seems mediocrity rises to the top – you know what? It does in all professions. Like it or not, art isn’t some rarefied human endeavour free of the banalities of market forces.
Next time you’re tempted to say something bitchy about those on top, or alternatively are being torn down because you’ve hit the big time, remember the words of Salvador Dali: “The thermometer of success is merely the jealousy of the malcontents.”