An Artist Cannot Fail
First published July 2018
"An artist cannot fail: it is a success to be one."
I came across this quote from Charles Horton Cooley. I like it. If we, as artists, were to measure our success in terms of earnings*, the majority of us would feel like failures. But this guy sees us as successes. Who is he? An American sociologist, who lived from 1864 to 1929, his most famous concept was The Looking Glass Self, which describes how our sense of identity is constructed, and continues to be developed, in three stages.
You imagine how you appear to the other person.
You imagine the judgment of the other person.
You feel some sense of pride, happiness, guilt, or shame.
This sense of self he describes, the social self, is not what’s at work when we’re creative. It’s more aligned to the thoughts and impulses that block creativity. To be an artist we need to by-pass that looking glass trap, at least some of the time.
It takes something else, something wonderful, for us to hold faith with what we have not yet seen or heard, intuiting just enough to move us closer, step by step, to creating it.
Cooley values faith as essential to originality.
“How is a man to find where he belongs in life? The more original he is, the less likely is he to find his place prepared for him. He must not expect to see from the beginning what mould his life will take... The power to work on faith is what distinguishes great men.”
[And of course the wording of this is limited by the thinking of the time to referring to great men, and not women.]
In order not to be thrown off track by the positive, indifferent or negative judgements of others, real or imagined, we need a strong compass. Perhaps it’s like a rocket trying to escape gravity. What fuel could be strong enough to help pull us in the direction of creating?
Hafiz tells us in this poem, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.
Your fidelity to love, that is all you need.
No day will then match your strength.
What was once a fear or problem will see
you coming, and step aside…or run.
A poet I know can name a list of words that thrill her. A musician will obsess over a particular chord to immerse himself in a particularly glorious combination of notes. For me it’s colour; at the moment, it’s scarlet lake that makes my heart pound. We each have find our own way to what we love. Whatever will allow you to look beyond that artificial sense of self, constructed by the judgements that you imagine others are making, you can’t get from someone else. As you search for your fuel, you’re going to have to be prepared to look a little bit odd in the imaginations of others as you obsess with whatever will allow you to escape gravity for even a moment. But are we really the ones who are acting strangely?
“A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else's imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!”
*More than half the visual artists in the UK make less than £5,000 per annum from their art practice and over 70% make less than £10,000 per annum. The statistics are only slightly different in the USA, and considerably worse for women
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