Success and failure: The measure of an artist

Mozart died a pauper.

Let that sink in.

The greatest composer in the history of the world died penniless, in a commoners grave that was later dug up (because it wasn’t afforded the protection of the aristocracy).

For any artist, that’s a tough pill to swallow…especially in a time where art is considered beyond the periphery of that which is necessary.

Thanks to that continued existence outside the societal-drawn box, artists struggle with success. This is especially true in a country where art (of any form) is deemed unnecessary. But where medicine heals the body, art heals the soul. When you consider that, is art really unnecessary?

What would you do without television?

What would you do without music?

What would you do without narrative fiction to lead you beyond your personal, daily grind?

Answer those questions and rethink your take on art.

The struggle is real

I’m not just an actor and a writer…I’m also a teacher. I teach the artistry of acting. I see the struggle, every day, on the faces of young, aspiring actors with talent to spare. If I don’t see that struggle painted over their visage, I remind them of the struggle. Why? Because it’s not going away. They have to know:

  • Artists struggle financially
  • Artists struggle with acceptance
  • Artists struggle with rejection
  • Artists struggle with navigating the waters of normalcy

And to those who would ask, “If it’s such a struggle, why bother?” I would posit this:

Artists are defined by their ability to create. Strip an artist of that and you gut their very soul. We face down that beast on a daily basis…knowing that society would rather us close up the shop of our heart and do nothing but become cogs in the machine. Sometimes we do just that: We set aside that which flames the fire of our passion in exchange for acceptance (be it social or financial). Give us a year or two and we’ll break; we’ll leap from the machine and return to our rightful place…only to begin the struggle once again.

We are a resilient bunch, but…

Society can cast us aside like yesterday’s spreadsheets and we will survive. Artists know how to struggle, it’s in our DNA. We can be scorned, derailed, rejected…yet we will continue on.

We have no choice.

But while we rebound and tally ho, we can still become desperate for a measure of success. In a capitalist society, that measure is made in dollars. For the artist in a capitalist society, success means you survive by no means other than your art. For nearly thirty years I made my sole living as an actor. No matter how much (or little) money I made per year, I was able to pay all of my bills by way of my craft. That is slowly becoming unheard of these days.

And that, is a shame.

Nearly every artist I know cannot survive by their art. They must take on other jobs…and we do so willingly. So long as we can still create, we’re okay. But that “so long” is relative and can quickly turn on us, affording no time to do that which gives us life.

But then you have to ask yourself, “Why is that okay in the court of public opinion?”.

Over the years I’ve watched artists with amazing talents, struggle to make ends me. I watched one man die because he was unable to afford the care for a cancer that ate away at his body (all the while he continued doing what he loved). Some may call that irresponsible. Some, however, call that brave. He was a good man, a talented man. In the end, however, society deemed him irrelevant. Why? Because he didn’t fit the mold, didn’t oil the machine, didn’t color within the lines.

Special beasts

Artists are very special creatures, beasts that must be allowed to let loose their creativity…else they crumble under an unforgiving weight. If you enjoy the work of an artist…be it music, movies, television, books, paintings, clothing, etc….show them (and their work) the respect they (and it) deserves. If you are financially capable, support them by purchasing their creations. If you aren’t financially capable at the moment, support them by spreading the word and sharing with them an uplifting pat on the back (or hug…artists love hugs).

As much as many of us would like to deny it, the soul of the artist can be quite fragile. Treat it with care and it will pay you back with glory. Ignore that soul and it will wither and die. Every artist I know must learn to cope with existing in a world that offers up little respect for their craft. We are a side show for a reality defined by bottom line and material wealth.

If Mozart existed today, we wouldn’t have his catalog of profound and  glorious work. Instead, he’d have been shoved aside into some cubicle and told to tow the company line.

No symphonies. No concertos. No operas.

Yeah. Suck on that sour thought for a bit.