Blog / 2021 / What You Need to Be a Successful Artist

March 7, 2021

“Artist Mindset for Success” was the title of the talk, and the speaker certainly delivered, sharing countless stories of creatives who’d managed to shed negative ideas about themselves and their work in order to achieve everything they ever wanted. It all sounded amazing, and, with every new anecdote, I imagined which parts of my story I might be able to rewrite if only I could shift my mindset. Was my sometimes-meager income as an artist really just a result of poor mental hygiene around the idea of money? Because if so, I was ready to wash my brain however necessary!

And then I remembered white supremacy, the patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism.

I like the idea of being responsible—or, as the speaker put it, “response able!”—for my life and choices, but at some point I also have to acknowledge that I don’t control the universe. Systemic forms of oppression exist, and oppressed people can’t mindset-for-success their way out of that oppression.

When I pointed this out to the speaker, she told me that, in her experience, successful gay artists, for example, don’t label themselves as “queer.” Furthermore, she said that those successful gay artists never even think of themselves as marginalized, which surprised me because, in my experience, it’s impossible know what’s going on in other people’s minds.

The speaker then recommended that artists avoid focusing on limitations, instead seeking out opportunities where their art will be appreciated, and that makes sense. She was basically saying: know your audience and find ways to get your work in front of them.

Still, the suggestion is superficial. It fails to acknowledge that the white hetero cis male audience is the one with that comes with the real money, power, and connections. You can certainly achieve some success by exhibiting only where your art will be enthusiastically received, but ultimately that serves neither you nor society.

An optimistic outlook goes a long way, but it can’t take you all the way.

A joyful and thoughtful attitude is certainly worthwhile in that it makes your everyday life more pleasant, but let’s not pretend that a success-oriented mindset will, on its own, allow you to achieve anything you want.

To say it will is to negate the experiences of those who’ve been hit hardest by systemic oppression. To say it will is to fail to acknowledge the role of chance in our lives. To say it will is to ignore the fact that success stories always involve a good deal of luck. The myth that successful people are self-made damages those who believe it as well as society as a whole.

Gwenn Seemel donkey painting process
painting process

As far as I’m concerned, artists don’t need a success-oriented mindset as much as they need courage, passion, and persistence.

For some, courage is the difficult part. They struggle with the vulnerability of sharing of themselves through their art, or they have a hard time overcoming a lifetime of messaging about how being an artist is selfish or stupid.

For others, the passion wanes when success doesn’t happen quickly enough or in the way they were expecting. They lose that loving feeling when they see mediocre art getting accolades.

For the majority, persistence is where it all falls apart. Some artists probably should quit, but, for most, a dollop of donkey-like stubbornness is all that’s necessary. The only difference between the people we think of as artists and the multitudes used-to-be creatives is that the artists are the ones who succeeded at keeping on making.

blue baby donkey painting in acrylic on paper
Gwenn Seemel
Baby Donkey
2021
acrylic and colored pencil on paper
7 x 5 inches

This little blue donkey already has a forever home, but there are prints and pretty things with this image in my Redbubble shop as well as other artworks on paper that are still available.


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