The question ‘What is art?’ has kept laymen and philosophers throughout the ages busy and confused. But there is another issue that can be just as controversial – ‘When is art successful?’
This month I held my third solo art exhibition, also the first one in Australia and at an independent venue (the others being at my mother’s art gallery and my own house respectively). And as before I was asked the question ‘How did your exhibition go?’ Of course, I had already asked myself exactly the same thing.
So how does one measure the success of an art exhibition? Or book or composition or performance?
The extremes are easy to determine. If you only get bad reviews and no sales, that can be seen as failure, at least temporarily. If on the other hand it is a sell-out with glowing reviews, it must be a success. It is in the intermediate zone where things get fuzzy. Does a sale of one work but the same glowing reviews count as success? If you make a fortune but art critics look down their noses at you, is that failure?
In my opinion there are four things that determine the success of an art work or body of art – money, time, institutional recognition and user appreciation.
Show me the money
It is a sad fact that monetary value is the most important measure of success for most enterprises. Whether it be books, shoes, sheep or paintings, if you don’t sell enough of it, you are counted as a failure. A best-selling novel or a painting sold for millions is the stamp that says ‘Success’.
Sorry, but you’ll have to die first
If you’re not making a pile of money at the moment, you still have a chance at posthumous fame and fortune. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his entire lifetime. More than a century later, no one would dare call him or his art a failure. Rembrandt died in poverty, as did Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Only a handful of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 poems were published while she was alive and Franz Kafka died without even one work published. Other popular contemporary artists and writers have now been all but forgotten.
Is your art successful? Hmm... Could you wait a hundred years and then ask again?
The award goes to…
You haven’t made a fortune and you’re not ready to die yet but the critics are gushing and the awards are rolling in. Congratulations! Institutional recognition from the art establishment counts for a lot. Whether it is in the form of favourable reviews, invitations to interviews or writer’s festivals, galleries buying your art, or being given a prestigious award, when the authorities say you’re okay, you’ve made it.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the fame will last. Many famous artists were shunned by the establishment of the day and vice versa. See Vincent van Gogh above for a case in point.
This is the one thing that always hits the ego mark and can make financial failure, disregard by the authorities and before-your-time complexities fade like a drop of ink in water (i.e. it doesn’t completely disappear but at least it is very much diluted). The sincere comments of viewers, the tear-in-the-eye smile of listeners, the I-couldn’t-put-it-down astonishment of readers – the fact that your work has somehow resonated with someone, that is the ultimate measure of success. Or so we like to tell ourselves.
The month has passed. The exhibition has been taken down. The party is over. How did it go? Was it a success? In some aspects at least, yes. As for the rest? Only time will tell.