James: Comparatively (Un)Successful Artist - Toward Community

James: Comparatively (Un)Successful Artist


Please excuse me while I blow my own trumpet for the next few lines, I have a point to make…

I’m an artist. I’ve had solo exhibitions in New York, San Francisco, London and Barcelona. I’ve worked on graphic design projects for Converse, MTV, Linkin Park and Ford. I’ve had my work published in many magazines and books. I’m successful, right?
Then why, strangely, do I not actually feel successful?

When I first started out, after graduating from University in 2005, Myspace was just coming into prominence. I was lucky to hit a unique time when I was part of a relatively small amount of artists promoting themselves through online social media. I used it to make some valuable connections and I fell in with the U.S. art crowd known as the Pop Surrealists. I was by no means a major player but I’ve exhibited with a lot of the best known artists in that scene.
In order to get to the position I’m in now I looked at those artists, and many others all over the world via the internet and knew I had to raise my game to stand out above the crowd. I became a better artist because of it. But that constant comparison to others also had a negative effect. I felt my work was never good enough.

Comparing yourself to others in order to spur improvement is how all things progress and get better, competition is good. But fast forward to 2015 and the deluge of art now on the web, a major increase in galleries and art fairs across the globe, and the competition is now overwhelming to say the least.

I earn no more than ¬£2,500 from a large painting, if it sells, which isn’t always the case, and it eventually works out at less than minimum wage. I may have a great looking CV but I’m by no means rolling in it. If I chose to compare myself to fellow students I studied with on my University fine art course, I’d feel like a raging success, but I don’t, I compare myself to other artists in the art world I’m now a part of, artists that regularly sell work for 4 times the amount I do if not more.

As an artist comparison to other artists can lead to shallow one-upmanship and the creating of purely ‘fashionable’ work that doesn’t lead to a sustainable career. To create something truly unique an artist must try to look internally and find their own path. Unfortunately, that isn’t so simple.

The main roads in the history of art, Abstraction, Minimilisim, Expressionism, Pop art etc. created by the ‘Masters’ – Kandinsky, Malevich, Van Gogh, Warhol etc. – were in a way easy paths to tread. In their time the art world was uncharted territory, all you had to do was move slightly off the beaten path – paint in a brighter colour, not use a brush to paint, make art from industrial materials – and you were deemed a visionary. Now that once barren territory is filled with motorways and A roads, B roads, country lanes, bike paths, bridleways and footpaths. The territory has almost been fully explored.
Yes, there is still a lot to be found as technology evolves and new horizons are opened up, but hand in hand with that same growth comes an over-popularization of the mentality to innovate, find fresh perspectives, to approach everything from multiple angles and in doing so discover a truly original idea (If you know anything about the art world you’ll know it’s pretty much caved in on itself trying to do this). As a result any path worth treading is now crowded with a hundred other people trying to get there first, only to discover someone already did.

In my recent desperation to stand out above the crowd I started to see my work as ‘content’, fodder for art blogs and twitter feeds. What will get the most retweets? What will look click-able in a 100×100 pixel thumbnail? What hashtags work the best to get likes on Instagram? What colour palette will work best in an art collectors living room? This really isn’t how an artist should think.

Looking forward into the future and obsessing over the ‘New’ can only get you so far. Sometimes looking back can inform how best to move forward.

Thousands of years ago we lived in small tribes, it’s where we evolved our now deeply embedded psychological judgements about our standing in society. If we make a mistake around people we will never see again we still get embarrassed.¬†This is because we evolved in small social structures where, if we did something wrong in a community of only 100 people, everyone would eventually find out what we did and our place in the hierarchy might be threatened. In a tribe of so few people our every action truly meant something.

Ancient tribes, as with existing ones that remain today, would often have a Shaman figure within the community who played a vital role in connecting the physical and spiritual realms. The Shaman would venture into uncharted mental and physical worlds bringing back knowledge and different perspectives that would enrich and enliven everyday existence. In recent times artists, musicians, filmmakers, novelists etc. have taken on a similar role.

I often spend prolonged periods of time alone when I’m making my work, I enter periods of silence where my thoughts exist in an entirely abstract realm of thought and feeling. This mental absorption in the none physical realm would probably have been encouraged in tribal communities and maybe incorporated into Shamanic practices, helping me to express those ideas in a way that would have connected with people much more directly.
It isn’t necessarily the Shamanic part that’s important, going too far into that head space can render communication of those ideas too obscure and esoteric (as with a lot of modern day Conceptual Art, it’s too far down the art world rabbit hole for the general public to understand, which I’ve always had a problem with even if I understand it myself). It’s the connection part that truly matters.

I constantly seek to explore new boundaries within my work and I’ll always look to compare my work to others in order to gauge where it’s possible to stretch those boundaries too, but it’s all too easy to loose your internal locus in doing so. Rather than judge my success on a global scale, if I could reconnect with that sense of belonging within a small localized structure, and create work that, although informed by my place in the larger art world, is predominantly expressed from a deeply routed sense of self-exploration and connection to others, maybe I’ll be able to finally feel like a successful artist.

* * *

This July/August I will be having an exhibition of work (my first UK solo show since 2008) in a gallery space directly next to my studio, as local as I could possibly get! Please come along. Opening night is July 31st, Friday, 6-9pm. More info at bankley.org.uk

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James Roper

James Roper is an Independent Fine Art Professional, based in Manchester, UK, who focuses on the themes of spirituality and the superficiality of mainstream Western culture. See James' Website

8 thoughts on “James: Comparatively (Un)Successful Artist

  • 30th July 2015 at 9:00 am

    Great article James. Thank you.

    Could you tell us what sort of things you’re doing to connect with your local art community?

    • 10th August 2015 at 9:17 am

      Actually engaging with artists in my studios a bit more for a start. Having shown mainly abroad I’ve felt very separated both artistically and personally as I was the only one engaged with an art scene outside of the UK. By doing shows locally I can invite people I know and also get them involved in different ways which I’ve never been able to do, even when I’ve had shows in London. More to come hopefully.

  • 30th July 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Fantastic article Mr Roper. A true talent that I had the pleasure of studying with. A hope the show is a sell out. Peace

    • 3rd August 2015 at 5:10 pm

      Thanks for sharing! I’d love to make your show and I wish you all the best.
      Some say there’s much vanity in comparison – maybe just knowing that you had the most fun in the process of creating is the most important. The self-consciousness of one’s work / place in society today is more pronounced. In terms of earnings, a similar conversation with a writer friend of mine showed that no-one really is making a lot of money unless you become incredibly well-known. Which points back to the fun and enjoyment and love of it. Pay no mind to anything else, it’s all noise! Good luck.

    • 10th August 2015 at 9:21 am

      Thanks for taking time to read, always appreciate the support.
      FYI – It was in no way a sell out. It’s very hard to do unless your prices are super low or your VERY well known. One day maybe, we’ll see.


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