For the most part people are aware of what the outside of success looks like. This is often measured by how long your resume is, where you’ve shown your work, what gallery represents you, what kind of review your show got, how much someone pays for your work, and even what university you graduated from.
Outside success always seems to look terribly glamorous, and every once in a while it can be… But it still never means all that much, and it still never makes the work of the work any easier, if anything it makes it a little harder because the stakes get higher, the possible humble failures become less private and more visible and more cruelly judged.
The day after a successful opening or the completion of a body of work is something I have always likened to a hangover. There is a need to have a big greasy breakfast and get all of people’s celebratory compliments out of your bloodstream. A kind of panic sets in the very next day, an urge to get into the studio because you know you have to start all over again, building something from nothing, seeking the company of those trusted beneficial failures, waiting for those absurd internal dialogues with your own gang of voices. It’s not a very glamorous scenario. But this is precisely what internal success looks like. It is visible only to yourself and while you can trick the rest of the world into thinking you are a good artist, you can never really convince yourself, which is why you keep trying. If you’re lucky and motivated enough to keep making art, life is quiet, you get to work at what you love doing, happily chipping away at something, constructing something, adjusting to a cycle of highs and lows and in betweens, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing it for two years or 50 years, the patterns remain exactly the same. The anxiety continues to set in, the doubts creep in, the baby steps towards mending fragments starts all over again, the cautious urge to peek between the cracks is there. When you find yourself in that place, that’s when you’ll know that the inside is driving the outside.
Both the inside and the outside aspects of success have one thing in common: they both happen only if you’re paying very close attention. Neither one happens casually. There is a kind of will, a hunger, a deep-seated ability to focus that successful people have. As Susan Sontag said, “Be clenched, be curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention.”
As you move away from the structures and comforts of a university setting, with built in responses and scheduled deadlines for completion of work and a captive audience of classmates and teachers indulging in your art in a controlled setting know that you will have to create an alternative support structure for yourself from now on. Those of you that are paying closest attention will do well, those of you who are listening attentively to your real needs will become sensitive and receptive to recognizing a good idea, those of you who are willing to engage in an intimate relationship with possible failure, and risk taking will go very, very far.
That hunger, that desire for success is nothing more than a fear of failure, just like when I had that decisive reaction in my graduate review. And the odd thing is that when you are actually succeeding, it tends to be quiet and comes always quite unannounced and without a lot of fanfare. You will, in fact, be the only person who ever really grasps or recognizes the internal successes. The work of the work is visible only to yourself.
The most rewarding triumphs always seems to dangle just on the either side of the potentially devastating, awkward catastrophes, the embarrassing clichés, the self conscious doubting. As though the biggest leap can only come as a relentless gamble. A self directed “you go first” attitude… a dare to oneself.”