I brought this topic up with my grad students last Spring. It seems obvious, but I think people can loose track of this for a variety of reasons—the idea of actually enjoying the work you do as an artist. Being an artist is an unorthodox thing to do in society in general with various struggles to overcome, so you would think that if someone was putting in the effort to make that happen they would deeply enjoy whatever artistic activity it was that they practiced. But that doesn’t always happen. The original impulse to be an artist often gets reoriented as things like school, commercial sales, reviews, grant applications, trends, routines, etc start to impact the way that an artist works. Success, though only a problem for a very few people who try to make it as an artist, can also have unexpected negative effects. Pressure from expectations, becoming overly busy, and a need to produce more and more product can take its toll and alter what might have been a hoped for dream into an unpleasant grind.
I asked my students to stop and really consider what aspects of their practice give them pleasure and satisfaction, and what parts become unpleasant and annoying. Sometimes it’s hard to sort out exactly where pleasure ends and unpleasantness starts. Some of the students call this the “fun factor.” I’m a little leery of referring to this condition as merely “fun” because though fun might be part of it, the kind of pleasure that I’m talking about might also include rigorous work, hardcore conceptualization, debate and conflict, addressing difficult topics and various other non-fun sounding activities. That’s because pleasure is very individually defined, so I don’t want to suggest that what I’m talking about is only about superficial fun, unless that’s what you are into and want to be experiencing as part of your practice as an artist (probably some level of fun is important for everyone).
What I am advocating for is an evaluation of each person’s activities as an artist, including all of the effort that goes into supporting the artwork, and to then to determine if there is a priority being placed on the things in life that give each artist pleasure, or if somehow the balance has gotten off and there is more time spent on work that is not enjoyable.
From a social practice point of view it is possible to think very expansively about what kind of work you might want to be doing since that approach is not dependent on spending time in a studio (or quasi studio) and there is no need to make objects that might have a commercial appeal for the gallery system. If it turns out that you really like spending time in an isolated place that you have to pay rent for while trying to make rarified objects that rich people might want to buy then you just have to be one of the 2% (or whatever small number it is) of people trying to do that who actually support themselves that way long term, or get yourself a day job and pursue that type of art making on the side if it really brings you satisfaction. My sense is that most artists don’t really want to function in a strictly studio/gallery model and if freed from that system (which is mostly a matter of psychologically breaking away from the conditioning that society has created to limit the idea of what an artist is and how they get paid for what they do) they will have more options for finding pleasure in their practice. I have discussed that dynamic in other writings so I’ll get back to the main point–what aspects of your work as an artist give you pleasure, and how does your practice as an artist support doing those things?
In my discussions with students this sometimes takes a while to sort out. Originally they might have really liked to spend time drawing or making sculptural objects and that’s what lead them to become an artist, but along the way they realized that they didn’t want to always make drawings or sculptural objects, and the art world system didn’t seem appealing once they were able to experience a taste of it. Luckily artists have incredible freedom and once they realize that they can construct a practice that combines all sorts of interests–maybe a little drawing, research, teaching, walking, sleeping, working in a garden, having discussions with groups of people outside of your friends and family, working with kids, curating, etc–they can creatively choose to do what they really want to do.
Having the freedom and flexibility to construct a diversified practice is a major piece in developing a pleasurable life as an artist. But there is another element that is also pervasive in derailing the ability to achieve that pursuit. It is the idea of success. Artists who are trying to operate in the art world largely have similar ideas about what success looks like. I think that perception primarily comes from social/educational conditioning that is really more about commercial gallery interests than creating satisfying individual artistic practices. Success in those terms means having high-end commercial gallery representation, sales, inclusion in important museum collections and international biennials, reviews in art magazines and newspapers, awards from foundations, residencies, etc. All of that requires lots of travel, time spent in studios with assistants and fabricators, socializing at openings and art fairs, staying current with trends, and often times making work when would rather be doing something else.
From what I’ve experienced and observed the problem is that expectations for success are set too high (based on art world convention) and don’t include individual deviation. My suggestion is for artists to examine their unique needs and desires. It might not be of interest for some people to achieve certain status quo aspects of art world success, and instead there might be more value placed on just being successful enough to have consistent but less prestigious projects happening. The projects could be of a diverse nature and without object production, which would be oppositional to the needs of the commercial gallery system. The projects could be localized and possibly might be produced in partnership with non-art funding organizations. The artist might want to spend only part of their week working in a studio or office and the rest of the time doing other seemingly non-work related activities, which could none the less be useful to the development of their practice. If instead of attempting to be a successful artist in the terms of the art world artists found their own concepts of success for their practice, perhaps they would also find more pleasure and satisfaction in their lives and would create precedents that other artists could follow leading them to greater satisfaction as well.