Some of Today’s Most Prominent Artists on Courage, Creativity, Criticism, Success, and What It Means to Be a Great Artist
Wisdom from Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Damien Hirst, Laurie Simmons, Carroll Dunham, and more.
By Maria Popova
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her spectacular letter to Sherwood Anderson. “Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you…” And yet, as human beings, we orient ourselves in the darkness of the unknown by grasping blindly for familiar points of reference, seeking to construct a compass out of similarities and contrasts relative to our familiar world, and out of those we try to construct a framework for what we call success. This is especially true of such nebulous subjects as art, where there is no true North, no universal gold standard of success, so we seek tangibles — like the market — to orient ourselves in the maze of merit. The result can be a great crisis of confidence in artists and a great arrogance in audiences, leaving us still more unsure, as individuals and as a culture, of what makes great art and what it really means to be an artist.
In 33 Artists in 3 Acts (public library) — a belated but wildly worthy addition to the best art books of 2014 — journalist Sarah Thornton sets out to answer these delicate but crucial questions by peering into “the nature of being a professional artist today” and “how artists move through the world and explain themselves” via visits and conversations with such titans of contemporary art as Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Laurie Simmons, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Cindy Sherman. Thornton spent four years traveling several hundred miles to interview 130 artists, of whom she chose 33 — those most “open, articulate, and honest,” who fall “at diverse points along the following spectrums: entertainer versus academic, materialist versus idealist, narcissist versus altruist, loner versus collaborator” — hailing from five continents and fourteen countries. She then divided the great sensemaking task of her project into three umbrella themes — politics, which examines the relationship between the artists’ work and their ethics, attitude to power, and sense of civic responsibility, with a special focus on freedom of speech and human rights; kinship, which explores the ecosystem of peers, influences, and patrons of which Art is woven, all the way from the large-scale creative lineage of inspirations to one actual nuclear family: photographer Laurie Simmons, painter Carroll Dunham, and writer-actor-director Lena Dunham; and craft, a survey of the practicalities of art, from skills to routines to studio spaces.
Thornton writes in the introduction:
Artists don’t just make art. They create and preserve myths… In a sphere where anything can be art, there is no objective measurement of quality, so ambitious artists must establish their own standards of excellence. Generating such standards requires not only immense self-confidence, but the conviction of others. Like competing deities, artists today need to perform in ways that yield a faithful following.
Echoing Ursula K. Le Guin’s wryly wise assertion that “all the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others,” Thornton — who later notes that “everyone’s personal history is a creatively edited story” — adds:
The walk and talk of an artist has to persuade, not just others but the performers themselves. Whether they have colorful, large-scale personas or minimal, low-key selves, believable artists are always protagonists, never secondary characters who inhabit stereotypes. For this reason, I see artists’ studios as private stages for the daily rehearsal of self-belief.
Nowhere is this interplay between the public and private personae more central to the process and product of art than in performance art itself. For her now-legendary 2010 MoMA show The Artist Is Present, Marina Abramović — an artist who sees “immaterial energy” as her medium and believes that “nonverbal interaction is the highest form of communication” — sat in a wooden chair for more than 700 hours as she offered “unconditional love to complete strangers” — some half a million of them, many of whom were moved to tears in the presence of such piercing intensity.
But for the grand dame of performance art herself, the experience required a Buddhist-like quality of presence, a Buddhist-like attitude of welcoming everything that is. She tells Thornton:
Your shoulders drop, your legs swell, your ribs sink down into your organs… When you have so much pain, you think you will lose consciousness. If you say to yourself, ‘So what, lose consciousness,’ the pain goes away.
But Abramović, who indeed heeds the teachings of Tibetan monks, seeks not the showmanship but the higher purpose of such experiences. Her medium is, above all, the human spirit — something she handles with meticulous care and deep respect, with staunch opposition to nihilism, and always with an eye toward the essential sense of purpose that nourishes the human experience. That her art would take on the hues of a secular cult is neither accidental nor surprising. She tells Thornton with conviction “like a hurricane-force wind”:
Many people spend so much time doubting. Before you choose a profession, you have to stand still, close your eyes and think: who am I? … You know you are an artist when you have the urge to create, but this doesn’t make you a great artist. Great artists result from the sacrifices that you make to your personal life.
She sees the role of the artist as E.B. White saw the role of the writer, and as William Faulkner did in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, extolling the writer’s duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Abramović tells Thornton:
The public is in need of experiences that are not just voyeuristic. Our society is in a mess of losing its spiritual center… Artists should be the oxygen of society. The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.
Perhaps because these deeper desires for meaning are so quintessential and universal, Abramović echoes young Virginia Woolf’s belief that all art merely imitates nature and negates the notion of creative influence between artists:
I have never been influenced by another artist… I like to go to the source, to all the places in nature that have a certain energy that you can absorb and translate into your own creativity as an artist.
And yet, as an artist who wholeheartedly embraces her contradictions — Abramović is a vegetarian, doesn’t drink, fasts regularly, yet freely admits to loving fashion — she acknowledges the arrogant myth of originality:
We can’t invent anything in this world which is not there already. It’s about seeing in a different way. Anything that is revolutionary is in front of your nose and it is never complicated. But you don’t see it until you have a safe mind. Performance can help people to get into a state of mind to perceive the simplicity.
Even so, Abramović is a relentless proponent and practitioner of self-reinvention and risk-taking as the ultimate duty of the artist:
When you repeat, you really lose respect for yourself… For me, the studio is a trap to overproduce and repeat yourself. It is a habit that leads to art pollution. Nothing new happens. You don’t surprise yourself. Artists are here to risk, to find new territory. Risk, especially when you are a known artist, includes failing. It is an essential part of process. Failure is healthy for your ego.
Chinese artist, authority-provocateur, and human rights activist Ai Weiwei has made risk-taking his medium, having dedicated his life to challenging his country’s long history of muffling free speech under a blanket of government propaganda and outright, often militant suppression — a mission that has landed him under arrest, led the Chinese authorities to completely wipe his writing from the country’s patch of the internet, and on one occasion resulted in undercover police pulling a black hood over his head, throwing him into a van, and driving him to a hotel two hours away, where he was kept for two weeks before being transferred into a high-security military compound to endure more than fifty interrogations while handcuffed to a chair. He tells Thornton via translator:
Criticism and finding trouble is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.
But it was precisely this trouble-finding creativity that his father, Ai Qing — who was among the intellectuals exiled during the anti-rightist campaign preceding China’s Cultural Revolution — tried to discourage in young Ai, adamantly demanding that his son be anything but an artist. Ai Weiwei tells Thornton:
He always said forget about literature or art. Be an honest worker. [But] I became an artist because, under such pressure, my father still had somewhere nobody could touch. Even when the whole world was dark, there was something warm in his heart.
And yet under threats from the Red Guards to punish his family, Ai Qing gave up poetry and ended up cleaning the public toilets in a village in a remote Chinese province. Ai Weiwei recalls:
Only in the movies or in the Nazi time could you see things like that. It was very frustrating because this man was not a criminal. But people threw stones at him; the children used sticks to beat him; they poured ink on his head — all kinds of strange things in the name of justice and reeducation. The village people didn’t even know what he had done wrong. They just knew he was the enemy.
This early and deep sense of injustice became the raw material for Ai’s art and the lens through which he views the role of art in society, and yet he describes himself as an “eternal optimist” and tells Thornton:
Art is a mental activity, an attitude, a lifestyle.
With an eye to the endangered art of being alone, he considers the relationship between art and activism, the fusion of which defines his own work:
If you have never felt lonely, you should become an activist. Loneliness is a valuable feeling. Artists need to know how to walk alone.
His views on fame both parallel Einstein’s and better honor the complexity of the subject as he tells Thornton:
It comes too quick, too much. It is kind of ridiculous but I have good intentions. Fame needs to have content. If you use it for a purpose, it becomes different. So I am very happy that I have this chance to always speak my mind.
Although he recognizes the great hunger for commercial success in art today, Ai’s opinion of such aspirations is unambivalent. Thornton writes:
In his opinion, to be a “business artist” requires two qualities: “emptiness and shamelessness”… Emptiness and shamelessness are not uncommon in Western art, I say. Some of the most successful artists appear to be nihilists who don’t believe in much other than themselves and the luxury goods market. Ai nods. “For them, art has become pure play, lacking any essential truth,” he says.
This unflinching dedication to truth shows in Ai’s definition of authenticity, which he offers Thornton after a moment of reflection:
[Authenticity] is a habit. It is a road we are comfortable with.
Being somebody is being yourself. An artist’s success is part of the downside. You can lose yourself. Being yourself is a very difficult game.
Painter Carroll Dunham offers a complementary perspective on this delicate relationship between sense of self and artistic success:
A long career in the art world is hard on the ego.
The most fun time to be an artist is when you are young and when you are old… Getting through the weird middle period with a sense that you’ve kept growing is a challenge.
Photographer Laurie Simmons — Dunham’s wife and the other half of their self-described “classic extrovert-introvert couple” — considers the trajectory of one’s relationship with criticism over this long game of an artist’s career:
When you’re younger and get a bad review, you think they hate you. It’s the recovery time that changes. You have to know how to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and get back to work. That’s the key to maturity. It’s what divides the artists that do what they do from those who are not up to it.
When you are younger, you think about eradicating self-doubt. But, as you age, you understand that it is part of the rhythm of being an artist. As I get older, I have developed my ability to examine self-doubt in private, to play around with it, rather than push it away.
Echoing Sherwin Nuland’s undying wisdom on what everybody needs, Dunham considers the heart of what makes criticism burn:
Negative commentary makes you feel misunderstood. So I often say to myself, “Apparently, I haven’t been clear enough with you people!”
Interesting artworks are always hypotheses about what an artwork could be… Why would anyone think that new art should resemble what art already looks like?
Echoing Jeanette Winterson’s spectacular meditation on art and the arrogance of the audience, Dunham adds:
The general public doesn’t understand art so they think that a con has been perpetrated on them.
And yet artists, he suggests, do perpetrate cons when they take market over mystery and deploy cheap tricks like surface shock value in lieu of deeper inquiries into the human experience, which is itself shocking in a much more profound way:
Shock is just another move in the entertainment complex. It’s bullshit. Who are you supposed to shock? Rich hedge fund managers? Do you find the fact that you’re going to die shocking? I do. Art can bracket those human conditions. It can cause you to have a moment of insight.
In those moments, Dunham argues, the viewer is rolfed by creative communion with the artist:
You know the difference between a soothing back rub and truly deep bodywork. The latter is not pleasant while it’s happening but afterward you feel quite changed from it. Shock, awe, whatever. I’m not looking for a back rub from art. I’m looking for something that feels like it matters.
Simmons adds a piercing articulation of the great, disquieting fact of creative work, embracing which sets great creators apart:
Any work that is really great hovers between terrific and terrible.
Calling to mind Amanda Palmer’s exquisite definition of what makes one a “real” artist, Dunham later adds:
There is this reverb. You have to make art to be an artist, but you have to be an artist to make art. It’s about getting your self-representation and your actual activities into alignment. I’ve gone through moments where I thought ‘I hate this, I don’t want to do it anymore,’ but I always come back to the fact there isn’t anything else that would better suit my sense of who I am.
It’s hard to imagine that such strong opinions and unflinching dedication to the integrity of art wouldn’t be passed on to Dunham and Simmons’s daughter, Lena Dunham — herself one of the most courageous creative mavericks of our time. In a testament to the notion that parental presence rather than praise fosters a healthy relationship with achievement, Dunham — who defines creativity as “an ineffable bug that takes you over but also something that you can learn” — reflects on the creative conditions and conditioning of her childhood:
I was given the tools, the space, and the support to do whatever I wanted. New approaches to old problems were encouraged… My parents taught me that you can have a creative approach to thinking that is almost scientific. You don’t have to be at the mercy of the muse. You need your own internalized thinking process that you can perform again and again.
She considers the rewards of the creative life:
As an artist, you get the opportunity to write the world — or create the world — that exists in your fantasies. It’s a really beautiful thing to do.
But beautiful as the overall sense of purpose might be, the fantasy-world of this inward gaze often requires being intensely present with one’s darker demons:
The kind of shame I deal with in my work is about returning to the scene of the crime with all my senses operating. I agree with Woody Allen’s theory that tragedy plus distance equals comedy.
(It should be noted that Dunham’s conversation with Thornton took place before Woody Allen rendered himself existentially disagreeable — “nauseating,” even — to Dunham and to many of us.)
Legendary Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni — whose inclusion in Thornton’s survey springs from her belief that “curators are vital cocreators of the myths” — offers a complementary take on this notion of art as a conduit to self-knowledge, folding into it a necessary dissent with our culture’s dominant definitions of what makes an artist:
Our media understanding of an artist as a successful professional who makes entertaining objects that sell for a lot of money is very restrictive. Artists are people who do things with images in order to understand the world. They have a fierce desire to know themselves.
In a related sentiment, Turkish filmmaker and contemporary artist Kutlug Ataman elegantly captures the essential tension between culture and commerce with which all artists must tussle:
Art that goes forward can take a long time to be understood, whereas art that moves sideways — that is just elaborating — can be very commercial… As an artist, you have to decide which way you want to go.
That choice is often mired in the question of originality — something that recurs across Thornton’s interviews, and a subject of ambivalent skepticism for artists long before Mark Twain’s famous proclamation that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” Visual artist and composer Christian Marclay offers an insightful perspective on this role of the borrowed and the begotten in creative work:
Am I being original this morning? You sense the wonder of discovery when you’re doing something that feels new… But, who knows, maybe someone has been there before. Every image that I use is from someone else. But you can be original in what you steal and how you display your bounty.
33 Artists in 3 Acts is a superb read in its hefty totality. Thornton herself embodies what one of her subjects, the great Italian curator Francesco Bonami, observed of his profession — that curation is “about taking care of the artist” — as her own immeasurable insight on the creative experience illuminates and elevates the artists who entrust their ideas in her care.
Complement this treasure trove of wisdom with Teresita Fernández’s spectacular commencement address on what it means and what it takes to be an artist and Dani Shapiro on the ultimate task of the artist.
Published January 12, 2015