(This commentary ran on WAMC on January, 11th, 2001.)
In an interview with The New York Daily News, former Woodstock resident Ethan Hawke, the novelist and actor, offered this response to a question about artistic success: “Our culture rests everything in the barometer of success and how much money you make. But if your really aspire to a life in the arts, it’s really not a barometer at all….” Hawke’s reply gets right to the heart of a perennial question for artists: in a country that worships winning, how should the artist measure his—or her—success?
By his own yardstick, I would hope. One that allows for the blessing of failure. By an heretical standard which recognizes that true art often arises from a keen consciousness of loss. A sense that, in the end, success and failure are not polar opposites, but complementary—and equally valuable in the process of creation. In this view of the artistic process, each artist must undergo—perhaps many times—his own dark night of the soul, when he looks into the mirror inside and finds it so clouded that he comes to question his own abilities, his own self-worth, and agonizes over the wisdom of pursuing an endeavor so difficult, so far off the radar of public recognition.
Of standing on a precipice, hoping to fly, ready to fall.
Why risk it?
For those who persevere despite the odds against achieving “success” in American terms, despite hardship and neglect, the answer is usually because I cannot help myself. Because I cannot do otherwise, no matter what it costs me.
Such artists are heroes. No, not in the contemporary American sense that every victim is a hero, but in the ancient Greek feeling that those who bravely risk the most, most deserve our applause. Artists are warriors, not victims.
The rewards of such a stance—of viewing failure as essential to real success—are usually not apparent to observers. This is because the deepest reward for the warrior artist is not public recognition or a fat bank balance—although both are always sought and welcomed—but the thing in itself. The creation, made in the privacy of the studio. The artist evaluates what he has created with a cold eye, and if he finds it good—and only then, despite critics and possible sales—he is satisfied in a way plutocrats cannot possibly imagine.
He has done something purely—for its own sake—and he has done it well! This is success for the artist, like nothing else is.
He knows well that this accomplishment will not secure exhibitions or publications for him; nor will it get him reviewed, or pay the mortgage. It most likely will not even earn him the appreciative smiles of friends. But it is enough. It sustains him.
Knowing that he did it right, that he played God in his own humble way, and did it credibly, is manna to this artist. Nothing else in life can compare with it: no thrill of winning prizes or bestsellerdom or showing our faces to an admiring public, can compare with the ultimate satisfaction of having struggled with recalcitrant material, and made from nothing, something.
Something that shines.