In the past few years, an increasing number of emerging artists have been interested in the subject of fame. Some are very up front about their aspirations while others are not willing to admit that they want to be famous and instead, keep it a secret fantasy. Even if you aren’t interested in fame, it is good to be prepared because it can happen even if don’t want or expect it.
Many artists have a misconception of the importance of fame, and as a result they harm their own career and artistic development. For many emerging artists, fame is a personal expectation and their paramount goal. Unfortunately, for a long time now, a single trajectory has become the ideal for a lot of students. It goes like this: go to art school, get a gallery before you graduate, sell out your show, get as many reviews as possible, and network your way to fame, or else forsake your career.
This is sadly ironic since the reality is that a vastly small percentage of artists will ever get famous (and have that fame last for more than a few seconds), and yet the desire for fame is at the core of how many artists manage their careers. The consequence is that they fail at creating a sustainable, fulfilling career as an artist. Many artists stop making art, miss opportunities to manage the multiple trajectories that are often part of a lifelong art practice and lose sight of what drove them to become artists in the first place. This doesn’t mean fame is bad, but it does mean that a false and unrealistic perception of it can thwart a meaningful career and hurt the discipline of art in general.
We contacted a number of famous artists we know and asked them for advice and thoughts about fame. Whether due to busy schedules or a genuine concern about appearing self-centered, not one of them could (or would) respond. I wasn’t completely surprised. It seems you either want fame or you don’t, and if you have it, you don’t want to talk about it.
“With the Internet, instead of everyone getting 15 minutes of fame everyone gets to be famous to 15 people.”
– David Weinberger (You didn’t seriously think we could write an article on fame without some reference to Andy Warhol, did you?)
The desire for fame can be easily exploited, so beware and be professional. There are feng shui designers trained in the art of rearranging your household objects to better align your life towards fame and reputation, hucksters penning books who will take your cash in exchange for advice, companies who specialize in consulting fame seekers, and a hypnosis kit designed especially for artists in pursuit of fame. Articles abound online, and every day seems to usher in a new blog about the art world and its legions of famous artists. There is even a Fame Game designed by artists. Originally conceived as an art project, it is now a social networking site that invites people to reinvent fame.
If fame is your only goal, you have set yourself up for disappointment. Remember, only a small percentage of artists become famous. For this reason, try to understand why fame is desirable to you. Consider your personal goals in relationship to the idea of fame.
It is important to understand the difference between being a good artist and being famous. They don’t necessarily always go together. There are many famous artists that do not make very “good work,” and there are great artists with lifelong careers who don’t get famous.
Fame resides in the minds of others. It is defined by external opinions, often constructed by those in power. It is not a quality like bravery or honesty, cruelty or greed. Being famous in one group or community doesn’t mean you are known by other groups or communities elsewhere. When thinking about fame or notoriety, consider whose opinion you care about. How many people need to know about you? Can you ever be famous enough?
Fame is not necessarily an achievement. It is something that you simply cannot control, regardless of who you are and what the truth is. It may not matter if you do something horrible, as that will add to your fame. And it is something that is hard to shake once achieved, but it may not be everlasting (perhaps lasting no more than 15 days).
I often meet artists who enthusiastically say their goal is to make it on the front cover of Art in America or Artforum, or be as famous as Andy Warhol. While this is a concrete goal, I don’t see the end result as a guarantee of fame. Just peruse the covers of these magazines from ten years ago and you’ll see that many of the artists featured have fallen into relative obscurity. It’s understandable that reviews, for example, are important to artists. However, it’s not that simple. There are many artists that have endless résumés, reviews, and exhibition histories, but are not considered famous. Furthermore, being famous doesn’t mean you make good work, will be remembered, or have a good reputation.
“The ceaseless, senseless demand for original scholarship in a number of fields, where only erudition is now possible, has led either to sheer irrelevancy, the famous knowing of more and more about less and less. . . .”
- Hannah Arendt
Reputation is not the same as fame. Reputation is what people think about you (it literally means ‘think over’) and fame is being known and talked about by many people. Reputation usually has longevity, and can work in addition to and remain separate from fame. You can be famous and have a bad reputation or have a great reputation and not be famous. You may want to consider what is more important, to be thought of as someone who does meaningful work or to be known by as many people as possible.
The desire for fame can have deleterious consequences on your reputation. We know a really great artist who was represented by an agent. The agent’s company secretly bought out the work before shows opened, creating a false demand. Suddenly, this artist was in museum shows around the world and was on track to becoming really famous. Once the agency’s secret strategy was discovered, the artist was ostracized and blacklisted. He became known for his association with dishonesty instead of being regarded by the merit of his art. His career has never fully recovered.
The moral of this story is to be mindful of those people around you who can damage your reputation in pursuit of their own fortunes. Research the people handling your work, make informed decisions, ask questions, draw up agreements, and be aware of who and what influences discussions of your work.
A number of artists take steps to protect their reputation by remaining aware of everything that is written about their work, and controlling the content as much as possible. They are articulate about their work, review all press releases and other copy whenever possible, and work hard to communicate openly with those who write about them. They always seek to be part of the approval process for articles, fact checking at the very least, to minimize misinformation about themselves and their work.
“In the construction of Immortal Fame you need first of all a cosmic shamelessness.”
How important is it to be famous and how does it impact your work and your relationship with other artists? Fame often means you have to cater to the art market and satisfy current market trends rather than taking risks and making mistakes. Wouldn’t it be great if we supported risk-taking and allowed each other to make mistakes? It certainly would enliven the work, and make the entire art world more interesting. Artists could actually take desirable risks that art schools teach as vital to creativity.
Rewards and Money
“To people who want to be rich and famous, I’d say, ‘Get rich first and see if that doesn’t cover it."
Most artists feel that they need to be rewarded for their efforts, and rightfully so. For some, making art is about getting famous and making money. Unfortunately, the “fame brings money” equation is not necessarily true. Many famous artists still have an outside job for financial survival. Even artists considered successful for having critically-acclaimed work and museum shows still haven’t been able to pay off costly student loans. While it is possible to make a sizable amount of money off your work, it is best not to plan for that as your only source of income in the long term. And even if you are successful, it may not last, so make sure you have a trustworthy accountant. Regardless of your success, make sure you plan financially.
Rewards are not always financial. Community impact and social change are examples of meaningful and measurable outcomes that are not necessarily tied to fame and fortune. This kind of success is not market success, but can reap countless benefits, as well as popular and critical recognition.
While the desire to make money and the desire to effect change in the world are not mutually exclusive, it’s probably best to focus on the latter and plan for the former, lest you suffer at the fickle hand of the market.
“Fame means when your computer modem is broken, the repair guy comes out to your house a little faster.”
- Sandra Bullock
It is a sign of confidence to be able to celebrate the successes of your fellow artists. I know artists who have received grants or awards, and no one congratulated them out of jealousy. The desire for fame often makes people jealous rather than supportive. Artists are scared to death to share ideas because someone might steal them. Ironically, the fear of sharing ideas makes us less creative since idea generation is often the result of interaction. As creative professionals, perhaps we can consider trusting our ability to come up with ideas instead of fearfully protecting any particular idea we have. We can support our own community by not accepting plagiarism and intellectual theft. Why shouldn’t we share both our creativity and our praise with one another? The more artists are supported, the more creative endeavors gain respect.
Visibility and Recognition
“If you feel that . . . what you do this year or in the years to come does not make you very famous, take heart. Most of the best people who ever lived weren’t very famous either.”
- Howard W. Hunter
Actors have the Academy Awards. Musicians have the Grammys. What if artists were the ones who decided what was good, instead of collectors, galleries, critics, and others in power? Creativity and change are risky because failure is possible at every turn. I don’t know one artist who is not nervous before an opening of her/his work. It is usually because the artist wants sales and praise in order to secure more exhibition opportunities. Our emotions as artists should not be controlled by the desire for fame lest the work become trite.
Many people and institutions play a critical role in developing an artist’s career. The important question is, “In addition to collectors, dealers, galleries, and critics, how can artists exert their influence in determining what is important?” The answer lies in exercising your own ability to shape the debate by simply showing up and making your presence and opinions known.
The fact is that fame plays a role in building an audience. Because art stars attract large crowds, curators often showcase celebrity artists through group shows and let lesser-known artists piggyback on the success of others. To consider how this works, ask yourself, “If it is raining would you be more likely to go to an opening across town if the show included work by a famous artist, or a group of people you had never heard of before?” In the end, you and everyone else out there determines who shows up. If you want to have a say, it’s best to support work you value by artists you respect. And bring people–lots of people–with you. They should do the same when it’s time for you to share the spotlight.
The art world now has many awards that are given to artists based on secret nomination. It is rarely a surprise to see who received those awards. Everyone is in the same shows all over the world these days. You don’t really have to travel to see the work of someone from another country. I once had a National Endowment for the Arts staff member state that if he got one more proposal to show the work of a famous artist that he was going to puke. So, we can jump on the “bankwagon” (really, I meant bank), or we can begin to think for ourselves.
“Fame is proof that the people are gullible.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sadly, many artists believe that you have to go to art school to become a famous artist. The art world, galleries, and magazines make this clear by the artists they feature. It’s true that a degree doesn’t guarantee success, but it can help.
Universities and art schools around the world graduate thousands of MFA candidates every year. Many of these students graduate as artists but do not continue in the field as we currently define it, some by choice, and some because of circumstance.
While in school it’s a good idea not to trash your teachers for your own lack of success. It is not their job to get you gallery representation. Their job is to help you learn to create the best work possible.
The rest is up to you. Don’t be jealous of those artists who get more than you do, or who are getting a lot of attention. It might not be their fault, or their doing, and they may not be ready for it either.
In art school, as everywhere else, fame brings attention, and in the case of some visiting lecturers or faculty members, it doesn’t seem to matter if there are good teachers or not, or if they have more to say about their own work than their students’. Unfortunately, art schools perpetuate fame’s seduction by concentrating on famous faculty in their ads or on their websites because it attracts students (and dollars) to their programs. Some programs have famous faculty that rarely, if ever, show up to teach and instead, let teaching assistants command the classroom. They usually get the financial rewards in spite of their lack of commitment. The best thing to do is research how well their fame complements, rather than hinders, their teaching skills.
“Just ‘cuz you like my stuff, doesn’t mean I owe you anything”
By all means, compliment a famous artist. Everyone, especially those having to defend his or her territory, needs support. But leave it at that. And when approaching an artist, do not interrupt his or her conversation, and if invited into the discussion, introduce yourself to his or her less famous friends, as well. Consider how it feels to be ignored or interrupted all the time by a fan. It’s best to come off as a polite, interested individual than a crazed groupie.
It’s a sad reality, but a few artists who become famous are really, really rude. But keep in mind what we ask of them and how we treat them. Rudeness seems to be proportionate to the amount of times one is accosted by fans. Once you are famous, everyone wants to know how you got there and discover your secret so she/he can follow in your footsteps. Next time you think rubbing up against a famous person will make her/his fame rub off on you, forget about it. Let the artist make her/his work, and you concentrate on yours. Consider your own role in perpetuating her/his very public status, and be respectful.
“Don’t confuse fame with success. Madonna is one; Helen Keller is the other.”
- Erma Bombeck
Understand the risks you’ll be taking to pursue your dreams. As you figure out your career trajectory, take some time to identify what it is you want and why. Every decision you make will affect your future, and have a direct relationship to your artistic practice. Figuring these things out ahead of time can prevent a lot of detours and dead ends. Being flash-in-the-pan famous might be satisfying for a while, but in the long run, you might value your reputation as an exceptional artist even more.
Fame is a funny thing, so be careful what you wish for.
Feel free to share this article with other artists.