We are told the myth that hard work will be rewarded with success one day. The problem is that sacrification does not necessarily lead to the expected outcome and leaves us drained instead. We need to find a more sustainable approach if we talk about work, in particular if we're talking about creative work. In several interviews I ask curators, academics, artists and other friends and colleagues from the creative field on their thoughts on what success in the arts look like for them. It is part of my long-term project "Art as Labor" that tries to approach labor issues in the arts and provide more personal conversations. It is about finding a sustainable way to work in the arts and to understand that creative work is a long-term commitment.
Gretta Louw - Artist, writer, curator
What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?
Fame is a tool and an illusion. It can be both the result of art-making and your free pass into the art establishment. I’m thinking of the recent trend in actors-cum-performance-artists or presidents-cum-painters here. Certain levels of fame - whether reached through good luck and exhibitions, family connections, success in another profession, or savvy media management - can open doors and achieve prices in the art world(s) that would otherwise not be available, even with the same quality of work. In that sense, it’s frustrating. I don’t really think about it that often, to be honest. A person who’s famous in one corner of the art world can be unknown in other, potentially more interesting, corners. Fame certainly doesn’t guarantee quality.
On the other hand, though, I would much rather see many more artists becoming household names rather than reality TV actors or the children of the rich.
What is your approach to rejection as a site of success?
I don’t really believe in the self-help style mantras of success-in-failure etc, some times in anyone’s life are just dire. Not all rejection hurts, it depends on your level of investment and overall how confident and positive you are feeling in your life/ work/ self and so on, but if something knocks you down, I think it’s ok to just not be ok about that for a while. In fact, in the context of glossy social media worlds and image curation, it can even be quite revolutionary to openly fail and suffer. However, one can certainly triumph over rejection, one can thrive in spite of obstacles, one can carve out one’s own community or model of success - perhaps this is how rejection or failure can be a site of success. Then, of course, there’s all the detailed dilemmas of what it means to have success in a system that is fundamentally broken (I’m taking the broadest concept of ‘system’ here and thinking about all the layers of systemic racism, sexism, ableism etc) - there are certainly good arguments to be made here that rejection by such a system could be an endorsement.
Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?
Those who have more access to the stability that higher income (whether from employment, family connections, inheritance or any other source) provides are necessarily going to have more resources available - material, time, energy, emotional and physical wellbeing - in order to dedicate them to the pursuit of success, however they choose to define it. Those with more resources to begin with, will, logically, have a shorter and easier road to most definitions of success.
How do you define success in the arts?
For me, it comes down to being able to spend more time making and working directly on the projects that I care about, and less time writing funding proposals and various applications. Outside of that it’s so elusive. There are too many ways to be successful - from social media followers to institutional shows or sales prices - and, depending on the artist’s personality, there’ll be those who feel like stars once they’ve reached a minor milestone, whilst others will struggle with self-doubt for their entire careers.
Do you have role models for success and who are they?
There are so many people that I look up to and draw inspiration from it’s impossible to name them all - any list feels like a random sampling. People like Lynn Hershmann Leeson, who persisted for decades with little recognition or support, making ground-breaking work; or Björk, to name an example from pop culture, who seems to have become constantly more of herself over the years and always remained experimental; or the inimitable Frida Kahlo. There are any number of wonderful people like Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett from Furtherfield, Carla Gannis, Christian de Lutz and Regine Rapp from Art Laboratory Berlin, and plan b (Sophia New and Daniel Belasco Rogers) from whom I have drawn so much personal inspiration and strength at various points in my life, and there there are amazing colleagues, past as present, who inspire me (and if I name the following people, it’s just the tip of the iceberg) - Hito Steyerl, Eva and Franco Mattes, Neil Jupurrurla Cook, Wanta Jampijinpa Patrick, Ana Mendieta, Morehshin Allahyari, Slavs and Tartars, Addie Wagenknecht, Pipilotti Rist, Nora Khan, Shawné Michaelain Holloway, Kate Durbin, Ursula Endlicher, Rasheedah Philipps, Brook Andrew, Jenny Fraser, Barbara Herold, Lily Nungarrayi Hargraves and Louise Bourgeois!
What advice on success would you give your 18-year-old self?
Read more about intersectional feminism, institutionalised racism, and the whitewashing of history and, in pursuing your goals