What Does Success in the Arts Look Like? - Interviews I with Yvette Greslé & Isabelle Tondre

Success in the arts seems to have some sort of mythic silence attached to it. Some become visible within the art market, in Biennales, or academia while others will never reach broader audiences –  at least not on the terms they defined as successful. Success seems to be related to power, money and fame. In a world where we glorify hustling and we wear constant busyness as some sort of badge of honor, I would love to open the conversation and try to define values for art as labor and to fill the term success with as much individual honesty and thought as we can. Success in the arts seems so vague that I am really wondering why people start to measure all their doings through this term without having defined how a sustainable approach looks like. We become obsessed with constant production, are afraid to take a break and are encouraged to be as competitive as possible. Is this ecosystem the only surrounding in which success in the arts is possible? Find out in the following inspiring interviews. This series is part of my long term project Art as labor.
 

Yvette Greslé - London-based art historian, writer and educator.

More about Yvette and her writing on her Website

What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?

How do I even begin to define what fame is or what it might be? Who becomes famous in the arts? Why? How? I think fame is a flawed concept constituted by complex webs of power relations. As a subject informed by the lived experience of inhabiting very particular geographies in both southern and northern hemispheres, I cannot separate fame from social, political, economic, cultural, linguistic and geographical specificities. My conception of fame is contingent on this experience. There are people in the arts who I think of as famous for the work that they have produced in one geography who are unknown in another. There are individuals who are famous to small groups of people connected by shared languages, histories, and cultural references and tastes.

Who is famous and why in one part of the world? The idea of fame on a global scale is another issue. In the arts, are there individuals who are quite literally famous all over the world? What are the power relations at play and what is the political-cultural field that constitutes fame on this scale? What is the relationship of fame to celebrity culture and the vast machinery that feeds the desire for celebrity? Do we have celebrities in the arts? Who is this mythical “we” I speak of? 

I catch myself as I write now in the U.K. There is no collective, homogenous “we” as long as there is violence towards anyone conceived of through historical, social and political prisms of difference. From where I sit, there are white, western, heteronormative ideals of masculinity and femininity. There are subjectivities that constellate, in many complex and even ambiguous ways, around an ideal type. I have witnessed the hold of this ideal, which is historical, epistemic, structural, institutional and psychic, in former colonies (even now in the twenty-first century). The historical, experiential and theoretical lens that underpins how I look renders fame very complex indeed, at once legible and opaque.


What is your approach to rejection as a site of success?

Rejection is commonplace in the arts. I have experienced rejection all my life. Rejection, which is a deeply unpleasant sensation, can be transformed into success. But what this process of transformation is, is very personal and can be very painful (even paralysing). Anger that is related to the social and the political can be transformative (if it doesn’t kill you first).I do not understand “success” in conventional terms. I do not measure success by normative ideas of power, position, status and money.

My pet hate is someone who thinks that I should respect them, without question, solely because they have attained these things! Rather, for me, success is very personal and is related to my own self-development and process as a scholar, an intellectual, a writer, and person in the world. I strive to be more self-aware and astute particularly on issues that have affected me profoundly in my life (these are related to authoritarianism; apartheid; colonialism and its aftermath; racism; xenophobia; migration; gender and sexuality). I am most concerned with the constant work of developing as a writer and a thinker. Now in my mid-40s, success would be writing books that people actually want to read! Of course, one must never forget that failure is part of living and working in the arts.


Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

Where do I begin! I have never known absolute fulfilment and financial stability in the arts. The only time I had financial stability was when I did work that no one valued. I was employed as the token arts person at a school of brand communications. Quite honestly, broadly speaking, how does anyone survive in the arts without the support of a partner; an alternative, parallel job;an inheritance, or family support? The art world is not set up for financial stability or success unless you are very successful and skilful as an art dealer, an auctioneer, or at securing funding from philanthropists, private benefactors or corporates.

Working in the arts as I do, as a writer and art historian, is very difficult. Working in the arts and taking on the establishment in terms of race and gender is even more difficult. I always joke that if I were not married I would have to move in with my mother, but it’s not really a joke. Working in the arts is incredibly precarious.  Recently, I qualified as a teacher of English as a second language so that I can generate income and work in the arts at the same time.


How do you define success in the arts?

I think this is very subjective and personal. I value individuals or collectives who, in my critical imagination, have produced work (whether through scholarship, writing, art-making or curatorial activities), that is historically, philosophically, socially and politically astute; ethically engaged; and poetic and affecting. I have deep respect for this and for people whose being and ethical stance on the world is not detached from their work or their everyday life and social interactions. We live in a very violent and unjust world. I am interested in what constitutes integrity and ethics in life and work. The very process of striving for this is success.


Do you have role models for success and who are they?

I am still searching for a role model that can speak to my very particular experience. I was raised in the Seychelles Islands, largely educated in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa and I have now lived in London for almost a decade. Perhaps I am too old for a role model now but were I to choose one, it would probably be my mother. She does not work in the arts but, in my imagination, she has come to represent persistence and determination (as a woman). I value this.


Which advice on success would you give your 18-year-old self?

Do not fear failure. This is part of life. When in pedagogical situations observe the social and political dynamics carefully and choose your allies as astutely as possible. Be aware that racism, xenophobia and misogyny is ever-present and read the theoretical and fictional work on these issues carefully so that you will have the tools and consciousness to navigate the unavoidable power relations that exist in the world. Don’t think that other women will be loyal allies just because you are a woman! Ultimately, the only person you can rely on is yourself. Find a practical way of generating income while you set out to work in the arts. Most of all be disciplined in all aspects of life, protect and care for yourself, and work hard at what you love most.


Your thoughts on success in the arts and race/ gender

Racism and misogyny exist in the arts as much as it does in the social and the political world at large. There are nuances to these experiences that are contingent on geography. I was educated in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. It is no coincidence that a man, classified white, with the right liberal credentials is the artist everyone I speak to mentions when I refer to South African art. When I came to the UK, almost a decade ago, art critics in prominent newspapers were writing disparaging and condescending things about so-called “African artists”. I didn’t see much about the artists put in the “Black British” or “African-American” box in exhibitions, reviews or art history. Unless I was looking in the wrong places? Subsequently, this has shifted (to some extent). Now the same art critic who wrote in very condescending terms about “African Art” a few years ago has jumped on the bandwagon and writes about it in glowing terms. This is what I read and see. Experts on the African continent and its art-making are now popping up all over the place!


Isabelle Tondre - Artist based in Frankfurt/ Main, Germany

Find more Information about Isabelle and her work on her website

What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?

The word « fame » is very hard for me to associate with the arts, though, it is absolutely present, it sounds like a contradiction. I would spontaneously think of a pop-star when hearing that word. I suppose we do have our pop-stars in contemporary art. Instinctively I think of their dominance in the art-market, rather than their actual artistic engagement. The attention driven by fame is often very much oriented to the person, more than to what he or she is doing. I guess an artist who becomes famous somehow quits (voluntarily or not) being an artist, or pulls a new kind of attention to his work, one that is more related to his person.


What is your approach to rejection as a site of success?

Rejection automatically implies (re)questioning oneself or what one is doing, but I see the doubts and questions around my work as «room for improvement». It brings the work a step further, even if it is a small step. To be rejected, there has to be something there in the first place, and that is what is important, that thing, that is there. When I apply for a project or a grant and get rejected, it is definitely a disappointment, but it kind of proofs one’s determination or maybe even just creates some determination in those struggling and fighting phases - one does not only struggle and fight through the «art world» but also and mostly with oneself.


Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

I think a lot about these questions. It is not easy to find the right solution, I often wonder if it would be healthy to be financially depending on my artwork. Entering the art market can happen very fast, but the notion of « stability » is very difficult to achieve. 


How do you define success in the arts?

Right now, for me it would be to get to know one’s work completely, while still constantly rediscovering it. To be re-affected by one’s own work, but also to develop a language through art that can somehow, despite its personal and intuitive level, open up to others and create another layer than words, that others could engage with.


Do you have role models for success and who are they?

There are artists that I admire, for their art practice and the evolution they went through, such as Raoul de Keyser for example. I cannot speak much of his career in terms of success though, but I have a strong fascination for his paintings and the balance between sensibility and strength that they are loaded with. 

I guess the models I have for success are mostly unknown, not famous, people, I see these role models in some friends of mine, who somehow found their own drive. They can just wake up every morning and do exactly what they are passionate about (as cheesy as this might sound!).


Which advice on success would you give your 18-year-old self?

That success cannot be a goal...


Your thoughts on success in the arts and race/ gender

I remember comments describing my work as being «feminine» because of the «sensibility» in it. I find this statement a curious one, and I have to say, indeed, I am a woman and I painted this. On the other hand, I thought we would have stopped associating the emotional and sensitive aspect in arts to female artists long time ago, but it seems that some clichés and expectations remain about what kind of art a woman would do in comparison to a man (and vice versa).

Isabelle Tondre, exhibition view, Second Degree, 2016, Akademie der Bildenden Künste Munich

Isabelle Tondre, exhibition view, Second Degree, 2016, Akademie der Bildenden Künste Munich

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