What Does Success in the Arts Look Like? - Interview XVII with Tamiko Thiel

Tamiko Thiel - ArTist, Munich

Tamiko Thiel is an internationally active American media artist who specializes in exploring the interplay of place, space, the body and cultural identity. Her work is engaged in the dramatic and poetic capabilities of virtual and augmented realities as media for exploring social and cultural issues. Tamiko Thiel attended Stanford University and graduated with a B.S. in Product Design Engineering with an emphasis on human factors design in 1979. She later went on to receive her M.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 1983 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, she studied human-machine design at the school's Biomechanics Lab and computer graphics at the precursors to the Media Lab. In 1991, Thiel received her Diploma in Applied Graphics, specializing in video installation art, from the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany.

You can find more about her work on her website.


What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?
I can't find direct quotations right now, but a couple of examples have stayed with me over the years about the futility of trying to work for the market, if your work does not hit the trends of the time anyway:

From reading art history, I knew that many artists whom we consider famous now never achieved fame in their lifetime. Van Gogh is the prime example: in his letters to his brother Theo, I was surprised to read that he thought some of his paintings could please bourgeois customers, as this went against our view of him as a sworn outsider. The best these artists could hope for was respect from their fellow artists, and some did not even receive that, if they were not able to find a community that shared their interests and aesthetics.

I had also read of people who were successful - even legendary - in some other creative field, perhaps as comic book illustrators or graphic designers, but still felt they were failures because they wanted approval for their (unsuccessful) paintings from the high art mavens of the time. I have always hoped I would be able to understand what my strengths were and take pleasure in any recognition for them (I wouldn't call it fame), instead of always thirsting after recognition for something that the world wasn't interested in seeing from me.

Then there was the example of my life drawing teacher Derith Glover, who had been at MIT's famous Center for Advanced Visual Studies doing media art, but in 1982 told me that what she really wanted to do was figurative painting, even though for decades this had been scorned as old-fashioned and no real artist would ever want to do this. Well, a year later, after the art world had spent decades of proclaiming that figurative painting was dead, all of a sudden the young German Neo-Expressionists burst on the scene and became instantly famous because they had just started doing figurative painting and it was so avant-garde. So it was clear to me that the art world was as trend-driven as the fashion world. If you didn't surf the wave, your work wouldn't get shown. You had to decide whether you could adapt your art to the trends of the time, or do the work you were compelled internally to do and hope you lived to see the day when your body of work would be recognized as a contribution to some aspect of art history.

The final nail in the coffin of my concept of fame in the arts was my experience in 1985 as a new art student in Munich. I wanted to study in Europe, and heard that the (famous) Neo-Expressionist painter Jörg Immendorff was a guest professor in Munich. I sent slides of my work to him and he invited me to participate in a workshop near the end of the school year in June. One of his students, Gisela Hellinger, "adopted" me as her younger sister on my first day in Munich, two weeks later we were celebrating Immendorff's 40th birthday in his club on the Reeperbahn red light district in Hamburg, and a month after that we were all supposed to move into his studio. We would live together, paint together and we would all become instantly famous.

Well, he turned out to be a total jerk and by July the bubble had popped and we were all back in Munich as normal, lowly art students with no contact to the rich and famous. The other important realization that came out of this was that if being "successful" required becoming a total jerk and a very nasty human being, or licking the boots of such a person, I was not interested in selling my soul to this devil. I would rather look for other ways to support my "art habit" and create work that was meaningful to me, myself and I.

The good that came out of this was that I then had a community of art students and friends in Munich who helped me through all the details of being a foreigner in a foreign land, learn German, and get into art school the following year as a regular student. This community was my support structure through five years of art school (which was and is tuition free, like all Germany universities), despite often making comments like, "Why did you leave engineering? You're such a bad artist, but at least as an engineer you could make money." I could only fall back on the idea, best articulated by another art student Thomas Arnold, that "I have to make art because I can't do anything else." This was not because we had no other abilities, but on the contrary because all of us had had successful careers in other fields, but now had surrendered to an internal imperative and personal, emotional need to make art. This included making work that was incomprehensible even for my art friends, because I had given up my successful career as an engineer not to please them, but to answer an inner need of my own. My motto as an art student was, "Every artist makes a lot of bad art - I want to make all of mine NOW."

© Tamiko Thiel,Still from Golden Seed, 1991

© Tamiko Thiel,Still from Golden Seed, 1991

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

My first video, The Golden Seed (also called The Golden Egg), which was the German equivalent of my Masters of Art graduation project, got shown around quite a bit and was a finalist in the Videonale in Bonn. My second piece, Totems of Heavenly Wisdom, got shown once in a gallery in San Francisco, and then never again. When I finally worked up the courage to ask a curator friend why, he said it didn't address any of the relevant issues for video art. I then went off and read anything I could find on video art, and they all said that video art should critique the technology of video, or of "looking," or surveillance cameras, or the sociology of television, etc. etc. I was totally uninterested in all these themes, but realized that I was not likely to become "successful" as a video artist because most curators would follow this consensus, at least until the current trends changed (see above). I realized I had to make work that interested me, and try to find curators who liked my work and wanted to show it, and go for the long run.

There were clear pathways to success also in the media art field, such as winning the Golden Nica at the Ars Electronica Festival, or getting a residency at the ZKM. I was offered a residency at the ZKM in the 1990s, but this verbal offer was rescinded before it could be finalized when a new director came on board. End of yet another dream of success. And the Ars Electronica Festival has never accepted any of my artworks. So any success I have had in the field is because there were other curators out there who did value my work, and who did mentor me and did exhibit my work (Itsuo Sakane, Kathy Rae Huffman, George Fifield, and Christiane Paul to name just a few with whom I have had the longest relationships). Over the 28 years since I got out of art school, these shows and the works I made turned into a "body of work" that is slowly gaining wider recognition.

Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

I have only cracked Alexis Clements' median income figures in years that I have had substantial full-time teaching or professional jobs - never by selling artworks or through commissions. It would be great if this were to change, but I am not counting on it.

I think it is very important to try to separate income and financial stability from any concept of "success" or desire for "fame." If you don't, the pursuit of "success" or "fame" will become so existentially important to your concept of self, that it will destroy you if you do not achieve or cannot maintain it. Financial success has to be separate from your measure of self-worth.

This was drilled into me as a child - my mother is an artist but was never able to support herself, so she emphasized that I should first learn a profession, and after that could always become and artist. As I was good at math and science, but also had an artistic bent, I ended up in the Stanford Product Design program. I worked as a packaging designer for computer terminals, was very successful at this (every product I ever worked on went to market, which is unusual), very well paid and highly respected and mentored by my (all male!) co-workers and bosses. Long term, this gave me an emotional stability that had helped me get through financial instabilities.

I left this all to go study art in Europe, as described, with just enough savings in the bank to survive 6 months without working and with the knowledge that if it didn't work out, I could always find work as an engineer back in the USA. What I didn't realize back then was that by the time I graduated from art school I was essentially too old for any grants, which at that time almost exclusively went to people under 30. That realization also made it clear to me that the artistic endeavor was going to be a long hard trudge, as I had completely missed the timeframe to become a young superstar, which has to happen ideally in your twens or at least before you are 35 years old.

How do you define success in the arts?

Choosing to work in the media arts in the early 1990s meant deciding from the beginning to ignore the art market and any hope for financial success, since even video was considered uncollectable. I'm still not sure if I will ever have financial success with my media art as an older woman, even though I know there are now young media artists who are earning a lot of money. I chose media art partly because it fascinated me, I enjoyed the challenge of working in a medium that was very undefined and I felt that with time-based work (unlike with my painting) that I could judge when I had created a "successful" work. (Note that this did not necessarily mean that other people judged my work to be successful!) The other reason, frankly, was that since there was no way to make money from media art, there was a really wonderful community of people who helped each other, and the nasty personalities that I had encountered in the world of painting were absent. I expect that nowadays some people can make money from media art, but the number of sharks in the tank will increase.

Augmented Reality Installation by Tamiko Thiel (with /p), Commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art New York as part of the exhibition: "Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018" September 28, 2018 – April 14, 2019. Press release>

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

Lynn Hershman-Leeson is and always has been an amazing role model. The first time I saw her work in the 1990s I was completely blown away - and asked myself why she wasn't considered famous by the art world, as her work was introducing new ways of seeing things, a quality the art world seemed to be looking after. (This is of course the same question I asked myself when I first saw work in more "traditional" genres from Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, etc.) The way Hershman-Leeson endured despite not having commercial success was heroic - she mentions that she didn't sell a work of art until she was 72 years old, and when the ZKM held her big retrospective in 2014 many of the pieces were being exhibited for the very first time.

A tremendous inspiration for me as an art student was the amazing collection of paintings by Kandinsky at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, which had free entry on Sundays. I identified strongly with him, because he too switched careers at a late age: he was 30 when he turned down a professorship in jurisprudence at the University of Dorpat in Estonia, and came to Munich as a very mediocre art student. I would go to the Lenbachhaus, look briefly at the truly awful muddy paintings that he did in his first years, repeat my mantra that I should make all my bad art NOW, and follow the steps of his development as his paintings became brilliant in both color, composition and concept, accompanied by his ideas of abstraction and meaning. If he could codify it for painting, I could codify it for time-based media, I thought, and this became the basis of my work initially with video, and then with interactive 3D virtual worlds.

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

Ask yourself the question: if I die in the next 30 seconds, will my last thoughts be, "At least I followed my dreams and stayed true to myself?" Or will you die thinking, "Damn, I never got around to trying to do X?" If the latter applies, change your life. (This question really did pop into my head at age 16, and I have used it as a touchstone ever since.)

A recent article on Artsy said - surprise surprise - it's not so much what you do, it's who you know that influences your success. The problem is that not everyone who you think that could benefit your success will like you or be good for your psychological and emotional state of being. So don't try to befriend anyone who clearly doesn't like you or respect you or treat you well, even if they can make you "famous" - you will despise yourself for doing it and they will drive you into ruin, psychologically if not financially. Don't lick anyone's boots. Don't look for the quick win - go for the long run. The curator who loves your work but is a "nobody" now might become really influential later. If you ignore her now because she's not famous, why should she show you later when she is? Search for people who like you and admire your work, who you can trust, and with whom you can work well. Return their admiration and their trust. Maybe in 7 - 20 years something will come of it - maybe not. But your sense of self-worth will be better than if you sell your soul.

Don't forget to read the biographies of artists you admire. That will help you understand more of the mechanisms at work in the art world, then and now, whether it helped them or they had to fight against it. (See below for more on this topic.)

Your thoughts on success in the arts and race/ gender

I think we are lucky to be living in a time when more attention is being paid to (especially older) women artists (and hopefully older male artists too) and artists of color of all genders, and that major museums are opening up to exhibit them in a way they haven't before. We should however recognize that the art world follows trends just like the fashion world does, so we should not expect this will necessarily go on - although we should all work damn hard to make sure it does. The best way to ensure a real systemic change is to keep up the pressure to move more women and people of color into positions of POWER.

If you read biographies of many women artists being "recognized" now in their 70s, 80s, 90s or 100s, you will find that when they were young, or middle aged, they had shown in the top galleries of the time, in the Whitney or Venice Biennials or Documenta, etc. What didn't happen is a transformation from this art world recognition into sales of their art work at high prices. So recognition and fame, especially for women or people of color, does not necessarily translate into financial success, which I guess is what this series is all about.

I'm reading "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan (1963) and was surprised to learn that the "message" sent out by women's magazines in the USA before World War II was actually one of women's empowerment, and that only after WWII occurred did the message change into "a woman's place is in the home." How did the message transform so significantly? To oversimplify her argument: when all the men came home from the war women were pressured to give up their work positions to men, and when men started writing and publishing most of the articles in women's magazines, they espoused a view of womanhood and "femininity" that could almost exclusively be fulfilled by taking care of men. So in the late 19th/early 20th century there was a move to (white, middle class) women's empowerment, the clock was turned back after WWII, and in the 1970s the Women's Liberation movement (for white, middle class, heterosexual college educated women) had to start again almost from scratch, out of a sense that despite all outward measures of comfort they still felt unfullfilled and empty inside.

I do hope that the wave of empowerment of women, LGBTQ‎ and people of color that we are currently experiencing will not just roil some beach sands and shift the sand dunes, but rather significantly shape the entire coastline - for good, and for the better.