What Does Success in the Arts Look Like? - Interview XVIII with Katie West

Katie West - Artist and Writer, Edinburgh

Katie West is a writer, photographer, editor, director, and executive assistant. Katie West is the owner of Fiction & Feeling publishing company that published Becoming Dangerous [btw. one of my favorite books 2018-Ed.] that has been picked up by Weiser books for worldwide release in April 2019. She also edits and writes comics.

Find more about Katie on her website.


What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?

Fame in the arts seems like a subjective thing. What constitutes fame? Is it having a hundred thousand Instagram followers? Or is it having a gallery show in a big city? Is it the same as success? I don’t think it is. Fame seems to be a sliding scale of how well-known an artist is. When I think of contemporary famous artists, the first one who came to my mind was Banksy. He’s the sort of artist that my dad would know of, that idea of a ‘household name.’ But he’s also an interesting example because he doesn’t suffer from any of the pitfalls of fame, as no one knows who he is. Being famous would be nice because you’d be able to make a living from your art, and I think that’s an ideal situation for most artists. But fame is definitely not in my definition of success, and it doesn’t seem like an enjoyable thing.

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

If you believe your work is good and has value, than rejection can just be a sign that you haven’t found the right place or person to show your art. And if that rejection comes with feedback that you find useful (because not all feedback is deserving of your time!) than you can take that and learn from it to hopefully lead to success in the future. Rejection is definitely not a sign to stop creating though, or even to change direction. Keep doing you despite rejection and I think any success will feel more sweet as you’ve stayed true to your self. Rejection also proves you tried. You created the thing and you took a chance and put it out into the world. Even if you failed, it’s better than not having ever put yourself and your art out there at all.

Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

I don’t necessarily think that income or financial stability define success, but they are definitely good things to have. It can feel like a sign of success when you can live off of your art--when you can quit your ‘day job’. But that thinking can be damaging as well, because financial stability is often fickle, and it shouldn’t be tied into our worth and whether or not we consider ourselves successful. One of the most difficult things in life I’ve ever had to deal with is being poor. There’s stress, and then there’s money stress, and it’s a whole other beast. Being able to escape those stresses is usually the goal, and however we’re able to do that feels good, whether it’s from our art efforts or not. I know some people don’t like to tie their financial stability to their art, and this makes sense too. If an artist creates to relieve stress or to express themselves, that intimate nature of the art can feel pressure to be compromised by having to create in order to pay bills and pay rent. So maybe it’s helpful for the definition of success to not be tied to financial stability for those artists.

How do you define success in the arts?

I definitely believe each artist needs to individually define success for themselves. The factors that affect this definition can range from their upbringing, to their surroundings, to their identity, to their education, to their family life, to their relationships, to the country and political systems they exist in.

For me personally, success in the arts is being able to create the work that really matters to me and that I see making a difference in others’ lives. If I can create a book that elevates underrepresented voices and ideas, and I didn’t have to compromise on my commitment to that, then I consider myself a success. I also see success as reaching a level where you can start giving back to creators just starting out in your industry, either financially, or with mentorships or internships, anything that gives opportunity to those who need and deserve them.

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

I think because the artistic industry I’m most familiar with is comics, I’m most inspired by Warren Ellis. He built a career on making smart, outrageous, thoughtful comics. And once he realised people were listening to what he had to say, he immediately started turning the spotlight on the emerging creators around him. I think a not insignificant amount of people owe their careers to him, and not just people in comics, but photographers, scientists, academics, novelists. This is such a simple, yet life-changing approach to success. I hope one day I have enough industry cred to launch the careers of others.

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

I think like all young women, it would’ve helped to have someone tell me to trust myself. But I think part of figuring out who you are is to just kind of be messy for awhile? And figuring yourself out helps with success, or, I think it helps you recognise and appreciate it. And also I’d tell myself, there’s no rush. You don’t have to achieve everything by the time you’re 25. Or even 30. Oh, and please don’t measure your own success by comparing it to others’! That actually just makes you feel awful and results in you getting nothing done.

Your thoughts on success in the arts and race/ gender

Throughout much of modern history, the arts, like most other facets of society, have operated under systems institutionally designed to be unfair to everyone but white men. Having success in the arts as anyone other than a white man has historically proved difficult. Today systems of race, gender, and class inequality continue to function; so in order to provide equal access to success, we have to work at dismantling those systems. And that’s why it’s the responsibility of anyone with white or male privilege to elevate and amplify people without those privileges. Art is better when it’s expansive and inclusive and when the voices and ideas of everyone have the opportunity to be heard and seen. But the responsibility is not on people of colour, or women, or LGBTQ artists to break down barriers, it’s for those of us with privilege to take those barriers down.