It's just into the new year, and people are posting things on facebook like this. Clearly, the season of reflection has arrived, the time of year in which everyone looks at where their life has gone, where it's going, and where it hasn't gotten to yet. And everyone feels disappointed--or elated.
If you're an artist, you're feeling especially sentimental. You're looking back on a year of earning $1,000, one in which you barely worked As an actor, you didn't get cast in anything except those two shitty projects, one of which cost you more money than you made, the other of which never left the ground. As a musician, you broke your hand, putting you two thousand in the hole and two months out of practice. As a dancer, you worked a lot, but nothing was really your own, and you're keenly aware of another precious year gone by. As you look back at 2013, you realize with trepidation that your artistic career really went nowhere in the last 365.
Or, you're looking back at a year in which your artistic career took major steps forward. You made a whopping $30,000. You performed in five plays and booked a commercial. Your band went on a two month tour. You sold three photos in the same day for $100 each. (Two of the purchasers were people you didn't even know.) You ended the year on a definite upswing, and you can't wait to see what 2014 will bring.
Yes, you are elated / disappointed at the state of your career. Whichever you are feeling, one thing is certain: whether this year was trying or triumphant, you put in the work for a reason. You spent another year dedicated to your art, and that is going to pay dividends. One day, the glass will break. Onward. Upward. Forward.
Whatever time you spend reflecting on the state of your artistic career, you may as well spend reflecting on how Santa Claus gets all those presents out in 24 little hours. You may as well be reflecting on the Tooth Fairy's tricks of the trade or on what you're going to do when you win that $700 million in Powerball. Because here is the unadulterated reality:
There is no such thing as an artist's "career path."
Perhaps this assertion rings hopeless or unambitious. In that case, let's assume the opposite. If an artist does in fact have a career path, what is it? Does it move from poverty to wealth? From complete obscurity to universal recognition? Or is it a question of quality of work? Does an artist's career path begin with ineptitude and end with complete proficiency? All of these paradigms can be quantified, measured, and mapped, and in their own way, each may vaguely trace an artist's growth. But a career?
I needn't address the first paradigm, that an artist's career is measured in financial success. Even the most entrepreneurial-driven artists will admit that the arts are an exceptionally poor choice for someone who's after the big bucks. There are exceptions in the Keith Lockharts and Quentin Tarantinos of the world, but . . . well, but writing the rest of this paragraph would be a waste of time and web space. Nobody goes into art for the money.
What about recognition, then? Shouldn't artists dream of careers that carry them from bullied elementary school nobody to beloved quirky-brilliant celebrity? As with earning great amounts of money, the odds are against us. Yet surprisingly, many grounded artists who hold no real hope of financial success still squeeze the expectation of one day being recognized, if not universally, then at least on a street corner somewhere.
This expectation is destructive, discouraging, and unfair, because in the 2010's, an everyone-deserves-to-live-their-dreams mindset has collided with an incredible ease of self-promotion and self-production. The result is a wildly saturated artistic landscape in which the traditional publishing, marketing, and producing powers are overwhelmed with attention-seekers, and the public eye is equally overwhelmed with an internet swampland of self-produced work. An artist can create high quality work in his chosen medium for decades, market the hell out of it, yet never have a single attentive eye turn toward it.
More insidious than the futility of this "recognition" career paradigm is its underlying assumption, namely that good work will get attention while bad work will disappear. The trend, unfortunately, leans the other way. Speaking in broad strokes, artists that are widely liked and produced are more properly referred to as entertainers. In earning this title, their work will almost certainly have achieved a certain innocuous quality, stripped largely of its sharpest (and most valuable) ideas, dulled on its edge in order to spoonfeed a common appetite. Again, there are exceptions, celebrities who have become well-recognized and well-compensated by sharing work that is inventive, uncooperative, potentially divisive. Can you name them? Probably on one hand.
Quality of work, then. Can't we measure our careers by our level of skill, by amplified ability? Unfortunately, this paradigm is also false, because true artistic growth moves non-linearly on a scale that is constantly changing. It embraces failure alongside success. It is evasive and amorphous, and when we try to cage it, we may find ourselves looking a different beast in the eye. How do we distinguish quality of work? By how widely well-received a work is? By how financially successful our work is becoming? Suddenly, we may find ourselves regressing and calling it "growth."
So where are we going as artists in 2014? In this humble blogger's opinion, the only true measure of an artist is how well his work expresses truth as he sees it. Everything else is a distraction.
So, yes. The glass will break. But only when you smash your career against it. Then, among the shards of the illusion of ambition, you may find something worth reflecting.