John Waters speaking at this year’s RISD commencement
Since it’s graduation season, there are tons of commencement speech videos circulating right now. My perspective may be cynical and unpopular, but I will admit that I find most commencement speeches irritating because most speeches tell you that the world is your oyster, and that you can do anything! Frequently, the speeches offer a bullet list of things to do in order to achieve success. What most speeches don’t mention is that things will probably go nowhere before they go somewhere.
What I’d like to talk about today is what to do when you’ve been consistently doing everything on those bullet lists for years, but nothing is happening. I would estimate that artists are more likely to experience this circumstance than phenomenal success. The truth is that the vast majority of people will not be the top superstars in their field, most of us will not win the Turner prize or a Guggenheim grant.
At my MFA graduation in 2004 (I’m on the right)
When I was a graduate student, it was easy to imagine and aspire for the most prestigious professional achievements in my field. After completing my MFA, I felt ready to take a serious plunge into the professional art world. Everything seemed possible simply because I hadn’t experienced anything yet. At that time, I made a checklist of long term goals that was very specific:
1. Win a top artist grant.
2. Be represented by a respected New York City art gallery.
3. Get my artwork into major museum collections across the nation.
4. Become a tenured professor.
It’s been 11 years since I received my MFA, and I have yet to check off a single item on that list. I’m know that 11 years is a drop in the water compared to some other people, but it’s long enough that I don’t feel like I graduated yesterday. In retrospect, it seems like I must have been egotistical and naive to have thought at one point that one, even several of the items on my checklist could be in my future. I’m not deluded enough to think that I would just wake up one morning to a call from the MacArthur Foundation. I was well aware early on what I had signed up for by choosing to be a professional artist, and certainly, I’ve made some personal choices that determined where my career could go.
Still, it’s tough to have toiled this hard for this long, and not feel disappointed. With every year that passes, I watch the ship sail further away. At this point, becoming an internationally renowned fine artist is just not in the cards for me. Looking at what I’ve done so far, I know that I will never have a solo retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and that I won’t be representing the United States in the next Venice Biennale.
Over the past few years, I watched my checklist transform from a positive source of inspiration into a toxic distraction. Obsessing over this checklist became extremely unhealthy; I used to torture myself by reading articles about artists who had achieved meteoric success in their 20’s. I became very resentful and making art wasn’t fun anymore. What was supposed to be one of my greatest joys in life had mutated into something that just made me miserable. If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll understand what a truly frightening place this is to be.
Below is an excerpt from a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks titled “The Small, Happy Life.”
“Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, ‘was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.'”
That checklist wasn’t my own; it was a very narrow minded idea of success formulated by other people that I let myself succumb to. Reading this column reconfirmed that I don’t need to fulfill those items on my checklist to be creatively satisfied.
I’ve moved the aspirations on my old checklist to the back burner. The goals are still simmering quietly, but they are no longer front and center in my mind. Oddly enough, letting myself not care has been remarkably effective, and this is the first time in a while that I have been able to think clearly. This week, I’m going to start writing a new checklist.
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