Brain Pickings

Art, Inc.: A Field Guide to the Psychology and Practicalities of Becoming a Successful Artist

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How to master the business of art without buying into the toxic myth that doing so makes you a lesser artist.

“Art is a form of consciousness,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. But for many working artists, who straddle the balance between creativity and commerce, art swells into a form of uncomfortable self-consciousness — something compounded by a culture that continually pits the two as a tradeoff. Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captured this perfectly in proclaiming that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.” Such sentiments, argues artist Lisa Congdon in Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (public library), are among the most toxic myths we subscribe to as a culture and reflect a mentality immeasurably limiting for creative people.

Congdon, a longtime collaborator of mine and a prolific artist herself, offers those looking to make a career in a creative field, wherever they may be along the journey — aspiring artists just discovering their talent, part-time artists trying to transition into full-time, seasoned artists seeking new ideas to reinvigorate an existing career — the necessary tools for defining success by their own standards, then attaining it on their own terms. From practicalities like pricing, marketing, and photographing your work to psychological tussles like dealing with self-doubt, learning to say “no,” and managing the ebb and flow of success, she offers a 360-degree map of the terra incognita that is the modern creative life-cum-living.

Illustration from Lisa Congdon's 'Tender Buttons,' an illustrated inventory of Gertrude Stein's favorite objects. Click image for more.

Interspersed throughout the seven chapters are conversations with established artists, from legendary graphic designer Paula Scher, who shares the semi-serendipitous evolution of her magnificent typographic map paintings, to Nikki McClure, whose exquisite cut-paper illustrations make it hard to believe she is an entirely self-taught former ecologist.

In the foreword, Jonathan Fields, courageous explorer of what it means to lead a good life, observes the resistance so many creative people have to labeling ourselves “artist” — a resistance that bears striking parallels to the way many women relate to the label “feminist.” Reflecting on growing up with a mother who was a gifted potter and painting with great joy throughout his childhood, he writes:

For some reason, when you hit a certain age and a certain level of “seriousness,” and you start calling yourself an “artist,” making a living at it becomes a source of great controversy. People who have nothing to do with the exchange between you and those who would enjoy your work start to pass judgment. Money, they proclaim, bastardizes both the process and the output.

Why this cultural rift emerged, I really don’t know. Maybe it has to do with the establishment of a power and money structure defined largely by gatekeepers and chosen ones — external arbiters controlling not only the flow of eyeballs, but income. Maybe it comes from the ire of those who’ve not yet figured out how to make their calling their profession seeking to tear down those who have, labeling them sellouts and hacks. Maybe it stems from something entirely different.

Whatever the source, what’s become clear to me is that you no longer have to wait to be picked.

Indeed, the precipice to which the internet has pushed creative culture is in large part what makes Congdon’s book so timely and urgently valuable, and her own atypical journey lends her advice hard-earned credibility. Congdon didn’t grow up dreaming of being an artist, nor did she have even a hobbyist’s art practice until her thirties when, struggling to recenter after an eight-year relationship ended, she picked up a paintbrush for the first time since middle school. She took a painting class at the local university’s continued education department and quickly fell in love with art, eventually going from “someone with no art experience and a very basic skill set to someone who now has a full-time career drawing and painting.”

Illustration from Lisa Congdon's 'Whatever You Are, Be a Good One,' a hand-lettered compendium of famous wisdom. Click image for more.

In the introduction, she marvels at the remarkable sense of arriving into herself that art afforded her:

What felt different about art from former pursuits was that I was motivated by something I hadn’t experienced before: an intrinsic desire to create. It was deep-seated and primal; once I discovered it, I had to make art like I had to breathe. From this passion came a desire to expand my skills, even in areas that were out of my comfort zone. I taught myself to use new media and techniques and practiced for hours and hours until my hand felt like it would fall off.

But, in a testament to the idea that getting noticed hinges on actively showing your work, it wasn’t until she started sharing her art online in 2005 that Congdon began connecting with people who would eventually buy it — and this art of sharing art is, not coincidentally, a centerpiece of Congdon’s handbook. Doing that, it seems, is in large part a matter of getting out of your own way creatively. Congdon writes:

While there is no one perfect formula that will work for every artist, I realized there are a few clear paths and work habits that, used in some combination, can lead to consistent, paying, and satisfying work.

[…]

One thing I know for sure is that to be a successful artist, you must start with the simplest proclamation: I am an artist. It’s a basic assertion, but seeing yourself as an artist — legitimate and genuine — can be transformational.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon from 'The Reconstructionists,' our yearlong celebration of remarkable women. Click image for more.

But perhaps Congdon’s most urgently important point has to do with the mythology of what it means and what it takes to be an artist artist. She admonishes against buying into the perilous notion of the “starving artist”:

Much of what separates successful artists from those who struggle is simply their mindset. Struggling artists often create obstacles in their minds by making erroneous assumptions about the way the world works. They give weight to the “starving artist myth”—part conventional belief that pursuing a career as an artist leads to financial struggle and part romanticized notion that art is better when created in a state of deprivation. But the starving artist myth is just that: a myth. And believing in any part of it will keep you from becoming a thriving, working artist.

Creating a flourishing art practice comes from passion, talent, and hard work. Promoting your work means that people will know what you do. And selling your work will support your livelihood and allow you to make even more art. This is the “thriving artist’s mindset.” Artists who possess this mentality are not frightened by the notion of making money. They think in terms of possibility and abundance, not limits and scarcity. They’ve given themselves permission to thrive.

As a vehement opponent of the “starving artist” myth myself, I’ve often marveled at how the inimitable Patti Smith embodies precisely the difference Congdon outlines. Smith was, quite literally, an artist who starved early in her career, as evidenced by her lettuce soup days. But, as Seth Godin once remarked in considering the necessary vulnerability of being an artist, even though Smith was homeless for years — dumpster-diving for food and sleeping on park benches — she never thought of herself as a homeless person; she thought of herself as “an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.”

Congdon illustrates the difference between these two mindsets, which map rather neatly onto Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering model of fixed vs. growth mindset.

Ultimately, Congdon suggests that the fusion of creative purpose and financial fruition comes from the integration of our values with the price of success, however we choose to define it. She writes:

Finding equanimity in the midst of our creative and entrepreneurial journeys is truly our life’s work.

Complement Art, Inc. with a lesson from Muppets creator Jim Henson on bridging creative integrity and commercial success and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s wise admonition against buying into the notion of “selling out,” then revisit Anna Deavere Smith’s invaluable advice to aspiring artists.

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