Why are the best artists not always the most successful? I have a friend, Marco, who I believe is the most visually gifted artist I’ve ever met. His eye, his sense of color, shape, perspective, line, and shading is beyond good; it’s great. His conceptions are often both original and novel (not always the same thing). Yet, he is unknown when many lesser artists, including people Marco and I grew up with, are far more successful. Why? I mean we could say the usual stuff: luck, the ability to schmooz, a benefactor who took a liking, etc, etc, but what might be the common, non toxic explanation?
I believe being recognized is a talent, a capability in its own right. It can arrive at success or fame either from the stand point of optimal normativity ( a word I coined to express a talent for fitting in to standards of excellence intuited among the prevailing norm of a field) or abnormativity (the ability to seem abnormal, or distinct in a manner that pleases the normative’s desire for variety). These are separate gifts from artistic ability, but I believe they are essential to most success in the arts.
True originality is never apprehended until it has been either normified or abnormified–either taken into the norm of what is considered right and well, or taken into the abnorm of what is considered acceptably quirky. In short, true originality does not exist until it is well on its way to no longer being original. The human mind, the eye, the ear, the sense, the intuition follows after it, not seeing it until the mind and ear and eye evolve enough to apprehend. The audience must be invented with the artist. And so I have several theories as to why Marco is not as famous or successful as some of our mutual friends who have not even half his ability. I could put them bluntly as: he is both too normal and abnormal in ways that do not signify success or fame:
1. He has poor skills for knowing who is valuable and who is not, and he does not cull the herd of who and who not to associate with. Alexandro, a mutual childhood friend of ours who is successful, highly successful (art books by Pittsburgh University press, exhibitions globally) knew who and who not to waste time on. He wasted time on us when he was a teenager and we were the only game in town, then departed from associating with us when he caught the eye of a major latin American art power broker. He did not hurt or help Marco. Alexandro simply took off for more promising associations. Alexandro did not waste energy. I don’t believe he did this consciously or out of disdain so much as he had a talent for recognition. He had good target sense and an ability to articulate his aesthetics. It is no surprise to me that his art works, though well received, are not as emphasized as his critical writings on the arts. He is an expert in Latin American art of social protest. He knows Marco is a superior painter. he will never champion his work. He went after what he instinctively knew would help him achieve his goal. His goal was never to be a great artist. Most people in the art scene do not essentially care about that.That’s too sloppy. His goal was to find steady and admired success in the arts, to achieve a homeostasis of well-being as an “artist” in the top circles.. To that end, Alex was good at being both normal and abnormal in all the right ways. He did not waste energy, and his desire was, in a sense , as normative as a law student’s. One brand of this sort of thinking is called professionalism. It is only one variant and it means showing up and presenting one’s normalities and abnormalities, one’s in the boxes and “out of the boxes” in a package that is appealing to the gate keepers.
2. Marco while at the same time he is too available, is also too unavailable: Alex was not available when it would make someone desire his availability. He had the gift for making others slavish, and courtly. They courted his attention. Marco, because of his superior artistic gifts, had great trouble either courting the power brokers who were not equal to his standards, or denying attention and availability to those he considered talented (some of whom were lost souls and would never do him any good). He was also so obsessed with his art he never developed a marketable “Style.” Marco did not imitate Marco. This is also problematical when it comes to achieving success: how does one learn to imitate one’s self without appearing to be stuck in a groove? Most people do not know the difference between true style and voice, and parody of style and voice. You can fool most of the people almost all of the time until some expert says you are a mere imitation of yourself, and then the crowd decides to agree.
Talent means many things: one is recognizable ability, and the other is the mystique of being recognized for that ability. I believe these are very separate talents. Picasso had both in abundance–a genius for norms and abnorms that would serve his fame and success. Some call this luck, or good fortune, or fate. I believe it is a talent whose mechanisms are capable of being studied. This is an opening salvo in that regard.
PHOTO CREDIT: MARCO MUNOZ