For an Artist, What’s the Price of Success?


Artists wreck everything.

In the streamlined, ultra-efficient world of the Information Age, artists are a nuisance. Unlike typical goods and services, which can be enumerated in tidy rows on spreadsheets, the productions of artists--painters, poets, actors, sculptors, playwrights, potters, dancers, novelists and the like--are odd and unpredictable.

Art has always been the sand in capitalism’s gears, the one element that refuses to bow to economic laws. Art can’t be produced on a schedule. It won’t punch a time clock. And it can’t be assigned an arbitrary value based on a chart devised by some MBA.

Perhaps that is why, in a time of titanic prosperity in the United States, some artists themselves have turned for subject matter to the complicated role of artists in the modern world.


Three current films--”Before Night Falls,” “Finding Forrester” and “Pollock”--and a new novel by Don DeLillo, “The Body Artist” (Scribner), deal with this theme. They cover different time periods and different media, but they seem to ask many of the same questions:

How can an artist sell her or his work--but not sell out? How can artists live in a philistine world without acquiring the world’s priorities and values? Where do they fit in--and should they even try?

Each work answers in different ways, but a fragile consensus might be: Artists will always struggle, because the world tries to consume everything in its sticky grasp, just as a spider does an unsuspecting insect that wanders into its web. But on the other hand, the energy generated to defy the world and its compromises can be a positive force, keeping the artist sharp and focused.

Only one of the crop, “Before Night Falls,” includes overt social critique; the film, directed by Julian Schnabel, recounts the life of Reinaldo Arenas, a poet and novelist who was exiled from Cuba. The others focus relentlessly on the travails of individual creators: the real-life visual artist Jackson Pollock in “Pollock,” the fictional novelist William Forrester in “Finding Forrester” and the fictional performance artist Lauren Hartke in “The Body Artist.”

Because capitalism makes a commodity of everything, any examination of the artist in America must grapple with this central paradox: People with lots of money can buy art. But that which supports and nurtures art--a vibrant economic base--also may destroy an artist’s tender psyche by turning art into things to buy and sell, into little more than glorified pork bellies.


While recent treatments suggest that the theme may be preoccupying artists as never before, the subject has long fascinated us. Perhaps the most passionate exploration of the artist’s rough treatment at the hands of a commodity culture is “Martin Eden,” the 1908 novel by Jack London.


The title character is a robust, good-natured fellow whose hands are thickly callused from years of work as a sailor. Eden dreams of a more cultured life, a life of books and music and the leisurely contemplation of beauty. He schools himself in literature and philosophy, and begins writing tales drawn from an adventurous life spent cruising the world’s oceans.

For years, these tales are summarily returned to Eden by magazine editors. Out of the blue, however, a few are published. And soon Eden finds himself a celebrated author.

There’s just one catch: Eden is haunted by the implications of his success. Nothing has changed about his writing; his work just happened to catch on with the public. It’s the same writing he was turning out for years and that was swiftly rejected. What does that say about the struggle to create art? If success is based on whim and luck, not quality, howmust a writer work?

A friend urges him to renounce worldly success: “Beauty is the only master to serve. Serve her and damn the multitude!” But for most people, fame and fortune are the point of artistic endeavor. Eden faces an intense spiritual crisis that ends tragically.

The same issue haunts Pollock (Ed Harris) in “Pollock,” the new film about the late artist famous for his splatter paintings. Pollock had disdain for the art world as he found it; in one scene, he dismisses his fellow artists with obscenities. How, then, can he justify his own success when it comes? If you make fun of the game, how can you live with yourself after winning it?

Forrester (Sean Connery) simply opted out of the game when he stopped publishing his work after one memorable, critically acclaimed novel. In “Finding Forrester,” he seems to spend his days watching kids play basketball and his nights puttering about his cluttered apartment. He places himself above the petty effort to please critics and readers with another work. There is an irascible nobility in his renunciation.



Stories about artists, be they fictional or nonfictional, have a similar arc: The young unknown creator struggles, is ignored or even ridiculed, until she or he finally breaks through to success. Another paradox then occurs, for as novelist John P. Marquand wrote, “Success is the end of hope.” At the moment an artist is recognized, the struggle is over and a part of the artist dies: the part that looks forward to the future with yearning and confidence.

Another telling depiction of an artist whose ideals clashed with the world’s greed and mediocrity is “The Song of the Lark” by Willa Cather. Thea Kronberg, an opera singer who hails from a small Midwestern town, is defined as “uncommon, in a common, common world.” But when she finally reaches the pinnacle of musical success, she finds her life strangely empty.

The narrator follows Kronberg after a performance, one whose intensity has completely undone her. Kronberg does not see a man from the audience pass her on the street; had she seen him, the narrator suggests, the riddle of her life and work might have seemed less vexing: “She passed so near that he could have touched her. . . . Then he walked down Broadway with his hands in his overcoat pockets, wearing a smile which embraced all the stream of life that passed him and the lighted towers that rose into the limpid blue of the evening sky.

“If the singer, going home exhausted in her car, was wondering what was the good of it all, that smile, could she have seen it, would have answered her. It is the only commensurate answer.”

For artists, the word “success” has many meanings, many dimensions. Limiting it to financial and popular success, Cather suggests, is asking for trouble; it turns artists into salespeople, whose only measure of personal worth is a series of steadily ascending numbers in a ledger.

Instead, she seems to advise, artists must take a leap of faith and believe in what they cannot see: the impact of their work on a world stuffed with possessions--but still ravenous for beauty.