Failed Artist

It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist.

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It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist. “Pains me” because nothing in my life has given me the boundless psychic bliss of making art for tens of hours at a stretch for a decade in my 20s and 30s, doing it every day and always thinking about it, looking for a voice to fit my own time, imagining scenarios of success and failure, feeling my imagined world and the external one merging in things that I was actually making. Now I live on the other side of the critical screen, and all that language beyond words, all that doctor-shamanism of color, structure, and the mysteries of beauty — is gone.

I miss art terribly. I’ve never really talked about my work to anyone. In my writing, I’ve occasionally mentioned bygone times of once being an artist, usually laughingly. Whenever I think of that time, I feel stabs of regret. But once I quit, I quit; I never made art again and never even looked at the work I had made. Until last month, when my editors suggested that I write about my life as a young artist. I was terrified. Also, honestly, elated. No matter how long it’d been — no matter how long I’d come to think of myself fully as a critic, working through the same problems of expression from the other side — I admit I felt a deep-seated thrill hearing someone wanted to look at my work.

Of course, I often think that everyone who isn’t making art is a failed artist, even those who never tried. I did try. More than try. I was an artist. Even sometimes a great one, I thought.

I wasn’t totally deluded. I was a lazy smart-aleck who felt sorry for himself, resented anyone with money, and felt the world owed me a living. For a few years, I attended classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, although I didn’t always pay tuition and got no degree. But I did meet artists there and saw that staying up late with each other is how artists learn everything — developing new languages and communing with one another.

In 1973, I was 22, full of myself, and frustrated that I wasn’t already recognized for my work. I walked into my roommate Barry Holden’s room in our apartment, 300 feet from Wrigley Field, and said, “Let’s us and our friends start an artist-run gallery.” He said, “Okay.” It was great! People took notice; articles were written; I was interviewed by bigwig New York critic Peter Schjeldahl; I met hundreds of artists and felt part of a huge community that I fancied I was near the center of. For years, I lived across the street from the gallery, in a huge cold-water sixth-floor non-heated walk-up loft that had a $150 monthly rent. The place had previously been a storage facility for Jerry Lewis’s muscular-dystrophy foundation, and my furniture was mostly what had been abandoned there: a wooden bench for a couch, a huge drafting table in the center of the space, a hot plate, buckets on the floor to catch the leaks from the ceiling, a pail to fill for pouring down the toilet to make it work, and a mattress on the floor. I was an artist.

By 1978, I’d had two solo shows at our gallery, N.A.M.E. (called that because we couldn’t think of a name). Both shows were part of a gigantic project that I began the day before Good Friday in 1975. I was illustrating the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy — starting with “Inferno.” Both exhibitions sold out; museums bought my work; I got a National Endowment for the Arts Grant — the huge sum of $3,000, which, with an artist-girlfriend’s help, enabled me to move to New York. I was reviewed favorably in Artforum and the Chicago papers. My work was in the proto–Barbara Gladstone gallery in New York as well as shown by the great Rhona Hoffman in Chicago. I was delirious. Mice crawled on me at night; I showered at other people’s houses and had no heat. I didn’t care. I had everything I needed.

But then I looked back, into the abyss of self-doubt. I erupted with fear, self-loathing, dark thoughts about how bad my work was, how pointless, unoriginal, ridiculous. “You don’t know how to draw,” I told myself. “You never went to school. Your work has nothing to do with anything. You’re not a real artist. Your art is irrelevant. You don’t know art history. You can’t paint. You aren’t a good schmoozer. You’re too poor. You don’t have enough time to make your work. No one cares about you. You’re a fake. You only draw and work small because you’re too afraid to paint and work big.”

Every artist does battle, every day, with doubts like these. I lost the battle. It doomed me. But also made me the critic I am today

Adapted from vulture

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Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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17 Comments


  1. An art critic recounts his days as an up and coming artist though self-doubt led him to give up the craft.

    Reply

  2. A memoir of sorts by a past artist, who now admits being a failure.
    He traverses from his entrance into art, and the optimism and grandeur he felt, even when living in poor conditions, to the criticism he now feels toward his work and his status as an artist.

    Reply

  3. A critic told people about his own story when he was at his 20s-30s. In the past, he thought he did well at art. Butt now, he think he was a failure as an artist.

    Reply

  4. The author = enjoeyed making art before + miss it know + regret not to be an artist anymore. He is telling his story of being an artist.

    Reply

  5. An artist does not like art as he used to but not completely, using his life story as an example. Self doubt made him a critic. Tone mostly negative.

    Reply

  6. author looking back of his past as a ‘failed artist’. gist of his article is that artists must overcome self-doubts.

    Reply

  7. the author is an artist, looks back and how much he doubted himself and realize that he is an artist and a critic. he did not have an easy journey.

    Reply

  8. MI: The author, now an art critic, reflects with mixed feelings on his time as an artist and attributes his insecurity to why he ultimately “failed” (author defines fail as stop making art).
    Stylistically, he talks about the joy deliriously, the rising fame and the art itself that overcame the discomforts of living poor. But in creep insecurities he attributes to the end of his art career, although in a final note seems to accept it as shaping him into who he is today.

    Reply

  9. An art critic looking back on his past and the decisions that have led to where he is today. He was never fond of himself and is still not satisfied.

    Reply

  10. Author was consumed with insecurities that ultimately resulted in him losing his motivation to pursue art. Failure made him a better critic.

    Reply

  11. MIP: The author is a failed artist, which has given him pain. The author doubted himself as an artist, which led to the critic he is today.

    Reply

  12. His main point is to share and reflect on his experience as an artist and to support younger artists who might be going through the same journey he went through. He wants them to keep going, and not give up like him.

    Reply

  13. failed artist (au), was an artist (au), self-doubt led to author becoming critic

    Reply

  14. Author is no longer an artist but an art critic. He feels somewhat hollow and despondent (failed artist….miss art terribly…never talked about my work….feel stabs of regret…). Author does miss life as an artist but has decided to call it quits and no longer wants to return to that life.

    Author no longer feels passionate about his work though he does reminisce his former glory days.
    Author has lots of insecurities. No mention of what caused the change but it certainly helps make his work as an art critic easier (negative attributes)

    Tone: disappointment, optimism of budding aspiring artist to uninspiring vapid art critic, self-doubt/loathing, insecurities

    Reply

  15. MIP: Artists struggle with self doubt. They can still be successful even if they “fail”.
    Tone: positive

    Reply

  16. Au=was artists but failed, artist life=not materialistic

    Reply

  17. MIP
    (1) Au = current critic + prior artist
    (2) Au was successful artist, but had self-doubt, left art, became critic
    (3) Artist = cheap living

    Tone
    Ambivalent (believes he was both a successful artist but also a failed artist)

    Reply

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