Don't confuse fame with success. ---Erma Bombeck
I'm probably not off the mark when I think we'd all like to be acclaimed for what we create, whether it's a poem, sculpture, theatrical role, dance performance, painting, weaving, clay vessel, novel, or building. But how many of us long to have that recognition turn into fame, accompanied by fortune? Some artists declare outright such aspirations, while others hold their expectations close to the chest.
Is the trajectory to fame simply a matter of getting one's MFA or other training, then moving on to gallery representation or a publishing contract, which leads to rave reviews and spectacular sales? The chances of that happening so swimmingly are pitifully low, even for great artists. History tells us that they weren't always considered great.
A few weeks ago, I saw "Loving Vincent," an animated biographical drama film about the life of Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890) that explores the suspicious circumstances of his death. Unique in how it weaves real actors into painted animation, the movie consists of 65,000 frames. Each frame is an oil painting on canvas, created by a team of 125 classically trained painters (selected out of 5,000 applicants) who used the same technique as van Gogh. It's a stunning artistic feat in its own right, for which it has deservedly garnered or been nominated for awards around the world.
What I witnessed in the film is what I already knew: van Gogh had problems--social, mental, and financial--but they never diminished his passion for painting. He went out daily, literally rain or shine, to set up his easel and work. A Dutch Post-Impressionist who moved to France in 1886, van Gogh created more than 2,000 artworks in a decade, including 800 plus oil paintings, most of which he produced in the last two years of his tortured life. He was considered a madman and a failure by many. Yet, he wrote in his diary: "Still there is a calm, pure harmony, and music inside of me."
Van Gogh did not become famous (or infamous) until after his death, a supposed suicide. Of all the paintings he created, only one sold. The economics of van Gogh's art career was a huge strain on his brother Theo, who supported him. The artist's reputation did not begin to grow until the 20th century. By 2015, "L'Allée des Alyscamps" fetched the stratospheric amount of 66.3 million dollars at a Sotheby auction, far too late to benefit Theo's family.
According to a Zen saying, "No seed ever sees the flower." In one way, this is true for van Gogh, but in another way, it isn't. He painted regardless of fame or fortune, neither of which he achieved during his lifetime. But he was still successful; that is, he accomplished what he set out to do, to express his impressions and continually improve his art. His success was based on his own terms, not external definitions. That's not to say there's something wrong with gaining fame, especially if it would have eased Vincent's poverty and the burden on Theo. However, fame is fickle.
You can be famous but not necessarily create "good" art. You can be famous, but perhaps only among a certain set of people. You can see your own image or your artwork on the front cover of a magazine and, a year later, realize that someone else has taken the spotlight and few now remember who you are. You can be famous and, for fear of losing popularity and sales, find yourself no longer willing to take risks, to try something unexpected and chance making mistakes. You can be famous and have your reputation seriously questioned. In his 1568 edition of artists' biographies, Giorgio Vasari included several women artists because, against all odds, they had managed to become famous. However, this visibility also subjected them to moral scrutiny, with consequences for opportunities of patronage.
I wondered about this, so I looked into the etymology of "fame" and "success." Though the words are sometimes used interchangeably, their origins indicate they're clearly different. "Fame" is derived from the Latin fāma, "talk, rumor, report, reputation," while "success" comes from the Latin succedere, sub for "next to" and cedere for "to go, move." Success is therefore something that happens as a consequence of what we do, with effort and perseverance as crucial factors. Based on these roots, success is the achievement of one's aim or goal, whereas fame is what's said, gossiped, or reported about a person.
According to his son Christopher, Russian-American artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) had a complicated relationship to fame: "fame was a desired but highly suspect drug." He struggled between two poles--the desire to be extolled and the discomfort with becoming the object of praise. Christopher explains, "The same part of him that remained wary of his fame also helped him keep perspective on the magnitude of his own gifts." He relates the following story in his book, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out:
My uncle [Dick, an accountant from Ohio who had no knowledge of art] once told me about a conversation he had with my father. He and my aunt were visiting my parents in New York, and the two men went to the diner downstairs...My father proceeded to tell..[Dick] that he considered himself extremely lucky, that there were a dozen painters of his generation whom he thought every bit as talented as him, but who had not received recognition or whose reputations were now fading. He felt that, in the end, it was mostly good fortune that he was one of the ones who had become celebrated.....The attitude expressed...in this story is...[that he was] far more engaged with his work than with his ego. It highlights the fundamental humility that helped him clear himself out of the way, so that we could have a more direct, more honest experience with his work. And yet, we must remember, this is also the artist whose fantasy was to become one of the "Three Ms"--Mozart, Matisse, and Mark. He dreamed large, and he dreamed ambitiously. There is no question that he aspired to greatness, for to aspire to anything less would necessarily have left him short.
I appreciate this story because it points to the challenges and pitfalls of flirting with fame. But aspiring to greatness is something else. Having passion and commitment to one's art is something else. Sustaining oneself as an artist for the long haul is something else. It's about defining success for ourselves, rather than letting others define it for us. It's about not pandering to trends in the hope of gaining fame (often momentary), but exploring and discovering who we are as artists--knowing what we want to do with our art and why we want to do it. Ultimately, it seems more likely that we'll derive a deeper satisfaction when we trust in personal success rather than in fleeting public fame.
I'll close with some quotes to ponder from both famous and successful people:
You know you are on the road to success if you would do your job, and not be paid for it. -- Oprah Winfrey
Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful. -- Albert Schweitzer
I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure--It is: Try to please everybody. --Herbert Bayard Swope
It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.
-- Herman Melville
Success comes to those who dedicate everything to their passion in life. To be successful, it is also very important to be humble and never let fame or money travel to your head. --A. R. Rahman
We learned about honesty and integrity--that the truth matters...and success doesn't count unless you earn it fair and square.
Questions & Comments:
What's your relationship to the notion of fame?
What stories can you share about fame that you or others have experienced?
How do you describe success for yourself as an artist?