The criterion of success for artists has always been more complex than for most other professions. Starting off, there is the simple fact of determining whether or not “artist” can be designated as a profession. The work is seen as a hobby or something done for oneself and it is traded in exclusive realms of patrons. Is it a service, a commodity, a necessity?
If the discussion ever gets past the questions surrounding its establishment as a profession, then the idea of commercialism must be addressed. Art (and design) has entered into conversation as a tool for marketing and promotions. It has gone from commodification to an instrument in branding to iconify names and product lines across the globe. Art, in this form, is not just a language; it is the universal means of communicating identity and measuring buyers’ loyalty.
All of this debate shifts the paradigm away from the purity of the artistic intention — the focus on creativity and its role in inspiring both the artist to develop an evolving voice and vision as well as the audience eager to engage with the work to the extent that some of those viewers may seek to embark on their own journeys of artistic discovery.
Anthony Moorman, a filmmaker with ties to Cincinnati (two years at the University of Cincinnati and time as a volunteer with the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Film Commission), tackles these issues in his new documentary, Making It, by engaging in frank discussions with three mid-career artists — Eric Fortune, Andrew Bawidamann and Brian Ewing — grappling with defining success and living lives as artists. How do you live off your work and your work alone while attaining the other accoutrements of a successful life, as defined within our culture/society? Can the artist have it all, just like anyone else?
Ewing wonders if education matters. He delves further, seeing how earning and paying for a degree amounts to buying a career as an artist. Is that what it’s all about? An art career?
These issues fascinate me as they relate to the writer’s experience. Almost 25 years ago, fresh out of college (with a business degree, no less), I succumbed to the dream of writing the Great American Novel. For years, through the writing into the process of submitting queries, I balked at calling myself a writer, figuring I needed to be published before that moniker would be valid. Then, 15 years ago, I landed in Cincinnati and secured a writing gig at CityBeat. I continued collecting rejections from the industry (the highlight: reaching the finalist stage for a coveted spot at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab) but at least I could honestly call myself a working writer.
But was I an artist? That question nagged me for years. Why wasn’t being a writer enough of a distinction for me? I wasn’t John Edgar Wideman or Paul Auster or Joyce Carol Oates, but then again, I wasn’t ever going to be any of those writers. A funny and somewhat insignificant incident encapsulates my problem. One day, a neighbor called out to me as I was heading to my door and mentioned reading a CityBeat feature. He said that he had known for years that I was a writer, but he thought I wrote books or something.
Was that it? Did I need to write books to prove to him and the world (and of course, to myself) that I was a writer, an artist?
About five years ago, I stumbled across a listing on the Ohio Arts Council website for their Individual Excellence Awards honoring artists throughout the state, but the aim was more significant than that. The state envisioned this program as an investment “in the future of Ohio’s artists,” who were “making a difference in communities across Ohio every day” by “[illuminating] community identity and [helping] us understand and imagine our lives in new ways.”
Criticism was among the disciplines under consideration, which teased and confounded me. I scrambled to put together representative samples of my work and during my second application cycle earned recognition. The state of Ohio, which considers criticism an art form, saw fit to honor something in my work that I struggled to see in it myself — creativity.
So, I am a working artist, which means that now I find myself striving to challenge the self-imposed limits I have placed on criticism, but the focus shifts to what it means to be a “working” writer/artist. To truly support my family I must appropriate other aspects of the craft, incorporating teaching and a more aggressive business-based model. My guides in this process are the subjects of Making It. These younger men are teaching an old guy what it means to be an artist “making it” with no reservations.
MAKING IT is available through iTunes, VUDU, X-Box and Google Play.