I don’t know what success means. I never have. If I’ve had any, I’ve rarely felt it. But by most metrics I’m aware of, I haven’t had that much. Of course the way you measure how well you’ve done has a lot to do with what your expectations are and that’s one of my main problems—I expect almost nothing.
What I do feel and often expect is failure. I couldn’t tell you when I’ve truly achieved something, but I could sure as hell tell you all about all the times I’ve fallen short. Is this a personality flaw, a philosophical stance, or just an inevitable symptom of being involved in an unwinnable pursuit?
So far this year I’ve probably sold more paintings for more money than in any other in recent memory. The money makes day-to-day life easier without a doubt, but after thanking the buyer for the business I’m left feeling nothing. It’s not a sense of loss either. I’ve never felt attached emotionally to my pictures once I’m done with them. I also have enough ego to expect to sell my work. I have little doubt that it’s good enough to earn me a living. But that isn’t the same as feeling joy from success.
A fellow painter once told me she would masturbate after finishing a painting to celebrate. I had no idea where she was coming from. When I finish a painting—if I think it isn’t a bad one—I have a few minutes of sitting back and looking at what I’ve done, then I forget about it and go on to the next thing. If there’s any exultation, it is at the prospect of a clean slate. Much more understandable to me was when a singer friend told me she’d masturbate in the dressing room before going up on stage to calm her nerves.
The stage or the screen is where success is most often determined in our society. I’ve done enough book readings and other public events to know that I don’t belong on stage or crave that kind of attention. This past week I saw two great concerts. I’ve been going to see both musicians for decades at this point. Afterwards, I wondered what they felt after bringing so much joy to hundreds of people. Where they as happy after the show as we all were? Or did they just mop up the sweat and get back on the bus to the next tour stop? If I ever had any rockstar dreams, they died many many years ago. I love what these people do but have no desire at all to be in their place.
My stage is a blank piece of paper and there is no one clapping around its edges, nor should there be. The most satisfaction I ever feel is when I’m lost in the middle of a drawing. Lately it’s most often happened on CTA buses and trains while drawing with colored markers. I have no sense of where any of it is going, which is a funny sensation to have while aboard public transit. I take the bus or train till it reaches its terminus, then get back on and take it the other way.
This aimlessness isn’t just some metaphor. Maybe having some vague directional pull with no true destination is all I’ll ever have. There’s no winning in art because the endpoint never stops moving. Best thing I can do is just keep getting on the bus.