Crashing, Burning, and Crashing Again: Hard Work and Success for Artists of Color by Julie De Vries
“Ned? Oh, Ned he’s so damn smart, he’s a genius”. This is my cousin referring to my white half-brother who is in his early 30’s still had not landed a steady job, lived at home and I should add, suffered from suicidal thoughts and depression. And yet, this pronouncement didn’t take me by surprise, my entire life I had heard about how many wonderful things were possible in his future, “you know he plays so many video games, maybe he’ll be a surgeon or a pilot!!”. His destiny was to follow the trajectory of a Bill Gates. I, on the other hand, was the older half-sister who never heard about the wonderful things in store for me.
Unlike my brother I was given a completely different message, albeit unwittingly, by my dark skinned Latin American Immigrant father who I spent most weekends with. If I was with him I was most surely at his restaurant watching him cook and hustle his ass off. Like many immigrants he arrived fully pledged to the American Dream. He was an entrepreneur who over the decades was sometimes doing well but most times struggling. To this day I have never seen anyone work harder than my dad but at the end of his life while suffering from cancer, the American dream bitch slapped him hard. He died poor and the country that he had toiled for let him fall through the nightmarish cracks between Medicare, and disability. All his hard work and nothing to show for it. My brother and I, like most Americans, from the moment we were born have had the myth that we are living in a meritocracy thrust upon our shoulders, the idea that if you work hard enough you will be a success and conversely if you don’t work hard enough you will fail. As a child of color I had learned a lesson that my white half-brother unfortunately never did. Which is for every Bill Gates There’s a million Carlos Lopez’s. In essence, it’s all bullshit.
For all of the disadvantages people of color might have in our country built on institutionalized racism, one small advantage we might have is the perspective my dad gave me. We know that being good and working hard doesn’t guarantee success because we have witnessed it. We know that to work hard gives us only a hope of a chance of success and no promises. Being mixed race I had the benefit of having intimate knowledge with the white and nonwhite experience of the “meritocracy”. The difference is while I was expected to work hard to have a chance at success my brother was simply expected to just have success. It’s no surprise that the pressure of this had him considering ending it all, he failed in a place where everything is set up for a white male to succeed. After all we are a country that made Trump, white mediocrity equals success, this is especially true in the art world.
Contrary to what art schools would have you believe, good work doesn’t equal good career. Many mediocre artists locally and nationally have consistent exhibition and sales records. They don’t seem to have earned it. I lament, as most artists do, as to why I work so hard making art and striving towards greatness but the rejections keep coming. In a way all artists can relate to the frustration of working hard and having nothing to show for it because artists are a not valued in our culture. But if you are an artist of color reading this know that, like my brother and I, we are not playing the same game as white artists, the rules and results are different. Adrian Piper herself has seen the art world shun her then embrace her over the decades.
She has had to support herself as a philosopher because the money she has made is so inconsistent. A philosopher! Mega Star Chris Rock spoke about having a white dentist as a neighbor. For every talented minority art star like Kerry James Marshall there are thousands of mediocre white artists making a living with careers that if I had, I’d feel like I had won the lottery. Maddeningly, many white artists still think we minority artists have some sort of advantage showing and selling work, they couldn’t be more wrong.
I have been producing the best work of my life and it’s piling up in my studio slowly taking over my home. In my desperation to show, I like many others before me have turned toward those god awful self-help-career books and websites for artists. With titles such as “Making it in the Art World” and “How to be a Successful Artist”, the only problem is these books are written for white artists because their solutions are white. For example, they often recommend regularly visiting galleries you are interested in showing with and cultivating a relationship with the owner. This is a little hard to do from behind a glass front door that has been locked by said gallery owner during business hours because they are scared to let a black man in (this literally happened to my husband). These books show zero awareness of the necessities for people of color to modify their approaches to the White Cubes, for the most part white women don’t even get tailored advice for navigating a market rife with sexism. Intersectionality ain’t in the glossary. They purport that if you say and do the correct things you should succeed. For white artists it may hold some grain of truth but let them begin to lose a step and there is nothing to explain or forgive their failures, they may find themselves where my brother was, feeling worthless and depressed.
We artists of color must not get bamboozled into believing we live in a meritocracy. We must always remember the struggles of our friends and loved ones and know that we are working hard to make great art as an end in and of itself and not as a guaranteed means to an end. Let’s not forget that though we may have idols who are successful white artists we may never have their careers and (here is the most important part) It’s not our fault!!! The system would have us believe artists of color have some kind of advantage, if only we kissed ass a little more, appealed to their exotic ideas of us, applied for that extra grant or show, gotten that extra line on my CV then you might have had a chance. Resist this because it’s not us that needs to change it’s the system itself. How many art institutions in town are run by people of color? (according to a 2016 study by the American Alliance of Museums curators, conservators, and those working in publication and registrar are over 80% non-Hispanic white). How many shows by artists of color or women artists are being seen, written about? (Just look around you) Most importantly how many of your artist of color friends are able to even halfway support themselves with their work?
The gap between rich and poor, and failure and success is getting wider in this country. Now multiply that by a hundred and you have the situation that us minority artists find ourselves in. So do yourself a favor and be kinder to you, reject the dangerous career advice, make great art as an antidote to mediocre white art and put the blame for your struggling career where it belongs, the rotten art world establishment. If we don’t we will call ourselves failures in a game that was never designed for us to win, we might even understandably want to quit, or we might end up like my dad or my brother blaming ourselves and wondering where we went wrong. We must reject the brainwashing that would make us say to ourselves, “You are the only thing holding you back”, in spite of an entire system built to keep success just beyond our grasp. Instead let’s put our combined efforts into, not just making stunning art for its own sake, but supporting fellow minority artists, and also holding non-profits, museums, galleries, and people in power accountable for their biases. Demolish this squalid and unfair system, that’s all the advice I need.
Julie De Vries is a painter who lives, works, and teaches art appreciation in Houston, TX. Her work can be seen at juliedevries.tumblr.com