Why is it so difficult to be an artist?

April 29th, 2006

To be an artist today is to confront continual uncertainty. There is economic uncertainty, and also uncertainty of purpose. Modern society seems to value art — art is preserved in museums, and purchased for large sums by “collectors.” And yet the normal artist is strangely disconnected from the top levels of success. Compare this with other professions. A competent pilot, trained at a good flight school, is more or less assured of a successful career. He or she might not get the opportunity to fly the biggest and newest commercial planes, or fancy jet fighters; but a stable career is a reasonable expectation, certainly compared to what an artist can hope for.

The profession of art has not always been so uncertain. For example, Cennino Cennini discusses the motivations of those entering the profession in the 14th c. “There are those who pursue it” he writes, “because of poverty and domestic need.” In 17th c. Holland, parents would encourage a talented son to pursue art as a profitable and respectable occupation. Nowadays, “poverty and domestic need” would better describe the results of becoming an artist, rather than causes for becoming one.

There is far more wealth in the world today to purchase art than in any time past. The difficult position of artist today is therefore something of a mystery.

If there is a general appreciation of art, and money to buy art, then why is it so difficult to fulfill the role of artist?

On being an artist, secret #2
Fall of the Art World

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16 Responses to “Why is it so difficult to be an artist?”

  1. Angela Ferreira Says:

    Dear Karl Zipser I love this post and thanks for mention this true reality. Nowadays people are born with lots of different talents and more intelligent than ever. There is a lot of competition out there and most important of it; almost anyone can be an artist nowadays. There is so much choice and such little opportunities that leave us all pursuing the same more or less goals. Well but reflecting on it, what of this two would really fulfil the goal of an artist: a profitable occupation or talent recognition?

  2. Karl Zipser Says:

    Hi Angela,

    I’ve been thinking about the question “why is it so difficult to be an artist?” for awhile now, but I confess that the answer “because of competition from other artists” never occurred to me. You might be right, and I will think about this some more. My initial response is that I find competition good. When I see a contemporary artist doing something special, I feel inspired rather than threatened. Perhaps I am naive. But remember, in the Renaissance artists often worked in fierce competition with each other. Sometimes patrons would hire artists to work on different parts of a project — in essence, a competition to find the best one. The competition seemed to help, or at least did not spoil, the artistic work.

  3. Jordan Says:

    Angela, KArl,

    Is it possible that the internet has hurt rather then helped artists? Maybe competition is now worse because art buyers can have endless choices at the tip of their fingers. Anyone with a little computer savy can get their art out to a large audience. Even if they only create art part time or as a hobby.

  4. Karl Zipser Says:

    Jordan, it seems to me that buyers can decide what they think is good. If the internet lets a hobby painter show his or her work, and that work is great, then that seems like a benefit to me. If the professional artists feel the heat of competition, then they will strive to improve.

    Monopoly is more dangerous than competition. Monopoly can come when a small group can decide “what is art”. Art dealers and museum curators have this sort of power because they control exhibition space. The internet would seem to offer an alternative by providing more exhibition space. On the whole, I see the internet as a plus for this reason.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    What kind of artist?

    If the artist simply wants to make money with no celebrity, he or she needs to figure out how to generate and market a large volume of salable decorator art. Of course, there is a necessity to be good, as well as fast, at making this, um, art.

    If the artist wants to get into art history texts, this is an intricate matter. If this is the goal, it would be ideal to get the interest of a well regarded art critic who writes for an important paper or magazine. Meantime, the artist should be liked by _The_ hot gallery. Being liked is very important. The artist should have some sort of special distinction. It could be anything — there is no specific distinction that assures an artist’s likability. He or she could be an ‘enfant terrible’ or a country bumpkin without culture. He or she might be the first to work in some niche never before explored in art’s definition. The artist might become a lightning rod for events beyond his or her control. The list is endless, but it is like courtship: A discerning female chooses her mate for traits her suitors have little control over. Back to art — The work should be marketable to High Art collectors in some way. It is best to find a companion who does the marketing. Companions don’t try to get paid for their time. They simply share in the rewards. Companions take care of the nasty business of promotion. Any artist who ‘praises’ him or herself to important galleries and museums will be snubbed for being ego driven. A likable and well informed praiser is very effective, however. This is why having a good critic on the artist’s side is so important. Having a circle of supporters is good, but if that crowd is isolated to the wrong town in the wrong time, all buzz will fizzle. There must be primary contacts with the best galleries, museums and journalists at all times. Little opportunities missed are the death of great potential.

    Artists should not be blamed for the collapse of artist support networks. IMHO: Critics (erudite, yet trendy writers with good pub’s) play a huge role in where the attention goes.

  6. Bill Says:

    Good question, Zip. Back in the days of Rembrandt there was better reason to hold artists in high regard. A good colored picture of the prominent figures of the day was likely to be seen as almost miraculous, considering that graphically, that was the only game in town. No photography, no TV, no magazines, printing in a primitive state and the need for daily hard work to produce the basic necessities of life. Who had time to spend on art work even if the skills had been there, not to mention the paints and pigments ?

    Today, the artist’s work is just one of a dozen graphic technologies; one of the most labor intensive and therefore one of the most expensive. Using technology to multiply his output lowers the value of his work in the eyes of most potential buyers. Part of the problems artists have to deal with is the totally mindless commercialism which puts the art world beyond logic, reason or even common sense. It’s amazing to me that someone like an Ansel Adams has made a reputation for himself which translates into fat prices for mere copies of his work.

    The work is fine. No argument there. But what did Adams do? Found our most scenic vistas and pushed a button ! I admire him, not for his artistry, but for his keen judgement in spotting an unfilled demand for nice BIG pictures. All of it backed up by a massive promotional effort. And VERY little talent.

    Now consider the case of George Eastman who built Kodak and brought photography to the masses. Feeling he had done all he could, he enjoyed a final dinner with friends and family, said good night, then went up to his bedroom and put a bullet through his head. George Eastman was a genius. Ansel Adams was not. Commercialism recognizes no rules of logic, fairness or talent. Two feet away from a million dollar diamond no one could tell it from a cubic zirconia. Four feet away no one could tell it from a piece of glass. The entire diamond industry is locked up in the hands of a few big dealers running a cartel which (if God exists) may one day land them in jail. It’s an industry that thrives on gullibility and stupidity, not unlike the world of fine art you wish to join.

    I think a good part of the problem which artists face today, in addition, of course, to the variety of graphic stuff he has to compete with, is a growing realization on the part of the public that the field of fine art is, in many ways, as phony and as corrupt as a three dollar bill. It’s a field that would excite the envy of robber barons of any generation. Perhaps our own generation in PARTICULAR ! No one needs to be told that a canvas drizzled with paint that sells for seven figures involves a shady game that most people do not want to play, run by fakes and frauds and aimed at separating the unwary from their cash.

    Summing up, I have to admire your sand and gravel for becoming an artist. But I think you’d probably make more money selling body parts under the table at the local county morgue. Certainly you’d be involved with a nicer class of people in a more respectable enterprise.) Good luck.

    Regards. Bill

    (cross-posted from Google art discussion group)

  7. Lisa Hunter Says:

    Um, guys…Rembrandt died broke. I think it’s always been hard to be an artist.

  8. Karl Zipser Says:

    From Wikipedia:

    “Rembrandt lived beyond his means, buying many art pieces and especially prints (often used in his paintings), and rarities, which probably caused his bankruptcy in 1656. He had to sell his house and move to a more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht. Here, Hendrickje and Titus started an art shop to make ends meet. However, Rembrandt’s fame did not wane in these years, since he received an important commission for a large history piece for the newly built city hall.

    “Rembrandt outlived both Hendrickje and Titus. In the end, only his daughter Cornelia was at his side. The bereaving death of his much beloved son took heavy toll on Rembrandt and soon after that he died October 4, 1669 in Amsterdam and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk.”

  9. Jordan Says:


    I think competition is great in an efficient market. The problem is the internet creates an inefficient market. People get overwhelmed with choices and buy what they find first, second, or even on the 100th web page they see. But there are thousands of other sites (artists) with better art that are never examined because of shear mass. Did this happen before the internet? Ofcourse! Galleries could try to weed out what is good and what is bad but also that is artificial!

  10. Art News Blog Says:

    I think it’s all about marketing yourself and being a business. A lot of average artists make much more than any pilot could ever make in a year, because they know how to market themselves.
    Any artist that sits in his studio waiting to be discovered will be waiting for a long time, regardless of how talented he is.

    I remember a teacher at uni told me I should do a business and marketing course after art school, and I laughed at her. But now I wish I listened. I think she was on to something.

  11. Madame Emarauld Says:

    art news blog, I think also that one should market himself. And in my case I think that is my weakest point. One thinks that because one is not discovered one is not good enough, but from this blog I understand now that that is what one should do. And that is what galleries do for you if they are a good gallery

    In Amsterdam I did a MEMO training which included learning about some ideas of marketing: talk with gallery-owners, make friends with them find out what they want and like. You don’t even have to show your work — better not — just talk make, them curious. and that is not to start doing what they want but fiend the gallery that you like the best for your work so that you can work good together.

    Being commercial doesn’t necessarily include that you make art of doubful quality.
    It is a lot of work. An artist is always rather in his or her studio but I think marketing is really important. You have to go from your inside world to the outside world, Scary! Or not? What are your experiences?

  12. CB Says:

    How can any one living in the developed world. with enough money & free time to waste it dicking around with a website and on [an art discussion group], in anyway consider their life or even their work “hard”. ? Living in Iraq would be hard, farming in Sudan would be hard, having a degenerative painful disease would be hard. But for artists to pretend to be in the same boat is just self-involved nonsense. Certainly it was true prior to the 1900’s ( when no sales amounted to starvation), or for those who had to face down a Stalin or a Hitler or a Mao, but now? just suck it up and quit yer whining….


    (cross-posted from Google fine art discussion group)

  13. leslie kent Says:

    It has been easy and difficult to become an artist because my work speaks for me, communicating intense emotions that create beauty and depth beyond my own comprehension! My east-west faces and art subjects, whatever they happen to be at any moment are my friends and I wouldn’t know what to do with my Life if they did not keep me company. Yes, total self-absorption.

  14. David Says:

    I confess that the answer “because of competition from other artists” never occurred to me… My initial response is that I find competition good.

    Karl, I realize you posted this back in April, but since I just discovered your blog today I thought I’d put in my two cents.

    There are different types of competition, and I think some are better than others. When people are competing on the basis of skill, talent or achievement, competition is a good thing. It motivates them to achieve more.

    But the type of competition that exists now in the artworld is more like drivers competing for parking spaces. Now that it’s considered fashionable to be an artist (it wasn’t always), everybody’s an artist. There are millions of artists trying to park their work in a few galleries. I never feel like I’m competing w/ the quality of other individual artists’ work – I’m competing w/ their shear quantity.

    PS Is there a way on blogs the have the date of a comment listed along w/ the time? It’s hard to tell whether all these comments came the day of your post, or over a period of time.

  15. Karl Zipser Says:


    Your comment of 6 October is a welcome addition to this discussion, which generated a lot of comments within a day or so of the original post. I will look into the comment date question. It might be possible to display the dates.

  16. blumoon Says:

    Some interesting points have been made here. Sometimes the artist creates their own difficulties.
    An artist can be mediocre, yet if the art is marketed well, they stand to be successful.
    I do find that if people love your work, they will buy it. It is a matter of getting it out there.
    Some artists have died broke, but so have others who are not artists.
    I do not discount the difficulty. I have been experiencing it myself, and am trying to work through the things that are holding me back from being successful.
    “Art & Fear” is an interesting read.