Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word

Reprised and re-edited from a blog post published on Absolute Arts in December 2006

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every artist was first an amateur.”

If you examine any professional artist who paid the bills from their creative output in his or her lifetime, you’ll find each of them more than made peace with making commerce, they embraced it. Most were or are salespeople in their own right. Not necessarily the quintessential back slapping variety, but at least someone who could be counted on to explain the work in a compelling fashion even if it meant getting out of their introspective comfort zone for a time. A few may have had family, friends or management to take on the marketing duties for them, but most were involved in the process of getting their art to market.

It’s no different for actors or writers. Part of the gig is press junkets, media exposure, book signings, author parties, etc. While fun and glamorous to a point, they are wearisome, repetitive and time-consuming tasks each necessary to help generate enthusiasm for the work. In other words, to get people to buy. If no one talks up the book or movie, no one is going to see it. To get the early adopters on board, you have to beat the bush.

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To some, there is shame in embracing commerce because to them it violates the quaint overrated sappy notion of the starving artist. To my mind, starving is a bleak situation that cannot possibly help the creative process… lead eating mad geniuses aside. That doesn’t mean a well fed artist can’t be hungry. Virtually every “known” artist got that way in part by being hungry. But it was not hunger for food; their hunger was for recognition and validation. Ambition is what fuels such hunger. Consider that a well fed successful artist can do worlds of good with celebrity and money. What is wrong with that?

Someone emailed me recently (November 2006) to say they had seen a quote from my book, How to Profit from the Art Print Market, posted on blog penned by artist, EC (Lisa) Stewart, aka Creative Goddess. Lisa’s post is apropos for this blog as well:

Ambition Is Not A Dirty Word

If you lack this, get a publisher. It’s that simple. Either you possess it like you possess artistic talent, or you don’t. Ambition is not a technique you can study to improve upon. It’s either or it’s not – simple as that. It’s an innate trait built into your DNA. Yes, we all have it to some extent, but you know what I’m talking about – the burning desire to enjoy success and be somebody come hell or high water. – Barney Davey

I swear this guy took the words straight from my mouth. "Come Hell or high water" is my trademark. 🙂 – EC Stewart

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There will always be a line between what is considered “fine art” and what is not and what is considered “museum quality” and what is not. I previously blogged here (on Absolute Arts) about posterity versus prosperity and the difficulties encountered by artists who dare to have it all. It’s interesting how some artists are seen as greedy and too commercial when others who are baldly and openly ambitious are celebrated. Fame is fickle, there is no denying that. One constant among those “museum bound” artists and those who are succeed famously well at shows like ArtExpo New York have is none lack AMBITION.

To a degree, ambition helps some artists separate themselves from the pack when talent alone would not. How often do we witness artists with far less talent and far more ambition than most climb to the top of the heap? That is not to say some of the most talented haven’t received appropriate accolades; they have. Still worthy others lacking good fortune or ambition or both remain in the grey abyss of the unknown artist. While some of the biggest names in virtually any genre hardly qualify as having the greatest artistic talent, none could be accused of lacking ambition.

There is no scientific method measuring talent or ambition. Yet, even casual observers have no trouble recognizing either attribute. When you find ample quantities of both in the same person, likely only bad luck or adversity keeps that person from enjoying great success. Find someone lacking in either, especially ambition and they may be living the life of the starving artist, or hobbyist artist.

The ambitious person will stay later, work harder, and make more sacrifices than the average person. Take for example Tiger Woods. He is arguably the best golfer to ever play the game and only needs enough time to surpass the records of all the greats. This year he was already one of the most consistent among all PGA pros when putting inside of five feet from the cup. Granted, his talent and concentration are legendary, but so are his work ethics. He puts in more time working out to be more physically fit than his competitors. When he had what he considered a bad putting experience this year at a tournament, he took off a week and practiced hitting 10,000 (You read right, 10,000) putts inside of five feet in a week. He is driven to succeed and his ambition is to be the best in the world, the best ever.

Most of us lack such ambition and talent to succeed at the pinnacle of a very difficult game to play. But, the one person who managed to take away Tiger’s #1 in the world spot that he had retained for an incredible five years was Vijay Singh. Singh is an outstanding golfer, but far from the the most talented of those young turks who might challenge Tiger. And, at 40+ years, he was well outside the age range of those who dominate the game. But, his work ethic rivals Tiger’s and through it he was able to wrest away, for a short while, the #1 spot on the PGA. In other words, his ambition took him where his talent alone would not.

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What’s it mean for an artist? Simply take an honest assessment, a gut check if you will, to ask what it is you want from your career and what it is you are willing and capable of doing. Tiger put off having children until he was 30. Some of the greats before him put having a family before their careers and have or they will have their careers eclipsed by Tiger’s onslaught of golfing records. Did those who chose family make a bad decision? Only if they think so.

The point is to make the effort to align your goals with your ability, your assets and your ambition. By doing so, you will gain a realistic perspective on what you can achieve. Once you have a goal in perspective, you can break down into smaller goals the steps you need to take to get you to your ultimate goal. I know it’s said that living is about the journey, not the destination and there is truth in that. But getting where you planned to go pays its own special rewards in a multitude of ways.

To see far is one thing, going there is another – sculptor, Constantin Brancusi

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