In the summer of 2005, artonpaper magazine published a special issue titled “Letters to a Young Artist,” inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” It included a collection of twelve letters by established artists written in response to a letter from a fictional “young artist” – a recent art school graduate who is struggling with the moral and practical implications of being an artist in New York City.
The following letter is taken from a subsquent book by artonpaper, which included 23 inspiring letters from some well-known artists such as the Guerrilla Girls, Joan Jonas, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper, Stephen Shore, and Lawrence Weiner, among many others. While the original letter from the young artist is not published anywhere, in reading these letters you will see reoccurring patterns of thought that will reveal to you its essential questions, such as “what does it take to be an artist working today?” and “is it possible to maintain one’s integrity and freedom of thought and still participate in the artworld?”
artonpaper (Shelly Bancroft, Peter Nesbett, Sarah Andress) and Saatchi Online editors
Adrian Piper, Untitled Performance for Max’s Kansas City, 1970
Dear Young Artist,
Thanks for your letter. Yes, it definitely is possible to maintain your integrity and freedom of thought and still participate in the art world. The way to do that is always to choose maintaining your integrity and freedom of thought over the art world whenever the two conflict. They don’t always conflict, so you can have both to some extent. But you won’t be able to participate in the art world as fully as possible, unless you’re willing to sacrifice your integrity and freedom of thought in order to do so. And you won’t be able to maintain your integrity and freedom of thought unless you’re willing to sacrifice whatever degree of art world success is necessary in order to do that.
Each time you choose art-world participation over personal integrity when the two conflict, you break more and more of your own spirit — that part of yourself that justifies hope, faith, and trust in others by demonstrating that you are worthy of them yourself. Kill that, and you kill your own self-esteem — that innocent belief in your own goodness that breeds the belief that you deserve the rewards you strive to obtain. Kill that, and you kill everything that gives value and meaning to art world participation, and to the enormous successes and satisfactions it promises. You create for yourself a personal hell of cynicism, suspicion, dishonesty, and self-dislike in all of your relationships that no amount of money, power, or recognition can eradicate (quite the opposite), as well as the noxious, partly buried awareness that you yourself are no better than those you condemn.
On the other hand, choose personal integrity and freedom of thought instead, and you ensure your personal equanimity and contentment no matter how much art world recognition, success, money, or power you must relinquish in order to protect them. Here’s why:
Integrity means that you are not tempted to lie to yourself about what you’re doing, or why. Your deeply held convictions inform your principles, your principles motivate and guide your actions, and your actions express your convictions. There is an internal coherence — in the best case, harmony — among your beliefs, your emotions, and your actions. This doesn’t mean you never experience internal conflict, for example, between the beliefs and the impulse to self-aggrandizement. It means that when you’re internally conflicted, you know you are, and know what the issues are, and see the trade-offs clearly. Your self-respect does not depend on rationalizing or making excuses for actions you recognize to be inexcusable; so you’re not tempted to debase or misrepresent your core convictions to yourself in the service of getting ahead, and thereby distort your perception of yourself, your options, or their consequences. In order to see clearly when you’re tempted to violate your principles, you need a strong sense of self-respect, and — simultaneously — a strong sense of humility. Self-respect means you can acknowledge mistakes or flaws without plunging into self-hatred or depression; you can maintain your dignity without deluding yourself that you’re perfect. Humility means that you can make amends for those mistakes without feeling ashamed; that you can learn from them without losing value in your own eyes. Integrity, inner clarity, self-respect, and humility mutually reinforce one another through the sheer pleasure of heightened self-knowledge, and strengthen the self to withstand threats to its internal unity.
Freedom of thought means that the principles and convictions I’ve just been talking about spring into your awareness, from a part of yourself that lies beyond the limitations of the individual ego, and that is uncensored by that part of your mind that packages your subjective self-expression for public consumption. It means that your curiosity to know and understand — yourself, your environment, your relationships — is not stifled or constricted by guilt, shame, or fear. Freedom of thought doesn’t have much to do with self-assertion, and, even less to do with personal identity or self-indulgence. On the contrary: It is the ability to rise above the narrow constraints of the subjective self, to see and investigate and understand it from a reflective distance, and to be able to use your own personal pet human (i.e., your body) as an instrument for being or doing whatever your principles and convictions tell you is then required — by the circumstances, by your own imperatives, or by intuition. Freedom of thought is inherently connected to the pleasure of self-transcendence, and so to the pleasure of freely acknowledging your own imperfections — with humor, compassion, severity, and accountability.
So integrity plus freedom of thought is a powerful and heady combination: It means acting in unity and inner transparency from drives and motives that lie above and beyond the blinkered perspective of the ego, according to uncorrupted principles that you deeply believe in and that inspire your action and clarify your perception, and that are unsullied by fear of public disapproval or ridicule or punishment or retaliation or failure. Integrity plus freedom of thought protects you from this kind of fear because whenever it threatens, you see the trade-off clearly: capitulate and you damage (and eventually lose) the only thing worth aspiring to, the only thing worth having, and the only thing worth experiencing on a moment-to-moment basis as you navigate through your life.
Now about maintaining your integrity and freedom of thought. Most of the myriad available spiritual, religious, or psychological disciplines, practiced daily, patiently, stubbornly, over an extended period of time, that put a premium on self-knowledge, self-control, self-discovery, and self-expression as a package can help a lot (if you think I’m talking about navel-gazing, go back and reread the preceding paragraphs). Whatever your discipline is, it has to be a fixed and permanent commitment, a cornerstone of your life that you seek opportunities to practice, without which your day is not complete. Of course this doesn’t mean that you practice every day mechanically; exactly the opposite. It means that if you don’t practice, you viscerally feel the gradual process of shutting down, becoming numb, mechanical, unreflective, insensitive, sad; of atrophying that part of yourself that gives you reason to live. Once you stop feeling that process, you’re lost, and that part of yourself will sink out of reach. So when you fail to practice, thirst for it, grieve its loss, resolve yet again to give it pride of place in your schedule. It doesn’t matter whether you always succeed in this resolve. What’s important is making that resolve, each day, with the same determination. The more often you make it, the easier it will get — eventually — to act on it, and the more opportunities to practice you will find. Eventually you will find that every situation you confront, and particularly those in which you are forced to choose between personal integrity and art world success, there is an opportunity to practice. And eventually you will greet such choices joyfully, as a chance to celebrate and honor the deep convictions and principles that by now structure, govern, and permeate your self, your awareness, and your experience at all levels. This is the point at which the choice between personal integrity and art world success is so easy as to be no real choice at all.
Young artist, it is highly unlikely that you will be rewarded professionally for reaching this point. Nor will it make you popular. On the contrary: You will develop a reputation for being “difficult,” “uncooperative,” “inflexible,” or even “self-destructive”; and treated (or mistreated, ostracized, or blacklisted) accordingly. If these reactions concern you, remember you always have alternatives: to maintain your integrity and accept the rewards, or fall into line and capitulate — and accept the “rewards.”
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
PS: As for showing early, I don’t think you can formulate a hard and fast rule about that. There are important lessons to be learned either way. I started showing internationally before I graduated from art school, and learned a lot from that. I think that just as it’s better to live with someone for a while before marrying them, it’s better to find out sooner rather than later what the art world is like, so you can decide whether or not it’s your lifetime cup of tea.