When we can’t rationalise where success comes from, we begin to panic. It seems incongruous that something without apparent skill can be successful. And it begins to feel unpredictable, like it’s determined by numbers tumbling in a barrel and we’re all waiting for ‘Bingo’. Is there no skill in it at all? Is it all just luck? And we think of all the talented people and worry that success is finite – a show with a limited number of seats. Can’t we all have a share? We don’t begrudge another’s success, we just want to feel more in control of our chances.
There’s a painting in the National Gallery of Victoria. It consists of squares – three across and four down. Painted in oranges and reds and yellows, bordered in plum-brown. I look at it and I shrug. What’s so special about that? I could paint that. A six-year-old could paint that. I explain the painting to a friend, and she says, “I love that stuff!”. My expression of disbelief leads her to say, “Think of when it was painted, think about how it challenged convention.”
Composer John Cage wrote 4’33”. That is four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. When performed, I assume it is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of someone sitting a piano, wedged between the time it takes for the performer to enter and then exit the stage. I view it with sarcasm and wonder if they need a stopwatch. I could write that (I could play that), I would write that now if I it wasn’t for the copyright infringement. Then I listen to John Cage’s views on music and I find his passion for sound. He speaks of the sounds that exist in silence and believes that all sound is music. I still don’t really get it, but my perception has shifted.
Ken Done is an Australian artist. In 1980’s Australia, at the height of his popularity he influenced style, fashion and colour with his two dimensional Australian landscape paintings. And I felt he was over-rated. I saw no skill in his paintings. Then, in an interview, he explained how he admires children’s drawings and that no-one can draw quite like them. This insight made me look at his work differently.
What about a novelist who sticks to a formula and each new book is effectively the same. I have zero tolerance for formulaic predictable writing but then I happily hire a romantic comedy from the video store and enjoy it. And I realise that sometimes I don’t want a journey, sometimes I just want to get on a bus and go for a ride.
Then there’s the musician who writes one brilliant song but cannot seem to write beyond it. And while I claim to hate repetitive music, I then think of the exceptions lurking in my music collection. I have no tangible explanation for this – they simply resonate.
Many writers have cringed at the success of Fifty Shades, a book so well known I don’t need to include the full title. An erotic tale touted as badly written. I have not read it, and I cannot speak of its eloquence. But it was written. Started and finished. For that alone the author has my complete respect.
So what’s at play here?
The human aspect. If we knew what the general public wanted all businesses would thrive, all writers would be read, all music would be heard and all artists would be seen. We are human. We are unpredictable, hypocritical and contradictory. And we learn and change our minds. When it comes to phenomenal success, I’m sure that E.L. James and Psy did not predict it. When J.K. Rowling found success all she hoped to do was make enough money from writing to ‘get by’.
It’s a lottery of art in a barrel of success. If you keep putting in your numbers, it increases your chances of ‘Bingo’.
Art is a complex tapestry of controversy, aesthetics, talent, creativity and originality layered and interwoven with meaning, understanding and context. Success can be born from and driven by any number of these factors. It’s aided by timing and grown in curiosity and perpetuated by need. Success can then be clinically measured by popularity and monetary gain, but it’s true test is this – longevity.
Of course, it’s all tied together with one last element.