Walter Gabrielson Painter

You Can Never Have Enough Fame

The other day I was talking with an artist friend who is also somewhat famous(in the art world) and he made a provocative comment, “you never have enough fame”. I wondered if that was about him, who has enough fame for a battalion of artists or others who desire what he has. Probably the latter. He said that so many artists he knows will do just about anything for fame, like changing their work, lying, cheating and stealing for fame. They come to him to find his formula and he doesn’t know what to say.

In early twentieth century American culture and before there were a few famous artists but hardly anything like the second half of the twentieth. The nineteen fifties saw artists who became famous because of vast changes in perception and visual evolutions that were revolutionary (the A & E guys), a function of timing and accomplishment. Then came the sixties with Stella and Warhol, supernovas who sucked the light out of a thousand careers. Warhol went straight for fame and got it big time. Things have never been quite the same since. Ironically, Warhol pursued Capote to discover the fame grail, Basquiat pursued Warhol and all three ended up in not the best circumstances. But now there was a model for the contemporary famegame, and that’s where we are today, a lot of “I want the end product without doing the hard stuff in between.”

I have never had the big fame, some moderate to low-end stuff in the eighties and that was it. But I tasted it and it is enticing. With fame your feet lift off the ground and you get the “best” parts of life (money-sex-power) with no apparent price or effort on your part. People give you something that is glorious, warm and heady. You think you deserve it. It’s addictive, you want more and more and MORE!! The hell with all this fighting to get something. Now you get it for FREE. How can something so wonderful be bad? Of course, like any addiction, whoever owns the supply owns you.

It turns you into a fame junky. You will sacrifice principle, integrity, friends and lovers to keep it going or to score more. The irony now is that in the art world, except for a few places, the fame supply is about exhausted. Art hardly counts in our culture any more so we witness countless examples of newly minted artists chasing after a tank of stuff that is running on empty. If you crave fame today you have a better chance becoming a criminal, making bad music or getting into acting.

Artists around the edges of fame make themselves miserable about what they don’t have. Any legit accomplishment they achieve is not to be enjoyed. More snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. Artists hate other artists that “get ahead” of them. Two artists who are married or are in a close relationship gladly, happily suffer anonymity together, but when fame or notoriety hits one and not the other, watch out.

One of the little problems with the art dodge is that a little fame is part of the gig. To have a show, to sell stuff, get a grant or a teaching job to support yourself you have to huff and puff, brag, imply, exhort or otherwise impress others that you are “worth” something, that your work is “important”, etc. etc. You have to convince them that you deserve the few goodies that so many others are lusting after. When is the last time you heard an art dealer say to a collector “Now here’s your so-so average dauber cranking out some truly tepid stuff that you should drop a grand on?” Never happens. You and your work are FANTASTIC! All the easy money, the grant loot, the elusive teaching job goes to those who “evince a dominance, a position of authority, a preponderance of talent, viability and immense contribution heretofore never seen before on this planet or in the entire solar system, blah blah”. The profession seems to demand hyperbole to some extent , but how far down that road do you go?

Another dilemma, for your own interests (survival, paying bills) how much attention do you pay to the art game which invisibly legislates and adjudicates the granting of favors and exposure. Give you an example: I used to go to David Hockney’s openings at Nick Wilder’s in LA, I was a player, so was he, lots of other players and hangers-on would show up,we all stood around looking glum. I liked Hockney’s work a lot (still do), but I also went to “see and be seen”. I think I was both defining myself a bit and also measuring up the competition. We all were. I was getting something and giving something away at the same time. My credibility as an artist, multiplied by the other contenders there gave Hockney more credibility, notice, fame if you like. It was reciprocal, artists would come to my openings for the same purpose and the game went on. As time went on, Hockney got bigger and bigger. The work improved. But now he posed a dilemma for myself and others: If you went, were you desperate, sucking up or couldn’t stay away? Every option was awful. Eventually, I stopped going. The supernova didn’t need my light any more. What had been a fairly equitable give and take was now a morass. I felt that by continually participating in events like this I was sapping my power, ultimately, my creativity. I didn’t like the feeling of dependency or power or humiliation that attending would bring. At some point you realize that paying too much homage depletes you and you have to go it alone.

THE SERMON: The problem with fame is that it can distort your sense of self, which is about the only thing you have going in life. It changes you from an inner-directed creative person to an outer-directed junky. It can be a narcotic and a disease. I think the way you survive the wild ride of life is to keep in touch with who you are and what you want out of life that has substance. Most people know what that is. Boring, but true.

Still would be fun to have a little more though.

Walter Gabrielson