Success

Just to gloss the last part of the previous post, success, meaning recognition and money, is good for artists. It enables. It makes things possible. And it can even be heroic, because the artist can become more, or bigger than they were. The ambivalence of the abstract expressionists toward success lies in the observation that in a culture that is wholly false, success means greater entanglement with falseness. There’s no doubt that success is better than failure, but better, in this case, means worse. The abstract expressionist might say that “there is no failure like success,” but somewhat later Bob Dylan observed that “she knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all,” which tracks the moment when it became clear that the world’s accounting adds up to more than any artist’s measure. Motherwell lived through all of this, so it’s to his credit that the “heroism” of the large scale gesture should be put in the service of melancholy and defeat.

Recently I bumped into Serge Guilbaut, who is sympathetic to Motherwell as an artist/intellectual, but who feels that with success he began to repeat himself, that he met his market halfway. If that was so I would expect to find a falling off in later examples of the Elegy series, but can’t see any such thing. The earliest examples seem as hyperbolic as the last. If the works are questionable, it might be because of two factors, the diminishing social importance of the phallus as a symbol, and the disappearance of risk in art production.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic #57, 1957-60

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