Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What It Takes | Open Thread

One of the sub-themes running through The Social Network (which we thoroughly enjoyed and talked about for hours this past weekend) was whether Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (worth something like $7 billion dollars at this point) was truly an asshole* or not. This question permeated nearly every aspect of his life. By the end of the story he had been called an asshole by his girlfriend, by his best friend, by nearly every woman at Harvard, and I'm sure (in real life at least) by the lawyers representing his classmates who were suing him for stealing their idea. The Social Network is, of course, just a movie, but as its advertising campaign notes "you don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." The implication of which seems to be that being an asshole is simply what it takes to become successful (let alone to become the youngest billionaire in the world).

This notion comes up a good deal in the hyper-competitive art world: does one have to be an asshole to make it here? I have some thoughts on that, but before we delve too deeply, it might make sense to flesh out a working definition. What do we mean when we call someone an asshole? Its official definition is "a stupid, mean, or contemptible person," but in the context of being successful we generally also apply it to someone willing to make enemies to get what they want. It's not that they'd be mean or contemptible if everyone else would simply stay out of their way and let them reign as #1 in their field, and in this context it certainly doesn't mean they're stupid in the traditional sense. It's just that, should someone challenge their dominance, they're more than willing to be viewed as aggressive or conniving or offensively persistent to change the situation more to their liking.

I've done a fair bit of thinking about this question and discussed it with artist, dealer, curator and writer friends of mine, and the essence of it always seems to come back to that one issue: how you are willing to be viewed by others. Is it OK for you if other people despise you? Is it more important that you succeed than be liked, or vice versa? If it's more important that you be liked, a lot of observers will tell you to just settle for second best....you'll never make it.

Of course, many of us like to believe that isn't true. We can point to very successful people who we're sure everyone adores. But the truth of the matter is, even if you never intentionally offend anyone, with success comes restraints on your time and resources to be all things to all people who would want something from you. I know of people in the art world who call so-and-so an "asshole" because that person didn't include them in a show or buy their work or invite them to this or that party or art fair or whatever. What was most likely a professional decision gets interpreted as a personal slight because the stakes seem so high and because it's an industry trading in personal visions.

I am sure, for example, even though I have been told to my face that I'm much too nice (read: soft) to reach the top of my game (we'll see), that there are plenty of people who consider me an asshole. Over the years, I have had to make decisions that put my best interests ahead of someone else's. I don't regret any of them, though. (I generally only regret things I didn't do; I'm pretty good at living with the choices I make.) No, my problem is, at least by many others' account, that I don't do that often enough. Again, we'll see.

The thing is, if you're working in the art world, where there are insanely fewer seats at the head table than people wanting to eat there, any success you find is likely going to piss off someone. The choice here seems to be between having people not like you for the wrong reasons (you didn't really owe them what they wanted from you) and people not liking you for the right reasons (you did probably screw them). Few of us get through life without doing a little of the latter...and in the overall scheme of things that just makes us human. Making up for those times is always good karma, though.

Consider this an open thread on whether it takes being an asshole to be a success.

*I'll apologize in advance for clogging the Internets with this vulgar term, but there's really no other way to discuss this issue than using it. I will point you to this inadvertently hilarious video of a Korean instructor teaching his students how to swear (or at least how to recognize swearing) in English. He notes how the translation of the word "asshole" into Korean is a term only a child would ever use in their culture. I imagine it sounds to their ears the way "poopyhead" sounds to ours. Or something like that.

Labels: art careers, open thread


Blogger markcreegan said...

I am dealing with this issue currently as an owner of a new gallery. Its difficult especially in a small community like mine where everyone knows each other and exhibition spaces are a very limited resource. To stay true to our vision it is necessary to show artists from other cities, which I am sure isnt sitting well with some locally.
But integrity will be the important thing in the end. I have made a few compromises in my career and regretted it every time. But I will also add that being kind, good natured, and generous are all possible while also holding true to one's guns.

10/12/2010 10:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Robert Fontenot said...

As an artist, I have to say it can be hard sometimes to separate the business decisions from the heavily personal and emotional aspects of making art and to understand that a gallery owner is just trying to do right by him and his when he doesn't have time, interest, or praise for me. That said, I have definitely met gallery owners who seemingly went out of their way to be an asshole, usually through some stunning display of a lack of professionalism.

10/12/2010 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...success only by stepping on others? I hope not, that would be like art without caring. An oxymoron.

I think that there are just as many
a-wholes that are failures as there are a-wholes who are "successes"... its everywhere, but not contagious if one tries.

Once read a story where reincarnation was described as being "generational". Where your karma was a peer group karma, if one of you fails, then you all fail.

10/12/2010 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Paula Cooper, Leo Castelli.

Do what you want but be nice.

10/12/2010 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, sometimes people confuse 'smart' with 'asshole'. And it would appear to me, Ed that that is what you are really trying to discuss.

10/12/2010 03:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

perhaps to some degree, but what I really want to discuss is the willingness to have people not like you so that, as Mark notes you hold to your guns regardless of the social fallout.

10/12/2010 03:42:00 PM  
Blogger Saskia said...

Successful people rarely do it alone, especially in the art world but it is often necessary to choose your alliances wisely...
That can either make you an asshole or not, it just depends on how you handle the situation- do you help take care of the people who got you where you are, or not? People used to call Bill Gates an asshole, now they all talk about everything he's doing to 'save the world'... I think Zuckerberg is to young to pass final judgment on just yet.

10/12/2010 04:12:00 PM  
Blogger Danielle said...

Have you ever noticed that the term asshole is usually only applied to men. The commensurate term for women is bitch. Men can be called bitches too, but that has a whole other connotation.

It seems to me that being an intentional a-hole in order to get ahead is counter-intuitive, actually limiting a person's potential for success. I see being perceived as an unintentional asshole at times as almost unavoidable. The need (especially in women) to be liked by everyone, even those you don't like, is a trait that takes a bit of time to conquer in oneself.

10/12/2010 04:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being an asshole is a choice. It should be obvious that to get ahead, you have to make self-interested choices, and that occasionally people will be hurt by those choices. True assholes are people who are childish or offensive in how they carry out those choices.
An artist who convinces others to go the extra mile by explaining how that work will improve the art is not an asshole - someone who barks, shouts, and says demeaning things certainly is.
Likewise, an artist who makes deals by throwing fits and stabbing others in the back will always be more of an asshole that one who can negotiate respectfully and with a level head.
Being an asshole artist seems as if it's the expected norm - this is exactly why diva behavior is effective. Many people believe that it is impossible to get results without escalating the pitch.
The people who claim that you need to be an asshole to be successful are the same people who think "greed is good." Their only rhetorical recourse is to claim that those who disagree are weak, and will never succeed.
Personally I think the time has come for the idea of asshole artists, or successful assholes. We can do better...

10/12/2010 05:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a collector, there is a fine line between being an A-hole and getting something done on your behalf.
sometimes i have to be an "A-hole" i.e. a "squeeky wheel" in order to have something done on my behalf.
take for example, this case: i have loaned pieces of my collection to museum. Said museum displays piece until the end of the show. after a respectable amount of time, the piece has not been returned to me. replies from telephone calls and emails to museum say it will be shipped next week...
now you can all guess where this is going.... in order to get what i want, which is the return of my art, i have to become an A-hole & escalate the issue to the director. everyone should think about their own particular case of when a business (credit card company, bank, etc) treated you incorrectly and no matter what you said to the kind CSR on the phone, it got you nowhere...
sometimes being an A-hole, a jerk, or whatever else you want to call it is appropriate.
just sayin'

10/12/2010 05:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's fair enough, but that is not the kind of situation I mention above.

Clearly, if a person is legitimately wronged, it can be appropriate to respond with some anger or frustration.

I agree that a line exists, but in my experience it's not a very fine one at all.

10/12/2010 06:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Randall Anderson said...

I think my actions have been interpreted at times as being those of an asshole. I wish this wasn't the case but it comes about when you are very focused and committed on your work at the exclusion of almost everything else. I've learned that there are a lot of people who say that they want "it" ("it" being a successful and demanding art career) but really they don't want "it" at all. And if you clearly do want "it" then by default you're an asshole. I try to balance my narcissistic (asshole) actions by helping other artists whenever I can. I don't think you have to be an asshole to succeed. I once worked on a project with Sol LeWitt and he was truly about as nice a person as it is possible to be. A very positive role model and someone I try to keep in mind. If I have been an asshole it's more the result of being socially clumsy and naive, than anything malicious. I'm a bit of a bull in a china shop,sometimes things get damaged. And probably a lot of so called assholes are the same.

10/12/2010 10:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is sort of funny. Every time I have to go to an art world event, I always say a little mantra into the mirror beforehand: "Not everyone is going to like me, and that's FINE!" It helps.

10/13/2010 12:17:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

If A-holeness in this context means willingness to make enemies, then if done at all, it better be done with great care. Simply because ‘enemies’ clearly will not hesitate to hurt you, when they can and how they can. And who can calculate an enemy’s potential from the outset? I’d invoke the old ‘do unto others…’ rule, basically. Treading on the toes of the little people, the strugglers and minions may seem harmless enough to the ambitious player, but they will want to remember not everyone’s playing their game, by their rules, even some of the time. Who’s to know how you can be hurt and for what reasons (or in which game, under whose rules). It’s reckless to invite enemies, to boast of superiority.

True, you don’t get to be a billionaire without encountering competition, resistance. But embracing this is hardly the key to success. On the contrary, it points to a fatal weakness, a helpful hint to rivals. Zuckerberg has his wealth for the moment, and like Gates, is busy trying to buy respect with patronage and sponsorship. Can they buy indulgence for being an A-hole from the start, with largesse afterwards? Not really. People will simply take their money and think even less of them. That’s why the Catholic Church sort of gave away the idea about 500 years ago.

10/13/2010 03:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the few joys of aging is noticing that most assholes, and by that I mean people who habitually treat others with contempt, eventually get their comeuppance and become miserable assholes.


10/13/2010 09:09:00 AM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

The above mention of Sol Lewitt made me wonder if certain types of practices engender certain personality types , or vise versa. And how that personality is manifest in the work itself. For example, in Lewitt's case, relying heavily on collaboration to the extent of accepting multiple interpretations of instructions, seems to compliment the description of him as generous and friendly. I notice myself that getting people to allow me to put toothpaste or shark's teeth on their walls requires some tact and amiability on my part.

10/13/2010 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I make enemies like they are going out of style (dramatic, I know). Sometimes one conversation is enough. Not because I am rude, or unkind, but because I am unafraid to be honest and straight forward. I dislike the little dance of superficiality we do and the confrontation (although disliked) is better than dancing in sour sugary exchanges. So, does one NEED to be an asshole to be successful? Yes. Perhaps only if honesty deems one an asshole. No one seems to like honesty.
But honesty aside, as a wise friend recently mentioned, choose your battles. Sometimes the asshole is a necessary evil. And of course, sometimes not at all.

10/13/2010 10:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part of this conversation, or tangent to this conversation, is how many people in the art-world are willing lambs. It does feels that so many put integrity on hold to see how someone else higher on the food chain perceives the situation. Or, equally, a "you don't really exist unless you can help me" attitude. This may apply equally to other professions, but it does seem to me, that despite a front of "the artists social circle is one that really supports each other" that nothing close to this exists. If anything, and maybe I am cynical, the lambs are in abundance, and the wolves in their clothing are even more prevalent. What have others experiences been?

10/13/2010 06:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The art world is no different than any other world in which power is involved. People who are moved to bullying, condescension, "brutal honesty" (which is usually more brutality than honesty) or other "asshole"-worthy behavior do so as a defensive or compensatory measure, I believe. And it gets them what they want as long as it's tolerated. Granted, in some situations nothing can be done. Last spring a friend and I hauled a painting to a small town in Italy for authentication, and the go-between for the organization who manages the artist's estate was an absolute beast throughout the entire process. We thought it was because we're just a couple of naive Americans who obviously aren't millionaires, and we could have been discouraged and humiliated by the experience. But we later learned it was just this one miserable person who has nothing better to do than be rude to everyone who dares come near. Eleanor Roosevelt was right: no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

10/14/2010 05:52:00 PM  

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