I have a personal theory that all artists, no matter their stature, talent, social position, or personal history, eventually at some point in their career hits a big, chest-high, brutal hurdle that stops them dead in their tracks and forces them into, at best, an existential crisis, or, at worst, a spirit-shattering spiral into doom–either by a needle-fed OD or by a pistol in a field or by hanging oneself in the woods or through slow mental, physical, or spiritual decline.)

Of course, everyone in every career hits inevitable job hurdles. Maybe you don’t get a position you really want and have to settle for a second choice, maybe you’re passed over for a raise, maybe your new boss or another coworked is a complete douche, maybe you just wake up and realize you hate what you do–all of us face this stuff. We all, at some point, ponder chucking it all, scraping up as much funds as we can, buying a hacienda on the coast of Belize, and spending the rest of our days sipping One Barrel and running a cheesy and perhaps slightly illicit internet business of some sort or another.

For artists, though, hitting the Big Hurdle is different than for most other professions. This is because individuals who take on the mantle of the artist, for some reason, often develop deep identities of themselves as an indelibly crucial part of the culture at large. That is, artists are trained—either by the education system, the artistic culture, their peers, or just pure wishful thinking—to have a bloated sense of their own importance to the rest of the world, a sense of identity that is greatly out of proportion with what their actual role is in the culture. When artists realize, inevitably, eventually, that their sense of themselves (important creators of culture) simply does not match up with how others often view them (lazy, lucky, self-aggrandizing bums), viola! The Great Soul-Shattering Artist Hurdle is met, and the artists either A) tumble horrifically in the attempt to mount the hurdle and become soul-wounded to the core, B) are stopped dead in their tracks and forced to give up their race, or C) find some sort of long and slow way around the hurdle to continue onward.

As I mentioned, this is a theory. I have little quantifiable proof past a few anecdotes really, because, as the axiom puts it, it is generally the victors who write the history books. That is, the artists we tend to know are the ones who have taken path C) around/over the hurdle and have managed to find success (or at least a way to sustain them in their careers). We don’t know artists who at some point have just given up (taken path B), because they just tend to disappear into the blank ether. And we all know a few sensational examples of A)—artists who have killed themselves out of despair or illness—but that is only if they have, at some point, become famous for their art. (I wonder how many unknown examples of A) there are that we’ll never know.)

Part of the mission of CAFA is to pay attention to artists as they meet the career-crushing, soul-smashing Artist Hurdle of Doom. This is in the hopes that artists might learn something essential about themselves and their relationships to what they do. It is to train artists to think in terms of finding their own answers for their problems, not blaming the rest of the world for their struggles. It is because I long ago grew tired of hearing the refrain of complaints from artists, and I’m turning the mirror around in the hopes that artists will figure it out for their damned selves.

All of this is to explain why I lingered too long over the sordid story of the struggling artist Combs, as he struggled with paths A) and B) through his own personal Artist Hurdle. It’s why I’ve kept monitoring ex-artist-cum-blogger Prokop, who has said in regards to giving up art (after I wrote about him):

I never expected success to be handed to me without working for it. I’m not sitting on my hands whining about my failure. What people don’t realize is that hard work does not get rewarded. I’ve worked as hard as I could in my pursuits. I’ve always had such a hard time just trying to make enough money to maintain my own survival. I have to choose between having time to make art and having money to make art. I opt for one, and three months later I need to shift the weight, and maybe sacrifice a flexible job for a consistent income. And I’m not giving up. I’m still writing songs, recording and releasing music. Yes, I quit making “visual art.” That’s a different story. I’m very critical of that discipline right now. I’ll figure out how to write about it eventually…. I’m waiting for something to pay off right now. I’m trying to take it easy and not stress myself out. I can’t afford for my depression to be driving me, so until something happens maybe a little apathy is the answer. I was all ready to make a routine out of bourbon-sours and Law and Order episodes on Netflix, but Michael’s blog got me thinking.

It is also the reason that I–long long ago before I even knew what I was doing–wrote about this overly insistent, but ultimately doomed artist, after he had hounded me to write about him–calling me at home, at my day job, at every number of mine he could find. This artist Kassel had started an amateurish gallery (called Eat Bugs), spearheaded an art “movement” (called New Expressionism), pulled together a pathetic band of followers, and he wanted attention. Of course, the attention I gave was likely not what he expected. Here’s a tidbit:

The conversation shifts again, and Kassel goes off to seduce other likely candidates, so I decide to make my own escape. The air outside is refreshingly cool compared to the oppressive air in the gallery, and the roar of Lake Street is somehow pleasant after the amplified singing and loud talking. Starting one’s own artistic movement is a terrible responsibility, it seems, and those of us who don’t suffer such a burden should appreciate how lucky and free we are.

In the end, like most any artist hitting the Great Artist Hurdle, Kassel closed his Eat Bugs gallery shortly after the story was published and eventually gave up making art. But note: Since then the artist appears to have gone on to a PhD program in political science and, recently, to serve in the Congressional Fellows program.

(Moral of the story: Though you will, like every young artist, eventually, inevitably hit the Great Artist Hurdle, there’s no reason your life has to be ruined when you do.)

One Response to “When artists hit the unhurdleable hurdles”

  1. Adam Considine says:

    i have hit that hurdle several times. once even being hit by a car which stopped me from painting for a year while i recovered. That year was horrible, being the longest time i had ever gone without painting. i even exhibited at eat bugs and gave a lecture there, he failed because he sucked, his artwork was shit, and his ego of a self started movement of art was a pile of crap. bottom line that guy couldn’t paint to save his life.

    if i sound juvenile in my critique of eat bugs art gallery and mr kassel, ill just say that the man had no work ethic and did not understand what art was to himself. he only wanted to be someone, no fault there we all do.

    i have hit that hurdle many times, but nothing stops me from my work as an artist. Those that quit were never really artists to begin with. Also lets be honest, financially my work is a failure. As works of art ive sold almost everything i have painted, some for quite a bit, some for less than it cost to create. when you hit the “hurdle” just evolve.

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