Still Life: The list-less

Still Life is a monthly column that addresses the real world challenges of living and loving art. Send your questions to


(Illustration by Anouk Aldric)

Dear Nicola,

Around this time of year I find it very difficult to keep my spirits up.  The weather is discouraging and the holidays can take a toil but what really puts me in the dark and gloomies are the lists.  The 30 Under 30, Artists to Watch in 2015, and The Top Ten of 2014–all these numbers and I never find my name in a single one.  Every year it seems like I know more friends and acquaintances finding themselves in slideshows and blurbs but never me.  I want to feel happy for my friends but at the same time it’s hard for me to see what I am doing wrong (or even different).  What can I do to gain a leg up and make sure that next year I don’t miss out?

Forever Wait Listed

Dear Forever Wait Listed,

Sometimes it feels that art and rejection go hand in hand. If it’s not the thin envelope from the juried show, the grad school, the grant; it’s the opportunity that passes you up by no action of your own.  And while everyone of every profession faces challenges of recognition, for artists the issue seems omnipresent.  Below are a few observations on why artists are plagued by rejection and some tactics to understand the pain.

A big reason why rejection feels especially potent for artist is because we have a hard time separating ourselves from our work. If you put all of yourself into your art it can be agony to pull yourself out. (Not to mention objectively observing from a distance.) It doesn’t help that lists make this distinction almost invisible.  Lists purposefully confuse the statements: Their work is great! and They are great! So, naturally exclusion can not only feel like a dejection of your labor but also a denouncement of you as a person.

Why that person and not me?  Bankrupt confusion is another fang in rejection’s bite. Searching for answers to why some people are on a list and others are not will drive you crazy. If the system seems non-sensical and disempowering that is because the system is non-sensical and disempowering. Artist are the foundational bottom–the berries and grass–of the art food chain. The whole system derives its energy from artists but pretty much everyone else has more power.  As an artist, no matter how hard you work, your fate lies in the hands of the “prestigious” few curators, art administrators, critics, and buddy buddies (not to mention the unknowable whims of a dozen other players) Even artists of celebrity* are still just jesters who mistake their stardom for kingship.  In other words, it’s hard to gain a leg up if your belly is on the floor to begin with.  Perhaps just make sure your work isn’t terrible.

In the end, I feel I should offer some solid advice and I feel it should be this: Lists are trivial garbage. They are click bait sure-fire quasi journalism.  Included or excluded; love it or hate it; everyone ends up reading.  I have a hypothesis that the most successful art journal would be one that replaces investigation or criticality with pure recognition. A manuscript of artist names.. I am reminded of the naive Navin Johnson enthralled to see his name printed in the local phone book.

From here it is easy for me to discount such journalism but the sad truth is quite the opposite; quite discouraging.  For the wrong reasons–to the wrong people–lists do matter.  People see your name and opportunities flow.  This is because lists make it easy for art consumers to assess value.  What makes one ceramist better than the other?  One is on a list of course!  People (often rich and/or lazy) mistake art’s subjectivity as a risk–a hazard that needs to be offset by the assuring guarantee of a curator, gallery, art school degree, or list maker.   Art can (and should) be chaotic and difficult. Lists literally put everything in order.  I would suggest evaluating the image of success lists project and ask yourself, “Is that type of success worth it? Is that the only way for me to be happy?” Remember lists are a projection of one person’s very specific vision of success amongst a hundred other alternative possibilities.   Not to mention, unsurprisingly, most lists are populated with individuals who share similar ideas, trajectories, and values of those elite doing the picking.

My advice: fuck that noise and stake your own claim on the definition of art success. Use your art skills to open a coffee business, start a preschool, sell marijuana, craft cocktails, raise chickens, cut wood, scuba dive, love someone, raise a baby, invent board games, or anything else. Next year make your own list and put yourself on the top; better yet make it a list of one.

But if seeing your name on a list is still what you want, I guess my advice would be to sleep with someone on a list.


Matt Kalasky for the Nicola


*There is a small ounce of comfort knowing that this really never changes for artists no matter their acclaim.  A quick story: There was once an art prize that awarded $100,000 to the judged winner.  Three top tier artists were selected as finalist.  When they announced the winner at an award ceremony, one artist jumped out of his seat and shook multiple hands. The other two artists left the room and went straight home and to a bar respectively.  I heard it was one of their birthdays.


Comments are closed.