How to become an artist?

In a Romantic time, not so long ago, the artist died young, but his career lived forever. Today, in this age of contemporary art, the public focus seems to be on a fast way to success. Or, as I heard before, ‘being the next rising star’. The new artist lives long, but his career dies young. This, as stated by Sociologist Pascal Gielen, in the introduction keynote of The Day of the Young Artist.

The expected is clear. Success should be big and quick. Better now than later on. So the question arises; which strategy should we follow to get there as young as possible?

How do I become a successful, international, established artist? Preferably as young, and thereby as quick as possible.


Well, asking this question implies that you’re not there yet.

Thom Puckey is leading the discussion as a well know sculptor, mostly for public spaces. He moved from London to Amsterdam in 1978 where he started teaching at several Dutch art academies.

The first subject of discussion is, should Thom, standing in front of the audience, use his microphone or not. He doesn’t seem to be very comfortable holding it. He doesn’t like to hear himself talk, he says. After some good arguments from both sides, the technician decides that it is best if Thom starts off the program using it. He stutters a little.

Thom introduces a rather black and white statement: You’re a rebel finding your own way, or you are made by education. “Which one do you identify the most with?” he asks.

The audience, sitting on wobbly wooden benches in the event-tent reacts hesitantly.

My thoughts: of course I am a rebel! I do it my own way. But I’m not stupid! I’m well educated. By defining myself I fear I might miss out on other opportunities.

Thom Puckeys protege, Xue Mu, came to the Netherlands 10 years ago and studied at all the famous Dutch art-academies. She is presented in the handout as a young artist with an inspiring vision and doesn’t define herself as one or the other. “I became an artist because of a market question” she reacts vaguely to Thoms statement, sitting slumped at a large table behind her laptop.

Ah, she doesn’t want to define herself either, I tell myself.

Thom asks the audience if a successful artist can lead an authentic life. There is not a generally agreed definition of authenticity by the audience. Xue recites some lines from the Wiki-page of existentialism in words that not everyone seems to grasp. I’ll repeat the statement within context;

Authentic existence involves the idea that one has to ‘create oneself’ and then live in accordance with this self. What is meant by authenticity is that in acting, one should act as oneself, not as ‘one’ acts or as ‘one’s genes’ or any other essence requires.

source: Wikipedia on extentialism 

The definition of authenticity here, is combined out of the works of well known (or should I say successful?) philosophers Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre, on who’s affined ideas the name existentialism is applied. They characterized the individual’s starting point by ’the existential attitude’, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.

But, “If we are expected to be rebels, how do we become a rebel?” someone shouts. How rebellious is it to become what is expected from you?

Xue recites an old Chinese saying, translated by herself as “be famous before you are old”.

She states that we are living in the age of quick rising pop-stars. Our time and society throws us many shortcuts to success if we are willing to adapt to their standards. There is a lot of external demanding, and there are even more possibilities to take.

“It’s also seduction if they ask you to bring your portfolio. They are promising you an opportunity”.

“The possibilities are scary and we have to define our values” Xue states.

Thom adds “Being young, you should use your ‘being young’, your arrogance, as long as it is accepted. Step over your fears, be better than something else.”

It’s good to use practical ways and existential ways to success and balance them evenly. “[…] most of the world uses inauthentic language or makes inauthentic use of language.”

“You have to function as a person within these languages” he adds later on.

An individual in the public raises her hand. “You cannot decide on or define success nor authenticity if you didn’t define your reasons. People are only thinking about their next step, instead of making things.” You are defined by what your abilities are, in a conscious way, in this world.

So how can you combine your function with your work? Thom asks.

“Being an artist is about intent.” she replies. “Success should be a tool to get your intentions out there, not a goal in itself.

I don’t know what I am. I have to be everything at the same time. You have to take a step back, and go back to your intent.”

“Intent” Thom repeats “this is a word that is going to stay with me”.

People in the audience unintentionally start to defend their intentions. “I am an artist. I study art to become a professional. Being an artist is an urge that has always been there” and someone else counters “I don’t agree, I see my study as a tool to become an artist”.

Someone in the audience asked Xue what her strategy is. She replied “I don’t have a strategy”.

“Thom and I tried to define authenticity. It’s a floating definition. It takes different forms, in different situations.” Thom adds,This is the discourse we should be having. Avoid the other discourse. Make your own strategy”.

“Take the adventure, that is your privilege.” Xue concludes.

You’re not becoming an successful, international, established young artist by reading this article or by passively attending symposia.

Answer your own questions, create your own education, decide which opportunities you take, make failure part of your work and substantiate your intentions to become an Educated Rebel before you’re old. Or better, become your authentic self. That might even attain you success.



Written by Naan Eldering, from his perspective as keen observer and storyteller.

Commissioned by Kunstpodium-T and de Pont for the Day of the Young Artist 08/09/2014

Publication authorized for the website of Kunstpodium-T.

For questions or other publications, feel free to contact me.

Usable quotes, one-liners:

  1. “If we are expected to be rebels, how do we become a rebel?” (Audience)
  2. “Be famous before you are old.” (Xue Mu)
  3. “Take the adventure, that is your privilege.” (Xue Mu)
  4. “Being young, you should use your ‘being young’, your arrogance, as long as it is accepted. (Thom Puckey)


Reply by the organization (in Dutch):

Heel graag wil ik je hartelijk bedanken voor je scherpe en zeer
onderscheidende verslag van het symposium Day of the Young Artist, ik
heb het werkelijk met heel veel plezier gelezen. Intent. Dat woord
gaat ook mij nog even bijblijven. Ik wou dat ik er destijds bij was
geweest, dat ik die discussie gehoord had. Gelukkig hebben we jouw


Op dit moment […] werken wij onder meer hard aan de opbouw van ons nieuwe online
platform Deze website heeft enerzijds ten
doel informatie te bieden over het Apprentice/Master project en de
exposities, anderzijds willen wij deze site laten fungeren als online
research platform, waarop interessante schrijvers artikelen en
onderzoeken kunnen publiceren.

Naar verwachting zal dit research platform aankomende maand de lucht
in gaan, en zal een van de eerste artikelen die erop staat de door jou
aangeleverde tekst zijn. Hiervoor wil ik je hartelijk bedanken.


Vriendelijke groeten en nogmaals bijzonder veel dank,

Ingrid de Rond


10 things about being an artist that art teachers don’t tell you

This article in the Guardian gives another interesting take on the career of artists.