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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

"The kindest person in the room is often the smartest" - defining success on your own terms.

This topic, which we discussed in our MA Fine Art Digital teaching session this week is something over which I thought I had already interrogated my conscience extensively, but it is perhaps something which needs further (or even continuous) consideration.


Success has to be defined on your own terms: if you don’t understand your core values and ensure that your goals and aspirations align with those values – then you are most likely doomed to be unsatisfied with your career and your life. Equally, if your expectations of “success” are too high, or the goalposts are constantly shifting, you are likely to be eternally disappointed and frustrated.


Culture has a toxic way of influencing individual’s idea of success. For example: the pressure on women to get married, have children and a “successful” career; the pressure to study at university; achieving promotions in the workplace; fame; accumulation of wealth; home ownership; the ability to afford luxury holidays, flashy cars and designer goods, etc. Many of these conventional conceptions of “success” have capitalist values at their core. And having been exposed to the “1%”, and observed their lifestyles, behaviour and opinions (from the inside) - I genuinely question whether these aspirations actually make people happy.


I think this harks back to the discussion we had a few months ago on “professionalism” – which descended into the contentious debate over whether money can buy happiness.


When defining “success” as an artist, I think wider society and often artists themselves have a very narrow view of what that can look like; typically, selling your artwork for high figures, exhibiting in elite art institutions, fame, social media following, etc. I believe chasing success on these terms, which are inherently bound up with ego, can be extremely harmful, to the individual artist as well as to society. Some of the artists I most respect and admire, don’t chase these aspirations, their aim is to “hold the space” for their audience to express themselves, to facilitate connection between people, to foster community and to raise awareness of injustice. The article we discussed in the session, seemed to present a very narrow conception of what an artist can be, describing an artist’s creative work as “the product” – immediately put my back up. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a "product" as 'something that is made to be sold, usually something that is produced by an industrial process' and it is exactly because of these connotations of commerciality and a “production line” that I believe this term is inappropriate. Sure “product” is probably an accurate description of some of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koon’s artwork – but for me, and for the majority of artists, this term is reductive and does not account for the passion, care and creativity which goes into creating their work. I don’t make work with the intention of selling (sure it’s nice if someone buys it but that’s not the reason I am making) – I make because I have ideas I want to explore, emotions I need to express, messages I want to communicate, conversations I want to facilitate and because I want to learn / improve my creative skills. The article presented the artist as a lone wolf and a solitary actor "producing" work for sale, but so many artists, especially social artists, centre their practice around collaboration, connection and facilitation and I feel this point was entirely overlooked.


In the session, our tutor prompted me to explain this thought in more detail, so I gave some examples. Recently, I spent three days in Bologna with my art collective, Dare to Care, where we delivered a public engagement programme around mental health advocacy. I genuinely feel so priveliged to be part of this collective and to spend time with these amazing women, who are so incredibly kind, caring and supportive - it was such a special experience and rewarding in and of itself. It feels so revelatory to me, to work with a group of people where nobody tries to assert their dominance, emotionally manipulate or take the credit for the collective work. This activity was not the best attended event I have co-organised, but the audience who did come were extremely engaged and made really powerful contributions. Nor was the activity well funded (we weren’t paid for our time) but I still considered the activity a success; because I got to spend time with people who fill my soul with hope and love. I received some really touching verbal feedback, one person told me one of the songs I performed made her cry and another said that the workshop I led had made her think about cruelty in the context of her personal relationships and how she needed to confront hurtful comments instead of brushing them under the rug. And honestly, if my work touched just one person in that way – then I consider it a success.

 Conversely, I have been part of creative projects which have been much higher impact, but the experience will be forever tainted by how the people I was working with behaved. For example, one project we raised over £20,000 for a two-week long bus tour which reached an audience of thousands (at in-person events and through social media) and achieved national and international press coverage. Objectively, that project was a huge success - except for the fact that one of the people I was working with persistently used harassment, emotional manipulation and blackmail to get me to do what he wanted (more information on this particular individual is given in a protected blog post). 

Working on projects with people who do not respect or abuse you, does not make you feel successful – it makes you feel bullied and worthless. I have the misfortune of working with many other people who have treated me or others badly; who promise things they can’t deliver, who take advantage of their staff, who exploit people, who misuse funding for self-serving activities, who use flattery to manipulate people, who gaslight to excuse their bad behaviour, who take credit for other people’s work, who disrespect other people’s boundaries and who excuse or perpetrate sexual harassment and assault. And if I am honest with myself, I want nothing to do with people who behave like this to achieve their own ends, and yet, still I appear to be working with some at this very moment.

People who use cruelty to achieve success aren’t successful; they are bullies, they are manipulators, and they are abusers. (When I write this, I have the current Conservative government at the forefront of my mind).


My thoughts and feelings on this subject were far more eloquently summarised by Governor Pritzker in this speech;


‘The best way to spot an idiot. Look for the person who is cruel. Let me explain: When we see someone who doesn’t look like us, or sound like us, or act like us, or love like us, or live like us, the first though that crosses almost everyone’s brains is rooted in fear or judgement or both. That’s evolution. We survived as a species by being suspicious of things we aren’t familiar with. In order to be kind, we have to shut down that animal instinct and force our brain to travel a different pathway. Empathy and compassion are evolved states of being – they require the mental capacity to step past our most primal urges. This may be a surprising assessment because somewhere along the way, in the last few years, our society has come to believe that weaponised cruelty is part of some well-thought-out master plan. Cruelty is seen by some as an adroit cudgel* to gain power. Empathy and kindness are considered weak. Many important people look at the vulnerable only as rungs on a ladder to the top. I’m here to tell you that when someone’s path through this world is marked with acts of cruelty, they have failed the first test of an advanced society. They never forced their animal brain to evolve past its first instinct. They never forged new mental pathways to overcome their own instinctual fears. So, their thinking and problem solving will lack the imagination and creativity which the kindest people have in spades. Over my many years in politics and business, I have known one thing to be universally true, the kindest person in the room is often the smartest.’ - Jay Robert Pritzker, American businessman, philanthropist, attorney, venture capitalist, and politician serving as the 43rd governor of Illinois since 2019.


*I had to google what ‘an adroit cudgel’ means – my best interpretation is ‘a cunning weapon’.

The group discussion focussed on social media for a while, and as someone who gives trainings to artists on this topic, I was particularly interested to listen to other people’s perspectives. Many people expressed a desire to gain more followers and achieve more “likes” whereas others considered it harmful and time-wasting to chase that external validation. On this issue of seeking validation, the author of the article wrote something which I found problematic, ‘until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally’. What if the people in your life who claim to “love” you say things like; “Studying art is a waste of your intellect”, “You can’t sing”, “A Foundation Art course is a doss year”, “I don’t like your music”, “Your campaigning is sanctimonious”, “Your jacket makes you look autistic”, “why do you have to go on so many pointless trips?” (all actual things which have been said to me). Then where do you turn to for moral support?

As such, I am definitely guilty of seeking validation through my social media following, but is this such a problem when the core aim of most of my creative work is to communicate ideas, connect with people and advocate for social justice or political campaigns. So again I differed from the opinion posited by the article that ‘artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow’. Personally, I would consider an apathetic response to my work to be a failure to communicate and connect.


I also subscribe to the “audience response theory” school of thought, which proposes that the meaning of a work is completed through its interpretation by an audience. I often share my abstract paintings on my social media accounts, inviting my followers to suggest titles (example below) – and I am delighted when they propose something witty or insightful, especially when it is something I hadn’t seen myself. I appreciate that I “over share” on my social media accounts, but I enjoy the engagement with the community I have built – and that’s because I view social media primarily as a community-building tool and not a marketing / promotional channel. If people make the effort to write a lengthy comment on my posts, I do my best to reply – it’s courteous – you wouldn’t ignore someone who came up to you at a live event and remarked on or responded to your work.


Instagram for me is my “happiest” online space, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I have a much smaller following on this platform – it’s my truly “social” platform because it’s where I am connected to many of my friends (who live across Europe) and we often comment on each other’s posts or DM each other about stuff we have shared about our lives / careers. Conversely, X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok are my “anti-social” platforms. Most people would consider having “viral content” to be a “success”. But when my videos / posts have gone viral (meaning over 100K views) on X and TikTok it has ALWAYS been because of trolling and not because of “likes”. People have written the most obnoxious, hurtful and demeaning comments (sometimes including rape and death threats) – and I have to question if that can that really be considered success? I console myself with the fact that at least I got a reaction – I was not ignored.

Compare the troll comments from X to the response from my Instagram followers (in the right hand column) when I shared this graphic.

So, what do I value and what does success look like to me? I can try to summarise it in the following bullet points:

  • Having the means (time, money and space) to create work which is meaningful and brings me pride and joy.

  • Working with kind and caring people who fill my soul with positive energy. 

  • Connecting with people on an emotional level and having a community who is engaged with my work.


Having written all that, if someone asked me what my greatest successes were, I would probably say the awards I have won for my creative work (I won’t bore you with them here, but they are listed on my CV). They have certainly benefited my career, providing me with employment, media coverage or opportunities to raise my profile. They have also intriduced me to some of the most wonderful people from across Europe, who I now consider to be dear friends. However, I’m not sure whether the value I assign to these awards is healthy – it prompts a lot of questions; why do I need this external validation of my work? And given that awards are inherently competitive (something which I believe is harmful to the art sector) – why do I feel a sense of achievement knowing that I have “beaten” other candidates? Do I think I am better than the other people who applied or just lucky? Why do I let myself be introduced at events by these various accolades “Young European of the Year 2018” or “Winner of the Charlemagne Youth Prize” and thereby define my identity. Wouldn’t I rather be introduced as “a kind person” if that is how I value “success”?


Maybe I am just kidding myself - maybe I’m not as kind a person as i'd like to be. Maybe these awards are the most successful thing I can honestly claim to have achieved and I am just as bound up in my ego as the next person.

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