Riding the Waves of Popularity

We stood in a line in the street waiting to order crepes for about twenty minutes while the neighboring crepe maker watched us from his vacant window. David had warned me about this aspect of his favorite crepe shop–that there was a less popular one right by it. But knowing it in advance didn’t make the situation easier for me. I still felt a great deal of sympathy for the lonely crepe maker, which made the delicious crepe we eventually ate slightly less delicious.

I’ve had a deep respect for popularity ever since I became aware of its existence around fifth grade. Over the course of my life, I’ve found myself both high and low on the ladder, and while I’m generally more comfortable at the bottom and have found lasting friendships there, I like the magnetism I feel when I’m on top–the way people seem attracted to me.

I’ve been to a number of museums this summer, and at them, I read a lot of signs because I’m a fan of information. I’ve found myself particularly attracted to stories of artists and political figures who traverse both the fringes and the heights of popularity during their lives. For example, Winston Churchill, who despite having enjoyed political success in the early 20th century, spent a decade in political isolation before becoming Britain’s prime minister during World War II. This isolated period in Churchill’s life is referred to as his “wilderness years” and during it he sought comfort through painting.

At the Louvre, I’ve learned about artists who encountered criticism and censorship but were ultimately revered (e.g., Delacroix), artists who achieved fame and then fell out of favor during their lifetime (e.g., Gros), and artists who lived their lives in relative obscurity only to be rediscovered and heralded in a later period (e.g., Vermeer).

These stories comfort me because they’re a reminder of how much is out of my control in terms of the reception of my work. This in turn reminds me of a quote from the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham on the responsibility of an artist:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

-Martha Graham*

A friend shared a printed copy of this quote with me last year advising me to put it somewhere I could read it often. I chose my bedroom mirror. It’s good advice for weathering troughs in the waves of popularity and a reminder of the effort needed to reach the crests.

*Source: Wikiquote’s Martha Graham page

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