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17 April 2024

Why we make art

In Amsterdam, in the Van Gogh museum gift shop, I wonder: is this what we call success?

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve spent the past couple of days on a little holiday in Amsterdam, with my son Blake and his girlfriend. We visited the Van Gogh museum of course, which I’ve written about here before. It left all three of us profoundly moved, and full of thoughts about art, and creativity, and the difference between success and failure.

You can’t help but have these thoughts when you encounter Van Gogh. The gap between the “failure” of his art while he was alive and his “success” now is perhaps the most extreme example imaginable, and forces you to consider how you measure such things. It breaks your heart to think of him only selling one painting in his lifetime. Then you walk into the gift shop and see bookmarks, notebooks – even a pair of reading glasses for heaven’s sake – all covered with his sunflowers, his irises and his almond blossom, and you ask: is this what we call success? Does this end-point render the story triumphant? Do we rejoice that his art won out in the end, or continue to mourn the sadness of his life? And do these things hang over all of us who try to make pictures or books or music, and then sell them?

The question is particularly vivid in my mind because as we arrive in Amsterdam, Blake, who records music under the name Family Stereo, has just released a new track, “I Knew I Loved You Then!”. We spend much of the holiday time tracking its progress out there in the world, in a way which is of course familiar to me, and which brings us closer together as a shared experience.

Via his artist page on Spotify he can see not just the streaming numbers, but how many people are listening to it RIGHT NOW. The modern experience of measuring your popularity is immediate, and a little bit inescapable.

We talk about whether this is a good or a bad thing, and how it makes you feel. It can be thrilling to think about the reach and velocity of music released in this way – the whole world can hear my song right now! And it’s a good way of feeling connected to your listeners, as they can respond directly. Every second something new seems to be happening. It’s intoxicating. Likes, and streams, and downloads, bang bang bang.

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But it is also daunting to remember how many other artists are doing the exact same thing with their new track at the exact same moment. You can’t help picturing yourself lined up against them all, the competitiveness made brutal by the sheer scale of the numbers, the saturation of the market which I think few people outside the world of music truly understand.

It’s almost the opposite of Van Gogh’s dilemma – not how do I get anyone to see/hear my work, because that bit is easy now. Instead, how do I stand out from the huge crowd? How do I not drown in a sea of content?

Why do it at all, you may ask, and I suppose the answer is the same as it ever was: that some of us simply feel compelled. Which has always been the only good reason to make art. And I hope I haven’t made it sound like it’s no fun to release music nowadays, because I really don’t believe that.

On this sunny afternoon in Amsterdam I sit beside Blake in a bar, and we celebrate the simple fact that he has made something beautiful and sent it out into the world. We pull ourselves back into the moment, and try to set aside concerns about the future.

We raise a glass to Vincent, and we Shazam the tracks that are playing in the bar, and we talk about Nick Drake and Neil Young, and the new Waxahatchee album, and I tell Blake about this book I’ve been reading the last couple of days, by this writer I’ve never read before, Kazuo Ishiguro. He’s won every prize going, and I’m the last person in the world to realise that he is a genius; but there you go, that’s success for you.

[See also: I had an epiphany. I had fallen in love with a café]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran