Goal Setting and Art Making — Do They Contradict Each Other?

by An Xiao on July 24, 2012

LOS ANGELES — I meet a lot of artists these days who have big goals. Some of the most successful ones even write them out, with specific numbers like a solo show and such-and-such gallery within three years. In a competitive art environment, it’s great to have goals, and it’s great to make progress toward them.

But a recent article in The 99 Percent reminded me that sometimes goals can get in the way of enjoying the process. Enjoying the process, in my book, is a key part of being an artist:

Telling people about the benefits of origami (e.g. it improves hand-to-eye coordination) made them keener to try it. But for people actually enrolled in a class, focusing on these kind of long-term benefits (i.e. the instrumental goals), and keeping these in mind during an origami class, led them to enjoy the class less, to express less interest in doing origami again in the future, and to turn down the chance to buy an origami kit of their own.

It got me thinking about another study I read recently in The Atlantic, looking at the simple fact that “those who can afford to do everything are stressed because they can never have the time to do it all.” More money and success in life means more options, and that means a lot of anxiety about what to do next. That might be hard to decipher in many professions and lifestyles, but for artists, the central purpose is to create work.

Fortunately, that same article in The 99 Percent points to a solution. Visualize your goals at first — that’s what will get you going. But then set those goals aside and focus more on how much you’re enjoying the process. You might be surprised to see what new work comes out of it.

image via

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  • Brian Fernandes-Halloran

    I recently did a residency in Berlin that did not allow artists to start their work until they spent 3 weeks experiencing art in the city. This was so against my constant grind towards goals way of making art. That period allowed many things to surface and has permanently affected my studio practice. The goal oriented American work ethic really can screw up the creative process if it isnt broken up with some time to take things in.
    Thanks for this article. I would love to read more in a follow up.

  • Chicken Fingers

    When I was in grad school, my goal was to get represented by a particular gallery by the time I was 35. I ended up getting signed by them before my thesis show ended.

    That summer, I became discontented that my gallery was not the best one on 25th Street. Pace was. And I realized if I were in Pace, I’d be jealous that other artists had more museum placements than I did.

    I found career success unfulfilling and left the gallery. Now, I’m 35. Working without an audience or goals is far more difficult because you have no card-game to give structure to your efforts.

    But now I am making better work.

    • Brian Fernandes-Halloran

      You don’t have to abandon the prospect of an audience to avoid becoming obsessed with petty things like gallery clout. It isn’t an either or decision between isolation and social climbing.

      • Chicken Fingers

        Good point.

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