On Quitting


“…while artists always have a myriad of reasons to quit, they consistently wait for a handful of specific moments to quit. Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail. And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work—for the place where their work belongs.” –from Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

I recently read a fascinating article in the New York Times about the musician Rodriguez. He recorded two albums in the 1970’s that sold roughly zero copies. Then he quit recording and started to work construction jobs. He lived quietly and modestly for about forty years. Meanwhile, in South Africa, he was becoming an iconic star—the Bob Dylan of that country. He never received any royalties; he had no idea this was happening…until fans tracked him down. Now he’s the subject of a new documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, and his career has been reborn.

One of the major myths of art making is that if something is good, it will find its audience. (Another myth is that if something finds a huge audience, it is by definition good.) Anyway, with Rodriguez, we have an incredibly talented artist whose music completely missed its audience for decades. And, as a result, he quit.

Art is communication, and communication is a two way street. Unfortunately, it’s often a street that only goes one way at a time. The artist makes the work, then stands back and waits for a show, or for publication, or for a performance. But even then, the work often fails to find its audience. Sometimes the audience is only found after death. Sometimes the audience is in South Africa. Sometimes the audience is never found. Does that make the art worthless?

I’m thinking about Emily Dickinson, who wrote poem after poem and locked them all up in a drawer. For her, the conversation was with herself, and God. It was a personal process. Of course, it’s hard to build a career on personal process. And it’s discouraging to feel that you’re talking to an empty room. I certainly don’t blame Rodriguez for deciding that construction was a better use of his time than making and recording music. But think of all of the music we’ve missed out on because of it. Forty years’ worth. Wouldn’t that have been worthwhile, even if the only people who heard it were his family and close friends?

The next time you feel discouraged, please remember Rodriguez. As I have said before, we never know whom we will touch with our art, or why. The only thing you can be sure of is that if you do not write it, paint it, dance it, sing it, or make it, it will touch no one, ever. As an artist, you must do your part. The rest is just faith.