Calculation dominates the practice of Toronto artist Micah Lexier, who seeks out opportunities to collaborate with curators and artists in bringing his concept-based projects to life. His practice is often referred to as “idea-driven art,” motivated by American Conceptualism of the 1960’s and carefully balancing intuition with calculation to produce successful work.
Reflecting on the idea of “successful artists,” he said to me in a 2017 interview “it’s safe to say that no artist is truly content with their situation. We always want more for ourselves, there is always a show that we think we should have been in, there is no end to the wanting. And this is true for even the most successful artists you can think of.”
When asked about his perceptions of success and failure, Lexier responded “like all things in life the important thing is to find the joy in the experiences that you do have … and by this I mean in the making of the work itself. I have to remind myself over and over again how lucky I am and how to appreciate the opportunities that I have been given, rather than lament the ones I have not.” This ideology is reminiscent of the lessons learned in childhood; parallels cannot help but be drawn between Lexier’s approach to his practice and the schoolyard dictum: “you only lose if you don’t have fun.”
Lexier has managed to etch out a successful career that challenges the priorities of our capitalist model while still achieving critical success along its terms. His curator-collaborator at the time, Stephen Hancherow, held a more measurable perception of success centered on visibility:
Success in the contemporary visual art world requires an artwork to be visible or seen (or attempts to critique what is visible/invisible, e.g., Michael Asher among many others); it becomes open to interpretation from multiple publics, either positive or critical. It is part of the system of art, and success for some artists can be hinged on that resulting interpretation.
As we can see, Hancherow’s perception of success relies largely on interpersonal factors. Lexier, however, focuses on the intrapersonal – perceptions of one’s own success. It is the latter perceptions, of how successful one views their own efforts, which will be explored in this follow-up piece.
Perceptions of one’s own success and failure have traditionally relied on the same criteria which we use to determine the success and failure of others: critical acclaim, wealth, social comfort, etc. Similarly, our perceptions of our success have an equal likelihood of becoming skewed and disparate from reality, for various reasons. Biased perceptions of performance can either be swayed towards failure (based on negative cognitive biases and insecurity) or success (motivated by positive cognitive biases and narcissism). It is the precariousness of these perceptions that will be investigated in this section.
Intrapersonal perceptions of success and failure can, like stereotype threat, be greatly influenced by the vision we have of ourselves in relation to others. These cognitive biases are often influenced by different factors: perceptions of others, socioeconomic context, security, etc.
The most prominent of these biases appears in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which describes:
A cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity, on the part of those with low ability, to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their competence accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.
It makes sense that, in a society that emphasizes economic success above all else, there will exist individuals who misjudge their achievements. In other words, successful people underestimate their own competence and unsuccessful people overestimate theirs. You’ve seen this effect in practice if you’ve ever known someone who claimed expertise in a subject after reading a few articles and listening to some podcasts about it.
This effect, however, practically perpetuates failure; the low-ability individual sees no reason for self-improvement or self-doubt, and the high-ability individual underestimates their own contributions while overestimating the work of those around them.
What’s missing in both cases is the desire to define own’s own success, as is practiced by Lexier, for instance. Changing the definition of “success” and “failure” seems to be the only sure-fire approach to reconciling disparities between our perceptions of others’ achievements and our own.
Redefining success and failure
The former gallerist and dealer Jessica Bradley is another Torontonian who acts as a cultural producer to claim and embody her own vision of success. As of 2017, when this material was collected, she had thrice chosen the Canadian representative for the Venice Biennale, enjoyed a prolific career as a curator and critic, and opened Jessica Bradley Gallery in 2005. Her practice engaged deeply with intuition, and she credited her success as a critic and curator to “timing” and “a good eye.”
On the launch of her gallery, in a 2005 interview with The Globe and Mail, she said “in this, as in everything else in the art world, timing is all.” The gallery was open for ten years, during which time Bradley represented the artist Shary Boyle and enjoyed critical acclaim. In a 2015 interview with Canadian Art, she seemed to find peace in the closure of her gallery, acknowledging that a period of her life was simply ending naturally. A big factor in Bradley’s perception of her own success was her finding fulfillment in the event, much like Lexier’s fulfillment in enjoying the process as much as the final work.
We can also look at the Canadian artist Peter Wilde, who moved to Berlin after being declared “too old” for the North American art world. Exploring more international notions of success and failure, Wilde suggested that Western culture was obsessed with making snap judgments, an obsession that has mirrored ever-changing pop culture and the celebrity status of the art world. In a 2014 interview with R.M. Vaughan for Canadian Art, Wilde says he was told plainly “it’s too late for you” by individuals and institutions who acted as arbiters of good taste, but who were outside the sphere of cultural production themselves.
Similarly, Vaughan recalled “when I started writing about art, my writing was published in magazines and newspapers that just by their existence bore at least the semblance of arbiters. Really, it was a status not earned but merely given to them. People read what was “good” or “bad” from these vehicles out of habit, not any real belief in the vehicles' reliability, or an earned “chronicle of record”.
As with Lexier and Bradley, Wilde and Vaughan question the standards by which success is qualified, but they also question the merit of certain institutions acting as arbiters of good taste. What good are labels of “success” and “failure” if the judging criteria is inherently flawed?
Lastly, I’d like to point out that this entire subject – our perceptions of our own success – depends on a kind of obsession with oneself. Who are we, in a global landscape of political corruption and violence, refugee crises, abject wealth disparity, terrorism, and environmental disasters, to sit and meditate on the degree to which we’ve been successful?
The historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, in his book The Culture of Narcissism, suggests narcissists are people who exhibit “pseudo self-insight” and “dependence on the various warmth provided by others.” He argues that they seek out external validation to satisfy a sense of inner emptiness and to curtail a “boundless repressed rage.”
Narcissism has presented itself as an unavoidable condition of our capitalist model; social conditions today perpetuate a “survival mentality,” according to Lasch, that creates a climate of competition and esteem for economic success where there otherwise would be none. In fact, the “American Dream” itself is based on a narcissistic premise: assumptions that success is achievable through hard work and sheer force of will “claim that the destruction of hereditary obstacles to advancement ha[ve] created conditions in which social mobility depend[s] on individual initiative alone.”
The “hereditary obstacles to achievement” Lasch refers to here are institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that often have a significant impact on success and failure. In other words, narcissism ignores all these external factors and assumes instead that you are entirely responsible for your accomplishments (or lack thereof). This leads the privileged few to view themselves as self-made, publishing books and delivering lectures on how they achieved success, suggesting the same is possible for the millions affected by institutional obstacles the privileged will never know.
But, for all its faults, narcissistic behavior does “make for success in bureaucratic institutions, which put a premium on the manipulation of interpersonal relations, discourage the formation of deep personal attachments, and at the same time provide the narcissist with the approval [they] need in order to validate [their] self-esteem.” As previously stated, capitalism values economic success over all else, including the empathy, selflessness, and non-lucrative collaboration that makes Western societies function.
My previous article, published last month, suggested some questions on the subject of success and failure: what is failure? How do we measure it? Why does it matter?
Let’s answer these questions in reverse order. Notions of success and failure matter for our own sense of self-worth, and to situate ourselves in the climate of competition engineered by Western society. We’re surrounded in the digital space by social media influencers, TED Talks from the 1%, and memes about millennials not buying homes because we like avocado toast too much. Success and failure are everywhere but, at the same time, are rarely treated as topics of discussion themselves.
The powers that be measure success in different ways. Success and failure are shaped by hard work, ambition, and determination, but are also deeply influenced by systems of oppression and institutional barriers. For this reason, there exists a precarious balance that I hope I’ve demonstrated through this study.
What is failure itself? Frankly, it depends on who you ask.
Balzer, David. “Jessica Bradley Discusses Closing Her Gallery.” Canadian Art, 2015. Hancherow, Stefan. Interview. 2017. Email correspondence.
Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77, no. 6 (1999): 1121–1134.
Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism. New York, USA: Norton, 1978.
Levin, Sam. “Millionaire Tells Millennials: If You Want a House, Stop Buying Avocado Toast.” The Guardian, 2017.
Lexier, Micah. Interview. 2017. Email correspondence.
Milroy, Sarah. “Looking for The Aha! Moment.” The Globe and Mail, 2005.
Vaughan, R.M. “Peter Wilde's Berlin Spring: A Midlife Art Manifesto.” Canadian Art, 2014.