Whenever I send a newsletter out for the announcement of a show, I usually get a few unsubscribes. Now this isn’t any surprise; I’ve had a mailing list for many years and some of the addresses are old, and people have moved, or simply become disinterested. No one has ever written anything unkind in the box where you can write “why” they are unsubscribing. It’s usually marked “no longer interested.” But still, I feel an unreasonable twinge of moral outrage twined with hurt feelings (slight, not anything crazy). It’s absurd to feel that, and I know it. But strangely, we’re conditioned culturally to both not care what others think of us, and yet care about that more than anything else in the world. It occurs to me that everyone really wants other people to approve of them, be interested in what they’re doing, and most of all- like them. Think they’re “good.” Both in the sense of being a “good person” and also just capable, talented. And it seems that deep down, most people think they’re not good enough. Having people like you can be a way to be and feel safe; this is in fact true in some very real ways. But it’s also unhelpful to creativity, exploration and discovery if we live by this idea in its extreme.
As an artist, caring so deeply what others think of you can be damaging to your own vision. But not all artists have the personality to cast aside all consideration of the good opinions of others, and certainly not at all on the personal level, apart from work.
Getting word that your paintings didn’t fit in with someone’s “curatorial vision”, or hearing back from a an artists retreat that the director is “sorry to inform you that your name was not on the list of accepted residents” does beg the question “Am I any good?” And to not take it personally is a difficult charge when an artist’s heart and soul is reflected in their work; it is essentially their “raison d’etre.”
The artist’s practice is deeply rooted in self doubt because without it one wouldn’t be able to constantly improve upon each work of art. Once you think you’re good, it’s easy to stop trying to improve. Why risk losing the feeling of being accepted? And perhaps also losing one’s reliable source of financial security?
In theory, if your work doesn’t fit another person’s curatorial vision, that’s a good thing. Your ideas and vision are unique. And championing yourself through rejections is a way to center your resolve, vision and self esteem. I like to think of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess) whose literary and artistic creations were soundly rejected and passed on umpteem times before he found a single publisher who gave it a chance with the public. Geisel thought his stuff was worthy. And how so! Lucky for us he didn’t tear up his rejection letters in disgust (or maybe he did that …) and give up. Most importantly, he did not stop doing what he loved because others didn’t see the value in it. How weird his drawings must have looked passing across the desk of some of those publishers who were used to seeing Rockwell-type highly rendered, naturalistic illustrations. Do we fault them for being a bit freaked out in that cultural context? For saying no?
So as I work with my own vision, and try to attain my sense of worthiness, I try to always remember that its both good and necessary to hold on to the instinctual feeling of doing what sparks happiness and satisfaction in my own estimation, what I know I am meant to do, and not to feel “bad” when other people don’t share in my enthusiasm. To really be OK with yourself- but not be complacent with your own progress- is a real challenge.
I’m not immune to wanting people to like me. I’m hoping that if you don’t like my art, at least you will like me as a person who is trying to make things that others will get something good out of, or at least appreciate the flower arrangements at the exhibition- or maybe even the cookie selection on the refreshment table. There’s always something redeeming about everyone, no matter how slight.
I’ll leave with an apt quote from Dr. Suess that applies to everyone:
Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!