Artists exist in a tricky spot in the equine collectibles community—the genre depends entirely on artistic works yet many participants don't quite "get" the artistic type. What's the result? A bit of a pickle for how artists are treated in the community.
This post has been a long time coming. Observations over these long 33 years paired with many conversations with fellow artists fueled this, yet it was a discussion on Facebook that finally triggered its writing. I knew it was troublesome out there, but I had no idea it was that bad. The stories these talented, respected artists shared were upsetting. Some of them even sharply curbed their creativity for our genre outright as a result. I reeled at their experiences, and then I thought about this renewed age of the DIYer and alarm set in. If these established, hardened artists could take these blows but still be left limping, what was in store for these budding talents who were all enthusiasm?
Even so, let me preface with this: This post isn't to suggest that all artists are dainty flowers wilting in the blistering sun of public opinion. They're actually dang tough...they have to be. They have years of hard earned emotional callouses that buffer the worst blows and a host of coping mechanisms to serpentine a critic's grenades. In their hearts they are a pugnacious, scrappy, courageous bunch who remain ever hopeful and optimistic for the most part. But here's the point: If such spirits still get worn down, frustrated, jaded, and dejected by the treatment found in this community, it's gotta be bad out there.
Now absolutely, let me be perfectly clear here, too—our community has hordes of positive folks who support and encourage artists enthusiastically, and speak of their works with sensitivity, kindness, and respect. Thank goodness for them in more ways than can be counted! Seriously, without ya'll, we'd perhaps be hemorrhaging even more creativity. You invaluable souls do far more to shore up and heal than can possibly be known, being the glue of this community and the fuel that keep so many artists going. I think I can speak for many artists out there when I say, "Bless you—I'm grateful you're here and that you speak up!" Indeed, based on my discussions, it was often the one kind soul who kept a devastated artist motivated. So—thank you!
Because I'm going to be frank: The equine collectibles community can be brutal to its artists. Callous, thoughtless, careless, even cruel. And the more popular or established, the worse it can get. Ask darn near any artist and chances are they have at least one horror story—or they will eventually. Ask many and we begin to see the pattern. If not to their face, then behind their back. And they'll be left feeling heartbroken, betrayed, disillusioned, and anxiety-ridden, and all because they were unnecessarily bashed, shaded, dehumanized, or exploited. Friendships have been lost. Beautiful art gets destroyed or never finished. If it's bad enough, creativity even stops. This isn't good for the community. In many ways though, hard truth be told, this genre is a bit incompatible with the artistic nature. Because of the competitive element, people tend to have no qualms about blasting works based on perceived "quality" or making comparisons about which is better. Sensitivity—that critical ingredient for any art-based genre—just isn't part of its dialogue yet. It's like a comments section out there, but without moderation and even the nastiest comments getting equal validation.
But let's also be honest about this, too—there are some people out there who take peculiar delight in stomping on others, harshing their mellows, or just spewing ugliness. Or some are so thoughtless, they don't consider how their words slice and dice. Some even profess pride in all this. By the same token, there are those so tone deaf, it's a wonder any sensitive word can come out of their mouths at all. Yes—there are jerks in every facet of life—we just have to surf the Internet to see how rampant they are. Yet they're particularly vocal in ours and allowed to run amok, unchallenged and unchecked, quickly making this community toxic for many creatives. And because our community is close knit, these types become especially loud and influential so even if we try to avoid them, they're still within earshot. It's like being stuck in a room with a bunch of obnoxious party crashers with no doors or bouncers. But we're all peers and colleagues. Is this really how we want to build our future? How does this encourage creative participation? How does this create a safe space for creativity, especially for beginners and DIYers? And consider this—when someone bashes an artist's work, they're also bashing those who love and collect it. Is that also okay?
So why all the ick? Perhaps it makes someone feel important and special. Maybe they're envious. Maybe they just derive their life force from negativity. Maybe they have to tear someone else down to build themselves up. Or are they trying to target someone? Do they have a sadistic streak? Are they really so clueless about how they come across? Are they really so thoughtless? Beta aggression? Who knows. Either way, can't we do better? Can't our community be more universally kind? We hear a lot of this new enthusiasm about camaraderie and positivity...shouldn't that be directed to our artists, too?
Yet perhaps it's this as well—many people just don't understand the artistic temperament, the inherent nature of the typical artist. Really, to get to the crux of it, an artist can hear a thousand wild kudos but it's the one negative comment, even offhand, that will stick in their head and grind in there like a sparking rim on the freeway. Over and over and over. The negatives have a far stronger impact than the praise. Some psychologists believe this is partly due to a "negative bias" hardwired in the human psyche, but any which way, it smacks like a hammer on the heart.
Because here's the thing: Artists tend to be—by nature and necessity—sensitive, and so rather reactive to other people's behavior. Artists also tend to entwine themselves into their art so a negative comment can't really be compartmentalized. Instead, they'll probably feel like a total failure despite all the enthusiasm expressed otherwise. Sadly, many artists have been left despondent and deflated by a single unfortunate remark in this way, even when their feed is packed with kudos. Indeed, the damage done from even one unpleasant remark can be devastating.
Now in response, we'll often hear three typical bits of advice: (1) "grow a thick skin," (2) "ignore it," and (3) "stop being so sensitive." Granted, all three do have a seed of truth in them because robust coping mechanisms are critical. That just comes with arting. Nevertheless, they only go so far because the inherent nature of an artist is fundamentally at odds with this advice. Yet even more, this advice essentially blames the victim. So let's break 'em down...
Growing a "thick skin" may sound good on paper, but that's not how it works with most artists, it's just not how they're wired. Truly if they could, they would! See, it's precisely having a "thin skin" that lets them absorb what they need to create the art they do. Good art requires a goodly degree of receptiveness which is exactly what makes artists so sensitive. Many artists simply internalize everything. It's a sad irony then that the very thing they need to be good at their job is the same thing that makes them so vulnerable. In this light then, isn't demanding an artist grow a thick skin actually unreasonable? Isn't it unfair? Isn't it blaming the victim? It's their fault if they can't let it go, right? But how can they, given their nature? Yet what about the person who lobbed the bombs? Shouldn't they be called out in the blame game?
Then there's "just ignore it." That's to say, if we can't process the pain then deny it. But we're human after all so does that ever really work? Nope. The pain just entrenches deeper, embedding to become worse. And for artists, the damage this can do can be particularly destructive because this pain directly attacks the motivation to be creative. So asking an artist to ignore it is like asking a horse to ignore a beating. (There's a definite difference between sympathy and empathy, and the best way to help someone ride things out is through empathy.)
Next then is to "quit being so sensitive." But...yikes. That's like demanding an introvert "people" all the time. Or like insisting a clinically depressed person just be happy, dang it. Or like expecting a victim of violence to just shut up and get over it. Remember, most artists—by nature and necessity—are sensitive. To demand they stop being so is to literally demand they stop being themselves. How is that compassionate? How is that reasonable? And feelings just happen, don't they? We don't have control over what crushes us. So up pops that tired old adage, "we can control how feelings affect us." But that's flawed logic, isn't it? Honestly, learning how to manage bruised feelings still doesn't mean you don't feel them, it doesn't erase them. Meanness sticks with you, and if it's habitual, it compounds, and when it compounds, it shapes your personality and outlook on life as any victim of bullying and abuse can testify.
Put it all together then and it seems that the burden is heaped onto the victim while the perpetrator escapes accountability. So why do we demand that artists just tolerate it, just suck it up with a smile, while those who behave so ugly aren't confronted? We call out those with ignorant opinions, sometimes quite enthusiastically, don't we? So why do we fall short in defending an entire group of our peers? Indeed, if an artist does speak up in defense of themselves, look how often it's gaslighted as "ego" or "over-sensitivity" or being "unreasonable." And, yes, life isn't always a bowl of cherries, but does ugly behavior have to be so loud and pervasive in ours? So unchecked? So validated and enabled? So normalized?
On that note, we'll typically hear "it's just my opinion." Now that's true—everyone and their dog and cat and bird and hermit crab has an opinion. And to be fair, an opinion is a normal response to having something put in front of our face. Informed opinions are also critical for furthering our understanding—so it's smart to consider the source since not all opinions are created equal. Opinions can also evolve so what comes out of someone's mouth today may not tomorrow. Above all, however, we shouldn't confuse an opinion with a fact—they're definitely two different things. So—yes—opinions are inevitable, plentiful, and variable, there's no doubt about that. It's often not a good idea then to get hung up on them.
Yet even so, the typical defense someone uses after launching something negative is "it's just my opinion." It's as though any measure of ick is somehow made palatable—even passable, even acceptable—being framed as "just my opinion." But to an artist, opinions aren't "just sayin." They're ammunition that can be fire or fuel, bullets or balm, impaction or impetus. Every artist holds their breath when it comes to the opinions of others, and what comes out of their mouths can either spur on motivation, tarnish it, or even choke it altogether. People should realize that "it's just my opinion" isn't a means to lessen the blow. To be frank, it's a cop out that gives people license to be careless with their words. That being the case, it's not so hard to see that some opinions can be weaponized, using this spin as a camouflaged delivery system. So anything said is okay given it's just an opinion? Yet consider how we treat people who voice lousy ones in the rest of our lives. Why then is this response so sluggish when such things are lobbed at our creatives in the public arena? Should the burden really be on the artist to bear that stab or on the person doing the stabbing?
Now it bears mentioning that every artist develops their own coping mechanisms to buffer criticism and other junk. Indeed, while some artists are more stalwart, some are highly sensitive, and some lie on a spectrum in between. So because we don't know where on the spectrum an artists sits, it's best to treat each one with the same courteous sensitivity and always refrain from unsolicited critique, or "cold call commentary." It's just safer to assume that they prefer to exercise their art on their own terms. The temptation may be great to say something hoping to "help," but that's a dangerous and, frankly, presumptuous assumption. Yes, one may be tempted to think, "How will they improve if they never learn?" But trust me—the artist will figure it out in their own time, in their own way. Give them the safe space to do that without imposing or poisoning their experience. Honestly, a single misstep on your part can so tarnish the piece for that artist that they simply never finish it. Indeed, I've known artists to throw out their piece due to one careless remark. Truth be told here, it's just not your place to correct them when they haven't expressly asked you for help.
See, here's the thing: There's such a thing as "creative consent." What's that? Well, it's the implied set of boundaries that automatically initiate the moment a piece is displayed which entail the artist's agency over their own creative experience. This means that we do not step into their internal creative space and impose ourselves uninvited. Put another way, it means we never negatively comment on a piece unless the artist has expressly asked for a critique from us. And simply displaying a piece is not consent to criticism or critique. If a cosplayer dresses a certain way, does that imply consent to being groped? Aren't they just "asking for it?" Absolutely not. So just because an artist displays or posts their work doesn't mean that's an open invitation for our corrective opinions, even if well-meaning. Instead, what the artist is probably just doing is keeping you updated on their progress, sharing their process, relating their journey, sharing a moment, looking for a bit of encouragement, relishing their proud accomplishment, or just letting you have a peek into their life. Trust me, if they actually want pointers, they'll clearly ask for them. Truly, if collectors and showers are entitled to a safe space to practice their past time, then artists are likewise entitled to theirs, too, and despite all the "what ifs" and "even thoughs" and "buts." Let them have a safe creative space to show off their hard work, challenges, sacrifice, discipline, and dreams. We owe it to them as colleagues, friends, and fellows.
Now—yes—it's natural for folks to talk about a piece, especially a new one. And sometimes people need to talk to decide things—and that's okay! Seriously, that's okay. That's not the problem. The problem arises when this discourse isn't framed with thoughtful, courteous sensitivity as though the human being who created it was sitting right next to us. When we talk about their work in a way that strips them of their humanity to turn them into objectified, anonymous "others" to be shredded at will, we've gone over the line. It's so strange...here we have this activity wholly dependent on the arts to even exist, but unlike other arts communities that have developed a courteous manner of speaking about their arts, the model horse community is still stuck between Jerry Springer and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are no standards, no decorum, no expectations of behavior when it comes to relating to our arts and artists. And it's causing harm. It's making people afraid to practice their creativity. It's making some begin to unjustifiably doubt their own abilities. It's causing some to stop entirely, or begin to question why they're creating for this community at all. In short, it's poisoning the experiences of many artists, and in so doing, this community is poisoning its own well.
As for the difference between a critique and criticism...well, they're two entirely different things. On one hand, a critique has been expressly requested by the artist as a means to move forwards with their specific piece, personally inviting input under conditional circumstances, or only from specific proven people they trust. (Believe me when I tell you to avoid vetting public opinion unless you want a lot of error introduced into your work and knowledge base. Public opinion is typically a contamination of your work, not a correction.) In contrast, criticisms are uninvited remarks, unsolicited "help," cold call commentary because we think we know better. This is never okay. It doesn't matter what we believe or think we know—this is never okay. The artist is creating according to their own vision and current capabilities, and our comments could potentially impede or distort their efforts, motivations, and growth. Indeed, our vision may simply be incompatible with theirs, or even misunderstand things, or be incomplete, or flat out wrong. And no no no...don't start down that road of, "But if it were me, I'd want to know." Never impose your reality onto another. You have no idea how that artist will internalize not only your comments, but the experience itself. You have no idea what shoes they're walking in right at that moment, do you? How can you possibly make the assumption then that you know better than they do with their own piece, with their art, with their development, with their goals, with their vision, and with their own truth? Only the artist knows all this—and they aren't obligated to share it either—so let them exist unburdened by our arbitrary impositions. Their internal creative space is theirs, not ours to bust in on.
Okay, so their piece is bugging us. Fine. Everyone has their own ideas on "good" art. And when it comes to technical realism, that can of worms is enormous largely because there are always those who have it wrong, only they think they have it right. And though we aren't obligated to like a piece, of course, we are obligated to speak of it thoughtfully in public as though the artist was standing right there. Because it's absolutely true that no matter how problematic a piece is, there's always something to compliment even if it's all the hard work and imagination that went into its making. Focus on that, instead. So please give artists the benefit of the doubt. Most are trying their level best and every artist—even if long established—is still growing at their own pace. Being so, they'll usually hammer things out on their own or they have their own preferred conduits of feedback. Allow them the psychological safe space to do all that without trepidation and self-doubt. Truly, all said and done, it's always better to leave the artist's enthusiasm intact. They'll figure things out eventually, but the real goal of our interactions should be the preservation of our fellow's enthusiasm for what they're doing.
Now okay, yes...even so, we think we know how to fix it. Great. Good for us. But we have just as much chance of being wrong because we may be the ones who are mistaken. How do we know? Truly, pretty much every single time a Corrector shows up, it ends up they're the one who's misunderstood the piece. Because here's the thing: Do we have the artist's knowledge base? Skills? References? Spectrum of development? Years of experience? Backstory? Do we even have the same goals for the piece? This is their vision, not ours, remember. Simply because we want that piece to be a certain way isn't justification enough to start imposing on their process.
And contrary to belief, all this has little to do with ego but has mostly to do with momentum. Here's the thing: The artist is hardest on themselves so they're already beating themselves up. If they get pecked to death by criticisms then, that'll risk the whole enterprise imploding. To tell the truth, the concept of the "artistic ego" is often a gross misunderstanding. What's more typically happening is that the artist has already pulverized themselves so badly that to get any more "beatings" from someone else just becomes too much. In response, some artists will quit the piece in exasperation and lingering self-doubt while others may lash out in frustration. Either way, they'll be unfairly labeled as "egotists" when this isn't the case—they're being human. Because isn't it a human reaction to react to internal anguish, right? Really, it's not such a matter of pride as it is a matter of how much bruising one can take—and every artist is different in what they can withstand. Yet adding salt into this wound, those artists who are particularly sensitive tend to have the lowest thresholds, making them more reactive and therefore the most prone to being stigmatized as an "egotist." But think about it—it would be a hefty ego that would protect them! Truly, almost all the artists I've met in this venue have been down to earth and greatly humble. I just don't see these big egos they're purported to have. If anything, I see a desire to have their own protected, autonomous space and agency to do their work in peace and on their own terms. Is that unreasonable?
Because here's another thing some may not realize—to blurt out a criticism can wound an artist, even if meant with good intentions. Unsolicited comments can truly be destructive, but when allowed the space to figure things out in their own way, the artist would have followed through. So think about giving artists the space to be human. And remember, too, that comments are cumulative, they all add up, and we don't know if our comment was the nail in a coffin we really didn't want to nail shut.
It's odd though, in my observations throughout the years, when an artist has tried to stand their rightful ground, the roof may fall in on them like they committed some grave sin, and then all manner of labeling gets heaped onto them—"mean," "egotistical," "unreasonable," "bitch," narcissistic," "BNA," "difficult," "arrogant," "big headed," and on and on. Indeed, it was such vitriol that was used to keep artists "in their place" in the past—is that still the case? It does seem like some artists are shamed into submission as though defending themselves was somehow an affront to the community. But while artists are surely grateful for any support, they're supposed to wear a smile and take the blows with equal gratitude? Some are even blamed for speaking up—I'm sure I will be after this post. Just watch—it'll happen. So it's not surprising why some artists are too scared to speak up for fear of a backlash. Yet some are such boiled frogs, they don't even realize their situation is worrisome.
So what's the motivation for this cold call commentary? Could it be a sense of entitlement to an artist's work? Remember that most participants are dependent on our artists to supply them with the game pieces they need to show. Even more, however, it's artists who supply the dream horses that fill our hearts and imaginations. Because of this dependency, could it be that some folks feel that artists should create specifically for their desires to fulfill their own vision? That because they cannot create the dream horse themselves, they wish to shape, impose, even coerce an artist to create it how they want? Is the artist simply a means to an end bereft of their own agency? One wonders.
On that note, there's this, too: If we aren't creating these pieces ourselves, experiencing all the triumphs, challenges, failures, anguish, elation, sacrifice, discipline, tedium—all that goes into each one—we don't have a full appreciation for the experience. As such, how could we treat that experience thoughtfully? And without that understanding, there can be no common ground. The artist then remains an "other," forever existing outside the courtesies shown to fellow showers and collectors, and that objectification introduces problematic treatment. One wonders.
Maybe perhaps those who pipe up feel superior, feel they know more and so feel entitled to their opinion and voicing it. It may also make them feel important, an authority. Yet in all truthfulness, going around and correcting others makes one an insufferable boor, and also a persona non grata among artists—and artists talk to each other. Yet a true authority leads by role modeling and giving artists their space until invited in. They show respect and courtesy, and always empathize. They lead rather than push, inspire rather than criticize, and empower rather than bash. So one wonders.
Know it or not then, nearly every artist breaks at some point and enacts some protective measures to insulate themselves. For example, they may gravitate towards like-minded cliques and away from the big online spaces. They may throw up proverbial walls or even back off the venue, putting distance between them and the community. They may tend to focus more on their own feeds. Their policies can tighten, and they may become more selective in their collector base or circle of friends. They may block certain chronic offenders on social media. But it's not about being unfriendly, egotistical, inaccessible, or aloof—it's about protection of their psyche and preservation of their enthusiasm. Hard truth here—when an artist strategizes their interaction with the community, it's likely to preserve the illusion they can continue to like the community at all. Indeed, I don't know of a single artist who hasn't been made more cautious for their experience at some point. And—yes—people are people. Any community is going to have its problem voices—of course that's true. Yet can't we all work for something better?
What's the unspoken reality we're sweeping under the rug then? Well, the sad truth is that many artists—including potential artists—develop a degree of fear when creating in this particular community. Is that really what we want? It's scary enough to create something and put it out there in the arena of judgment, but this community's arena is particularly harsh and vocal. There's no standard of behavior when speaking about our peers and their efforts, allowing the lowest common denominator to drag everyone down. When a community's accepted behavior can engender fear in a targeted group of participants, isn't that a problem?
Now it may seem that social media is a boon for getting the positive feedback needed to counterbalance things. When it works well, it definitely is! But this isn't so much the case on the big lists, groups, and forums where it's usually the opposite effect, tending to be peppered with negativity often directed at our arts. Just look how OFs are spoken of, even when the distance between the piece and the artist is zero. What people will say through a keyboard in public but never say to an artist's face sets a worrisome tone in our small, close-knit niche. Now—absolutely—artists can manipulate their own feeds to filter out obnoxiousness, and many do. But that only goes so far. Artists are often still within earshot of this toxicity which is exactly why they tend to retreat further away. They aren't trying to be inaccessible—they're trying not to get hurt or allow all that negativity into their lives.
So how did this questionable treatment come to be? Why is it tolerated? Heck, why is it even protected on certain forums? Because—hey—if artists started speaking about showers and their efforts as showers speak about artists and theirs, the outcry would be deafening!
It may have started from the very beginning, which is probably why it's so entrenched. There was great distance between the artists of the OFs and the collector back in the early days, and so a level of carelessness in speaking about them was commonplace. (I was guilty of this myself in some of my ancient past articles critiquing specific old molds. Not proud about it now that's for sure.) Then as competition ramped up, so did the harshness of tone so even when that buffer zone shrunk dramatically with CMs, ARs, and now our artists-mined OFs, this style of speaking didn't evolve, but doubled down. We now have an arena typified with no buffer zones between many of the works yet the way some speak is still so thoughtless, even downright mean and callous. So let's be clear here: It's not that people talk that's the issue, it's how they speak. "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." Are we not at a point in our activity where we should be expecting better? And if we're welcoming new people into this, what sort of messages are we sending them? What kind of role modeling are we demonstrating?
Also exacerbating the issue is a unique quirk of this activity—people showing the work of others in a competitive format. In this, the longtime freeze on DIYer dominance perhaps had a more negative effect than we realize. How? Well, it allowed the community to pull the human factor out of the creative equation more easily. When we aren't creating our own pieces to show—when we aren't experiencing the creative reality ourselves and the arena of judgement—we forget the human element in the works around us. We lose sight of how hard it is to do, how time consuming, resource-rich, skill built, and sacrifice-demanding, the strong feelings, the unending struggles, the maddening craziness of it all. And then we begin to forget that our peers are making themselves painfully vulnerable by displaying their created works. So when the community began to depend ever more on the creations of professional artists to provide the means to participate, it became an easier slide to dehumanize them and objectify their efforts, especially as things intensified.
Subsequently, creatives were no longer "us," they were "them." The Other. The Means To An End. And so began the long-standing, unspoken love/hate relationship some have with artists. Honestly, in all my 33 years involved in this, I've been made to feel overtly unwelcome, resented, even disliked at times, especially in the early days of my career here. Posts and private messages detailed how awful my presence was, sometimes I still get an errant jab. Heck, an entire webpage was created blasting me. I've been a target for a long time. So if I've ever come across as off-putting, inaccessible, aloof, shy, or whatever...it's not because I am...it's because I'm afraid. Compounding this, I also have some introverted traits so being around folks I don't know well can be tricky for me. I get scared. I get shy. I get awkward, stupid, and unsure. I get starstruck, intimidated, and overwhelmed, too. I'm human. Yet simply because I'm an established artist, I've been thus labeled all manner of things from "unfriendly" to "narcissist" to "arrogant" to "egotist" to "elitist" to "aloof" to "mean" to...oh, you name it. And all because they didn't want to see my human frailties but would rather paint me with a meaner brush simply because of what and who I am. And I'm not alone here. I know of other artists who met with a cold shoulder, too. Is it any wonder then why some are gone now?
Because dehumanizing an artist is the key ingredient here. When creatives are objectified into a means to an end, it becomes easier to treat them thoughtlessly, even as targets for dissatisfaction. So if something doesn't measure up to someone's expectations, we get cold call commentary. Or if something goes awry in a deal, things can get ugly fast even if nothing is actually wrong—even if it's the buyer who's wrong. The stories I've heard about the behavior and demands some artists encounter can be downright unsettling. Sadly then, it's not uncommon to discover a friendship was really just a manipulation to gain access, or the artist was only liked for their work.
Perhaps another part of the problem are three additional elements: (1) many forget what's truly entailed with being a working artist, (2) not comprehending the nature of the work itself, and (3) not understanding that the realities of a working artists are often quite different.
Let's unpack the first one. It seems that Amazon, McDonalds, Walmart and the like have conditioned our society to expect a certain kind of operation, and that's fine. They have the resources to provide it. But curiously, some in our community believe that's how things actually operate with artists here, or worse, should operate. But while similar operational ideas can be applied, the fundamental breakdown of the situation means they simply cannot. They just don't have the same resources massive corporations have. See, here's the basic problem: The artist only has themselves and their most precious resource, their time. The artist wears all the hats and so must prioritize things based on production realities or life circumstances just to get everything done. Think about that for a minute. While those big corporations have whole departments and armies of employees to attend to everything and immediately, the artist has to do it all themselves, creating a very different equation. Yes, some have hired additional help—me being one of them—but that only goes so far. So think about the amount of work needed just to create, advertise, and distribute one edition, all dumped onto one person. Think about the copious materials needed to do that and how it can be tricky to get them at times, such as quality castings. And when they're attending to all that, they cannot be doing other critical things, making everything a ladder of prioritization out of necessity. Now what if things go haywire in their operations or their lives? What if they have medical or psychological conditions? Any number of unavoidable things can disrupt their studio. Really, despite all their best practices and intentions, life happens. The cottage-industry nature of the typical artist in this venue isn't anything like that of big corporations. The personal investment of a working artist is magnitudes greater while the resources are magnitudes lesser. Yet these aren't rationalizations or excuses—they're simply facts for a large number of working artists. They do the best they can within their impacted circumstances, but things can go awry despite their best intentions. So the expectation that an artist operate like big corporation or even a sizable small business with employees misunderstands the equation.
Now let's look at the second one. Breaking it down further, think about the nature of these creations in the first place. They aren't mass produced in a cheap-labor foreign country by faceless workers with the resources of an entire factory behind them. No—these are lovingly handmade one at a time by either the artist or caster. What's more, think about what it takes just to get anywhere near respectable in quality, in the artisanship needed for excellence. Just to create them is entirely dependent on long brewed, hard earned, time rich, resource laden, sacrifice ridden, and psychologically and emotionally taxing effort. And a lot goes into making these things behind the scenes, off the public radar. On the other hand, when it comes to OFs, remember they're mass produced as quickly as possible. They aren't the same quality as an AR or custom—they can't be to remain at their price points. They may also have had to be designed a certain way for production, lose something in translation, or have production issues or relics. OFs are a very different animal and so necessitate a different kind of expectation, so don't blame the original artist and always be understanding of the company's factory process. Heck, I remember when chattermarks, gouges, and overspray were simply part of the package, and now? Wow—OF collectors never had it so good!
Now let's consider the third one. Because of all this, the concerns that fill a working artist's head aren't really the same as everyone else. The realities are quite different. Daily goings on are different, practices are different, finances are different, priorities are different, most everything. Indeed, just consider this for just one example: While someone may be one person, a artist is having to deal with many, all with different needs. Now given that time is the only limiting factor, the one critical resource for a working artist, that means their time is best spent in the studio creating the work no one else can. No wonder some have taken to hiring helper mavens. But for those who can't, they have to figure out how to balance this on a daily basis and that doesn't always work so well—not because it's necessarily their fault but because that's life within their very different reality.
All this is just one of the reasons why those transaction boards can be problematic—they present only one side without an equitable burden of proof. Indeed, I know of one artist who was blackmailed with the threat of a red light to force an inequitable situation. In these systems, the burden of proof lies on the artist to disprove their presumed guilt, yet it can be the buyer who has a misunderstanding or the unreasonable demand. Maybe there should be a customer rating board for artists to use! Imagine the outcry over that.
How Can We Change Things?
Our community is trying to build a more inclusive, safer space to mend some torn seams in our social fabric. So does that also include a safe place for artists and their creativity?
I'd like to repeat that I'm not suggesting our community is all bad. Nope! There's a loads of wonderful folks involved who offer an avalanche of encouragement, positivity, and support for the creatives who work so hard. And the fact is, they probably constitute the vast majority out there—at least that's been my experience. And when it comes right down to it, it's this sense of pervasive positivity out there that can be the last thread an artist holds onto when things get bad. So it's likely that only a relatively small, but highly vocal, minority is cranking out the ick.
But that's the crux of it, isn't it? When the ugly minority is so vocal, that creates a lop-sided experience for the artist. So there's a big clue for jumpstarting change: Speak up! Don't be the silent majority! Get out there and "like" and comment with support and positivity on artists' feeds. Happily share their works and speak about them and their work in nice ways. Even more, send them PMs encouraging and supporting them, perhaps even sharing what their work means to you. Trust me—it can mean the world to them. And artists?...support your fellow artists! They aren't opponents to belittle or bash—they're peers, and their achievements and struggles deserve support and kinship. We're all in the same boat! Absolutely, positive reinforcement can inspire creativity better and in more ways than criticism ever could.
Most of all, though, rather than bash what we hate, support and promote what we love. So instead of berating what we dislike in a piece, focus instead on what we like and leave the rest out of it. The world has enough negativity—why add more? If more of us did this then, imagine the lovely new tone set in our community. It could also lessen the fear factor of the public arena which could inspire more folks to pick up tool and brush. The more welcoming we make the atmosphere for creativity then maybe the more great stuff will become available to us.
Now all that said, let's be real—none of this means we can't discuss things. That's a natural, expected outcome of sharing anything, right? Of perhaps even needing to learn about sculptures, horses, and art. So people will talk; it's just normal behavior. But can we do this in a way that isn't destructive to someone's experience? Isn't care with our tone, word choice, and meaning that mediates unfair assumptions, irresponsible speculation, insinuations, and hurtful begged questions the better route? Aren't the feelings of our peers more important than voicing whatever opinion is unkindly lurking in our head?
Also understand that certain ways of speaking have a loaded history that instantly paints an interaction with negativity. For example, "BNA" ("Big Name Artist") isn't a term of endearment or neutral description. It's one born of malice. Originally coined as a negative label, it referred to artists who were thought to have become "too big for their britches" or who were deemed "too big" for anyone's good, being a bad element that had to be squelched or driven out. Even when one artist started casting in bronze, for example, that riled the ire of some who stamped "arrogant BNA" onto their forehead. So when some long-established artists hear this term—especially since that term may have referred specifically to them—it can poison the interaction right out of the gate. Instead, it's better to use the term "established artist" rather than "BNA."
So here's the first Golden Rule: Don't confuse display with consent—only offer critique when that artist has expressly solicited feedback from you. Otherwise, focus on the positives we like rather than mention or beg questions about the parts we don't. Now then when we do give an invited critique, be careful with words, phrasing, and insinuations so pointing out a problem won't sting. Plus, always offer a solution or helpful route to make that fix. And be generous with compliments and encouragement, always. Also try not to inundate them with a multitude of issues all at once since that can be overwhelming and discouraging. Instead, give them two to three fixes to work on in chewable bites. A critique is about empowerment and encouragement, not about shooting off our opinion or imposing our vision.
So here's the second Golden Rule: Speak about the work of others in public as if that artist was a friend and standing right next to you. Be kind and generous, supportive and caring. Sure, we can be tweaky over parts of it, but we can still speak of those areas with a greater degree of thoughtfulness, right? For example, instead of saying, "I don't like their work, it's odd and wrong." Instead think about, "Their work is really cool only my tastes are more flamboyant." Better yet, focus on those aspects we like instead. For example, instead of saying, "That model is just weird and goofy looking," think about saying, "I really like the face and neck," or "I think the movement of the tail is cool," "or the tone of the paintjob is pretty." Artists hear enough garbage about their work. For instance, back in the early 90s when I was still fresh and intimidated by all this, I was at WRC in Las Vegas. Uninvited, some random woman plunked down in my seat and proceeded to rip apart my work, loudly proclaiming which pieces she thought were passable and which were crap. Yet the "ugly" ones had done quite well in the show and one in particular was one of my favorites. In my hurt, I took him home and redid him, but never finished him, effectively destroying him. I threw him out, my experience with him being so tarnished. And I see in hindsight how technically wrong she was in her opinions. And I'm not the only one who's suffered this. That's the destructive power of this sort of unpleasant, unwelcome behavior, only today it's moved online, even more publicly, aggressively, and corrosively than ever before.
The thing is, we can still have issues with a piece or with an artist's work. That's the nature of how we relate to art. And not everyone will like the same things. But "if you can't find something nice to say, don't say anything at all" as the adage goes. Just because we have a negative opinion doesn't mean we need to voice it. No matter how strongly we feel about it, no matter how entitled we feel to it, no matter how much we think it'll help, no matter how important it makes us feel, simply not speaking is often the better practice. Let people enjoy their thing. Let artists savor their efforts untarnished. Don't rain on someone's parade or pop their balloon. Plus there's always someone out there who loves that piece just as it is so let them love it, too. Absolutely, a bit of psychological safe space can do far more to develop an artist's abilities that criticizing their work.
On that note, consider how even insinuations can hurt. Things that leave someone thinking, "What does that mean?" can be just as troublesome. For instance, if someone proudly presents their dapple grey paint job, replying simply with, "I like chestnuts more" isn't so kind, is it? We've just ignored the effort as if it was inconsequential which is discouraging and hurtful. Instead then, acknowledge the effort such as, "I'm a big chestnut fan myself, but that dapple grey is really cool! Great job!" See—just a little shift in word use paired with acknowledgement can make a world of difference. Or rather than saying, "I think Quarter Horses are dumb, I like Saddlebreds way more," in response to someone's sculpture, instead think about, "I'm big into Saddlebreds myself, but golly—you really infused a lot of personality into your Quarter Horse!" On the other hand, there's, "I like the head but I'm not sure about the rest of it." That begs questions that aren't very nice, doesn't it? And what's the point of that additional quip anyway? Rather it's better to just say, "I really like the head, such a beautiful face and expression!" and leave it at that. Simply omitting what we're not hip over can result in a lot more positivity. Or, "That cannon bone looks wrong to me" is a subjective and ambiguous statement that isn't so helpful. And are we so sure our idea is more accurate? Everyone's Eye is in flux, including our own. There's also camera and angle distortion which can really hose things up, even in very subtle ways. Phone cameras are notorious for this so keep that in mind. There are the curveballs nature throws at us, too, which we may not know with our more limited mental library or references.
Here's the third Golden Rule then: Consider the courage it takes to create something to then share it in the dauntingly harsh arena of judgement. Most creatives take a big gulp every time they debut a new piece, no matter how long they've been at this. Please remember that. Their hearts have been placed before you so handle them with care. Also understand that "comparison is the death of joy," as Mark Twain insightfully observed, and so many artists are trying very hard to maintain that joy in a comparison-based genre. So put yourself in their shoes...could you really be so brave? Could you really suffer the beatings over and over, and still get back up to do it all again with the next piece? And the next and the next?
Proactive Strategies for Artists
In turn, there are targeted strategies that'll help artists navigate the choppy waters out there. First off, think about staying off large public groups or forums, especially if they aren't aggressively moderated. You'll just end up having to dodge bullets and you'll get hit at some point. These places will also fill your head with negative voices that'll play out in your head all day long, and who needs that kind of energy? Instead, seek arenas of likeminded peers, and it's also preferable that you know many present there personally. (Yet notice how we see victim blaming here, too, as artists get accused of forming elitist cliques. And yes, it is a clique, but many artists are driven to it because they don't dare frequent the open spaces anymore.)
Additionally, try to stay peppy by reminding yourself of these ten things:
- For every dolt, there are countless others who like your work and are supportive—focus on them instead.
- Those dissing your work probably aren’t your collectors anyway so don't waste your precious energy on them.
- Hold Brene Brown’s quote close to heart—"If you're not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I'm not interested in your feedback."
- Create for yourself first—if you love your piece, that’s truly all that matters, so reframe things away from what people think and towards what satisfaction you derived from creating it.
- While we may cringe at our past work as our development progresses, remember that there are people out there who absolutely love it. Try to see past work through their eyes then and appreciate all the stepping stones you've walked to get to where you are now.
- An opinion isn’t a fact and so can be completely wrong, incompatible with your vision and goals, or frankly flat-out stupid. Always consider the source, too.
- The best comeback is to be happy and happily creative, cranking out beautiful work that grows and deepens in scope and skill.
- Sometimes bad vibes are born of envy, jealously, and resentment of your accomplishments and talents. Some people—for whatever reason—just want to chop you down because your head is sticking up too high. That's on them, not you.
- You're going to have "bad horse days," it's inevitable. Every artist does. It's part of the developmental process and part of being human. So be kind to yourself; don't forget that the need to be kind also applies to you, too.
- You're more talented than you know and more capable than you think, so find your courage in that when self-doubt is imposed on you. You and your work are special and wonderful so if someone can’t appreciate that, well...that’s a reflection on them, not you. Don’t let someone’s ick tarnish your shine—glow bright!
These TED talks are also immensely helpful and reassuring—I highly recommend them:
- Brene Brown Why Your Critics Aren't The Ones Who Count
- Brene Brown The Power of Vulnerability
- Elizabeth Gilbert Your Elusive Creative Genius
- Elizabeth Gilbert Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating
It's understandable to believe that artists, especially popular ones, get regular kudos in private, that people lavish them with compliments and encouragement behind the scenes. But this isn't always the case. Many work in isolation, sometimes receiving meager positive feedback even when a new piece is debuted—but boy, can they hear loads of bashing in public. This lopsided feed of negativity can take a toll despite coping mechanisms and so some artists come to wonder why they're doing this at all at some point. It can be really important then to dump positive feedback back into their lives to compensate for the continued onslaught of yuck hurled at them from nearly every direction.
There's this, too: How we speak about artists and their works reveals far more about us than it does them. And if we want to build a future that nurtures creativity, remember it can be a fragile thing—it's more like an HR, not a Schleich. It can be deflated more easily than we may realize. Truly, when an artist loses the joy to create for this genre, we all lose. And with beginners, who knows that future geniuses we may be hampering or scaring off. More, too, every artist will take a creative misstep at some point. Mistakes are part of the creative process and development. So let's give artists the safe space to make them without having to build a bomb shelter.
And—yes—some people are just going to talk meanly no matter how change progresses. There's always "that guy" in every crowd. And people will talk in general—that's just part and parcel of creating for a competition-based genre. People will also talk privately, of course, which is where negative talk should be kept. Even so though, we can talk publicly about things in a way that doesn't necessitate emotional plate armor, right? Do we have to speak in a way that actually drives creatives away from the social conduits enjoyed by everyone else? Aren't we thoughtful adults? Can't we do better?
Because it's an inverse equation: Criticism can do tremendous harm while praise will always do tremendous good. So giving kudos is never a bad idea! That stuff is free so dole it out in generous handfuls! Then watch the eyes of artists light up then watch how they come to believe in themselves just a little bit more then watch what you helped inspire come to be then watch as the tone of the community blooms into something better—and you helped to do all that with some simple praise instead of disapproval.
And there's this simple fact, too: Any criticism is an open invitation to create your own piece exactly how you want, according to your own vision, and then you'll get to experience how difficult it really is and intimately come to know the arena of judgment out there. It'll put a whole new spin on things. Again, as Brene Brown astutely relates, "If you're not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I'm not interested in your feedback." Don't like it? Do it yourself.
Now lets be fair and honest with ourselves again here: Criticism is an inevitable part of arting and display. It's part of the package. If not in public then in private. Insightfully, Brene Brown confirms, "If you're going to show up and be seen, there's only one guarantee and that is—you will get your ass kicked. That is the guarantee. That's the only certainty you have. If you're going to go into the arena and spend any time in there whatsoever, especially if you've committed to creating in your life, you will get your ass kicked." And in this age of the Internet and comment section, literally everyone is a critic. Yet as my favorite movie—Ratatouille—gently reminds us in Anton Ego's ending soliloquy:
In many ways, the world of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves for our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
And there we have it. So while the world at large may often be mean-spirited, does our community have to be as well? Isn't there an opportunity here to become a sanctuary for all of us? I'd like to think that in a few years, the terrible things so many artists have experienced will be quaint horror stories told to new ones. I sit back and imagine a community where everyone's abilities are embraced with care and their achievements met with support and thoughtfulness. I hope for a time when any artist can share their works online with all enthusiasm and little worry. I fancy a day where the realities of creating in this genre are respected by more. I dream of a creative landscape where those who spew awfulness and carelessness are held accountable, inducing more folks to pick up the arts without a target on their hearts. I wistfully think of a social setting where artists can participate in more open spaces without anxiety and cynicism. I yearn for a day where some walls can come down between the creatives and the community so that sense of "other" can diffuse into "us." And I hope for a future where camaraderie overrides acrimony, where cohesion counteracts corrosion. I'm probably being too idealistic but, nevertheless, I hope.
"You, you may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one."
~ John Lennon