We’re back again in Part V of Demonslaying 101, a discussion on those psychological challenges artists face when creating their art and presenting it to the public. This is a rather complicated set of issues to be sure, but they do tend to distill down to similar ingredients only because creating art boils down to similar ingredients. So let’s explore more in this Part V…
Now let’s talk about the white elephant in the room: Competition. Our niche is wholly unique, isn’t it? There’s just nothing else like it and that’s pretty cool! But the mere act of injecting competition into our arts places an enormous — one could say ominous — weight of pressure on our artists. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with competition! It’s done a lot of amazing things for our arts and people really enjoy that aspect of it, which is awesome. The point is then that we need a firm grasp of the realities involved and an arsenal of coping mechanisms or we’re going to get into big trouble fast. Because here’s the deal: Humans are competitive by nature. Know it or not, even the non-competitive really are. That’s because the drive that feeds competition can take many forms from competing with others to just stretching a little farther in our knowledge base. That drive to seek more, to achieve more is even at the root of our curiosity, for example. “How far down the rabbit hole can I take this?” is really just another way of saying, “I want more.” Many direct that drive into formalized competition like we see in our genre, but some artists aren’t so well served by adopting that for themselves all the time, and for some, not at all. See, turning our colleagues into competitors, into opponents, begs problematic outcomes if we aren’t very careful. For one, it can create an antagonistic environment for creativity and social interaction. When our aim is to blast away our peers with armfuls of ribbons to find self-worth — even in good fun — we’ve gone down a darker path. And what happens when that fails to happen? What happens when we’re the ones being blasted? It cannot be overstated how important it is to disconnect our self-worth from a ribbon, as counter-intuitive as that may seem in our genre. Honestly, when our system has no consensual standards is reason enough, when there’s no judge training is another. The real crux is this though: Ribbons are just manifestations of someone’s mercurial opinion which may have nothing in common with our knowledge base, our Eye, our goals, our artistic sensibilities, or a care for our journey. Again, placing our self-worth into the cheese grater of public validation only invites disappointment at some point. Can we process that well enough? Second, competition brings with it the inevitable outcome of comparing our achievements with those of others. We can see their awards stack up, can’t we? We can see the fanfare over their wins as the crowd heaps on kudos, all of which makes the lack of these things for us howl even louder. In turn, believing that we’re overlooked and ignored can lead to resentment, anger, and bitterness — how could it not? And it’s depressing if we come to believe we’re simply not as talented as our peers. What a toxic brew! Unless we can navigate our way through these reactions then — particularly with shows that really matter to us — our arting is a train wreck waiting to happen. And third, defeat is always inevitable. Nothing wins all the time, forever. There will always come a time when our work won’t win, or even place well…or even place at all. What then? What will we have to fall back on when that happens? When our self-worth is founded on public opinion — sure — that can fuel us for a time, but it’ll inevitably backfire. Are we prepared to cope with that? Then fourth, building our self-worth on competition is a slippery slope since every opinion out there has a different idea of what our best work actually is. What’s more, our own opinion of what our best work is may not jive with public sentiments, and lemme tell ya, that’s an odd place to be! So add it all up, if we can seat our self-worth into a form of competition that serves us more directly — such as competition with ourselves — we’ve gained a measure of poise and control. Yes, we may like to show our work as a means for feedback, which can definitely be useful, just be sure to maintain a healthy perspective on the nature of that feedback — it’s not gospel, it’s not written in stone, it’s not the end all and be all of the world. It’s just one opinion. So always keep things in perspective and learn to glean what useful tidbits can be found, and let the rest slough away.
Now — yes — certain pieces and certain artists tend to rise to the top. There is some measure of consistency at times. Yet in the grand scheme of things today, these are more rolls of the dice than bankable outcomes, aren’t they? Plenty of extraordinary pieces by esteemed artists don’t win or even place, and with quality so high today, it’s becoming harder and harder to predict which will win the big satin. Again, many artists find it better to inflect competition inwardly so they’re really competing against their past work, against themselves. Then meditating on their relationship with their work, the nature of it, the making of it, the purpose of it, the advancement of it brings with it a more trusty, positive support system because it addresses why we’re doing all this in the first place. Seating our self-worth into our journey instead of someone else’s journey — through their opinion — just seems a much better prospect, doesn’t it? Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider theirs when it serves us — because it can — just maintain perspective. Regard everything from a step back. The fact is, too, that our work is 100% truthful. It’ll clearly show when we’re lazy, hurried, or struggling, when we hold back or go full bore, when we hesitate or jump in recklessly, when we’re confused or confident, when we’ve made developmental leaps or our knowledge base has gaps — it’ll show the truth of our process over every inch. Pay attention to our past work along with our references, artistic exercises, solicited critiques, and pro-active education, and we gain everything we need for useful feedback.
“To the critic, art is a noun…To the artist, art is a verb.”
~ David Bayles
Each artist throughout history could write a library of personal journals on the making of their art. There’s just so much stuff to that experience, it would fill page after page if we were so inclined. To pare it all down really then, all art is autobiographical — every tool stroke, every creative choice, every bend to a leg speaks of the artist’s internal landscape. Yet at no point will a critic (or judge) truly know the full breadth of that landscape with any given piece. Ultimately, they’re only ever interested in the finished product and how it’s seated in The Grand Scheme of Things. To the critic, our art is an object, a personally-removed thing plunked down in front of them for evaluation against their own sensibilities and prerogatives, their own independent measuring sticks. As such, the artist and the critic exist in very different worlds that while they do have some overlap, they’re essentially at odds with each other. Consequently, we can make the mistake of assuming that the artist’s opinion on their work is subjective whereas the critics’s opinion is objective, but the truth is far more complicated. We’re human. Biases, knowledge gaps, sensibilities, prejudices, fixations, obsessions, tastes, and any number of factors all influence the nature of an opinion, even that of the critic. Indeed, if the purpose of the critic is to evaluate a given work without the full backstory of its process, then by definition that opinion is incomplete at best, or arbitrary at worst, right? Now it could be said that this is all but inevitable for the critic’s position — and that’s true — as scooping up the full backstories on each piece in a show would be a monumental task that would simply bring it all to a screeching halt. The critic has to pare things down just to get their job done. What’s the takeaway then? To keep all this in mind when our work is judged. They don’t know the whole story, do they? And perhaps we don’t want them to know it all. Sometimes the artist wants to keep some things for themselves. Plus, if the audience is largely only interested in the finished product, so shouldn’t the critic who serves it? We also have to consider this — people will like or dislike our work for their own reasons. It’ll simply affect people based on their own sensibilities, not ours, and that’s a fine thing. So think about leaving the door open for people to interpret our art on their own terms — learn to let go of our experience so others can have theirs. In many ways then, being an artist asks us to clutch tightly onto each work in the very act of creating it but when it comes to display, we’re asked to let it go. This strange place we’re plopped into time and again can never be truly reconciled, only tolerated. Like with Stormwatch. His narrative was thusly: He’s an escaped nondescript ranch horse which is why he’s a gelding and his feet are reforming into their wild form. He’s an old soul in transition, attuning to his new-found freedom and power symbolized by the wildness and force of the storm winds whipping around him, so many possibilities swirling around him now. But his freedom comes at a price — he’s responsible for his own wellbeing now, that daunting prospect rumbling in the dark storm clouds above. Is he shook? Nope. He’s Mr. Cool Cucumber, taking it all in stride. His time with humans has taught him a level-headed stoicism that will serve him well in his new life. And a curious new life it’ll be as he won’t fit into either a bachelor band or a family herd. Will he be forever a loner? Or perhaps he’ll find new friends in unlikely places? Maybe. But he’s not a Mustang. He's not a Brumby. Never was. Yet some people have ignored his actual narrative by insisting he is, even turning him into a stallion to force the issue. The true nuance of the piece has been completely lost on some — and I have to let that go. I know what Stormy means to me, but I have to let him mean other things for other people. It’s not easy, but there it is. And so it is and will be with each piece we ever create.
On that note, writer Henry James formed three questions in relation to an artist’s work. What was the artist trying to achieve with their piece? Were they successful in this? And finally the whomper: Was it worthwhile? Yikes! To have it all distilled to this is rather daunting, but the truth is this is exactly what we need to be asking ourselves with the completion of each piece as a means for improvement and introspection. We’ll have our own answers, of course, but here’s a tip — let some time pass before applying these questions. When we’ve just completed a new piece, bask in the awesomeness of that! We’ve earned it so wallow in the achievement! Then as the weeks, months, or even years go by, reconsider it. It can be hard, but applying those questions — with some distance — will do our growth good. This exercise also reaffirms our commitment to our art, a sentiment we’ll definitely need to lean on during tough times in the studio. Indeed, if there’s one thing a demon hates most, it’s us remembering and embracing our dedication to our art.
Our chosen art form is founded on technical accuracy by definition, which is quite the challenge, of course, but learnable with study, practice, curiosity, discipline, and keen observation. It’s also a fascinating dance between abstract interpretation and organic reality since how our subject appears in real life can be quite different from how he appears on an anatomy chart. (And for a discussion on those issues, check out my blog posts Now About Those Anatomy Charts Parts I & II.) That’s because in life, anatomy is messy and surprising, full of curiosities and novelty as organic structures leverage and articulate, morph and jiggle, stretch and pull, smoosh and goo, pooch and squish, and twist and bend. So while — yes — the skeleton can only articulate within set parameters, when it comes to flesh, we’re talking about smooshy, organic, responsive variability. Likewise with color and pattern, there are genetic tendencies and markers — yes — but there’s also a lot of surprising life in between! This means we have to learn the biological rules and also how to bend them — which is a lot to juggle — but it’s a dance that’ll get lost on some folks. The truth is some just won’t notice all the little touches we put into our work in this regard — they don’t See them on the living subject and so won’t See them in our work, or worse, they may assume our work is wrong because of it. This is particularly true of work that portrays life’s eccentricities, serendipities, or moments since prevailing sensibilities tend to be rather conservative and conventional, “safer.” Our audience has actually been conditioned to favor conventional formula, a baseline version of “what looks right” as a default. It’s totally understandable though because life is, well…it’s a big subject. For example, the preferred way to convey anatomical structure is with smooth surfaces and highly defined, formulaic musculature even though this is an artistic style among others. Anyway, so there isn’t too much room for options or even portrayals that hug realism closer like, for example, with hide textures (butt wrinkles, anyone?). Moreover, that watered down version also has a hard time perceiving the highly technical precision needed for areas like the joints, legs, hooves, or head, or all the little details and esoterics that add so much life and factuality. Only a geek looking for these things is going to infuse them into their work as something of value and really only another geek is going to See them. But that’s the thing we’re going to have to reconcile: We may geek out on anatomy or color and pattern or breed characteristics or whatever, but some folks just won’t See it. Oh, they have some inkling that something might look right or wrong, but for the finer points of it all, it’ll go right over their head. Some may even pushback. And that’s fine! It’s okay to geek out and it’s okay that others don’t get it. That’s life, right? It’s an educational opportunity really if we think about it, and it’s a chance to push boundaries out even more. But — yes — it can be frustrating to put so much effort into all those little touches that add so much flavor and realism to then have our work misunderstood. But again — who are we creating for? An authentic artist will create the work they’re called to create despite it all. It’s not easy, but creating disingenuously is even harder to live with.
Now as for our past work — which can often cause those demons to really screech — don’t worry, it’s common to cringe at our earlier pieces. It’s normal, natural, and expected. New work is supposed to supplant the old and supposed to show our past newbness. Just remember this: As much as our old work may make us shudder, there’s always — always — someone out there who absolutely loves it for their own reasons. Let them enjoy it untarnished. And hey — we should be kind to other artists, right? Well, that includes our younger selves too! We were very different artists back then who deserve just as much courtesy and compassion as we show others now. There’s this as well — every single piece we did, good or bad, was a stepping stone to where we are today. Each one contained essential lessons for placing us exactly in our current learning curve and that’s worth some respect, right? Let’s face it, the learning curve for this art form is massive and unending, convoluted and complicated, and asks a heckuva lot of us every single time. So be kind to ourselves every step of the way. And here’s the truth of it: Only we can create the art we do. Since the Big Bang, no one has existed just like us — we are wholly unique therefore so is our art. No one — even if they studied our work and tried to duplicate it — could ever create it exactly as we do. Only ever a facsimile, they cannot make the same choices in the moment, the same tool strokes, act on the same spontaneous whims like we would. Our work is wholly us and will only ever exist if we create it. That’s important. When those demons try to convince us of all the awful things they insist then, remember that and hold it close as impetus to keep going.
Our demons thrive on isolation, that is to say, they wield more power if they can convince us that we’re alone in our struggles. But they’re liars! The truth is that every artist shares them in some form. And though we may be a captive audience, that doesn’t mean we can’t yell back or, even better, that we can’t muffle them. Now granted, that’s not so easy as our demons intimately know all our most vulnerable fragilities, those hottest buttons to push and they push them enthusiastically at the slightest provocation. But just remember this: Whatever they’re screeching to us, they’re screeching to someone else, too. Probably many others, in fact. And doesn’t simply knowing that shift the balance of power back into our hands quite a bit? Strength can be found in solidarity! Really, their power is definitely diluted if we know it’s the same old sad song for pretty much everyone. For example, when they sneer that we’re a failure because we made a mistake…well…so what? Everyone fails! Everyone makes mistakes! And everyone has a little voice in their head that’s going to belittle them for it on some level. Heck, I can guarantee Leonardo da Vinci had to bark back at his! Or when our demons try to convince us that we’re just not as talented as so-and-so, know that everyone — even the most gifted among us — looks up to someone else’s work as an unattainable goal. Yearning to have someone else’s gifts is a universal and very human thing to do. Similarly, our demons can torment our muse, leaving our inspiration tattered and floundering as we struggle with motivation. Yet every artist’s muse fluctuates during the process every now and again — it’s just a normal part of arting. Those demons can also be quite convincing when trying to get us to quit, when they beat us down so much, we just want to give up. But we’ve all been pushed to the brink at some point, even those who seem to create so effortlessly. Now what does all this mean? It means that we’re always one decision away from blasting past our demons because so many prove it is doable every day. If we need to reach out for support then, there are many out there who fully understand our struggling headspace. We’re all sailing the same sea! Time for a yacht party?
Let’s end it here for Part V then in Part VI, we’ll take what we’ve discussed and reconsider these demons in a new context. It’s interesting how just a little bit of a spin actually results in some welcome and surprising new interpretations! In the meantime then… Party on, Garth!
“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.”
~ Salvador Dali