Thursday, July 3, 2014

Asking, "Am I Good Enough?"

There are various things in progress in the studio this week but nothing I'm ready to show, so today I'd like to take a minute and talk about something I've been rolling around in my mind for a while.

This post could also be titled, "The Need For Approval".

"Social media" has been incredibly effective in bringing together artists who, for so many years before its advent, toiled alone in their studios, unaware that there were others who shared their passions and artsy obsessions. I was one of those people, working day and night for years in a vacuum, without any contact with other artists. For a very long time, I didn't even know there were others out there interested in the exact same things I was playing with and teaching to myself.

This was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because I learned my skills without the well meaning but persuasive voices of my peers guiding me and changing my work. A curse because not only was I lonely for the company of other artists, I was deeply uncertain about the validity of my work. Was it good? Would it hold up to the market? Did it have meaning to anyone but myself?

I was lucky enough to be alone long enough to solve most of these mysteries for myself, to find my own answers without outside influences moving me in one direction or another.

Things are different now. So often, I see artists, particularly those new to art but sometimes from veterans as well, post a photograph of their work in progress and ask others, "What should I do next?"

This question actually takes many forms: "I know this isn't very good, but..." and "Should I place this here and that there?" and "Would you use more <insert favorite color here> or <insert favorite collage element here>?" All of these inquiries really boil down to one question: am I good enough?

The impulse to seek out the opinions of other artists seems to be hardwired in our genetics, and in certain situations, can actually be a boon to our work. Honest critique is essential for learning whether we're ready to jump off the cliff into a new direction or if we need to spend more time standing in place, working on what's in front of us. It can offer insight and inspiration, knowledge and the experience of others, and can even help us move off square one when our work has stalled and we can't exactly pin down why.

Our task in navigating online social media as artists requires us to know the difference between asking for a critique, and asking for a direction.

"Does this work impact you emotionally, and if so, how?" will produce a far different (and more useful) answer than, "Should I have used more red?" Yet as a new or emerging artist, we often find it daunting to answer for ourselves whether this piece or that should have more red or less, this collage piece or another, be displayed vertically or horizontally, be abstract or contain imagery.

Asking these types of questions in our online art communities is intensely tempting, but will garner as many different answers as there are people willing to reply. Then the outpouring of opinions of other artists can become overwhelming and confusing, and will almost always prove ultimately to be worth not much more than a grain of salt. And the reason is simple: there's only one person whose opinion matters- our own.

While asking for advice on your next step in a particular piece of work can be valuable, it also has the potential to profoundly impact not only the art you're currently working through, but your future work, as well. Getting into the habit of needing someone else's opinion before you can continue may cause you to alter your work to suit the needs and desires of others, and you may never give yourself the opportunity to reach your own conclusions, depend on your own vision, or learn your own lessons. You could wind up with a dreadful question always hovering at the edges of everything you create: "What would the public think of this??" And trying to please everyone, to make work that you hope will always be universally accepted with a, "Wow, LOVE it!" will force you into a box that will keep your work unfocused, unimaginative, and finally, looking like everyone else's.

Think of it in this way: we can demonstrate to our children how to walk through example, and encourage them with gentle cheerleading, but we can't teach them how it feels to place one foot in front of another, balance just so, and move ourselves forward. Only by learning how to walk on their own can they experience it for themselves and become comfortable and confident in their ability to do it without our help. Otherwise their desire to continue, to expand on the concept of walking by later attempting to run and jump, will be lost. We all know that a parent who carries their child everywhere is robbing that child of a life lesson they require in order to become their true, independent, empowered selves. A good parent understands that there will be stumbles and falls, bruises and scrapes, tears and frustration. But the final goal is always to allow the child to walk unassisted with the confidence that only the experience of doing so creates.

The same is true for making art. Advice and critiques can and should only take us so far in our journey towards becoming independent and empowered artists. Eventually, we all have to take the stumbles and falls, become bruised and banged up, feel the frustration, and shed the tears.

It's the only way to learn.

Until next week, create alone (for a while, anyway!)
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