You'll Never Be Happy as an Artist If You're Not True to Yourself

You'll Never Be Happy as an Artist If You're Not True to Yourself

The whole "artists don't care what others think" thing is a giant lie. Most artists care what others think of their work more than anyone else in the world. Creativity is an unsure and scary thing, and a little validation makes us feel good. It's poisonous.

The world can be a really crappy place. People love to pick apart artists (who knows why), and many talented creators internalize that chatter and either fall in line with the status quo or quit altogether. It's a stupid, unnecessary tragedy. 

What's strange is that the ferocity is at its most intense within the art world itself. Artists conciously eschew constructive criticism for willful decimation of the creator for the sake of cheap personal satisfaction. The Internet makes such behavior all the easier to spew. I'm not saying there isn't bad art. But people confuse "I don't like it" or more often (though they'll never admit it) "I don't understand it" with "it's bad art." Good art is innovative. It shows a control of the medium and its techniques (and a controlled disregard for them, if desired, à la Pollack). It conveys an idea or emotion effectively and with clarity. It often (though not always) wears its heart on its sleeve, being an extension of its creator. But here's a secret: most people are awful at talking about what makes good art. They confuse critique with criticism borne of insecurity or smugness. They confuse thoughtful discourse with denigration for the sake of appearing academic or enlightened. 

I went to music school for composition. I write the unpopular unpopular music. Even most classical music devotees would rather hear 200-year-old repertoire than that "modern" stuff I write, whatever that descriptor means. My most popular piece is horrendously unpopular. I don't care. Why? It's who I am. The few people who do appreciate the sort of music I write like what I do. More importantly, I've ached and agonized over every note and done everything I can to make that music the best I could, but once I put it out there in the world, it's out of my control. And we should never gain satisfaction or be proud or disappointed in ourselves based on things out of our control. We can feel lucky to be appreciated, but pride should be something we assign ourselves out of an internal validation of our efforts. 

You must divorce financial success and accolades from your peers from success as an artist and self-actualization. You see, all you can do is be as introspective as possible, be as informed and knowledgeable of the techniques, history, and repertoire of your craft as one can, and create your work to the best of your abilities without reservation. Once you've done that, what happens to it when you put it out into the world is beyond your control. 

And of course, the fact that it's beyond our control coupled with the very human desire for validation means a lot of us engage in behavior ranging from hanging our self-worth on the critique of others to simply pandering in our work. Pandering might work if you know your audience well, and if you're in this purely for financial gain, well, all the more power to you. But if any shred of you is in this for self-expression, you will never be truly satisfied when you're being disingenuous. 

I haven't broken into the Billboard charts with my music yet. Big whoop.

Here's where it gets really tough, though: I'm not saying to completely tune out the outside world, because there's useful feedback there. Don't confuse constructive criticism of your technique with disapproval of your creative vision or even more importantly, the expression of your inner self. No one gets to tell you the right way to do that. There is no absolute. Anyone who says there is is saying so because they have a need to legitimize themselves in some manner to assuage their own insecurities. What people can tell you is how much clarity you possess when you translate inner musings to outer expression. If they're really savvy, they can tell you how you might be a better introspector. But if their critique consists of smug dismissal, the critique was never meant to help you so much as to lift them up by cutting you down. It's a sickening rite of passage in most artistic circles to put one's work before their peers so it can be torn to shreds, only to see if the creator can come out on the other end with the will to carry on. I see it a lot in younger undergraduate students: they think they have to tear something down to legitimize their opinion, to feel as if they are part of the inner circle. But that preconceived notion of how to critique creates a biased viewing, and biased viewing are rarely worth much. Unfortunately, I see that behavior continue beyond those early undergraduate years as well. I've always said that unsubstantiated opinions are a worthless currency most often wielded by the unexperienced, the uninformed, or the overly jaded. The same goes with airy praise. 

Write the music, film the shots, and take the pictures you want to.

Want to be a better artist? Turn off your computer. Deactivate Instagram. Put two middle fingers up to the world and go create and don't share your work until you're so proud of what you did that the only reason you're sharing it is to gain more business so you can make some money off this weird thing we do or just for others to enjoy it, free of any need for validation. And of course, that's the other catch. Even if you pull it off: you master your craft, you suppress the need for external validation, and you tune out all the static of the wannabe critics who cover their own insecurities by tearing others down, you still might not have any success in the financial or popular sense. Rarely if ever is financial or popular success a measure of artistic merit, though. You might not be what the world is looking for at the moment. You might unfortunately not have the amount of talent needed to break through the veritable din of creative output. But if you truly believe in the art and you want to feel self-actualized as an artist, no measure of success will satisfy you if you've compromised that inner vision.

The adherence to who you are comes first. If the financial and popular success never comes, well, then you have to ask the tough questions like if a career somewhere else with art as a serious hobby is more appropriate. But first, find what makes you happy and who you are in the world of creativity, because we're awfully lucky to be in that world in the first place. Then, build the more practical parts of your life around that place. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Too original, why don't you repost some other artist's work once in a while! ;)

Ugh, sorry. :P

A nice discourse on the subject. It is always horrible when people tear each other down, especially under the guise of feedback. There is only one kind of feedback that is meaningful and that is "constructive" feedback. Everything else is either meaningless praise (e.g. "Oh that's so nice", likes, hearts, "My son took that!") or heartless and destructive criticism (e.g. "you suck", "go back crayons", "oh, another f&%$ing picture of a flower", etc.). Truly constructive feedback is very hard to come by and is best given by those far more experienced than you, and from a similar genre (i.e. don't ask an experience portrait photographer to give you feedback on your landscape).

But the onus is also on us as creatives to not throw every attempt at greatness against the wall to see what sticks, only push out to the world that which makes you most proud of your work. The tendency these days is to post before you think... try flipping that around, think before you post, then think again, then play with the image a bit, then put it down and come back in a week and look at it again, maybe a month, maybe a year... And if you still believe it to be incredible... post. Photography is one of the few art forms that facilitates a distribution system that can take you from "click" to distribute in seconds. Friends don't let friends post without thinking. Actually, this could lead to a much more pleasant internet experience overall...

Something happens when you only post what you consider your best, and that something can only be seen over time. Those images become a reflection of you as an artist and over time they map your journey. So let them sing your praises, rather than ramble like a drunken mumbling troll with 1 eye and six toes, unless that's what you're going for...

Totally agree with everything you've said. I think the best lesson I've learned is to be very strict about what I post. And that's a great point you make about it feeding back into you; I think it focuses your attention and your creative impulses.

Couldn't agree more, Alex.

"Opinions" are one root cause - everyone has them, but at best, an "opinion" can only serve as a basis for a discussion. Not an argument - not some kind of dogma - totally incapable of being either "right" OR "wrong" - "opinions" simply either converge or differ, and there they lie down and die. They have no logical validity - no intrinsic validity - no further claims to fame, whatsoever. And they do untold damage to their victims, when pushed by monomaniacs who can't grasp this.

In reading your article, I was put in mind of several things, which unfortunately keep raising their heads.

One is the rather obnoxious and creepy phenomenon which has been on the increase in recent years in the social media pages (and is why I flatly refuse to have anything to do with Facebook, Twitter etc), is trolls. They are an extreme form of the wrong kind of "critic" - people with warped minds who think they have the sacred right to attack and/or destroy, by making vituperative or negative comments.

As a teenager, I began to realise early on that some "critics" use their position responsibly, to assess and appraise something - a film, perhaps, or a meal at a restaurant - and give an "expert" and unbiased view of it, with constructive comment. And without trying to cause harm or damage to the [whatever] they are discussing. While others seem to imagine that their self-chosen title of "critic" means they are supposed to criticise, and - on their limited understanding of what that means - belittle or deride whatever it is they are meant to be discussing. Bollocks!!!

And in the interim, I have encountered several seriously bad cases where this kind of negative criticism has left its victims with a business that foundered as a direct consequence of the critic's comments - or even worse, the victim has committed suicide. NOBODY has the right to do that to other people. I was raised on the basis that if you don't have anything nice to say, you shouldn't say anything at all - which is far more pleasant.

And if you look at the history of art - REAL art - and yes, I include music - like you, I have had a lifetime love of music - it's full of cases where someone representing one faction was negative or abusive about someone doing something different. The French Academy despised the Impressionists, and that battle went on for decades. Dali and Picasso "copped it". Van Gogh was largely ignored during his lifetime. Mozart was derided as often as he was appreciated - in his lifetime, Salieri was generally more "successful", whatever that means to an artist. At one of Beethoven's concert premiers for some of his new work, something like half the audience simply got up and walked out. My mother, who paid for my lessons at the Conservatorium, thought it was absolutely appalling that I appreciated the Beatles (as well as Mozart and Beethoven :) )

And "dare to be different" or simply "be yourself" is actually the path to progress. If mankind hadn't, we'd still be living in caves and eating raw food. I wonder how the critics would handle that?

I have only one caveat. The person who already knows it all has ceased to live. To live, we must be prepared to keep our minds and our eyes and our hearts open, to new things - new experiences - new ideas and knowledge.