Today I have an answer to a doozy of a question, one that plagues virtually every artist/writer/maker/creator out there. I suspect very strongly that it plagues you, too, and I think my answer will be helpful.
First, though, some background:
You may or may not know that, in addition to the business I run here at Living A Creative Life, I also co-run an online course and community for emerging artists at the beginning stages of selling their work, Art Empowers Me.
(Note: My partner over at Art Empowers Me, Cory Huff, runs his own excellent blog, The Abundant Artist, to which I contribute articles periodically. And the two of us also co-host a podcast, Creative Insurgents.
This confuses a lot of people. I’m not sure why it’s so confusing, but it is. So if you’re one of the confused, here’s a breakdown of what’s going on:
Living A Creative Life = Blog, owned and operated by me.
The Abundant Artist = Blog, owned and operated by Cory, with articles by guest bloggers (including me on occasion).
Art Empowers Me = Private membership course and community for emerging artists, owned and operated by both me and Cory
Creative Insurgents = Podcast, hosted by both me and Cory (and our mascot, Minnie).
Got it? Good.)
Now, a couple of times a year Cory and I open the doors to accept new members over at Art Empowers Me, and one of the ways we raise awareness for the program is by hosting a series of free video chats over at Google+ Hangouts. For one of the video chats, Cory, who has monster creds as a marketing whiz, talks about the five things every artist needs to sell their art online, starting with Thing #1:
Make great art.
So that’s the first part of the background.
The second part of the background is this: A couple of weeks ago, Sandy asked how, if we’re following the directive from my Imperfectionist Manifesto to “make crap daily,” do we get from crap to great? I answered that question here.
This officially ends the background portion of this post. Now I will get to the actual question.
Yesterday, Sandy sent me this follow-up question:
I just can’t get this thought outta my head!! The convo we had bout the making great art.. and making crap?? Well…. Who decides if your art is great? Who makes that call? I just keep wrangling this round my wee brain… Thanks for any insight…
(Note: You may have noticed that Sandy’s questions have gotten a lot of attention in these Question Time posts. This is because she takes the risk to actually ask them. If you have a question, send it to me here and you may find yourself featured in a future Question Time post.)
Great question, Sandy! Here’s the short answer:
The way I see it, whoever is judging makes their own call. Your job as creator is to decide whose authority you care about.
When someone bought four paintings from me the other day, she was the one making the call. She decided that my art was great, and not just that, but that it was exactly what she wanted for her walls, and worthy of parting with her hard-earned dollars to own.
When I share my art on Instagram and Facebook, or publish articles here or elsewhere, the people leaving comments or clicking the “like” button, are the ones making the call.
When I entered two paintings in an art show recently (including the one at the top of this post), the jurors were the ones making the call. They decided that my art wasn’t what they wanted for the show, so my entries were rejected.
Different judges, different calls. None of which ultimately have anything to do with me.
The person who buys my art thinks it’s great. Other people who didn’t buy it may not agree. Or they may agree, but not prioritize spending the money on art.
Different judges, different calls.
When my art is rejected from a show, I can’t actually know the exact reasons for my rejection. It could be that they thought my art sucked, and this is where so many of us automatically jump when we’re rejected: “Oh, I suck. My art sucks. I should give up.”
But the reason my entries were rejected could just as easily be that they thought my art was great, but in a field of equally great entries, my art didn’t fit their overall vision for the show. Or it could be some other reason entirely.
Again, different judges, different calls.
The important thing, as far as I see it, is to focus on why you’re creating whatever it is you create, and for whom.
After a lifetime of being chained to the approval-seeking treadmill, I’ve only recently broken free of those chains. For too long I was paralyzed by perfectionism, afraid to make a move unless I was sure it would garner me praise.
Ugh, ugh, ugh. This is not a fun way to live!
I have worked very intentionally to free myself of the desperate need for validation and approval from others. Now I focus on creating for reasons that truly fulfill me:
- First, for me, because it gives me joy to do so.
- And second, for the people who will be touched or impacted by what I create.
I choose to enter shows sometimes because it gives my art a chance to be seen by more people, if it gets exhibited. I choose to submit my writing to bigger venues sometimes, because it gives me the opportunity to impact more people with my writing, if it’s accepted for publication. I understand that when I submit my art to judging by those with the power to accept or reject it, I concede to their authority for this specific purpose.
But I do not give the jurors the power to determine whether I create or not.
Just yesterday I taught an entire session for Your Big, Bold, Creative Life Academy that dives into this very topic. I call it Finding Your North Star: Accessing Your Authentic Voice and Getting Off the Approval-Seeking Treadmill.
This is your job, as a creator — to find your own North Star. Until you do this, you’ll be buffeted about by fear of criticism and/or a “frozen need” for external validation, either of which is a recipe for perfectionist paralysis.
So where does this leave us with the directive to “Make great art”? This is where my partner Cory and I diverge a bit in rhetoric. We’ve just seen that “great” is in the eye of the beholder, so what’s an artist to do with that?
Simple: stop aiming for great, and aim instead for authentic.
It’s your authentic voice that will ultimately make your greatest work in the end anyway, so stay true to yourself, your curiosity, your passions, what calls to you most strongly.
When you can aim for authentic and create from your deepest, truest place, you may still feel a sting when your work is rejected, and you may still feel delight when your work is lauded, but neither of those things will drive or paralyze you, and that’s the real goal as far as I’m concerned.
So make crap daily, aim for authentic, and go get creating!
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!
Sometimes it pays to ask why something was rejected. Case in point: I submitted 3 mosaic portraits for consideration in a Mosaic Portraits Fine Arts book. None of my portraits were accepted. My portraits “didn’t meet the parameters for a fine arts portrait”. Partially out of hurt feelings, but also out of curiosity, I asked what the parameters were, and I was told that, they actually loved one of my portraits and wanted to put it in the book but that they were having too many technical problems with the photograph, and it would not print properly in spite of their trying to photoshop it into better shape. Never assume they reject your work because they think it is crap! It may not be the case at all!
Melissa Dinwiddie says
This is SUCH a great point, Randi! We invariably leap to the conclusion that our work was rejected because the judger thought it sucked, but that is not always the case at all! Good for you for checking! 🙂
Art At Dawn says
I really enjoyed this article. It has taken me a long time to get to where I can judge my own work. As a former freelance illustrator, I relied on others to make the call and would feel cut down when the work that I was proud of became “not good enough” and had to go through countless rounds of revisions to get to my client’s vision (but not my own). I took a step back from art when I had my kids and when I finally came back to it, I decided to find my own voice and vision. This was REALLY HARD! But it’s so worth it, and now when I walk into my studio I’m greeted with work I can be proud of because it’s all me, not someone else’s idea of what my work should look like.
Thanks for your great advice and words of wisdom. I really enjoy your work too, it’s very authentic and very you!:)
Melissa Dinwiddie says
I have so been there, Dawn! We freelancers get very good at following other people’s specifications, and it can pull us way out of touch with what our own “good enough” really is. Thankfully, we’re resilient. All of it can be reprogrammed. 🙂
I LOVE the feeling of walking into my studio knowing that my work is all ME, not someone else’s idea of what my work should look like! Hurrah!
Cherilyn SunRidge says
Melissa, You rock, and this post rocks! I have been “at” a piece for several weeks, finally realized I was seeing others’ hands in it, and when I took that psychic piece out, voila, it opened the flood gates for my authenticity. Now, I love the piece and see why I started this piece in the first place. Thanks!!! Cherilyn SunRidge
Melissa Dinwiddie says
Aw, thanks, Cherilyn! I love that you were able to get to the authentic place you wanted to be in your piece. Hooray!
Lillian from It's a Dome Life says
I’ve listen to your podcast a few times and did not know that was you! What a nice surprise. I love your advice to aim for authenticity versus greatness. Greatness is like perfection…what does that even really mean in art? So many differing opinions I doubt there is ever a consensus anyway!
Melissa Dinwiddie says
Yes, greatness is like perfection, Lillian — impossible to quantify. Authenticity lets us relax into ourselves, which feels so much nicer than striving to be great/perfect/whatever. 🙂
So glad you found me through the podcast!
I just really love what you’ve said here. I have allowed it to paralyze me in the past and I’m hoping to get over that and say screw it, I like it so that’s good enough
Melissa Dinwiddie says
YES! If YOU like it, that’s absolutely enough! It’s sad how we’re so programmed not to feel this. The good news is, we can DEprogram and REprogram ourselves. 🙂
Yes, but then it comes down to “It sure would be nice to find my tribe” ya know! p.s. thanks for the reply and also love your Creative Insurgents Videos!