TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #14: Artists Don’t Care What Other People Think

MYTH: Real artists have the courage of their convictions. They don’t care what other people think.
REALITY: Oh, it’s sad, but we care very very much what you think!

This is a myth that started out as “Real artists are loners”. Well, some are, and some aren’t. It’s that simple.

But it quickly got tangled into another myth we hold about artists, one that gets pretty jumbled. So bear with me as I untangle some of the threads.

Yes, some artists do need solitude to create. We need time to explore an idea, to follow it through to all its possibilities. Some people can’t listen to conversation or even music lyrics while they write. Me, for one.

Sometimes talking too much about what we’re doing, or our next project, feels like actually working on it. And our creative energy dissipates.

Other artists, however, work well in partnership and collaboration. They find the give-and-take of brainstorming invigorating, forcing them to go further and higher than they ever imagined.

Our own creative processes are so individual to us, it would be impossible to determine any one way any given work of art gets made.

It’s who we hang with, and why, after the work is created, that gets a little dicey.

Artists may act like we don’t care what other people think about our work. You’ve probably met some (or you are one.) You ask them about the work and you get a snotty reply or a cold shoulder. Or you talk with them at a party and they can only talk about how talented and creative they are.

But it is almost pathetic how much we care what others think.

It would be wonderful if we didn’t. A lot less pain in the world, and I probably wouldn’t have to write this series of myths.

But we do care very very much what you think.

And we are terrified you’re going to tell us.

We hope you love it. We hope it knocks your socks off. We hope you think it’s the most marvelous thing you’ve ever experienced.

And it’s so very, very hard to hear, if you don’t.

This need to have our work loved is so powerful, I hate to share it with you.

Because this knowledge is a terrible weapon in the wrong hands.

I don’t mean we’ll necessarily change it if you don’t love it. We have our artistic integrity, after all.

Wait for it…….

bwahhahahahahahahahaha!!

Again, some people will stand firm, and others don’t mind using a little less blue or a few more dots, if that will win approval. It’s your choice.

Even my fiery artist friend Lee, who fiercely created his art at all hours when the muse struck, sometimes going days without sleep, would call me up to come and see the new work. And he waited anxiously, child-like, yearning for my approval. Not my judgment–he was extremely proud of his artist title–but he wanted others to see what he saw, and appreciate what he created.

But the world is not kind to artists, especially those of us who wear our hearts on our sleeves.

After all, human beings are creatures of opinions. We all got ‘em, and we have one on everything. Even the things we don’t know much about.

And of course, we all have a little mean streak in us. It is so easy to criticize what someone has made.

But some people cultivate their mean streak. It is very important to recognize and avoid those people.

Caveat: I know the role of the art critique is a hallowed tradition, especially in art schools. I’ve been to literary gatherings where writers submitted their latest piece and subjected it to a group review.

I know that not all art is beautiful, wonderful, powerful or narrative. There’s a lot of stuff out there I don’t care for.

I myself have served as a mini-consultant for artists and craftspeople, evaluating their current work and assessing whether it is appropriate for their perceived goals and venues.

But I see that function as a way of gently aligning what people say they want, and what they do.

All too often, that critical process is used as a chance to savage the work of someone whose talent threatens our own little jealous lizard brain.

If someone says they are an accomplished seamstress and they want their work to sell, they sabotage their efforts by making shoddy work quickly so they can sell to a lower end market. If someone says they’re a writer, but they don’t blog or submit manuscripts or otherwise get their writing out into the world, then I encourage them to show the rest of us that they are, indeed, a writer.

I don’t try to rip them a new one and denigrate their efforts.

Am I saying we should be namby-pamby and never offer honest feedback about the work of others? Or we are so weak in spirit that we can’t handle a little criticism?

Nope, not saying that. What I’m saying is that we must be aware of our need to have approval–and not let others, whose intentions may be less than honorable, use that as a knife to cut us to the quick.

When we make art, it will be stronger if we focus on what is inside us, what we want to say and what we want it to do.

In a perfect world, we then let go. We know it’s done, that it’s out in the world. And we have to truly not care what other people think. That’s hard, but we can at least try.

In the meantime, be very particular who you show your work to, especially during the creative process. We all know people who, for who-knows-what reasons, cannot celebrate our success with us. They will sabotage your efforts in refined and subtle ways.

Instead, create your own artist community.

These workshops by Deborah Kruger, fiber artist extraordinaire, are excellent. Similar to Julia Cameron’s work and The Artist’s Way. (Just don’t do what so many artists do, and focus on all the meetings and exercises instead of making your art!)

Yes, we all need honest feedback. And sometimes criticism spurs us on to do our most truly powerful work.

But it’s a harsh diet to live on all the time. Someone who tries to destroy your spirit with criticism is not your friend, and not your supporter.

Choose your friends carefully when it comes to you and your art.

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24 Comments

Filed under art, business, craft, creativity, criticism, friendship, jealousy, listening, myths about artists, networking, shadow artist

24 responses to “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #14: Artists Don’t Care What Other People Think

  1. It’s very hard when you want to knock it out of the park… every single time. After you create something, you want every person who comes around to stop in their shoes, turn to your creation, and be absolutely astounded. Unless they do a little dance or hoop and hollar about it, it’s not good enough.

    I think it’s because you can’t really pour your heart and soul into something without giving it ALL of you. But you can only give all of yourself to something you believe wholeheartedly in. And it’s very difficult to hear that the thing you’ve poured yourself into is anything less than amazing.

    Ultimately, we have to tell ourselves that it’s enough for each creation to be good, and not the most stunning thing we’ve ever done. But that’s a very difficult thing to do.

  2. Oooo, another excellent post Luann.

  3. You hit the nail on the head with this one. Not that it applies to me of course… I don’t give a rat’s ass if those uncultured Philistines like my work, it’s perfect and I know it…

    What’s that? The older couple with the hand-made shoes and Rolex watches are coming back to take a second look at that piece?… Hello, nice to see you again… what was that? You know, it’s funny you say that, I’ve always thought that it could use a little less blue and a few more dots. You have such an eye for design…

  4. fireandhammers

    Sometimes, people don’t realise what it takes to make a work of art (or craft) and make it well. As you’ve mentioned in previous posts, harsh criticism is often just envy and a sense of failure in the face of another’s achievements.
    It helps if we can make just one piece that we know to be (near) perfect, that we can’t improve upon, and with that knowledge safe in our heart we know that others cannot harm us.
    It also helps if we have praise and encouragement from people who know what the work involves, can see where our craft and art combine, and are secure in their own talent. If we think they are awesome at what they do, so much the better.
    I really like this series. Can’t choose my favourite, but #11 is the best so far.
    Keep up the good work!

  5. Ben-David

    I had (most of) this sort of artistic pride and insecurity beaten out of me by 5+ years in corporate communications and product design.

    I learned how to work up several design approaches without becoming overly committed to any one of them too early.

    I learned how to listen – and REVISE. We’ve all seen the x-ray photos of Old Masters paintings – they were revising the hell out of their work, up to the very end.

    Later, I learned how to formulate and convey the design/expressive goals of a project to my collaborators in creation – without dictating a solution.

    This has helped me with my personal work… I don’t view market considerations as an imposition on My Grand Vision, but as part of framing the design challenge. And I’ve developed the willingness to throw a lot of possibilities up on the wall, and see what sticks.

    I remember when I first came across your blog, nodding my head while reading some of the posts on building up a product line and articulating a story.

    Maybe this is why many artists are so bad about the business end – because it requires detachment and a willingness to seek out feedback.

    • Ben-David, sounds like you’ve been through the fire and lived to tell about it! :^) Thank you for expanding the conversation once again.

      Revision is a tricky process. Some artists will, some won’t. Sometimes I’ll work and rework a piece until I get it to work, but other times I simply need to set it aside and start fresh.

      Also, the revision process ARTISTS put themselves through can be very different than the revision process CUSTOMERS might put us through. Again, some artists are better at both than others. Being able to handle both processes equally well is a good skill to have, as you’ve pointed out.

      Then again, sometimes the “feedback” is not really about making better work. There are some people, for whatever reason, feel compelled to attack with their words. The intent is totally different. Their words are meant to hurt and belittle, whether consciously or unconsciously.

      If we aren’t prepared for this kind of “critique”, it can be devastating. Especially if we are in a vulnerable place in our art/career/life.

      Having a thick skin is the best defense, of course. For those of us still cultivating one, we have to protect ourselves the best we can.

  6. Great post, Luann! I think most artists are very sensitive (it’s part of what draws us to art-making!), so it makes sense that we’d care what others think or that criticism would sting.

    But then if we’re to survive as artists we have to learn to shut those voices off (the outside ones and the ones in our heads) and get down to creating!

  7. Jim

    Yeah, I know what you mean about being particular about showing work that is still in progress! In fact, I’ve finally carved one rule in stone, no exceptions – I NEVER show unfinished work to a client when doing a commission.

    I’ve learned that no matter how much they insist that they know it won’t look like the finished piece, with very few exceptions their jaw drops when they see the blackened, untrimmed, ugly-as-hell piece of metal lying there on my workbench. Then they start back-peddling as fast as they can, trying to get out of the deal. You can explain to them all day about how it is going to look when it’s finished, but they just can’t see it! I guess that’s why I’m the artist and they’re not.

    I’ve learned through experience that I’d rather have a slightly and temporarily disappointed client, than have to beg one to stay with me long enough to see it through. Because, in the end, they go away thrilled with the work, and feeling like it was worth the wait. In fact, it usually enhances their perception of me as an artist, being kind of “mysterious and secretive” about my work!

    Having said that, if it’s not a commission job, and they’re only interested in the process, its just the opposite! They come away totally amazed that I can turn something from that hideous burned chunk of metal into a beautiful, shiny work of art.

  8. Hello, Jim, and welcome!

    Sounds like you’ve successfully determined the right time and the right circumstances to share works-in-progress. Knowing that is a useful tool for two different different audiences. Great insight, thanks for sharing that!

  9. elisvermeulen

    Been reading your blog for a bit now Luann. Thank you for writing, although it is a bit scary sometimes to see things in writing and thinking ‘Yeah.. I do that,, and that.. and yep.. that too..’

    I am one of those who loves to work by myself, concentrate on my work. (Also one of those artist who puts up an exhibit and wants to walk out when the vernissage is due..never done that so far.) I am also one of those still trying to grow a thick skin..
    But I’ve been told (after being knocked down several times..), that some comments people made sometimes, did not say much about my work, but about the viewer. Everyone sees things with their own eyes, own history, own feelings and thus everyone reacts on a work of art in their own way.

    It seems you cannot please everyone, (oow bother..) Not everyone will like or love your work or your piece. some will hate it and some will love it.

    I do not mind if someone just passing by sais stuff like; ‘Oh my niece just did a workshop and makes the same things as you do..’ or ‘What do you use it for?’
    But when another artist comes by and sais; ‘Not one of your best work is it?’ I have a hard time.

    I work, I grow and better myself, I learn, and if the negative comments are true I still have to figure it out myself how to change or to do better next time.

    But how do you react on criticism. I am ashamed to say I blush and smile, even if the criticism is stupid.
    I cannot figure this one out. How dó you react? :)

  10. Not sure how to explain this, but I am one of those people who doesn’t care , and harsh criticism doesn’t phase me too much. Not sure why but I have this fierce loyalty to my right to say what I need visually regardless. Part of it has to do with my childhood in which everything was taken away from me and when I discovered the ability to do art at 40 it was like a precious baby to be nurtured, loved and protected. People can love or hate my work, but it doesn’t change my need to use art to speak, sing, shout, hum, or mutter.
    The best way I deal with criticism is to explore with them what it is they like and don’t like and sometimes what they don’t like is the very reason a piece is working. I may not even like something I have done aesthetically but it is an expression of how I feel and that is all that counts to me.

  11. “Sometimes talking too much about what we’re doing, or our next project, feels like actually working on it. And our creative energy dissipates.”

    I thought I was the only one who suffered from this! I’m excited about something I’m creating or want to create and then I share it…and boom, boom, boom, I can’t lift a finger to continue it or start it! It’s one of the reason why commissions are so difficult!

    I love that you articulate my feelings so well! Which is why I love, love, love, love, love coming here and checking in with your blog! Thank you!

  12. “We must be aware of our need to have approval–and not let others, whose intentions may be less than honorable, use that as a knife to cut us to the quick.”

    Thanks for the reminder. We can’t control the behavior of others, only our own reactions. It’s not so hard to forgive and forget someone who truly doesn’t intend harm or who isn’t expressing a valid point well. It’s harder to let go of the comment you know was meant to harm. But the more I practice not letting those people rent too much space in my head, the better I get at it.

  13. janinedesign

    Luanne,
    I mentioned your blog on my blog- I haven’t figured out how to put a link in it-sorry but it’s :

    http://janinedesign.wordpress.com/2009/12/28/artists-have-hearts-too/

    Great blog u have-will be back for more

  14. Thank you – this blog post is the equivalent of having the one with the extra Blue Spots just sitting there waiting for me to find it.
    You did write it just for me…..didn’t you?
    You didn’t! Wow and it still did that thing with the spine wiggle (when something resonates it just does).
    Here I am sitting at 1.50 in the morning waiting for
    piece to be dry enough for the kiln. Must stop saying “yes” to last minute commissions. lol
    Nic xx

  15. Fredd

    Like your blog and your thoughts in this article. I agree with Jim never show a commision customer the work before it is done … it’s so much more appreciated afterwards.

  16. Lovely piece.
    I am kinda lonely today, simply because “nobody understands”.
    But I find great consolation and company from such an article that exhibits what comes and goes in the mind of an artist. Suddenly, I am not alone anymore.
    Thank you for sharing.

  17. -Approval is not a part of the art, its merely a stamp on the art.
    -Your approval does make a difference to me but its an emotional one not a practical one.

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