Am I A Failure?

It’s the end of a calendar year. For most of us, it is a time of reflection. Are you having doubts and insecurity about your art and your capability? Do you, sometimes, deep down inside, fear you are a failure? I know I do. At this time of the year especially, I wonder if I am a failure.

An ongoing problem for most creatives

I have written before about failing. We all feel it. I think creatives feel it more than most.

The fact that we are creatives means we have to create. But when we show our creations to the world, we are very likely to get rejection and criticism. That hurts. It bruises our ego and makes us insecure. As creatives we have to be out doing new, fresh, interesting work that sets us apart from our peers. But we can’t always feel the inspiration or be on top of our game. When we look at other artists work or awards, it is natural to feel inadequate. A failure.

My reading tells me most artists feel this way at times. Sometimes a lot. Even the famous or well known are troubled with this doubt.

What are your metrics?

We have to be careful to select what we are measuring and how we are doing it. When we feel a failure it is usually compared to what we see other people doing, or our goals, or based on some negative feedback we get.

So one problem is who do we compare our self to? Remember, what you see on social media or magazines or gallery shows is the very best work they can do. But we compare our everyday work, or even our throw-aways, to them and feel a failure. What if you took your carefully selected portfolio of a few great images and compared those to these other people? Would you compare better? Even if you say they are better, can you justifiably say, “but mine is very good”? Don’t assume you are not up to the measure.

External metrics

And we tend to tie our sense of worth to external measures. Like money or recognition or winning contests. One problem with this is that these are things out of our control. We might work hard and market our self extensively, but still we cannot control our sales success. We may enter a lot of contests and open exhibits, but the fact that we are not picked very often is mostly dependent on circumstances we cannot know or understand. And no, saying we just need to get better doesn’t ensure success there.

Recognition is more subtle and in some ways more dangerous. What artist doesn’t want recognition? It makes us feel significant. It validates us and our work. We may seek it, even need it, but we have little control over it happening. The “best” artists are often passed over for seemingly inconsequential reasons. Personal preferences of judges or curators, biases, maybe entering subject matter that is not popular with them. Any number of reasons.

Who said you failed?

But when we are not selected for the show or contest or gallery, what do we internalize? When no one is rushing to buy our prints, what do we assume? We tell our self we are a failure. We are not good enough. No one said that. It is what we tell our self. We are our own worst critic. We rush to think the worst.

Of course, we could try to game the system. We could study the styles and opinions of the judges or gallerists and design work to match their preferences. This might get some show entries and even sales. But whose work are you doing at that point? Are you still an artist if you subvert your vision to the opinions of others?

The moment I decide to create my work first for your approval, and not because it scratches some creative itch within me, I have lost.

David duChemin, “The Soul of the Camera”

All critics have their own opinions. Many are locked in to certain positions because they have developed a reputation in that movement. Some cannot rise above their training. A few are just narrow minded. A lot just may not like our style of art. I’m not saying it is useless to listen to them, just that their opinion is just that, an opinion. It is not law or given from God.

Take the failure or criticism as just an input. Think about the merits, if any, but feel free to discard the advice. Your own opinion must direct your art.

Understand your goals

Be careful of needing to seek the approval of others. They can reject your work, but they cannot judge your art. David duChemin also said, in the book cited above: “Craft can be measured; art cannot”.

The reality is, no one but you can judge your art. Our creativity is a gift from God. When we create art, we are giving back a praise and thanks to him. It is from within. The judgment of our art is our own.

Sure, we can, if we are lucky, find one or more trusted mentors who can give us good feedback. But even then, it is up to us to accept or reject their input.

Out art must scratch the particular itch within us. That is the goal that matters. We must create what we have within. This is internally driven, not dependent on the whims or opinions of other people.

Never give up

I have heard it said that if you can be talked out of your goal, you should give it up. Some disagree, but I think there is a good core of truth to it. Being an artist is particularly difficult. You must be driven and willing to follow your heart despite rejection. It was much easier to become an engineer than to become an artist. The goals were clearer and more easily attained.

I like the phrase what is the thing you can’t not do? This is your art. I think it is a good description. If we have art in us, we are almost compelled to produce it. It doesn’t matter if it is rejected. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get rich with it. This is our art. We have to do it. Other people’s opinions may hurt, but they should not knock up off course.

If I do the art that is within me crying to get out, and I’m happy with it, I am not a failure.

Despite what I may feel today.

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