Friday, January 9, 2009

Validating the Best Thing You've Ever Done

This post steps outside of my expertise, and so I'm inviting response from those more experienced than me at showing and selling art.

A bit of background: Melinda posted about this, in an indirect way, which got me thinking. And Silvina Day is struggling with her authentic vision which got me thinking some more. I was reading How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist the other night, and had to read and re-read a short passage on "validation" of one's work, because it struck me so. Then, I was visiting Martha Marshall's blog, and read her excellent posts "It's Your Art, not your Soul" and the earlier "Fear of Rejection." The comments there are important to read too, filled with real experience, and wisdom.

I'll reproduce my own contribution to those comments:

Can a non-fine-artist chime in on this one? I’m forced by my field to have a different perspective. As a graphic designer, I create work to fit a client’s parameters. If it’s rejected, it’s basically because I didn’t meet the client’s
needs. Sometimes this happens, when I just know that the work I made is excellent in every way — design, concept, execution (it’s a work of art, man!)… but if I put a Ronald McDonald in front of an exec from Walt Disney, he’s not gonna buy it, no matter how good an idea it is: it doesn’t fit him. That doesn’t make the work less than great — because the client isn’t the determinant of the objective success of the work. But then, neither are my peers.

I’ve seen Martha [Marshall] and Bob Cornelus refer to Art & Fear, which I don’t have, but a quote appears in “How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist”:

"…courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts—namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work."–Bayles & Orland, Art & Fear 1993, p.47

...but I had more to say on the topic than I had the nerve to post on someone else's blog:

Unlike my design work, when I create "art that nobody asked for," I put it out for people (anyone) to take it or leave it. If they leave it, I know that that piece didn't meet the viewer's needs -- for that person, at that time. We respond to art at a very visceral, pre-conscious level, choosing to love work that fills a hole in our psyche -- much like we choose mates. We meet hundreds, maybe thousands of potential mates, but are attracted to only one or two at a gut, "this person completes me," level. Showing work is like speed dating between the art and the viewer: it clicks or not, but it has a lot more to do with the psychology of the viewer than whether or not the art is "valid."

The circumstances remind me of something profound that I heard; There was a movie made about this nun -- Susan Sarandon plays the nun, who works with prisoners on death row. In a documentary I saw, the (real) nun was asked why she worked with these killers. She said [paraphrasing] "People are more ... than the worst thing they've done in their lives."

Art is like that: "a discrete act, in a finite space and time." It isn't your whole life, it isn't all of you, no matter how much you pour into it, there's more of you left over that isn't in the artwork. So, rejection of a piece, or a body of work, or your whole career, isn't rejection of you. It can't be. You are always more than the best thing you've ever done in your life.

Validation of your work must spring from your own feeling of rightness and authenticity about your work. In design, I've had to defend my work, and validate it for others — "Why did you choose blue? What's this line for?" This has taught me to be conscious of my choices, and to be articulate about what is and isn't there. But, it's also made me sure that my work was what it was for one very good reason: because that's how I did it. And no one can take that away.

Don't let anyone take your work away from you by making you doubt it.


Karen said...

Right. On.
Enough said.

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

I read this post with relish. At the end I was blown away by your powerfully positive message. And I
just want to say this as someone who does produce work for others for the most part.

Edgar your work rocks. And you rock!

Take care,


TSL said...

You wrote,
"But, it's also made me sure that my work was what it was for one very good reason: because that's how I did it."

That is what it is all about!

Anonymous said...


I really liked your posting - as usual very thoughtful and thought-provoking (the best combination!). It's also interesting to hear your perspective as a graphic artist.

I have struggled with this issue for years as a professional artist. I must say, at the risk of the ire of other artists, that I do not completely agree that the only thing that matters is how we feel about our own art.

If you need to make a living at making art you do need to consider what the market wants. It can be useful to get criticism from others of your work as a means to improve. Giving pleasure to others is one of the great gifts the artist has. And there are other ways in which I think the artist should take into account the effect on others of their art. I wonder if art becomes so personal sometimes that it's power is diminished.

For me it's a matter of managing these considerations and balancing them with how I feel about my art. I agree that what is most important is the latter, but I have found that ignoring the rest doesn't work for me.

Thanks again for prompting us to think about this important topic.

Edgar said...

Karen— Thank. You. !. I'm so happy to see you come by.

Barbara— Glad you liked it. Sometimes I think I must have had some preachers in my family tree...

TSL— Thanks for commenting -- glad you got something out of it!

Bob— You're not disagreeing with me, so I'm not mad. I think that the objective success of the work (measured by the artist's own standard) is independent of the acceptance of the work by the audience, whether the work is design-for-hire or art-nobody-asked-for, and so we should never intermingle our feelings about the one with the other. I can attest that I have designed work for clients that I had to rework from "good" to "sub-standard" because the client was concerned that the design was "too good" for his message.
...Producing art for market sale (with the objective of "making a living from it") is going to have to be the subject of future posts.

Marian Fortunati said...

I always enjoy reading your "take" on things.
Knowing or understanding truths and dealing with them emotionally aren't necessarily traits which we balance equally.
I think that as long as I continue to learn and improve (in my own mind) then I'll keep on making art... Even when others don't buy it or give it prizes.

Edgar said...

Marian— you've touched the nub of it. I really remember the shame I felt in college critique when no one gave my work an "attaboy." After years of professional abuse —and the support of Melinda— I developed a very thick skin — and the language to stand up for my work. Without that, I would have a tough time nearly every day.

And that you find your own causes to believe in yourself, and continue to work regardless of the "feedback" is just what I hope for all artists. You're way ahead of us.

Karen said...

This is from American Artist's online version, A Conversation with Matt Smith:

AM: Where do you see yourself as a landscape painter 10 years from now? Is where you are today as an artist where you imagined you’d be 10 years ago?

MS: I’ll probably be out painting the landscape in some obscure location here in the Western U.S. All fun aside, my primary goal is to continue improving the overall quality of my work. I've learned over the years to stop comparing my work to that of others, because it creates a competitive atmosphere that is destructive to the "art spirit." This means I will always compare my work to where I was yesterday, last month, or last year. This presents a true measure as to whether or not I am improving as an artist. Ten years ago I thought by now I'd be giving Anders Zorn a run for his money but that didn't work out. Instead it turns out I'm just a little better than I was 10 years ago, so I'll just continue the journey of focusing on improvement.

Edgar said...

Karen— Thanks for thinking of this discussion when you came across the transcript. I hope to be able to look back some time and see progress... meanwhile, I'm not saying that I object to the "attaboys" that come my way from you guys...

Jeffrey J. Boron said...

An excellent and thought provoking post Edgar (as always)!

Being an artist and one who is stuggling to live from it these questions are a constant companion and I suppose may always be for some of us. I suppose they are a part of the package that comes into view sometime after the boat has left the dock...
In order to move along on our journey we some how come to see these things intellectually and believe them at some level. But there in lies the be able to take into our heart and soul something that we accept and know intellectually to be true but seem to be constantly taunted and tested with in real life.

There is so much more to this stuff than just paint & canvas..or is there...

Throughout the shiffting landscape of a journey in the art world with its tests, trials and triumphs I have found in my limited time here that nothing seems to answer these quetions quite like a red dot...


Edgar said...

Jeff— You've touched on two salient points that orbit the central question:*

1. What to do if our emotional makeup demands more validation than our own strength of conviction normally provides?

2. What to do if we are producing "good" work that isn't selling?

I've also skirted the question, "What if we've tried something 'new' and we aren't sure it has value?"

*The central point being, that nothing from outside you counts as much as what comes from inside you, to affirm the value of your work.