It's Not You

It's Not You

One thing you learn quickly in the art world is that everyone is a critic. Both artists and observers love to pick apart the work of others. And in the era of comment sections and trolling, it’s easier than ever for critics to find prey. So how do you learn to accept rejection and criticism about your work? What are the best techniques for shoring up your confidence so that you can bounce back and try again?

Further down this post I have a list of tips and tricks. But first I want to mention a film I watched that inspired me to explore this topic. It is a new political documentary about the recent midterm elections titled Knock Down the House and it follows the campaigns of four under-the-radar female candidates for Congress. This is a fascinating look inside grass-roots campaigning, and it echoes a lot of the struggle that artists go through to gain respect.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Amy Vilela (Nevada), Cori Bush (Missouri) and Paula Jean Swearengin (West Virginia) are all underdogs and each one has a compelling reason for challenging the establishment. You end up cheering for each one although we all know that Ocasio-Cortez was the only one who won her race.

One highlight was hearing her prep for a debate with the entrenched incumbent. She reminds herself “I can do this. I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgeable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this.” Personally, I am always willing this aspiration into the work I do with clients – for them and for myself!

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Monica Torres of Huffington Post also recognized these lines as empowering. Read her article Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Gives Herself The Perfect Pep Talk. And then try another trick from AOC and claim your space. In the same clip, as she pushes out the air around her, AOC says “I need to take up space, I need to take up space”. A good artist, musician, or performer knows how to take up space. They know how to stand up and proclaim “This is me, this is my work, I want you to see what I can do!”

My final take away from this film is that the candidates kept in mind the bigger picture – the group effort to make a change in the status quo. It might be a stretch to compare aspiring artists to politicians, but I think that whatever you are trying to accomplish, it is crucial to understand that you are not alone, and that by supporting others on the same journey, you can move the needle.

So here is the list I promised:

Always put your best foot forward.
It’s difficult to admit, but sometimes we just don’t make the effort. You might present a piece that’s not quite finished, or rush to complete an application, or not prepare enough for a studio visit. Of course, no one is perfect, and life gets in the way but your best way to handle criticism is by going in knowing that you’ve done your best.

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See rejection in a new light.
Rejection and defeat can be powerful sources of growth and transformation. When you are a student, you’re looking towards instructors for advice and direction. Look at your critics as mentors and ask yourself how their reactions can shape or resolve your practice.

Be kind to yourself.
No one expects you to be bullet-proof. Criticism hurts and can knock the wind out of you. Allow yourself to grieve a little and pamper yourself the same way you would console a friend. Go to your happy place, whether it’s the garden, or the beach, a concert or a comfy chair. Try to remember why art is important to you and recoup your passion.

Put yourself in the critic’s shoes.
Don’t always assume they are “out to get you”. The people who make choices about exhibitions, grants, residencies, reviews and competitions face difficult challenges. The process of evaluating submissions is arduous and often there are far more applicants than opportunities. Curators and judges are usually looking for something very specific. If your work doesn’t fit – it’s not a failure on your part, just a case of context.

 Ask for feedback.
Worst of all is wondering why you were rejected without any explanation. That’s when we start tormenting ourselves with self-doubt. When possible, reach out to the jury or curator or reviewer and calmly ask for constructive feedback. One email should suffice – don’t become a stalker. Also follow up and see which work was selected to get a better sense of what they were looking for.  

Keep a healthy distance between you and the work.
The reason rejection is so painful for artists is because you’ve put your heart and soul into the work, and it feels much more personal. So, it’s best to take a step back and remember that you are a complex and complete human being. You have relationships, hobbies, responsibilities, activities and aspirations in addition to your work. The artist part of you has taken a hit – but the rest of you can absorb that injury and regenerate from within.

Help from your friends
Most artists have artistic friends who have been through similar defeats. It’s OK to lean on them – show them your battle wounds. While embarrassing at first, sharing your disappointment will be cathartic. Your friends may have some helpful advice or just offer comfort. At the same time, you are allowing them to be vulnerable too and building a stronger bond.

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Art history is full of stories of underdogs, coming to success late in life or against all critical rebuke. The one thing these artists have in common is that they kept creating and learning – both from the failures and triumphs. You can do this!

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