It may surprise some to learn that one of my favorite books doesn’t have magic, dragons or talking fruit bats named Roberto. It’s a short read called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. I read it in college for a course, but it’s one of the few “textbooks” I held onto, long after the semester ended. While I can’t say I agree with everything the authors have to say, it’s been highlighted up-and-down and picked up whenever I needed a swift kick in the butt.
Well, if we’re going to be completely honest here, these days it seems like I need a huge kick in the butt. One of the introductory chapters mentions the myth of the extraordinary, and how clinging to the idea that “art can be made only by people who are extra-ordinary” will ultimately destroy you and your artmaking. I couldn’t agree more, and yet — here I am.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all too guilty of attributing some brand of ~magic~ to those whom I look up to (no short jokes, please!). There’s a certain lingo that gets used often and it seems to me its only purpose is to build others up while we rip ourselves to pieces. I believe the words I’m looking for are natural talent. What a completely destructive term that is. And oh, the trouble we get into with our own self-esteem should we venture to use it.
Perhaps it’s because we don’t often get to see the behind-the-scenes of our fellow artmakers, all the while living the behind-the-scenes of our own artmaking. I will never know what it feels like to look at my photography for the first time because my perspective is hampered by the hours spent waiting for the right lighting, removing dust from scanned film, drafting the blog posts that accompany it and so forth.
Meanwhile, I’ll check out my RSS feed and be completely blown away by the work that my peers are making. Every day I’m presented with a final product that just magically appeared on my browser in all its perfect glory. Don’t get me wrong, I love that — but it can be harmful to look at others’ work and assume that they somehow had it easier, that they aren’t struggling as hard as you are, or that their work comes to them as effortlessly as the air they breathe. I tell myself this all the time, and yet — here I am.
When I receive praise, it’s easy to brush off because I know every intricate detail of my photos — what makes them good, but more importantly, what makes them bad. Indeed, we are our own worst critics. Sometimes I wonder if you erased my memory and showed me my own photography under someone else’s name — what would I think about it? Honestly, I’d be afraid to find out.
As someone who is hell bent on finding value in the commonplace, I surprise myself with how much magic I believe is inherently present in others’ lives, and somehow missing from mine. It can be a tad embarrassing to admit, but this is why I wanted to talk about it — because no one ever talks about it. We just silently assume we aren’t made of the same stuff and go along on our way, feeling very, very alone. As the authors of Art & Fear noted, thinking like that is a one-way ticket to excusing yourself from the art world completely. I don’t really need to write about why that’s bad, do I? :)
With that weight off my shoulders, I’m extending an invitation to help dispel the myth of the extraordinary artist — the idea that some folks are just born with it and that creativity oozes from their very fingertips. This is an invitation to keep it real with each other and ourselves. In short — I never thought I’d say this, but — this is an invitation to stop believing in magic. (Yes, we still get to believe in dragons and Diagon Alley and talking fruit bats named Roberto!)
Not only is this myth destructive to our own self-esteem, but it’s also offensive to anyone who does work hard to hone their craft. To assume otherwise is to overlook all of their hard work, and take for granted all the researching, experimenting, and endless cups of coffee that an artist puts into his/her own art. Don’t think so? Just wait until someone brushes off your hard work, waving their hand and saying, “Oh but it all comes so easily to you — You’re just naturally talented!” Homegirl, you did not just go there…
So, what do we do about it?
I’ve found that the number one way to dispel myths about others is to get to know them (what a concept!) and make friends with other artists. I know, I know — being social is so against our artist instincts. But by making friends with other creative types and really opening up to each other, you’ll start to realize that we all go through the same struggles in between creating our best work. So if you’re in a slump and wondering if you’re ever going to pick your camera, paint brush, or guitar (ah hem) back up — realize right now that the only difference between you and artists you arbitrarily place above you is that they never gave up. They had slumps and moments of self-doubt aplenty, but in the end, they just rolled with the punches.
Do you know how many days I’ve gone somewhere with my camera in tow, and apathetically thought, “Oh, there’s a picture! But… Eh…” Where the effort to pull my camera out and adjust the settings seemed overwhelming, or that somehow I knew what the photo would look like, so what’s the point in taking it? Too many to count. It happens. And it’s only when you finally understand that you aren’t alone that you’ll be able to pick yourself back up and jump start your passion.
Sometimes, that can be hard. Like, really really hard. I know for me, when I’m in that Sarlacc Pit of Apathy, I want to be alone. I want my misery to be special, because if it isn’t… If this is something everyone goes through? Well, then… I’m just being a scared, lazy little wuss. Okay, name-calling isn’t very nice. But like I said, sometimes I just need a big swift kick in the butt.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the final page of Art & Fear:
Happy Friday, everyone! Let’s make some art this weekend!