The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Aldo Leopold
I sat on the idea of writing about disappointment for a long time before posting a post that went up and came down in the same day. I became uneasy about the line between public and private– a common conundrum in the contemporary communication climate. But I still do want to address it, especially in terms of the art-making side (which is only part of the story, but perhaps the most appropriate here). Let’s give it another go, shall we?
Shortly after I signed up to become an artist, I discovered that disappointment was part of the job. I’m sure this has parallels in other fields, but the process of applying and hearing back seems to be such a big part of being an artist today. And while it does get easier, it still stings to hear the nos that inevitably come. On the other hand, I think that risking enough to experience failure is crucial to the richness of experience that makes good art. To have a studio blog that outlines process and only publishes the accolades and successes is artificial, and probably not very helpful to those who are engaged in the same wrestling match.
I’ve been reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh lately, and enjoying his strident, impassioned and defensive personality. His work, as you probably know, was dogged in his lifetime by critical and commercial failure and restricted by a chronic lack of funds (I almost wish the editor would have spared Vincent the embarrassment of publishing his relentless requests for money from his brother Theo). His lack of success has become as mythically charged as his ear mishap, but reading about his painful decision to eschew financial reward in order to stoke that fire in his belly has been actually inspiring. It serves as a reminder to remember why I do this in the first place.
A map of what happens when I face rejection (brought to you by the letter R):
React. First, I am over dramatic. Frankly, depending on the weight of the news, I think everything I have done and am doing is worthless. I wonder if I should keep slogging at this or give up and enjoy doodling on the margins of my grocery lists. Or, I might argue my own worth to an invisible judge, bragging and proving myself. Both of these reactions (I guess it’s fight or flight?) are bankrupt in their extremes, so it comes time to balance them out.
Remember. I recall the countless ways that art has and does make life meaningful, confrontational, funny, important, embellished and questioned. I think of the music, the films, the paintings and dance, the books, the comedy and every experience that have served to crystallize and enrich my life. These things are the reason I got into this business in the first place. Because others were committed to this difficult practice, I have been able to glean from their sacrifices and risks. They have put words (or sounds or movements) to things I couldn’t get to any other way.
Refocus. I get to the meat of the matter– what am I after? Why do I do this? Why did I choose this instead of another path? What is the fire in my belly? What in the world would I want to do instead? I write lists of the most big-picture goals I have, and imagine my work where I’d like to see it. This sounds self-aggrandizing, but it works a little more like a honing of vision. If I’m shooting bigger than where I am right now, then my work has to rise up higher than it is now, right? Important for me, too, is to realize that the prize, the show, the whatever, is a small pat on the back compared to the satisfaction of pushing my work to a place that I really want to see it go. External encouragement is terrific, but does not sustain a long-term practice like an internal imperative does.
Restart. I get my hands moving. I make anything, just so long as something is being made. And in the quiet hum of work, I sigh and know I’m in the right place, no matter how miry the way may be.