Recently, Alan Soffer of Wallingford, PA wrote, “I’m currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. He speaks of understanding and observing the ego as a way of finding truth in one’s life. As an artist who seems to be able to step back and observe, what’s your take on ego?”
Thanks, Alan. Eckhart Tolle gives us a noble insight into how the world might be a better place with the widespread diminishment of ego. He’s really talking about the kind of ego exhibited by some politicians, pundits and prima donnas, not the nice kind of ego that a lot of us artists have.
In our game, ego is necessary, and as far as the wider community is concerned, it’s mostly harmless. It’s been my observation that artists with big egos who don’t take themselves too seriously do the more professional work. It’s also been my observation that those with big egos who take themselves seriously become narcissists, reduce themselves to yanking the chains of the wealthy, and produce substandard work. This is complicated by the observation that egotistical narcissists may be easier to promote. You may be able to think of a few prominent names in this latter category.
It seems an undeniable fact that the accomplished and accomplishing of this world are often exhibitionistic and competitive. These personality traits help to hone their capabilities. Their habitual hard work is driven by what I like to call “ego force.”
Ego force propels the worker to improve. Ego force brings the worker back and back again to his work. Ego force is the spark plug of artistic vision. Ego force is also key to one of the artist’s greatest needs: the art of letting go.
In humility, we all need to be in charge of our higher vision. This is part of the spiritual truth that Tolle is talking about. In the meantime, we artists work daily in a state of blessed mystery, driven by our equally mysterious egos. It’s a conundrum. Artists may not always be big, but they need never be small. “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” (Lao Tzu)
PS: “You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold. That is how important you are!” (Eckhart Tolle)
Esoterica: In the time of our immaturity, the ego is an antidote for felt inadequacy. With the coming of life’s greater trials, humility steadily tempers the initial flare. To be truthful, some artists contrive to stay immature: “All my compatriots are asses compared to me.” (Paul Cezanne) “When I paint, the ocean roars. Others merely paddle in their bath.” (Salvador Dali) Bravado aside, ego must still prevail: “For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Artists who fool themselves
by Wyn Easton, Raleigh, NC, USA
I’m driven to work and study to be the best I can be. Some of that drive is directed at being better than those around me. When I complained to a gallery owner that my paintings were not selling, she said, “Make your paintings the best I have and they will sell.” I get that.
There is another situation where ego can stand and stop us short. I think you have written about it before. I’m thinking about when an artist sees their work as great, but they are fooling themselves. Their ego won’t let them see any flaws. I also see ego in pricing. Some artists put ridiculous prices on their work. I can think of nothing else but ego that could be driving high prices for mediocre work. In these cases maybe we should seek an honest critique and not the opinion of our ego.
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Accessing the ‘Creative Process’
by Jeanne Long, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Whatever the ego is in actuality, it appears that getting it out of the way allows a higher force to flow through an individual entity. That higher force is the Creative Process. Egos may put forth work that is admired by the masses, but the Creative Process puts forth a product that touches the universal in the species. This product is much rarer, but much more important to the welfare of the species. The ego has a penchant for entertaining while the Creative Process edifies and enlightens.
Seeing through the ego instead of letting it be in charge is the first important step to allowing the Creative Process to flow. There are many pitfalls while traveling this “razor’s edge” path of ego detection, but it is well worth the trip.
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Robert Genn’s ego
by Jim Gahl, Walnut Creek, CA, USA
I read your email and thoroughly enjoyed your comments. Actually I laughed out loud at your response? I guess you don’t see that’s it’s your own ego that has produced the laundry list that says one needs an ego? Your comments lead me to the conclusion that you don’t really understand Tolle. Mis-information, man!
Mr. Soffer seems to be on a path of discovery. If he is gullible enough to look at you as an expert in matters of the ego, he just tripped on the boulder your words conveniently dropped in his way.
So how’s your ego, alive and well nourished by your loyal following, going to explain away my words of challenge? Long live Robert Genn’s ego!
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Gender differences in ego
by Elizabeth Stuart, Invermere, BC, Canada
Regarding ‘The Artist’s Ego,’ do you believe there is a gender difference in who becomes famous in the art world? If so, I believe the answer may be male artists and their ego’s pushing them further. Our local painting group has had this discussion and wonders why we recognize so many more male artists than female ones, even though the vast majority of painting workshops are filled with females.
(RG note) Thanks, Elizabeth. There are parallels in other professions: Most women cook but most of the famous cooks are men. The good news is that things are changing. These days there are more famous female cooks and painters than at any time in history. The long-anticipated rise in female egos may have something to do with it.
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Advantages of the ‘big shot’
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
If the last generation was the ‘me’ generation, this new one is the ‘look at me’ generation. Narcissism is running amok. Life is like one beer commercial with sexy people strutting and preening and admiring themselves. My uncle once owned a male peacock that did his mating display to himself into the shiny hubcaps of a Volkswagen van. There are lots of these sorts of peacocks nowadays in both genders. Artists have complex goals for what they hope to achieve. Many want to become ‘big shots’ that are fawned over and can command huge prices for their paintings. I must say there are advantages to being a big shot, not that I have any personal experience to draw upon. Last year an art group contacted me about doing a workshop for them. Details of the class content and my fees were exchanged and deemed satisfactory by the contact person. After a week or two went by, the woman notified me that she was sorry but someone else was chosen for the job. It made me mad. I told the woman that it was not customary to ‘interview’ workshop instructors in that manner in the workshop business. I believe someone in the group decided I was not ‘big shot enough’ to appear before their group. I paint because the challenge interests me. Painting to become a big shot or to please someone else would not have held my interest for thirty-five years. A solid ego is a good thing. Like the mast of an old sailing ship, it enables us to stay afloat through rough seas and whipping winds or the long boring periods when no breeze blows at all. We all have a vision of the person we want to be. I want to be serious and striving but also free to look at myself and my efforts with amusement and acceptance.
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Cruise ship art
by Christine Turner
I just returned from a cruise through the Panama Canal. I believe the work of some of the egotists you referred to were up for auction on the ship. I always wish the cruise lines would forget about the bottom line and promote the work of unknowns whose work is excellent. Do you have an opinion about the practice of selling art on cruise ships?
(RG note) Thanks, Christine. I wrote about it in 2004, Cruise ship art, after a similar experience. I just reread the piece and I’m afraid nothing much has changed.
Ego, the ultimate self-help tool
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
This is a great letter, especially for “the rest of us” who tend to keep our thoughts in the natural world. I have on many occasions been helped and even saved by the ego. I think of ego as the ultimate self-help tool which gets us through challenges and impossible situations. For me, it always felt insufficient to make decisions solely based on past experiences, or what I learned from my limited environment. To get truly inspired, I need that extra ingredient of taking a leap – even a very small one. I think that ego drives us to take that leap, even when there is nothing that can justify our hope that we shall succeed. The healthy ego expects us to become better people for ourselves and for others. It helps us add value to the pot. Unfortunately, many infamous egomaniacs, that you well described in your letter, have made the ego altogether extremely unpopular. When a greedy ego starts affecting other people, it’s a sure sign that it is taking itself too seriously.
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The downfall of authenticity
by Vita Sims, Washington, DC, USA
I am struck by your words and they resonate with me: “We artists work daily in a state of blessed mystery, driven by our equally mysterious egos. It’s a conundrum.”
It is a mysterious process. Art making soothes my soul and brings peace, but not always. Because there is a struggle to be authentic to my inner vision I don’t think of the ego as having a say in this. Though I can see it must. The pitfalls where ego might also dominate would be in decisions to make art that is more saleable, palatable to the masses; to focus on an income-driven process. This would be the downfall of authenticity and art that transcends.
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What to do with the plaque
by Deanna Schrell, Ketchum, ID, USA
I won an award for one of my paintings and received a small plaque. I was wondering if when I sold the painting the plaque would go with it or do I keep it?
(RG note) Thanks, Deanna. I would err on the side of sharing. Your customer would likely be proud of that plaque and it would add to the work’s provenance. One seldom loses when one gives.
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oil painting, 11 x 14 inches
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That includes Robert Toth of Salisbury, NC, USA, who wrote, “Man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”
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