One of the side benefits of writing these letters is receiving the remarkable volume of confidential, negative and unpublishable emails that show up in this inbox. After my recent paint-out in Argentina there was such a buildup that I detected a trend. Variations on “Why I am not an artist,” giving reasons and details, were endemic. Often in sympathy, I am just now writing back to many of them with an understanding note.
The blame goes often to a lack of family support, having a strict father, a managing mother, an uninterested husband/wife, or too many kids. Other would-be artists subtly put it down to a range of societal faults — the educational system, economic pressure, crummy doctors, women taking over, lousy galleries, etc. Some complaints were obviously bizarre and unfounded — one lady said there was too much information being put out by people like me.
Scapegoat — A History of Blaming Other People, by Charlie Campbell, pretty well identifies scapegoating as basic to the human psyche. “In the beginning, Adam blamed Eve,” he writes. In this fascinating book Campbell looks at how we demonize bankers, Muslims, politicians, lawyers, priests and especially the French. It’s a hoot. I had to laugh because I know some artists who never blame anyone but themselves, but maybe that’s just my delusion. I couldn’t help thinking once more that the world is made up of two main kinds of people — those who turn lemons into lemonade, and those who do not.
So who are we going to blame for our disappointments and our failures? “Overcoming” is also basic to the human psyche, though apparently less frequently applied. I’ve run into quite a few damaged, deafened or distracted artists who have nevertheless made successes of themselves. Crippled, bedridden or battle-scarred does not seem to hold back the tough-minded. Drive, steadfast study and focus add up to character — and, in many cases, character makes success. I hate to drop this little nugget, but a human psyche in possession of even a small amount of personal success is often, but not always, quite deliriously, even delusionally, happy.
PS: “We prefer to find an explanation for why things are not perfect, and these rarely stand up to close scrutiny.” (Charlie Campbell)
Esoterica: Very often artists focus on the psychology when they ought to be into the technology. When you get right into it — get your smock covered in paint and your mind on the perennial studenthood ahead — you tend to let go of the negative stuff. It takes time and application to get that smock messy, b ut when you see self-made quality rising up in front of you — you will wonder what all the defeatist fuss was about. Legions of books have been written about successful and highly-evolved folks who had lousy upbringings, bad health, or all manner of bad luck. Most of these folks would say, “Don’t lay blame; give credit.”
Winners take responsibility
by Mark Brennan, Whitehill, Nova Scotia, Canada
I see the blame game in all parts of our society. Our culture of entitlement or ‘where’s mine’ goes a long way to explaining where blame comes from. Having spent many years following my soccer playing daughter around and coaching the elite level player, I have come to learn that underneath those who rise to the top has to be a passion for something and then they have to do the work. Taking responsibility is huge in sports and also in a competitive art world, but once you take the focus away from becoming successful and just do the work, good things begin to happen. The development of all of us as artists has hills and valleys. How you react when you’re in a valley tells a lot about what you will become. As I say to my soccer players, quality, quality, quality… and fun!
What a life!
by Charlene Potter, Omaha, NE, USA
I find myself believing that I am a very successful environmental artist who hasn’t made diddlysquat selling art during this recession. I have been an artist all my life working at other jobs. But, I decided after a layoff to go back to school at age 60 to get a degree in art. I graduated in 2009. And yes, my family really did not support me, but I did it anyway. And, I’m just going to keep on working on my art until the day I cannot create art anymore. Success doesn’t necessarily mean money. But, money does pay the bills and puts food on the table, and, my cats like to eat. So I teach art classes, and work at a non-profit after school art program two days per week while I continue to perfect my art. What a life, living, working, breathing the process of art!
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The rise of artistic honesty
by John F. Burk, Timonium, MD, USA
I am also noticing an uptick in scapegoatism. I am also noticing an alarming degree of immaturity in younger men. They appear to not know how to be men, and they seem to be far inferior to the younger women I see them hoping to relate to. There is also a lot of “me first, you second” thinking going around. I blame a lot of it on the MBA Programs that started up in the eighties and nineties, but that’s me getting dangerously close to scapegoating. Maybe I’m just getting old enough to be crotchety.
Happily, I find the artists I associate with usually look to themselves for gratification as well as things that need fixing — in themselves and on their canvases. As a group of people, I’m pleased to be among their number. I think it has to do with the process of creating art, or anything else, for that matter. You spend more time in your own head listening to your own muses, and you tend to be more honest about what you see.
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Captain of the ship
by Stefanie Graves, Paducah, KY, USA
Who else is there to blame but myself? I’m the one who chooses to sit at my drawing/painting table, or not, and goes through the drafting, painting, sweating, process. I’m the one who decides, or not, what I’m going to paint. I’m the one who gets the word out, or not, about what I’ve done. People can help, support, encourage, damn or congratulate me, or remain silent, but it’s up to me — and no one else — to make this life as an artist work. I may not be grandly successful, but it will have been because of whatever effort I have chosen to put into it that makes the difference. I suppose I could blame my deafness (I am really and truly deaf — no euphemism) but that was banished from getting in my way long ago, so I wouldn’t dream of it.
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Tale of a struggling immigrant
by Pat Stamp, Callander, ON, Canada
Of all human traits the one I dislike the most is “the blame game,” a characteristic of those who declare that their misfortune lies with others, the fates, the stars, the tarot cards. But never with themselves.
Recently a young and recent immigrant from Thailand submitted work to our artist’s collective. It was painted on chipboard, scraps of house siding, aged plywood. Stuff he had scavenged. One piece was framed with two by fours with the stamp of the lumber mill still visible. He made no excuses for the materials used. He did not blame anyone because he could not afford canvas. He is struggling to support himself in a new land and still finding time and the means to make art. Three of the five pieces he submitted were accepted. Where there is a will there is a way. This may sound harsh but my instinct would be to tell the “blame gamers” to quit whining and get to work.
A detour on the path of life
by Lynn Ward, Isle of Palms, SC, USA
Yes, people often love to blame other… I know that the reason I haven’t picked up my paintbrush in over a year is my fault and mine only. I am just entering another phase of my life… empty nest… I am living alone for the first time in my life and loving it. Both of my children are out on their own making their way in this crazy world. I decided that I needed to be around people again so I went back to school. I just graduated with honors from Paul Mitchell the School. I am now creating haircuts and color for women (and men) mostly in the above 50 age bracket. I have found that age is very unique in that we have given our lives to taking care of others and have forgotten how to take care of ourselves… that’s where I have stepped in. I feel as though I am creating art.
Please don’t think that I have forgotten about painting on canvas… I have not!!! I will pick up that brush again (I even use small brushes to paint highlights in hair, (baliage). My love of capturing the beauty of the marshes as they change with the seasons on canvas will never go away. I just needed to change my canvas for a while.
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Loving the game
by Frederick Winston, Havelock, ON, Canada
When the umpire shouts, “Batter Up!” He calls for me to step up to the plate and when I do, it’s my game alone to play. I learn something from every trip to the plate. Sometimes the ball hits the sweet spot and I score a home run. Sometimes I hit the ball and make it to the plate. Sometimes I strike out, and when I do I learn more from the experience than I do on any other trip to the plate. But, you know, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It’s my game to play, and I love it. When I pick up my paint brushes, I see either magic or chaos unfold before my eyes; it’s my song to sing. There are no ghosts standing beside me at the plate. And, this is why I love it the way I do.
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The three phases of life
by Catherine Stock, France
When I was about 30, I finally was able to look at the relationship I was in with clear eyes and recognize that I had to let it go. I pined for something like twenty-five years I regret to say, during which I put my nose to the grindstone and worked productively as an art director, designer, illustrator and portraitist. Now I am pushing 60 and in a great relationship and I have become a professional potter, weeding my vegetable patch, walking my dogs, reading by the fire, cooking up savoury meals. My priorities have changed and somehow my focus and ambition has dissipated. Perhaps it will come back, or perhaps I am just living in the moment, which for me doesn’t include creative productivity. Plato said that there were three phases to life: physical, professional/ productive and reflective. I like to think I am cruising in the latter… but perhaps I am just a lazy old piece of rubbish. Water finds its own level eventually.
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How cool it is
by Patty O’Kane, Princeville, IL, USA
I am thrilled for all the youth who come to lessons in my open studio. Most of them have parents who are totally, completely and 100% supportive of their child’s desire to be an artist. How cool? How cool is it that parents have come around and believe in the value of art. Teachers in the schools are begging for art for their students. How cool that teachers have come out of the dark ages and recognize the crossover skills, the tension relief, and the pure value that art has in enriching lives? Art for art’s sake.
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acrylic painting by Pol Ledent
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Barbara Youtz of New Harbour, ME, USA, who wrote, “Has anyone written to you about how good they feel after painting outside in a beautiful spot with other artists while the sun is warm upon their back and they feel invigorated by breathing in fresh air, or how good they slept that night?”
Enjoy the past comments below for Scapegoat…