An artist who wishes anonymity asks, “What of artists who get hooked on external validation? What do you think of artists who constantly seek some sort of approval from their peers, in clubs, even online?”
At the risk of being one of those who divide the world into two main kinds of people, there are two main types of artists: Those who have a need to listen to the opinions of others, and those who do not. Having said that, this habit can come and go — leopards can change their spots. There are pitfalls for both types. The first may have their vision so diluted by the input of others that there is little left of originality. The second may be imprisoned by what they already know.
There are theories about where all this comes from. Here’s one: If you think back to your childhood you will remember two types of parental remark. In a general way, one was, “That’s very good, keep it up.” The other was, “That’s not very good, don’t do that.” All parents of all time have a predominance of one behaviour over the other. But that’s not the interesting part. If you came from the first type of environment and you continue to seek personal validation, you are probably seeking reaffirmation that your parents were correct in their early assessment. If, on the other hand, you received the second type of parental attention, you likely need positive affirmation to disprove the negative comments of your parents.
There’s a big difference. It seems the first are likely to be seekers of constructive criticism. The second are likely in need of validation at all costs. Furthermore, and thankfully, it’s been my observation that many artists, perhaps because of their contrary nature, are able to access and exploit tendencies which are the opposite of what might be expected.
I’m an advocate of self-validation. It’s an acquired skill. Encouragement, yes. Constructive criticism, yes. But artists should be aware that petty stroking could be the source of arrested productivity. An artist’s job includes the avoidance of premature closure by the begged or gratuitous approval of others.
PS: “Work independently and solve your own problems.” (Winslow Homer) “Nothing is more apt to deceive us than our own judgement of our work. We derive more benefit from having our faults pointed out by our enemies than from hearing the opinions of friends.” (Leonardo da Vinci)
Esoterica: Artists have not always tolerated the opinions of others. They admit to little influence, believe for the most part in their own direction and in some ways insist on being the center of the universe. Often, while nominally encouraged, they had critical parents. Some of these artists were Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jackson Pollock. The list is long. “We need no advice but approval.” (Coco Chanel)
The following are selected correspondence relating to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Not like mom
by Anonymous — mother subscribes too
Your letter arrived in timely fashion the day after mother’s day. I can never live up to my mother’s standards. She sent me to ballet, jazz, painting classes. I could never do the paintings she wanted and I never had the body for dance but she couldn’t see that. I seemed to be permanently on stage to act out and perform and succeed in what she was never able to do. My only hope is when I have children that I don’t act one iota like her.
Moms for humility
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA
My mom, who is now elderly, has been interested in seeing every new piece I create when she comes over. About a year ago, I began a series of astronomical paintings. (And usually the only opinion I seek is that of my 16-year-old who has no qualms with telling it the way it is.) Several weeks’ back when mom was over, I showed her some new work including an obvious astronomical image. My mom, looking contemplatively at the art asks, “What’s the slug?” “Slug?” I ask back. “Yes, the slug,” she replies. I explain, this is not Slugs in Space, but there is a nebula. She responds, “Well, I still see a slug.” (Mom has Parkinson’s with triple vision.) Nothing like mom to keep us humble.
Artists who habitually submit their work to online chat groups invite a premature ejaculation. Agreeable remarks from others such as, “Wow, that’s really great Jack, keep it up,” and “I really like that one, don’t know why, but I really like it,” are just useless stroking that does not serve to improve the art or the long term self-esteem of the artist. As far as I can see it’s a kind of avoidance activity which gives only temporary satisfaction. “Cyber time-wasting for artists.”
Awards and letters
A friend of mine is a wonderful painter and she is seeking validation for her work from our organization. The validation she seeks has not happened. Others are getting it through awards and letters behind their name. She feels her work is much better than some and some awards given are not worthy. My reply to this is that an award at a show is the opinion of the jurors and not the world. But if that same artist keeps getting awards at different shows then maybe be there is something there because different sets of jurors also like their work. She also believes that in order the get letters behind your name you must have awards. She feels that these achievements might validate her.
Find a master
by Grace Cowling, Grimsby, Ontario, Canada
The need for external validation varies widely. Being a late bloomer and having neither a college degree nor an art school certificate I got to where I am through workshops. There is a smorgasbord out there and I indulged, living at the time in Toronto which was rife with opportunities, clubs and societies. Praise and criticism came not only from instructors but also from class peers. I learned techniques to the point of confusion until I felt I had workshop indigestion. It was time to move back from the groaning board and work alone. I found myself when I had to draw on inner resources, away from distractions that a class can present, away from external validation. I had to learn self-validation and what helped that process was a Master Class once a month. A class of about 12 brought 3 pieces in process to be critiqued, kind but no-nonsense critiquing by one of the best. If a master with a legacy to share can be found, it is fertile ground and worth seeking.
Works in an empowering place
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA
Your letter reminds me of how rare and wonderful criticism can be, especially to an established artist. We are all so polite around here. I’m as guilty of the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” rule as everyone else in town. The local theater produces an unsuccessful play, yet I smile and compliment the director when I see her. Another painter, whose work I usually admire, exhibits a seriously flawed piece but I say nothing. Critical remarks do hurt, but after I recover from the blow of honest negative assessment of my work, I have to admit that there’s always something there for me to learn. My work is popular and well received. Part of what attracted me to Gainesville in the first place was the wonderful way this community supports the arts.
by Alar Jurma, Montreal, Canada
I think it all boils down to “discrimination” and a life of self-study and contemplation. In India, a fully baked sage is sometimes referred to as “Paramahamsa” or “supreme swan.” Why? Because a swan is reputed to be able to separate milk from water and drink just the milk, leaving the dirty lake-water behind. As artists we need to learn to do the same. We need to free ourselves of wrong or petty understanding in order to shine forth as true artists, and to have something worthwhile to give. And this “prep-work” will show.
Insecurities and all
by Michael Swanson
Approval has always greased the wheels of achievement. The problem is when these emotions to the point of paralysis hamstring an artist. You know the feeling, “I can’t seem to get motivated,” “I’ve got a creative block,” “I can’t seem to get started,” etc. These impasses are usually the result of approval related emotional turmoil. As we all know, to face a good size blank canvas with a pre-determined plan takes guts and determination. It is often the hope of final approval that motivates us to create great art. Validation related insecurity is standard baggage for many artists and those who ramble on carefree often lack this enigmatic emotion. The result is work that does not stand the test of time or is so self-centered that no one can relate to it. In my case, when fighting doubt, I force myself to start a painting and once started it usually feels like an old comfortable sneaker. The “happy accidents” the “what if I change this color” all take a hold and once again I’m a kid in a candy store having a ball, insecurities and all.
Different types of reinforcement
by Sandra Bierman, Colorado, USA
My response to someone who is troubled by artists, who do such and such, is that they need to look within themselves and ask why it bothers them what others do. Artists seek reinforcement in different ways. Those who say they need no reinforcement, I doubt. Those who say they never doubted their own work, I doubt.
Do it for your own happiness
by Shifra Stein, Kansas City, MO, USA
Validation is nice to have. I think Van Gogh would have appreciated more of it but, unfortunately, that didn’t happen for him. So what kept him going? It wasn’t the approval of the public, at least not until his last year on earth. Validation from external sources, a pat on the back, a kind comment, is pleasing. However, following the path to what you do best, and love most, is the key to everything good in your life. I learned that this direction doesn’t come from an outside source. It begins with an internal understanding of your own worth and value as a human being and artist. This understanding doesn’t rely on the casual comment. It comes from knowing that we are guided by a spiritual connection to something greater than we are, which expresses itself in all we do.
(RG note) Much published Shifra Stein teaches Art For The Health Of It.
Communication and validation
by Nicoletta Baumeister
How does the external validation type of communication work? The root word of communication is “common.” Why do many of us look for external validation? I think that has more to do with the word validation than communication. To validate is to ‘give value.’ Whether externalizing bad or beautiful impressions, memories, or intuited sensations, we feel good in the process. Surely, if the artist is trying to communicate something unique to their experience in this world, we have to see what they see, not what we are confined by our experience to see. If the core process has been authentic, we get to see with new perspective by being common (communicate) with that person’s experience. What could be more valuable than to deepen, broaden, enhance, refine, reflect, rejoice, and relive the sensation of being in this world? What greater gift than being able to communicate and enable our fellow humans the sensations of being alive.
No such thing as a perfect painting
by Sharon Williams
I have been struggling with external validation for over a year now — the natural consequences of rejections by so-called knowledgeable artists/jurors. I think that I know if my work is good, based on the question ‘Do I like it — better yet do I love it?” and can I answer that question the same way after living with the work for a while. I often love a work when it’s done, then pick it apart after I live with it, then put it away for a while and find that I fall in love with it again after taking it out for another look! I guess there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ painting, and all work contains faults. I think it’s a timing/mood thing and perhaps the artist is the least subjective juror of all!
Lots of experts
by Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany
The fear of rejection is probably one of the greatest fears a child, or indeed anyone, can experience. It is a basic instinct and very near the core of what also makes an artist tick. If the artist is an exaggerated form of the human species, then it is quite logical that this fear of rejection is also exaggerated. The artist is constantly moving between elation and devastation, and “outsiders” instinctively know that too. People who thrive on their creative energy, are, I believe, tapping into something else that is innate in and typical of the human race — the ability to discover something new. What makes them different is the desire and motivation to create. Most children are creative, and this instinct is often smothered by discouragement or “failure” to live up to standards set by others. Later on, many rediscover this lost instinct and have varying degrees of satisfaction, but, as creatures of habit, they are still influenced by the judgement of outsiders. The visual arts are the most accessible art forms, and most people are visually more perceptive and opinionated. So there are a lot of “experts” around to judge and misjudge your work.
Hooked on validation
“Hooked” is the operative word. Like tobacco, alcohol or sex, constant personal validation is an addiction that can get out of hand. A girl in our class constantly begs for it or sets it up so she gets it-from the instructor as well as all of us. Some of us are sickened by it. She needs to attend VA meetings.
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“Some collaboration has to take place in the mind… before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.” (Virginia Woolf)
“To escape criticism — do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” (Elbert Hubbard)
“If I care to listen to every criticism, let alone act on them, then this shop may as well be closed for all other businesses. I have learned to do my best, and if the end result is good then I do not care for any criticism, but if the end result is not good, then even the praise of ten angels would not make the difference.” (Abraham Lincoln)
The above are from The Resource of Art Quotations. This is the largest collection of art related quotes available anywhere.