Back in the good old days, the Girl Guides used to get badges for accomplishments. Nowadays they’re also getting badges for loving themselves. The self-esteem movement is an epidemic that’s been sweeping parts of the Western World — claiming that even young girls need to feel good about themselves before they can do good things. I don’t think so. I think you have to do good things to feel good.
It’s particularly noticeable in the art game. In some quarters, we go to a lot of trouble to help others feel good. These days some of us are getting all sorts of praise for just trying. The Internet is full of it. Jack writes to Bill: “Right on, Bill — I love your fence posts.” Even though Bill’s fence posts are substandard, he still gets approval and encouragement. I guess it’s more democratic.
Instead of measuring work against examples of excellence, we now honour mediocrity as well. Actually, it’s human nature — it makes us feel comfortable, particularly if we’re mediocre ourselves. What’s going to become of a society that persists in this folly? No child left behind in the field means fewer peaks on the hill.
True professionals don’t stand for this nonsense. For one thing, they don’t listen to non-authoritative commentary or ingratiating praise. They try to decide what excellence is, challenge themselves and bend their bones to make it happen. Actually, the whole self-esteem thing leads artists into marketing courses before they’re producing creditable work. But just get reasonably good and the world will love and reward you. Stay bad and all the marketing in the world won’t help you — and you’ll end up thinking less of yourself, anyway.
Quality deserves approval and gets it. Quality breeds success, cash flow and, curiously, genuine self-esteem because it’s warranted. And while all artists, no matter how evolved, need a little perk from time to time, when you’re on top of your game, you can takes things less seriously.
We once attended a concert where little tykes played solos on the piano, cello, violin and trumpet. It was all pretty cute, and we all applauded like mad, especially when one of the little people was ours. At the end, every last kid got a trophy or a ribbon. Some system.
PS: “People thought that kids who felt good about themselves would get higher grades. They don’t. They only feel entitled to get them.” (Margaret Wente)
Esoterica: “Self-esteem,” says cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman, “cannot be directly injected. It needs to result from doing well, from being warranted.” Artists need to consider this when awarding and receiving prizes and honours. I recently juried an art-club show where in my heart of hearts it seemed to me that no one deserved even an honourable mention. “You have to give prizes,” the president told me, “or the club will collapse.” I didn’t. It didn’t. Fortunately there was another juror available, so they gave my job to him.
by Dwight Miller, Boone, NC, USA
It is all but impossible for me to bring back anything close to the number of examples that support your argument against uniform and unmerited self-esteem. But one philosophical premise — to value everything is to value nothing — is probably enough.
But because of our urge to be uniformly fair, we’ve been through schooling without grades, competitions without judgments, and certifications for even the most meager of accomplishments. In the U.S., there is the mythology that “You can be anything that you want to be.” This is not only a lie, but it is destructive belief. The better expression would be, “You can try anything you want to try.”
But back to self-esteem: the opposite of self-loathing is not self-esteem. The opposite of self-loathing is the absence of self-loathing. Once that is accomplished, we can work toward something that just might qualify us for honest esteem.
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A spade is a spade
by Lisa Schaus, Flathead Valley, MT, USA
This is one compact teaching we can pass on to our children, friends, and the rest of our family. I wonder when it became so difficult to call a spade a spade? I was in a business yesterday that sells terrible paintings that are mass produced for the decorator market. I was so assaulted by the energy in that space. I was quite honest with the employee about my reaction. She attempted to justify the plethora of horrendous canvases called “art.” I was a gentlewoman but held my ground and pleasantly left on a good note since I was actually there on a professional call. It felt just terrific to say “no” to something so obviously a “no” in the realm of educating the public about art.
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Respect is earned
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
Your letter synchronistically summed up a conversation I had just today. The subject, very much akin to yours, was respect. The conclusion: respect is not demanded; it’s earned. Love may be unconditional, but respect is purely conditional. One earns respect in the same way that esteem is properly earned, by striving, accomplishment and excellence.
I understand and support the viewpoint that says one should imbue children with self-esteem. I think it’s important, since the child mind takes responsibility for things over which it has no control. Children in early stages are, quite properly, narcissistic. This two-edged sword makes it easy for them to incorrectly self-denigrate. So sure, let’s get them off to a good start by affirming them whenever possible. But just as children are weaned off dependency, they should be weaned off the early nutrition of easy affirmation. By learning that their efforts mean something, they can be inspired to greater efforts. They can experience a greater degree of true and appropriate power: the power over oneself and one’s own actions.
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Meaning of self-esteem
by Dianne Bersea, Manson’s Landing, BC, Canada
I am always disturbed by the attack on self-esteem. That’s the wrong target. Part of the problem with self-esteem is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means. I treat it as “having respect for self and others.” Respect is an appreciation of worth. If there is a problem with self-esteem it’s that the emphasis is not being put on the meaning of value and worth. As an art teacher I put a lot of energy into finding what is working, what has worth or value, and I point that out. I also indicate what may yet need improvement or additional work. I am also inclined to use the word “beautiful” rather freely because it astounds me what my students produce. There are mini miracles in every painting and if attention is not brought to the successes, a student has nothing to build on. And I put a lot of emphasis on the necessity of continuing to work, that good art practice is a product of practice, practice, practice.
My frustration usually lies in the student who minimizes everything they do. In fact it nearly makes me cry because I come from that background. I was taught to find fault with everything and I continued to do that into adulthood and even made a point (unconsciously) of surrounding myself with people who would also find fault with everything I did. Until I was able to see the successes even in the larger failure, I did not move forward, I did not grow in my work, I did not sell any paintings.
I agree that there needs to be a measurement against examples of excellence. But knocking the concept of self-esteem as the cause of too much over-estimation of worth, denies my understanding of that word. Respect for self is not about an uncritical assessment. It is about a careful and realistic assessment of accomplishments and acknowledging those that measure up.
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The role of men
by Carl Erickson, Stillwater, MN, USA
I think there is a bigger issue than misguided self-esteem presented to our children. As a society we have been bashing everything male for so long we have forgotten the important role men used to play in developing a person’s character and by extension their ability to judge the value, quality and meaning of their work and their place in society. Qualities of character that used to be part of manliness have been denigrated to liabilities. The father who was once confident and authoritative is now an egotistical, know-it-all. The mentor who expects technical knowledge and provides constructive criticism is seen as old fashioned and a fundamentalist. The demanding coach is now domineering. And if dad says no he is seen as emotionally abusive. When the man decides to step back and not exert his role in the family and society he is portrayed as bumbling, buffoonish and distant, unavailable. Meanwhile mothers are left as the perfect nurturing, coalition-building, healers. We need both “parents” in the home and in society as a whole and the art community by extension.
As children (we are all children to someone) we need an inner voice that provides motivation, demands and self-criticism when we are alone. These “male” inner voices used to come first from our fathers, then our coaches, teachers, mentors, and employers. All this has been stripped away and been labeled oppressive. Even “GOD the Father” has been emasculated and replaced with a kinder, gentler, nurturing persona. Without the balance of these traditionally male characteristics we lack the inner drive to push past our comfort zone, to work through obstacles, to discard what is not up to our abilities or to even know, question and push our abilities. When the only inner voice we hear is that we are great, that all we do is good, that we deserve a rest from all our good work, the work is all too often, just not that good.
We need those inner nurturing voices to help us as we push ourselves beyond what we thought we were capable of. We need those healing voices as we struggle with self-doubt and the inner criticism of our work. When we have both we will have a valid reason for true self-worth and a positive self-esteem.
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Keeping students motivated
by Joan Wolbier, Boulder, CO, USA
My adult students are so afraid of failing, that to be “brutally” honest would keep them from even trying. We do critique, but I do not criticize. I have also taught young children (ages 5 and 6) who will not even try to do any visual art because it “won’t look right.” They are getting strong messages about being perfect and realize at an early age that it isn’t worth trying because they won’t be. So, in response, I do encourage “mediocrity” to help keep the struggling adults and children motivated. However, I don’t see it as mediocrity. I see it as part of the learning process. I have also attended recitals and listened to 20 kids play the same piece. But, having raised a child who wants to be a professional musician, I know how hard the daily regimen of practice, practice, practice can be. That is what gets rewarded at those recitals. I agree that you have to do good things to feel good, but, in art, doing “good” is relative to the experience of each individual. The true professionals realize the hard work that it takes and, for them, the reward is in their own skills and knowledge. And, like Pavlov’s dog, every once in a while we are rewarded with a seemingly effortless, successful artwork. But I don’t want to keep children and adults from experiencing the satisfaction of being creative.
by Dustin Curtis, Decatur, AL, USA
Quality does rule in every part of life and it shouldn’t be any different in visual art. Sometimes I wonder why visual art is not viewed like other art, such as music. Average or below average musicians are not usually told that they are great. Ever watch American Idol? If someone cannot sing we don’t hear people saying, “Tell her she can sing really well.” It’s usually someone saying, “Someone should tell him he can’t sing.” You also will notice that many people think they can sing when they can’t sing very well. Why is it so hard to tell someone that they are not that good at visual art? For those that are worried about discouraging or “scarring” someone by telling them the truth, just read the biographies of the great artists of the past and even people outside of art who have accomplished great things. Most of them have a similar story of how they were told they were not any good and were not going to make it. Elvis Presley was told he couldn’t sing. Garth Brooks was turned down numerous times by record producers. George Lucas was discouraged that Star Wars would not be popular. Frank Sinatra was told he didn’t have any rhythm. It goes on and on. Many great visual artists have similar stories.
So, in my opinion, it has very little to do with self-esteem. Those that are destined to be great in any area are going to do it regardless of what we tell them. That’s the center of interest here.
Aspire to high standards
by Lyn Asselta, St. Augustine, FL, USA
Bravo! We all need pats on the back occasionally to keep us motivated, but holding one’s self to a higher standard is the only way to improve. Our work doesn’t progress unless we are always in the frame of mind that lets us know we can improve with the next piece. There are truly great artists out there, both living and dead, and they hold the standards to which we should aspire. If you are not continually trying to raise the bar for yourself, and you are content to think your work is fine the way it is, then I suppose you should consider yourself a hobbyist and not an artist. Even Cezanne was quoted to say, “When I judge my art, I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.” What higher standard than the perfection of nature? We’re given this ability or gift to translate what we see and it becomes our responsibility to continually try to do it better. If we settle for what’s good enough to sell or what’s good enough to garner praise from the masses, we are only creating to the standards of the buyer, who quite possibly is only thrilled that your work matches his living room furniture. Good is never good enough.
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False feedback not helpful
by Gail Seich, East Meadow, NY, USA
I was taking a portrait/figure class after not painting in that genre for quite a while. It was clear to me that I had gotten off to a bad beginning… really bad… so much so that I was a little surprised at myself. Although I was frustrated and a bit disappointed I decided to take a deep breath and reevaluate. The teacher came over to my work and praised me, telling me how wonderful it was… that I had a good handle on what I was doing. This critique came after I heard her tell another student that she recently read an article that suggested you give positive feedback toward your students’ work to give them confidence.
It was just the opposite for me. What she told me was false and far from the truth. Instead of feeling more confident I was a bit angry. How can I learn and correct what was obviously wrong if the teacher is telling me how good it is. She defeated her purpose… and I didn’t take any more of her classes. I love to paint, I have been painting for many years… and what I paint is honest. I don’t paint to please anyone but myself… so if my work is way off where it should be, I am usually aware of it. I don’t beat myself up over it and the last thing I need is for someone to praise me for doing poorly.
by Kelley MacDonald, Tiverton, RI, USA
Having been a Girl Guide and also led a troop for a short time, I must say the ‘self esteem’ part is important because they’ve found that girls with low self-esteem don’t TRY for things, they get marginalized and they are more likely to get pregnant…
And about the art world, and bloggers, saying things like ‘good fence posts’ when any fool can see they’re substandard… it’s called encouragement. And people who get ‘honest’ feedback (“What ARE those sticks in the grass?”) tend to get discouraged and give up. The blogosphere is full of artists who recognize that it’s going to happen as you grow as an artist, particularly if you’re not lucky enough to go to art school — self-teaching is full of mistakes and struggle. But the encouragement and camaraderie keeps people trying.
by Melanie Ettenger, Palisade, CO, USA
Today I was asked to judge an exhibit for artists over 55 at a retirement facility. The criteria you write about shifts radically for those that experience the process of aging and yet still choose to create. I have a master’s degree in art history and several years of doctoral research focusing on critical theory and historiography… in the long run, who cares?? I agonized over choosing awards but it really came down to acknowledging the attempt of individuals to express in the best way possible what it is like to live (even if in the later years of life their art is not so good?). If one is so blessed to be able to do so, the snobbery surrounding art criticism might need re-examination. I know that there was not one work that would be esteemed by the so-called legitimate art societies in the area — let alone the world — and the history of such critiques. So I chose awards in a fashion that allowed me to access sheer enjoyment of their art — those that will most likely allow me to find myself free of ever having the task of judging again.
Must be a balance
by Susan Thomas, Toronto, ON, Canada
I am a retired teacher, guidance counselor, social worker who has left the school system with concern about the sense of entitlement and self-absorption that has gripped our young population. While I truly understand the importance of self-esteem and encouragement, I feel that we have gone astray. There is so little recognition for excellence and the bar has been set lower and lower. While I detest elitism, class structure, snobbism and arrogance and applaud the need to create opportunities and provide motivation for every learner, somewhere there must be a balance.
It is important to recognize effort, risk-taking, the adventurous spirit, the willingness to reach out, up and beyond but in providing feedback, a thoughtful parent/ teacher/ guide/ critic should also suggest the next steps that need to be taken to get closer to that goal of excellence. And, yes, excellence can be tied to the product or to the physical, mental, emotional output required to create the product — and those differences must be defined!
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acrylic-mixed media painting
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 Pene Horton of Sidney, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I remember after we first came to Canada fifty years ago, my six-year-old daughter came home from school flourishing a prize ribbon — for running a race and coming in last. Also, on the subject of self-esteem… I prefer to use self-respect, because you can earn self-respect by doing good work, etc., etc., but how do you earn self-esteem? It’s like wood rot.”
And also Raymond Mosier who wrote, “This is the reason one of the large online communities of artists has fallen from my favor. There is a fine line between praise and encouragement. They are not the same. The opposite is true as well. When someone offers criticism of one’s work, it has to be done with a position of authority. This is how we move forward. ‘Truth is ever to be found in simplicity.’ (Sir Issac Newton, 1642 – 1727)”
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