It seems as though everyone has been singing one version or another of the same tune recently. What is a break and how do we catch it? Deadlines have been mounting at alarming rates, nerves are frayed and everyone seems a bit more irritable than usual. The universe, it seems, is conspiring to punish us for all the times we hit “snooze” on our alarms to sleep in a bit longer. Or maybe we’re being punished for all the times we threw caution to the wind and opted to binge-watch a new television series.
Whatever the reason, most would agree that the past few months have been especially trying. Everything either seems to be happening all at once or not at all. Whether you chalk it up to bad time management or the recent string of retrogrades that sent everyone into a crazed fit, the general consensus seems to be that we’re overworked and unsure of ourselves. The possibility also exists that I’ve been projecting my own crises unto everyone I meet. But I digress.
The journey of every creative individual is often riddled with self-doubt and subsequent depression about said doubts. Our highs are extremely high but when we do experience the occasional low it is the kind of soul crushing experience that forces us to reconsider our decision to pursue a creative career. And this could be triggered by any number of things working together in our most vulnerable moments. Perhaps it was a less than favourable critique of our work or another rejection letter or even the fact that nothing seems to be happening for us at the moment.
While we’ve been taught that these all come with the territory and we’ve found clever ways to steel ourselves against those feelings, they still exist. Acknowledgment of doubt does not erase it from our journey. They exist, and if presented with the right conditions they have the potential to overshadow our faith in the work we do as creative practitioners. And why are we doing this work anyway?
For as long as I’ve known myself I’ve always been busy doing something or the other. I’ve never had idle time and even if I did, it usually didn’t take long until I found myself contemplating a new series of work or making a mental checklist of all the things I have to do the next day. The devil finds work for idle hands, right? Like most creative individuals, there is no “off” button. In an age where we glorify staying busy, idleness is a luxury most (upwardly mobile persons) simply cannot afford. And so the wheels keep turning.
What happens then, when we confront the very real possibility that maybe this is not the path for us? Is it too late to consider a more “practical” career, something a bit more certain? At some point I believe we’ve all considered this, but our special strain of stubbornness is quite possibly the only thing that has kept us going long after everyone has tried to convince us to stop. More importantly, it could be that we’re all secretly waiting for the opportunity to rub our success in the faces of everyone who ever told us to get a “real” job. Admit it, you could think of a few faces.
I’ve always argued that it takes a person of incredible strength to pursue a creative career. Battles are constantly being fought at every turn even as we wrestle with our own feelings about validation. Let’s face it, as much as we might be making work for our own gratification, we want the work to be seen. And how does it get seen? How much control do we have of our own visibility? Where does our control end and that of the “gatekeepers” begin? Who are the individuals responsible for making that determination?
It’s important to recognize too that being seen is completely separate from being written about. After all, how much could your work resonate if no one was writing critically about it? Of course, one could also argue that “good art” doesn’t need to be intellectualized in order to be relevant. But to get any real traction in the art world, the art must leave the studio and enter the public sphere in a manner that grabs the public’s attention, if only for a brief moment. So then maybe being seen and written about become crucial to the success of one’s career. Still, while they might be markers of success, they don’t necessarily translate to markers of “quality,” another tricky area of art discourse. This is the kind of overwhelming debate that could go on until the cows come home, the kind that could force someone to down tools.
So at what point should an artist give up on his/her dream to contribute something meaningful to the art world? How do we identify the point where we’ve saturated our creative offerings, far beyond the “It’s just a phase. It will pass,” point? At what point do we let go of the desire to even try? A few weeks ago I read a very insightful article by senior art critic and columnist for the New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz titled “My life as a failed artist.” In the article Saltz describes a prolific start to his career. He spent about ten years of his life working ten-hour days producing art as fast as his body would allow.
He had done the press, the sold out solo exhibitions, had gotten the reviews and the awards, everything an emerging artist was expected to accomplish. It seemed as though his career was on the right track. And yet somehow, despite all of those things he was still overcome with doubt. Saltz wrote:
“But then I looked back, into the abyss of self-doubt. I erupted with fear, self-loathing, dark thoughts about how bad my work was, how pointless, unoriginal, ridiculous. ‘You don’t know how to draw,’ I told myself. ‘You never went to school. Your work has nothing to do with anything. You’re not a real artist. Your art is irrelevant. You don’t know art history. You can’t paint. You aren’t a good schmoozer. You’re too poor. You don’t have enough time to make your work. No one cares about you. You’re a fake. You only draw and work small because you’re too afraid to paint and work big.’”
What he described is every artist’s struggle, a cycle that tortures us just as much as it fuels our production. It’s as sure as the sun rises every morning and sets every evening. Unfortunately, like so many other talented individuals his doubts got the best of him. His is not the first story of “defeat” nor will it be the last. But I do believe there’s a lot to be learned from the experiences he shared. No one can say if an artist should walk away from his/her craft or when it should be done.
That is an extremely personal decision that can only be made by the person involved. However, it’s important to remember that having doubts is par for the course. Take all the time you need to examine how you really feel about the situation before making any decisions you might regret. Sometimes all that’s necessary is to step away from the chaos for a while so that you could readjust your perspective.