art school confidential
April 21, 2011 10:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me become the uninhibited artist and writer I once was.

Long story short: I'm a creative person who now fears putting my thoughts down on paper. I used to write, I used to draw, I used to have this wonderfully rich and fulfilling part of my life, and it's disappeared in the past year or so, largely because my the dean of my art school spent a year traumatizing me in front of large groups of people before I finally graduated. Now I struggle to let my mind be free and uncensored because all I hear when I go to do anything are these man's words about how I alone in the entire art school was untalented and unworthy.* I'm no stranger to art-school style criticism; the man was abusive, and I never thought he'd go so far as to deliberately sabotage my love of art, but he did, and now I am determined to take that back from him.

What can I do to break through this paralysis? I miss drawing. I miss imperfection. I don't like feeling like I'm going to have to grade myself if I do something wrong. I just want to be able to grow again artistically and I don't feel free to do that yet.

*Satisfying footnote: the very ideas I ended up putting forth for my senior thesis have now become integrated into my alma mater's curriculum, AND after being told a thousand times that my type of work would never sell, projects very similar to mine are now featured on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
posted by iLoveTheRain to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott? It's targeted to writers, but there's a lot of lovely stuff on silencing that internal editor. My favorite is to imagine the person, the Dean in this case, and see him shrink into a mouse and let his voice go all high and squeaky in the process, then drop him into a jar and put the lid on. Not so big now, huh?

Also, look into The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. Not necessarily the entire exercise, which I admit I have never been able to tackle, but the section about those critical voices from your past. I think that exercise would be quite helpful for you.

Good luck. And get mad! Spite has gotten me through many a creative slump.
posted by sugarfish at 10:09 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Buy some unfamiliar art supplies, something you've wanted to play with but never have, and use the stuff up just playing around with it.
Don't feel any need or pressure to show anyone the results; just have fun making a mess.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:15 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Start with something that is beyond criticism. Get a giant sheet of paper and a bunch of fingerpaint, the more you mess it up the better it gets.

I'm sure once you get your uninhibited creative juices flowing again you'll have that "yeah, that's right, I FUCKING RULE! feeling come back to you".

Also, fuck that guy.
posted by JimmyJames at 10:19 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Read Art and Fear. If you don't, I will track you down and kill you.

OK, I lied. I won't track you down, I'll just have you killed. I have a busy day coming up.

Read THIS BOOK. Read it. Today.

It sounds like they had you in mind when they wrote it.

My favorite book. Of all the books I have read in 57 years.

RTFM. Jimmy James is spot on.
posted by FauxScot at 11:09 PM on April 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

The Artist's Way has some very useful and practical exercises for overcoming stoppages like the one you're experiencing. There were two in particular that really helped me when I was feeling the way you're feeling now, although the book is full of them.

The first thing is to do something every single day for a set amount of time/to a certain word count, because then it becomes about the quantity and act instead of the quality of the work, and as you do that, you get into the groove and get in a lot of practice, and suddenly you realize you love what you're producing. The book suggests doing "morning pages", a big brain dump every day where you write out three pages (750 words is a great online resource for this).

The second is to make a list of all the things your inner critic is saying, like actually write it down, and then write out the counterpoints. It is shocking how many negative things I casually say to myself in my head, or how many negative assumptions I was holding...and that was even during times of massive productivity and creative thoughts.

Anyway, I liked that book a lot because it had practical exercises with tangible results.

I think also that this is something every artist struggles with from time to time, so don't be too hard on yourself, especially when it was obviously that dude's problem and not yours in any way.
posted by lhall at 11:29 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Any teacher/academic who goes out of their way to publicly shame a student's work SUCKS and IS an abusive asshole. I would feel the exact way you feel now if I were in your position. You are not unjustified in feeling the way you feel.

I am also an emerging artist / student and experienced art school shame. I studied a year in a very competitive design program but dropped out and switched majors for a contempo art history based cultural studies program (less studio critiques to endure). I totally know that feeling of shame brought on by academic criticism. It's very debilitating. I feel for you.

I see some great things happening in this situation. The fact that the dean singled you out to over-criticize your work yet the program now incorporates concepts from your thesis might be suggesting something. At face value it may feel as if you were beat up and robbed, which in a sense you may have been. But in this case you were the educator. The dean is someone who is used to their position of power as educator and institutional leader and arguably will fight to maintain that. When he considered your thesis it's very possible he saw its intellectual potential and was threatened by its depth or skill and reacted against that by shaming you in public. It does not validate his terrible behavior, but it does highlight the fact that you made something of value.

I recently went through a phase where I was reliving some bullying and abusive stuff I experienced from a variety of people from my past. I turned to a friend who comforted me in saying that bullies and critics only attack strong, bold people. It might be different for children bullies. But I think this is applicable in your case. What would a dean or professor gain from shaming a student whose work is weak? They're already rocking out on that student's tuition, there's nothing left to take. Unless the dean has a personality disorder or is a sociopath. Did they react to other students, especially those whose work was weak or unfinished in the same way?

Do you have a professional website with samples of your work and CV? If not, developing yourself online may aid the process of gaining back some confidence in your work and identity as an artist.

I have a final suggestion. It may sound at first a little reactionary or catty, but I think it has the potential to be a brilliantly bold move. If you are up to it, write publicly (blog?) about your experience with this dean and perhaps the school's complicity in the public shaming. You could use your medium to tell that story. Or just stick simply to writing. Present rationally what you experienced and what was said to you, and bring up connections between your thesis and the newly adopted curriculum. It will likely make you feel better and allow distance from the incident. I also think it's important for abusive academic professionals to be held accountable. I'd love to read a blog about that.

Best of luck.
posted by GEB's fun world at 11:43 PM on April 21, 2011

Another book recommendation: What It Is by Lynda Barry. Read the narrative part, but do the workbook exercises, too. Changed my life.
posted by blackunicorn at 11:59 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding Art and Fear.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 12:31 AM on April 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mmm, seconding the Lynda Barry book. IT'S TERRIFIC!

Also, you need some competitive spirit. Anger, oppositional disorder and probably senseless blind rage got me through the first three years of my career in "making things" and then I didn't need it any more. Heh.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:24 AM on April 22, 2011

Re-Invention: considering trying out a different medium, something you are not familiar with.
posted by ovvl at 10:39 AM on April 22, 2011

Thirding Art and Fear.

This suggestion is nothing new, but it has been the most helpful for me when I am in a rut or feeling paralysis. I like to give myself a challenge on quantity that forces me to forget concerns about quality. It redefines the game and gets me moving.
posted by safetyfork at 11:46 AM on April 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. These are some great resources and I really appreciate how validated you've all made me feel about what happened.
posted by iLoveTheRain at 3:17 PM on April 22, 2011

nthing Lynda Barry's What It Is. A hundred times over.
posted by Robot Johnny at 7:00 PM on April 26, 2011

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