I don't need to make a cow-dung Madonna, I do need to get over my fear of making something that someone won't like.
December 4, 2011 9:25 AM   Subscribe

I want to move on and grow and get better, but I feel like I'm at the foot of Everest. Help me not hate my art. How can I find the courage to make the art that I need to make in order to feel fulfilled and honest in my work?

I am a full time artist of sorts. I won't go into too much detail about what I do because I'd rather keep this as anonymous as possible. I mean, it's hard for me to write about this topic, and even journaling about it on my own elicits waves of shame.

So, here's the thing. I've been putting my work out there for about four years now and at the risk of sounding like an ass I will just say that I've gotten consistently positive feedback, but even without that (or maybe I should say despite that), I know that I'm good at what I do, and I love doing what I do - none of these are the issue. The issue is that I hate the actual work I'm putting out, and feel I have a pattern of making art that is too safe, too blah, and then resenting and judging, (or just getting depressed and feeling jealous of), other artists who are doing more interesting, challenging work because I know I have it in me to make more honest, less self-conscious art.

I currently have a decent amount of what I do out there, searchable on the web, and I have this awful, horrible feeling when I think of the impression people might get from what they find when they search me. I don't feel that it reflects me. My self-consciousness and fear of judgment is something that seeps into my work all the time, and I often make choices that will give me a "nice" result rather than something real and raw, even though the latter is the kind of thing that speaks to me more and "nice" makes me cringe. Oh, how I am always cringing!

I guess what I create does reflect what's going on inside of me in some way, in the sense that I am dealing with a lot of fear, but it doesn't reflect my true state if you know what I mean.

I have had some issues with anxiety and saw a psychotherapist a couple of years ago which helped a lot. I don't feel the urgent need for therapy right now, and because it's expensive and I don't have insurance I am leaving it as a last resort. I have a pretty good handle on the anxiety issues that were plaguing me before and feel like I'm stable and generally happy. The only thing that seems to be bothering me these days is this "I hate my art" thing I've got going on.

What I would like to do is spend some time concentrating solely on creating a new body of work, working on a new process maybe, and removing myself from the insipid work I've done in the past.

How do I take those first steps toward being the new, fearless me?
Do other artists experience this sort of thing?

Any words of advice would be enormously appreciated.


As a full time artist, how do I deal with panicked moments of, "I suck and I hate my art and none of it represents me at all, it's all just arbitrary stuff that I've absorbed and unconsciously regurgitated in a contrived way, and it comes out racked with hesitation and fear. It might be soothing but that's only because it's as boring as a fish tank screensaver. I can't get my shit together to make something cohesive, and I don't feel good about anything I've doneā€¦ except for maybe that piece, and that other one, but that's it!" and the general feeling that I'm not being honest in my work.

throwaway email: artisfrightening @ gmail . com
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Although I am not a full-time artist and really derive only a small portion of my income from my art, I identify with your problem. I think most artists, at least sometimes, have similar relationships to their own work. Over the years I have found that I need to concentrate on pleasing myself while doing the work. Thinking of what will sell, where it will show, exactly how it fits into my overall body of work, etc. taints the work and leads to ruts and extreme dissatisfaction with the product even in the face of favorable comments and results. I have found that keeping focused in the proper way is much easier when I am feeling better about myself personally. If I am depressed or anxious it just doesn't work. Kind of paradoxically, it seems that these "spells" often lead to productive changes of direction. Forget the past, let the work from the past be. Move on. Make yourself happy. Never put out work you don't personally love. Keep going!!!
posted by txmon at 9:38 AM on December 4, 2011

1. Go on an artist residency. These usually happen in the summer but some are year round. There, you can seclude yourself like a hermit and have time to explore new avenues. Or, you can use the small community of other artists there to bounce ideas off.

2. Sounds like you need some honest critiques, not just positive affirmations from friends. Start a crit group with a couple of artists. You need people to give you honest opinions about your new direction.

3. Take a class. Could be at a community art center, in media that is new to you (weaving, ceramic, whatever). Or take a performance art class to help you get out of your skin.

4. Take all the art you've ever done and put it into a category on your website under the title "past projects." New projects should be given the spotlight on your site, showing people that you are evolving as an artist.

5. If you really are a full time artist, and living off the sales of your art, consider hiring a studio assistant or manager to help you automate the art you are making, freeing up your time to experiment. Sounds crazy, right? It's not. Many contemporary artists (who sell) do this.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 9:41 AM on December 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

First, any artist worth their salt goes through this. Chances are, your previous work is not as contrived as you think it is, but any creative personality wants to move on to the next step.

I don't know what sort of artist you are, but is it possible to move to a new process or media? Go to sketching with a bic pen, or sculpting, or making your own dyes or paper? It sounds like you feel like you're in a rut, and getting out of your element is the surest way to cure that.
posted by Gilbert at 9:43 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do something that won't be for sale.
I understand because this happens to me with my music and that is what helps me.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:43 AM on December 4, 2011

Take a look at "Art & Fear" by Bayles and Orland.
posted by Marky at 9:53 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are you familiar with Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way" books?

I used to be a poet, which I miss terribly but won't get into here for obvious reasons. But when I was writing, the best I felt about it was when I was working through those books.

Grab a copy. Do the morning journals and the dates with yourself. And the other exercizes, all without judging yourself.
posted by bilabial at 9:54 AM on December 4, 2011

The War of Art is a helpful book.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:55 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of my art teachers always says to be careful of inviting your audience into your studio. Your prediction of what people's reaction to your work will be shouldn't be part of your creative process if it is hindering your process -- but I think you already know that.

I would say in addition to getting out of your rut as others have suggested, it's time to forgive yourself for work you've already completed that is already out there in the world. That's in the past, you know? Let it go. Do your work in the now.
posted by pupstocks at 9:55 AM on December 4, 2011

Some really good advice here. It's very easy for us to doubt and denigrate our work and the push to make salable work that is safe vs taking risks is something most of us fight with all the time. I'm a full time artist and for me one of my key supports on these issues is my critique group. We're honest with each other and talk about both our work and the career issues and decisions we're facing. If you aren't part of a good crit group it's well worth starting one! The other suggestions here about residencies, classes, exploring a different medium or one of the book driven explorations are all good. Be kind to yourself!
posted by leslies at 10:06 AM on December 4, 2011

What you're experiencing is completely normal. Ira Glass talks about this.

The only way through it is to keep pushing through it. Work and work and work. I disagree with pupstocks, though. For me, that next level of growth was all about opening myself to critique. I did my best to disengage my ego from my work and instead endeavored to make the work good on its own merits, not as a way of gleaning praise. This meant ignoring the good stuff people said and instead seeking out critiques that challenged me, at every stage of the process. It will be hard and it will hurt and you will think sometimes that you're not capable. You are. Be a conduit for good work, rather than letting the work exist as a way of gaining prestige for yourself.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:21 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I want to say: those people you hate because they're so good? They're the ones to ask for feedback. Oh god, it's scary and painful. But they're the ones who will help you articulate why what you're doing is not what they're doing. They're the ones who have been through this before. They're the ones who can help you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:24 AM on December 4, 2011

As a full time artist, how do I deal with panicked moments of, "I suck and I hate my art and none of it represents me at all, it's all just arbitrary stuff that I've absorbed and unconsciously regurgitated in a contrived way, and it comes out racked with hesitation and fear.

Try the Molly Crabapple experiment. It doesn't have to match it of course, but you get the gist.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:25 AM on December 4, 2011

Work in a new medium that you know nothing about and focus on its technical challenges.
posted by Wordwoman at 10:29 AM on December 4, 2011

A sort of bad bit of advice (about the wine) but try a bottle of wine, the most intensely passionate music you can find, and stay up all night, naked, with the intent of not showing it to anyone and ripping it up in the end. What comes out at the end can be pretty raw. Commit to letting go of the technicality of the work.

Or paint your anxiety. It can help open up what is underneath.

Also find people to critique your art that understand the search for honesty in your work. Getting positive feedback from people who appreciate the safe part of your work is great. You need to find a group/mentor/teacher/critic who understands pushing you further.
posted by Vaike at 11:30 AM on December 4, 2011


Avoid/change/break routines.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 11:30 AM on December 4, 2011

I will just say that I've gotten consistently positive feedback, but even without that (or maybe I should say despite that), I know that I'm good at what I do, and I love doing what I do - none of these are the issue.

First, understand that everyone gets consistently positive feedback unless they're actively grating in some way. Even if most people had the self-awareness and vocabulary to express to an artist what they find lacking in their work, almost none of them would do it. Even your friends and associates. Bukowski was right. Surround yourself with people who know and care nothing of your particular art. If not literally, then keep the idea in mind. Personally, I've only considered some of my work to be truly successful when there are a few who actively hate it. To me that means you've touched on something that some people aren't ready or willing to explore. That's a lot harder and more important to me than, "Oh, it's so pretty!" or worse, indifference.

Second, look around at the other artists who are "making it" locally, especially, as artists. They suck, don't they? Some of them probably have plenty of technical skill, but are, as you fear of yourself, playing it safe with drawings of fairies and stenciled paisley patterns or even just purely technical work. All of these artists know they're good at what they do. Be open to the possibility that you're delusional, no matter your level of technical expertise or critical or financial accomplishment. Is there a point to what you do? Can there be?

I'm only making these points because what you say is at odds with the nature of your question here.

You're asking questions that no one can answer. We've been asking these questions since Raphael smashed his statue lest it be owned by an unworthy patron. I suspect they have no answer, and no one but the person asking them cares.

In terms of dealing with it, you're confused about the nature of art and creativity. If you're experiencing discomfort when thinking about your work and all of these things, then you've got some basic assumptions about art, and probably reality, that are incomplete or erroneous. Find out what they are and change them.
posted by cmoj at 12:26 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

How do I take those first steps toward being the new, fearless me?
Do other artists experience this sort of thing?

There will never be a "fearless you." Its the fear that makes the art.

Not dealing with the fear means safe and boring art. Acknowleging and experiencing the fear is what makes the great art.

Making a new you is a just a more subtle form of the self-aggression you describe. Try accepting, liking and working with the current you.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:34 PM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

There will never be a "fearless you." Its the fear that makes the art.
I wish I could favorite this 1,000 times more. It is rushing headlong, or at least just tiptoeing through, the fear that allows you to create truly great art.

What is art? What is art for?

I would argue that the purpose of Art is to capture something universal. And what is universal?

Loss. Loss

But the things we have lost, and the things we fear losing, and, some would argue, the ultimate loss, death....those things are fucking terrifying.

Face those things. Face the reality of your past and present and future losses. Find the tools that help you do that. For me, it was The Artists's Way. For you, it might be something else.
posted by bilabial at 1:37 PM on December 4, 2011

Be obvious, don't be original. Keith Johnstone's Impro For Storytellers is invaluable for all creative types.

I strongly second changing mediums, especially you've reached some success in one. Getting back to the 'beginner's mind' is very liberating. You won't be so expectant on yourself to produce 'finished' work.

Try some exercises of producing work in volume. Set utterly impossible deadlines and generate a pile of loose experiments. Assign yourself a set number of pieces with strange and arbitrary constraints. Free-associate. Do especially things relating to your childhood.

Walk in neighbourhoods you would never go to. Walk for hours until your mind starts to clear and odd thoughts have room to appear.

Being at the foot of Everest sounds like a terrifically exciting place to be! Start climbing, expect pain.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:29 PM on December 4, 2011

Make bad art.

Set aside some time to experiment, play, have fun with materials that you haven't used in awhile, or never used before but wanted to. Do something you know you're not good at. Work on that series that's been jotted down in a journal, or floating around in your head that you find ways to avoid ever working on. Don't like it? Crumple it up, rip to shreds, burn it, hang it on a wall and laugh at how bad it is, or slap some postage on it and send it to some stranger, but make it. Then make some more. And realize throughout all of this no one has to see what you've made.
posted by squeak at 9:32 PM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

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