Should I attend an art program when I am not confident in my abilities?
March 25, 2013 10:25 PM   Subscribe

Artists: do you enjoy the process of making whatever art you make? Should I pursue an opportunity in an artistic field when I dislike the process of making the art and am not confident in my results?

I was accepted into a great, multi-year, art program with all expenses paid. The problem is, I’m not sure if I should go.

I applied to the program for a few reasons. I am in my early 30’s, and I have had a series of unsatisfying jobs. I want to settle on one thing and have a career. I’d like it to be in the arts. I filled out the application for this program in part to start pursuing that goal, and in part out of sheer boredom. I am working in a job where I am alone a lot and do little work, so I had lots of free time to fill up. The pieces I submitted with the application were things I concocted expressly for applying. I worked intensely on them for months and they were the last things I did. I wouldn’t say I have a catalog of work. I have hundreds of fragments of abandoned work that I've amassed over the years.

The problem is, I don’t particularly enjoy the process. I am not a “natural,” you could say. I pour for weeks, months over a piece, beat myself up, go through horrid mood swings, and when the piece is finished, I usually hate it so much I can’t stand to look at it again. The quality of my work is okay. It’s better than what average people could do, I suppose, but I would not classify it as even “very good.” I think one reason I got into this particular program is because I had an influential alum, a personal friend, aggressively recommending me.

I have a few reasons that I keep working in the field. I hope to one day start enjoying it. I want to be in league with people who do it. I love the output of others. Consuming it is my chief hobby, and has been since childhood. I spend at least 2-3 hours a day seeking out the work of others. I am obsessive about it. I have an enormous amount of respect, love, attachment, and awe for the field. I know a lot about it an can talk extensively on the subject. It’s not an exaggeration to say I only feel truly happy when I am engaged in looking at the work of others.

When people close to me say, “Well, this is what you love, isn’t it?” I think, “Yeah, but only when other people do it.”

My other plan was to apply to graduate school in another artistic field that I am very confident in, know I am really talented at, but am not as obsessed with as this other field. If I knew I could get in to a school to study this other thing, I would definitely give up my slot in the art program because I am much more confident in the other area. The other field is very competitive, though, so there is no guarantee I would get in. If I turn down this offer, then don’t get in to school for the other thing, I’d be at a loss.

I feel like I am at a point where I want to get down to something and stop wasting time.

My questions:

Do you actually enjoy the process of making whatever art you do?
If you do, have you always? Did it come to you later?
Should I gamble on turning down this offer to go for something I am more confident in that I may not get?
posted by amodelcitizen to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The problem is, I don’t particularly enjoy the process. I am not a “natural,” you could say. I pour for weeks, months over a piece, beat myself up, go through horrid mood swings, and when the piece is finished, I usually hate it so much I can’t stand to look at it again.

This is so normal, it's practically a cliche.
posted by empath at 10:42 PM on March 25, 2013 [12 favorites]

You could always accept this offer and transfer later, if you wanted.

But, you might appreciate Ira Glass on how taste can mess people up for a bit, and why it might be worth enduring that for a while.
posted by nelljie at 10:44 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I’d like it to be in the arts.

How do you expect to have a job in the arts if you dislike creating art?

That said, the process you describe of struggling and then ultimately disliking the results is a common one, and it's something that I believe practice -- and specifically a program that will force you to complete work as well as critique your colleagues' work -- can help with.

I would not worry too much about whether you're "good enough". The admissions people think you're good enough, and that's all that matters. That said, I do think you should think seriously about the rigor of the program and how realistic any "return on investment" would be. Do you think you could have a career as an artist? Do you think the school can prepare you for such a career?

I also think you're overthinking this, possibly with an angle towards self-sabotage. It's a lot easier to say "I thought about going to art school" than it is to say "I'm currently an art student". Beware that impulse. It seems liberating, but it's actually holding you back.
posted by Sara C. at 11:00 PM on March 25, 2013

I only started in art 4 years ago so I am no expert nor am I a "natural", whatever that means. I love making art (ceramics) but it is fucking torture at times. This semester has been particularly gruesome. My professor finally told me that I am thinking way too much (she claims that she never says this to anyone) and that I needed to let myself go. So I made 6 pots in a week and three I broke while carving, one looked like something a two year old made and the last two I was to embarrassed to show anyone. I like parts of most of my work but it is rare for me to like the finished product. I always find fault. I think that is something I need to change.

As far as getting into your program...I would go and give it a try and then transfer if it does not work out. Being in a studio where you are working with others on your craft can be a very positive experience and be very affirming of whatever your artistic process is. Doing art by yourself, I think leads to much critiquing of oneself without the benefit of an alternative view of your output.

Good luck.
posted by cairnoflore at 11:10 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it's useful to have a good think on why or of which parts you "like" something. For example, I thought for a long time that I was extremely professionally interested in the topic of Thingamabob, because I'd had a job reaching out to the public around Thingamabob-related issues and really got into my groove doing that. However, upon getting the opportunity to actually work as a Thingamabob practitioner, I realized that the substantive-level nitty-gritty of Thingamabob bored me to tears, and what I had subliminally enjoyed in that prior position was, on a more abstract level, the types of tasks involved-- making presentations, meeting with people, sharing knowledge with others, etc. It turned out the topical matter I applied those tasks to was not nearly so important as I thought. Try to break your ambivalence down into its most elementary constituent parts.
posted by threeants at 11:20 PM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have a BFA, and I agree with everything you said. It's free? Go. You can always drop out or transfer later. I love having been to art school - it's the hardest thing I've done and I grew A LOT. Growth is painful. It's like "Don't you just love being a mom?" Vs. "You will love having parented."
posted by jrobin276 at 11:23 PM on March 25, 2013

When people close to me say, “Well, this is what you love, isn’t it?” I think, “Yeah, but only when other people do it.”

There are arts management, curator practice, and museum studies courses where you could work with fellow artists in what may well be for you a more enjoyable fashion.

Do you actually enjoy the process of making whatever art you do?

Eh, it gets monotonous often and the times when I hit a wall and can't quite bust through are wildly frustrating, but I'd also say there are times when I'm actively enjoying it. But usually I'm more critically engaged while making the work, and it's only at the end when I can stop editing and really connect with the whole piece that the joy comes in. When I finish a piece that's put me through the wringer and I am proud of the end result, I will often hop around in excitement, dance frenetically, and generally experience a rush of adrenaline-fueled happiness.

If you do, have you always? Did it come to you later?

I've always had about the same response(s) to making work.

Should I gamble on turning down this offer to go for something I am more confident in that I may not get?

Well, just because the program will be free doesn't mean you won't lose money. I've got a full tuition waiver, scholarships, an assistantship, and some other small income and I'm still in debt from my MFA. Plus the arts is a very difficult field in which to make a sustainable income - the supply is crazy overpopulated for the demand to the point where one painting faculty position can get 400+ applications - and being ambivalent about the process itself is not a great starting point. Also, getting an MFA is only truly essential if you want to teach art. If you just want to show in galleries, it is helpful but only to a point. And during MFA studies, you'll absolutely experience wilder mood swings/beating yourself up more because of the pressures of the program. From what you've said so far, I'd say you shouldn't pursue an arts MFA and instead immerse yourself in the local art scene (go to openings, get to know artists, etc), look into related arts management fields (get an internship at a museum or gallery!), and continue to pursue your own artwork on the side.

But if you've determined that it won't hurt you career-wise or financially and you have no reason not to give it a go, of course you can. The worst that will happen if the career and finances are taken care of is that you find out it wasn't for you and you leave. While I've been earning my MFA I know four students who've left (could've been more, I don't socialize as much as I'd like particularly with other disciplines) and there are only about eighteen new people who enter each year.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:32 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

can you defer for a year? that might give you the time to really think about this and apply to a program in that other art field you mentioned. personally, i find making art fun but also stressful. it is work but i am usually pretty pleased with the results.

many years ago i went to a career counselor. she said the career that you want to pursue is one you are both really good at and enjoy. i do think both are necessary ingredients to be satisfied and successful in a career.
posted by wildflower at 11:48 PM on March 25, 2013

I can't really speak to the arts aspect of this, but I am getting ready to leave a program I was accepted to, all expenses paid, which I also started in my early 30's.

Why am I leaving? Well, I entered into it partially because of the fact that it was free, and "something to do". I was interested in the subject, but in a more tangential way. I had doubts before starting.

Now, I don't completely regret having a try, but I think if I had been more self-aware at the time I wouldn't have begun it. I think fear and some sort of complacency held me back for really going for what I wanted to do. It's no way to live. Just because there aren't outright financial costs for something, doesn't mean it won't cost you.

I'd advise you to go for what you really want to do. From what you wrote, it doesn't sound like this is it. Life is pretty short, so don't waste it on things that you are not enthusiastic about.
posted by bearette at 11:51 PM on March 25, 2013

There are arts management, curator practice, and museum studies courses where you could work with fellow artists in what may well be for you a more enjoyable fashion.

just wanted to add i really like what veg said here. you could look into becoming an artist rep or something like curation, etc.
posted by wildflower at 11:59 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

You want a broader answer than just how I feel, because I'm definitely in the minority as a working creative artist who always really enjoys making the actual work.

(FYI, your "workdays" as a freelance artist would be more work on the business/admin side of supporting yourself than actual creative work, certainly at least at the start.)

Many of my colleagues -- even very well established ones -- talk about having the doubts and rollercoastering you describe (especially not wanting anything to do with a finished piece for a while). I'm not a visual artist, but I think I know enough to say it's not expected that you'd already have a catalog going into a program like this; the program would be about building a catalog and finding your voice as well as developing techniques.

If it turns out you're better suited to curatorial work, years in a great program as a practicing artist couldn't possibly hurt and would likely mean more respect and opportunities.
posted by kalapierson at 12:39 AM on March 26, 2013

If you want to feel a little more enthusiasm for the idea, keep in mind that you will be exposed to other people's art all day every day, and you'll get to see how they make it, and possibly even collaborate. A person that is more into other people's art than their own is going to really stand out in a fine arts program. If arts management, curation, running a gallery or anything like that appeals to you, think about all the contacts and friends you are going to make.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:42 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

As a visual artist who has drawn for over 40 years(I started at a very young age) and painted seriously for over 20 years, I would say I enjoy the process of creation much more now mainly because my technical ability has grown consistently over the years. My ability to think about what I do has also improved over the years; but it's the craft element, I think, that satisfies more.

Art school was very frustrating at times, most of the time actually, mainly the painting aspect, because my craft was borderline execrable. I still have times where I think I am just moving coloured mud around aimlessly on a flat surface but those are fewer and further between than when I was in art school.

My own sense is that knowing you are not very good is crucial to any enterprise you embark on. The students who were overly confident about everything they did tended, in my opinion, to make the worst work. Self doubt is part of the learning one does and there are many many examples of extremely accomplished artists grappling with this their whole working lives.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 3:15 AM on March 26, 2013

You've just described how every working artist I know feels about thier work.
posted by The Whelk at 5:27 AM on March 26, 2013

Oh and no, I hate process. I hate it less with writing cause there's no getting dirty but the pencil dusty rough paper planning process work is just dull chores you plod through. I like finishing things, not starting or working on them.
posted by The Whelk at 5:29 AM on March 26, 2013

Do you actually enjoy the process of making whatever art you do?
Yes, I love the process. I'm all about the process. It's one of the only places in my life that I achieve flow and it's like a drug to me.

But, to be clear, I have removed the element of audience and critique from my creative process. I have no intent to sell what I'm doing, show it, or even let another person look at it.

Even in my art school days I loved the making part, but the idea of upcoming audience and critique was painful, hampering, and intimidating.

If you're talking about a graduate program - grad school is rough. You need to have a compelling reason to be there. You need to either revel in the process, or be incredibly driven to end up wherever the program is positioning you to end up. Doing it because you're bored doesn't seem like a great idea.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:07 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm old, and also a teacher at an art school, and we talk a lot about this in the lunch breaks. In a way, I hate to say this, because it is a huge privilege to receive a scholarship, and part of me feels you have to do it out of duty. BUT: never, ever enter a career within the arts if you don't absolutely need to.
All the arts are much harder work, and often more unsatisfying work, than other jobs. And only one in a thousand get a reasonable pay. Literally, you may find more happiness working at McDonalds. A close friend of mine changed to working with refugees, a crazy tough job in my view, but in hers a relief after working as an artist within avantgarde theatre.
I've heard this spontaneously from the musicians, the crafts-people, the actors, the film-makers, the painters, etc. No difference. No one I know has advised their children to enter art school (though we are all proud and happy if they do).
We have a lot of talented students who for some reason think that the arts are "easier" than business or engineering, and are gravely disappointed. This isn't your problem, obviously. It's good that you realize this is tough. But you need to think if you really want to spend decades struggling with it. Like Phlegmco(TM) wrote, it does eventually get easier for some people, including myself. But I also know people who are 60+ and still almost suicidal in their anguish.
posted by mumimor at 7:38 AM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with muminor - don't do it unless you're compelled to do it, can't imagine doing anything else. I'm also a working artist. I do enjoy the process but like everyone else the insecurity and challenge and frustration are part of my life. I would think hard about what parts of it appeal to you - as others have said you might look at other arts-related work if actual studio practice isn't where you find joy at least some of the time.
posted by leslies at 8:03 AM on March 26, 2013

i went to music school, and i loved the process. I loved being critiqued and improving, and having something to work on every day that I was very devoted to. I appreciated studying the masters and reveling in their genius. For me, part of that appreciation stemmed from my ability to directly participate in the art through my own practice. the practice of the art almost became a sort of spiritual ritual.

I think it's normal to be self-loathing as an artist, and the humility of knowing that you are bad is the only starting point leading towards real achievement.

You say consuming is your chief hobby, though, and you have enough of an appetite to do this for hours each day. Would you consider becoming a critic, or someone who writes about art? I know someone who started in graphic design, but then decided to pursue an art history degree because she wanted to study and write about the work of others. after her degree she plans to become an archivist.
posted by winterportage at 10:21 AM on March 26, 2013

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posted by amodelcitizen at 4:19 PM on March 26, 2013

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