“When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.” – Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help
Imposter syndrome and I often walk hand in hand. I love my art, but I sometimes feel like a selfish, self-indulgent idiot for spending any time on it and – even worse – for having the audacity to put it out into the world so other people can see it and, if I’m very lucky, even take it home with them.
I think guilt is particularly common in the creative community. Generally we make things because we enjoy it; and when you start to sell your work something which began as a hobby slowly grows and develops into legitimate career (even if not a particularly lucrative one). But the journey from pastime to work is not smooth. It is fraught with frustrations and the endlessly recurring question: ‘How dare you?’
‘How dare you claim that your hobby is worth the time you spend on it?’
‘How dare you ask people to pay for your art?’
‘How dare you ask people to look at the little things you made?’
‘How dare you. Who do you think you are?’
When I was younger I spent a lot of time wondering and worrying about what I would be when I became a real adult. The problem was that the goal posts kept shifting. I used to think that when I was 18 I would be a fully fledged ‘successful’ adult. Then when I became 18 I realised that this was possibly a very ambitious deadline, and anyway I was still technically a teenager, but certainly when I turned 21 the universe would smack me in the face, magically endow me with wisdom, self-sufficiency, and grace and I would emerge from my chrysalis of immaturity like some glamorously zen superwoman.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is a difficult one, because you are forced to realise that adulthood is more of a journey than a destination. I think the clichés really do ring true on this one. Working professionally as an artist is very similar. You watch other ‘real’ artists and set yourself goals and qualifying targets that can make you ‘real’ too:
‘When I sell my first piece, then I’ll be a proper artist’
‘When I get my first commission, then I’ll be real’
‘Ok, when I get my first commission from a complete stranger THEN I’ll be an artist’
‘Maybe when I have an exhibition…’
I have had all of these (well, the exhibition is not until September, but I still had to pass and be accepted by the gallery’s panel of judges to book the dates). And I still feel silly doing this. Even this blog post feels ridiculously pretentious, almost like I’m desperately waving at the world shouting, ‘Look – I’m a real artist! I have a blog! Come and see how authentic I am!’ I hate to feel like an attention seeker.
But I really do love my work, and art is a medium designed to be seen. There is something profoundly sad to me in a painting locked away from viewers’ eyes, or a book hidden unread in some dusty corner. Art is meant to be shared and experienced. It is an expression of human life, and human life is all about connection and being seen.
“There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen. When you are looked at your eyes can be closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, and you are seeing and recognising your witness … One is exhibitionism, the other is connection. Not everyone wants to be looked at. Everyone wants to be seen.” – Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking
Art is just another form of human communication. It is a two-way street between the creator and the viewer. Shared taste, shared emotion, the shared experience of seeing a piece of art, of making something for someone, of putting a piece of your inner landscape and the way you see the world out there for people to judge is just another conversation. It says, ‘I see you. I hope you see me too.’
This is a conversation of vulnerability, because you open yourself to rejection and disapproval. I think it is like a magnified microcosm of all human connection. Not everyone is going to like you or share your taste, as a human being you have to live with that; and particularly as an artist you have to take this as a fact of life and not proof of your deep underlying inadequacy. Life is painful, which is why art can be. But it is also beautiful and wonderous and full of sense and joy and meaning. Margery Williams says it perfectly in her children’s novel ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’, a book which I read obsessively when I was younger, and a book whose lessons I am still struggling to accept.
“Real isn’t how you are made”, said the Skin Horse, “It’s a thing that happens to you.”
“Does it hurt?” Asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” – Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
This quote always makes me a little teary. It is about so much; mostly about love and the acceptance of flaws and the hurts that come with love. But it is also about communicating and coming to terms with acceptance and rejection. You become ‘real’ when you open yourself to being seen as ugly, when you have survived being damaged and worn and changed. Becoming real is also becoming vulnerable. And it is accepting this and shrugging it off, and telling yourself that it is ok and doesn’t hurt and moving forward to enjoy your work and your life. It is accepting that you won’t be real to everyone, and that’s ok. Becoming real is becoming honest with yourself, opening your eyes to see the people around you and hoping they see you too. You can’t become real in this way (and by this I mean an adult and professional creative) by being precious, easily hurt, or giving up and breaking if things don’t go the way you want or if they feel too difficult. I find this very hard, but it is something to remember when I feel guilt overwhelm me, or when my internal fraud police start waving their batons and calling in the jury.
“Creativity takes courage” – Henri Matisse
Enjoying something doesn’t make it less worthwhile. I’m learning that you work professionally and become a Genuine Artist just by doing it. You have to do in order to become. Nothing makes your work legitimate – you have to legitimise yourself, and get up every day and work at it and let yourself enjoy the process, enjoy the good and the bad and stop worrying about whether you’re allowed to. Give yourself permission. It’s all a journey.
“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing” – George Bernard Shaw
I hope this post hasn’t been too confusing. I’m just throwing down my thoughts from the last few weeks, trying to grapple and come to terms with myself as a public artist. And to be honest I’m rather scared of putting this out there.
Thank you if you made it this far through. Even if you disagree with me, thank you for helping me to feel Real.