Raise your hand if you’ve witnessed an artist defending their work by comparing themselves to Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock.
Now raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to comfort an artist friend while they were explaining to you how badly they suck at art and how hopeless their future prospects were.
If it were humanly possible, I’d have eight hands up in the air right now, like a dancing Shiva.
Fact is, if you hang out with artists, you have encountered both their otherworldly arrogance and their abject humility. Often displayed at different times by the same person. If you are an artist, you’ve probably felt the tug of both these tides, even if you didn’t express it out loud. Which one of us has not at times thought ‘What, THAT thing won the contest? Mine was like a hundred times better! Sheesh!!’, and then an hour later found themselves staring dully into a wall thinking ‘No wonder I didn’t win, what was I even thinking. My piece had, like, everything wrong with it. It’s a wonder they had even accepted me into the voting.’
Artists and their volatile egos are a common place in our cultural discourse, for a number of reasons. For one, art is an intensely personal process, and the final result feels less like a product and more like a piece of your soul. This is why praise of one’s artwork is the most valued currency, and criticism is often met with aggression and arrogance – whatever you’re saying about my work you may as well be saying about me. We’re bad at creating that professional distance that most professions naturally grow into, where ‘my work is not who I am’. For artists, it kind of is.
Because artists are incited to share their work widely in order to gain Exposure (that most magical of all words), they often come into a position where their ego can grow, feeding on lavish public praise, or where it gets very bruised by harsh comments from critics who aren’t always necessarily objective or well-intentioned. The kind of work that most other professions do usually isn’t so readily subjected to public judgment, so they never feel the need to become so protective and defensive over it.
Also, most art is made from some internal drive to create – a personal vision of sorts. I can’t imagine many people decide to become illustrators or pattern designers through a thought process along the lines of: ‘I want to grow up to be rich and powerful! But how?! Wait… I know!! I’ll draw things and drive people wild with the amazingness of my drawings!! They will be so enthralled they’ll throw money at me as I pass them by in the street.’ It’s much more likely that we start to draw because it’s something we feel we really want to do, for ourselves. But on the other hand, drawing as a career requires that your work is suited to the taste of your public, rather than your own. The gap between these two things will be small if you are lucky – or it can be a gaping chasm if your taste tends to run counter to popular preference. The bigger the gap – the more you stress about which side you should be on. Draw things for yourself that have no real commercial application? Or draw chevrons and pugs and start to hate yourself in the process? (In case pugs and chevrons aren’t your natural inspiration. If they are, then carry on – this is your Golden Age!)
At the bottom of each of these is essentially the same thing – the emotional connection between the artist and the art. This overly volatile relationship with the things we make means we can in turn imagine ourselves the greatest talent that ever lived, and the saddest sap that ever held a stylus pen. Sometimes within minutes. Or at the very same instant.
It’s generally accepted that creative professions are given to depression, substance abuse and such. Liz Gilbert delivered an extraordinary TED talk on her ideas for overcoming that grim predilection, which you really should listen to, partly because it’s really smart and partly because it’s downright hilarious. One thing I want to add, though, is that I don’t think it’s accidental that artists have egos of such wide range. I think we absolutely need both the Dr. Jekyll and the Mr. Hyde that hide within.
There are many artists in the world. More than you can count. They are all vying for public attention, so you can see them out there – myriads, some bad, some good, way too many abso-fucking-lutely amazing. Mindblowingly, annoyingly skilled. They flood Behance, Pinterest, PoD sites, crowdsourcing sites, online galleries. How would you ever dare draw anything? How would you ever presume to imagine that one day you could carve out a place for yourself in that sheer wall of massive talent, if there wasn’t some small grain deep inside that kept telling you ‘We can be better than all of them, kid. They’ll see.’ That’s the ego. That moves you forward, on through the years you’ll need to get good enough. And if you stick with it, in the end you’ll see that the grain was right.
On the other hand, there you are – you draw late into the night, you obsessively mull over your ideas, you keep imagining new color schemes, you give it your best. You feel proud and excited to share it with the world. You made something unique, isn’t it cool! Isn’t it the coolest thing EVER? 😀 This is where you need that little worm of doubt. Yes, my work is my baby and I love it, but is my audience loving it too? Do my clients love it? Is it right for them? How does it compare with what the other artists are making? Is it unique? Is the idea clearly communicated? Do people get it? The worm teaches you things. It keeps you moving forward, always learning.
So these two are both your friends. When either one runs off, things become awkward. But together they make good shipmates. Keep them both afloat.
Which way do you lean? Do you fight criticism or deflect praise? Let me know in the comments!