Artists are a self-hating bunch.
That’s the prevailing notion among the ‘normals’, anyway. By ‘normals’ I mean people who don’t consider themselves artists or ‘creatives’, although I think Mr. Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, put it best when he said art is “…whatever we do after the chores are done.”
The most common conception of an artist is a brooding figure in a dark room, slashing yesterday’s paintings with a steak knife. It hasn’t been helped by the sheer number of artists ‘back in the day’ that committed suicide or spent their lives in self-inflicted exile and hermitage, or the vast number of people these days who seem to think that by pretending to be psychologically damaged or dark they can join some exclusive ‘Artist’ club and their work, no matter how lazy or bad, will be somehow ‘valid’.
Enough inverted commas. All of that is wrong anyway.
What some people see as loathing directed inwards is in fact something entirely positive. Here’s an example from my own life:
I used to be rubbish. I was a terrible writer; an ok poet, but my prose was bad, plain and simple. Reading back through some stuff I found fairly recently proves this to me. I’m not going to post any here, it’s too painful, but trust me. When I see the kind of dreck I used to put out it makes me ashamed and angry. This is where the disconnect happens between ‘creative’ minds and others; the creative doesn’t see that as a negative emotion reflected on oneself, they see it as a negative emotion cast solely on the article in question. It’s a realisation that you used to lack the skills you now have, and that you have improved and, crucially, will continue to do so.
I’m pretty sure a few years down the line I’m going to come across a notebook filled with scribblings from around now-ish and hate them with a passion.
I know exceptional artists who basically refuse to draw because they aren’t ‘good enough’. This might be a confidence issue, but I know these people, so I know it isn’t. It’s a desire to constantly improve. An attitude that is entirely healthy for a creative person. If you have a set point in your mind where you think ‘I want to be THIS good’, you’ll eventually reach it (slowly, I might add) and then stagnate. If your desire is to improve on your work all the time, you can only get better. When struggling uphill the only place you can end up is on top, so to speak.
The most important thing to remember is that people change, and that includes you. You might really like a certain style of painting one year and then find yourself thinking it’s awful the next. Your psychological state is never the same as it used to be because you learn to deal with, or let go of, issues that used to inform your art. Here’s an experiment you can try if you’re lucky enough to have left puberty behind;
Look through some of the stuff you did during that period of personal turmoil. How much of it would you say is empirically ‘good’? 10%? None of it?
Exactly. That’s one of those periods of life where everything that is ‘you’ is jostling with what you thought was ‘you’, or what you think ‘you’ should be. Your personality is testing the waters, as it were, and art is a reflection of self.
As a result it’s going to be all over the place, some good, most bad, just because your whole self is throwing itself around trying to get a feel for the place. I know the majority of my own pubescent scribbling were confused, self-absorbed and downright bad, and it’s a good thing I know that because that has let me fix those habits over the intervening years.
So, in case you skipped to the end for a swift summary, I’d point out that what allegedly non-creative people are imagining when they hear you describe your own work with flippant ‘Oh, that was shite’-style remarks is entirely wrong, but by no means illogical, it’s just that they haven’t grasped the mindset that lets somebody critique their previous efforts.
It’s always worth adding ‘I’ve learned what to avoid’ or something to that effect, to let them know what you actually mean.
And to you ‘non-creatives’ (even though you don’t really exist), just remember; we don’t hate ourselves. We hate our work.
There’s a big difference.
By James Bovington
P.S. I find that it’s probably for the best to think the word ‘Maybe’ after every sentence of this article to achieve the best understanding of what I mean.