It's been a few weeks since I posted anything, and about two weeks since any finished work has emerged, so I thought I would write something to fill in the blanks a bit. I tend to write these things in first draft mode - unplanned, unmapped, and extremely stream of consciousness, but I do try to structure at least a little bit, so it reads a little less like the meanderings of a diary. Always the context should be about the work, the art, so I will try to keep that mind, but most of the last few weeks have been devoid of art, and this is what I will focus on.
There is a party line in the world, in the arts, that you have to maintain a steely exterior, an iron clad confidence that makes you indifferent to criticism and negative reactions to your work, but I have never been much for parties. The point is, things get to me, even if they are temporary, even if I don't respect the person from which the reaction is emanating. It is always amazing to me how a run of misfortune seems to multiply, straining the resolve of a person to the breaking point. This month has been that for me. I am not made of steel, and I am not immune to negative feedback, even if the consensus of all creatives out there is that I should be.
To find the reason for this sensitivity would be arduous, and this is not meant to be a self-indulgent therapy session, but the sensitivity is there, and I don't understand how an artist can claim to be immune to negative feedback and still be an artist - the very nature of an artist should and does contradict this tough posturing. I suppose that confidence and self-worth play into this equation too, so perhaps there are others that find dismissing these "attacks" easier than I do, but regardless of where anyone else is on the scale, I feel them, and I react to them.
Contributing to my low tide this month, and leading up to the crest and the break, is a run of personal problems that I will not delve into deeply, but suffice to say, it's all "real world" stuff: money, family issues, seasonal depression, employment, and the bitter cold and weather that seems to keep me housebound more than I should be. Then a few other things, from the artistic side of life: good material is in short supply now: model shoots are needed, but no money to do them, environment/scenics are needed, but the weather and the locations seem to conspire against those things being obtained. Each piece gets harder and harder to complete because I am working with some pretty severe limitations of material at this point. There is nothing wrong with taking some time off - indeed, I should, given my prodigious output of recent months, but the problem with that is I like doing this, so not doing it is beyond frustrating to me, and it makes me feel empty not to have something to work on.
And then came some negative comments about my work. In the last few weeks, I have seen comments like "artless," "soulless," "depressing," "empty," and criticizing my choice of colors, my cropping, everything. One even likened one of my pieces to a moment in a rock video, meaning nothing, with no artistic merit. Of course these people were emboldened to rip me apart safely in the land of internet anonymity, and of course most of these people have nothing of their own work on display - I have been down this road before, and I know that those types are out there, lurking in the cyber shadows. But no matter the source, this kind of attack gets through, and plants a seed of self doubt in me, and I go into shutdown, into a period of self-assessment and analysis.
I am confident enough about my work - I like to think I am pretty good at looking at it objectively, and I spend an enormous amount of time avoiding laziness and trying to make things as well as I can. I want my pieces to mean something - I don't want simply a pretty picture, and I don't want to create nonsense. I know when I am finished something that regardless of how successfully conveyed the meaning is, there IS meaning in it, and I put it there deliberately. It is quite a lengthy process to gradually form an idea and visually represent that idea. Some come easier than others, and yes, some of them are not my best work - everyone is capable of creating duds, and I am no exception to that. But I know that there is some measure of integrity in all of them, some attempt at symbolic meaning and communication at their core, and so my integrity does not feel this attack, but my humanity does, my skin, my desire to be appreciated, which we all have no matter our bluster and noise to the contrary.
One of the pieces that came under particularly harsh attack was one of my personal favorites, and it was one that was days in the making, and also one that required me to do it twice, as the original file became corrupted and I had to start all over again from the beginning. That it was completed at all was a test of my patience, and my desire to see it through and make it work was a personal victory for me, since I am not known for my patience in life. It was stuffed with meaning, symbolically of course, and I thought it held together quite nicely. During a curation process, the piece was appraised without title, without my explanatory notes. And it was attacked.
I live in my own world artistically. In visual arts, as in music, when I was a songwriter, I don't really absorb a lot of work from others while I create - that can lead to copying ideas, so my development is measured internally, by me, and the body of work becomes a progression, a personal one, like raising a child and seeing all the iterations of that child throughout its development. It is a key motivator for me - this desire to see things through, to see where it could go and how good it could get along the way. There is never a destination really, it is a journey, it is developing a muscle, and your strength relies on perseverance. Since what I do is neither straight photography or painting, but somewhere in between, I have to post my work somewhere online, and most of the places it resides are photography sites.
Photography can indeed be an art form, but not all photographers are artists, or even artistically inclined. Some of them wouldn't know a work of art if they fell onto it from 20,000 feet and were impaled by it. With great disdain some of them view my work and call it over-processed, artificial, and they become almost hostile when they have no idea what it means or what it is trying to say. And so the scathing comments come. But after my initial reaction of being hurt, it occurs to me that these people are utterly incapable of looking at anything that isn't cut and dry, and they require, insist really, on being spoon fed. Naturally, something surreal would irritate them. Of course something symbolic would perplex their literal and narrow minds.
This amounts to a pep talk, and something I try to tell myself when I see these comments. But the initial attack has done its damage, and eventually my desire to create something will override their hateful words, and output will resume. It is just very unfortunate timing that it comes now, when everything else is low, everything else is hard, and for the one constant in my life, my creative output, to be harped on now is just too much. Even if it is momentary, even if it is unqualified, you start to view your work through their eyes, and suddenly you question your talent, your ability, and all seems rather pointless and futile. Even if this lasts a day, it is damaging. Even if you have lots of positive support outweighing the negative, the bully in your life will always cut the deepest. Why? Because bullies are the only one carrying the knives. Because the part of you that resides in all of us that doubts, that feels worthless, is awakened by these bullies, and that part temporarily takes the foreground when it should be left dormant and inert.
And so I am climbing out of the hole slowly, and trying to resume. I am often dismayed by being labeled so often as "negative." I would never say to anyone something so harsh as I have seen about my work directly, even if I felt it. I like to think I at least try to see something redeeming in people's artistic expression, but if I really don't like something, I would not set out to inform them of this. It astonishes me that there are people who feel compelled to do so, and further confirms my suspicions that most of humanity is savage, most should be kept at arm's length.
To the purist photographers out there who hate what I do, you should know that, besides being a complete hypocrite, what you do and what I do are worlds apart. What I display is not something I captured or documented, something approaching voyeurism often, but it is the result of willing something into existence, and I am not at all interested or aspire to capturing something real or as is. I am not a reporter, I am not a documentarian. I am an artist, and what you do is more akin to hunting, and I don't really care. It is why I prefer fiction over biography, films over documentaries, scripted shows over newscasts. There is nothing interesting in that realm for me. I don't need to spend any more time in the real world, I am forced to be in it daily. I want the surreal, the fantastical, the impossible and the dream-like. I want the message to be delivered allegorically, not plainly. And if you are perplexed by what I am trying to say, or feel I am saying nothing at all, then maybe the void that you experience is really your own inability and unwillingness to find meaning in something that isn't literal.
I realize not everything I do will be great, or good, and not everyone likes the same thing. My tolerance of those differences needs work, certainly, but clearly not as much as some of my contemporaries, given the misery they felt so free to unleash. Kicking while someone is down is probably the least attractive quality in the human condition, and one that makes me feel very apart from it, and alone. I am not a saint, certainly, and I have strong opinions, but not everyone needs to know your opinions.
The last time I got some form of artistic rejection, I created a piece as a reaction to it, letting my current and raw feelings seep into it, and certainly it was a piece created out of anger, out of self-defense. Perhaps it is bad form to do so, but then again, if I am being honest with myself and my work, then why not show that too? I have a feeling the experiences of this awful month will find their way into the next round of imagery, whenever they may come, and I think I will let it be, and give it voice, as I have here now. Why not? What good is an artist that tempers what he does, that restricts and edits the raw material, that worries about the party line and falls in line with the rhetoric most seem to value? I am not interested in that.
Perhaps my explanatory notes that accompany the images will cease in the future, given the revelations of this month, it seems that too many don't want to work hard or even a little to glean the meaning in something, and want it all laid out for them. Maybe I am doing myself a disservice by writing the notes, and should let the pieces speak for themselves, though I do enjoy writing them.
For those of you out there who may have read this, who may also create art, I hope this connected with you, and you should know that it's okay to be sensitive to the negative comments you may receive, and to desensitize yourself is unnatural if you want to be an artist. Artists need to be sensitive, perhaps hypersensitive. It's unfortunate though that the world at large is so overrun with the insensitive and cruel.