“I feel like I don’t belong—that my art isn’t good enough, or if it is, I’m fundamentally flawed in some way that will prevent me from ever succeeding. I apply for open calls and residencies but I don’t get many. What can I do?” —Down and Figuring it Out
Let’s begin by establishing what belonging means and why you feel you don’t fit in.
Belonging is community acceptance. In creative fields, this might mean inclusion in shows, press mentions, and invitations to exclusive events — fairly standard markers of success in a marketplace that relies heavily on a model of exclusivity. For all the camaraderie we may feel when we connect to people who share our passion, the industry perpetuates a sense of exclusion amongst most of its members.
In other words, it’s not an accident that you feel like shit. The art industry is literally designed to make you feel that way.
And this isn’t just in the field of fine art or relegated to artists — it applies to curators, dealers, illustrators, designers, commercial photographers, and just about any other creative profession you can name. Almost nobody gets paid what they’re worth, and there’s far more art out there than people to support it. When you don’t get paid for your labor, you begin to think you did something to deserve it. You begin to believe that is your worth.
(And to acknowledge those who will remind me that art’s function exists beyond its monetary value — yes, but it still extracts a cost to produce.)
Needless to say, your question about whether your art and career have value is one of the most common I hear as a coach. But your answer is the only one that matters. I can tell you your art is great, but if you don’t believe it, you won’t believe me either.
Self-doubt is easy to come by, in part, because so much of our success feels subjective and beyond our control. We’re not running a race where fitness and finish time determine the winner. Adept craftsmanship, smart concepts, or any other traditional skills art schools teach, do not amount to merit. Your art’s eloquence in expressing your voice and perspective creates value, and nobody has a metric for that success but you. Most artists spend a lifetime honing their voice to meet that internal logic.
Now, I doubt that telling any artist to buck up because they’re in control of their happiness will impact their state of mind after receiving a sea of rejections. One of the problems with working in the art world is that rejection happens all the time and there aren’t enough ways to feel successful.
But let me ask you this: What would you need to feel a sense of belonging?
For many, the answer will be tactical. You might describe specific shows or awards you want. You have to set goals to achieve them, but only using these types of guideposts won’t clear your emotional cache. For one, if your only goals rely on someone else’s subjective opinion, you’re going to feel bad more often. For another, most of us will update milestones once we know we will achieve them. That’s natural and important, but it often doesn’t allow us to savor success.
I find that arts workers who identify their core beliefs first and set their goals to match often find greater satisfaction in what they do. Your vision of the world and how you participate will endure longer than any short- term goal, allowing you to revisit your successes more often. So, maybe you didn’t get an award, but you gained visibility for your perspective in the process. Not only does this give you more flexibility in how you view your success, but it gives you more flexibility in your problem solving process.
Unfortunately, self-actualization is not a panacea for self doubt. Most people I talk to describe feeling more anxiety as they gain success, not less.
So, how can you feel more confident and less anxious regardless of circumstance? The answer is twofold. One, find supportive communities where people talk about this stuff so you’re not alone. Two, practice.
What happens when you practice making art? You get better.
What happens when you practice doing things you are scared to do? You get better.
What happens when you practice being nice to yourself? You. Get. Better.
This isn’t a sexy answer — but if it works, who cares? Confidence is a muscle you can build, just like any other. It’s not easy, and the art world is not an ideal training environment. But if you work at it, you’ll grow healthier and happier.
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Editor’s Note: Paddy Johnson is the founder of VVrkshop, a platform that helps artists get the shows, residencies and grants of their dreams. Paddy will be offering practical advice for the studio, careers, money, and life-work balance. If you have a problem you’d like advice on, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.
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