Playing Small May Be for Some People, But Not for the Artists of the World

“Know you could tumble any second…”
©2019, Molly Larson Cook
Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 30″

Several years ago a nonartist friend held a business seminar in a classroom at the art school in my city.  When I arrived, she was busy “saging” the room.  I asked why and she said, “Because they do art critiques here and there’s so much bad energy.”

I suggested that she could stop the saging because an art “crit” is a learning tool for artists and not intended to rip into anyone’s work or ego.  There are occasional exceptions, but those instructors never become the best.  And it’s true for other creative arts as well.  A big question for those who instruct writing, dance, music, acting and visual art is often how to offer criticism without knocking the student over.

As a one-time actress, long-time writer and now artist, I’ve been through more than one critique of my work, knowing it would help, loving the good comments, hating the ones that shook me a little.

But it’s part of the art game.  And it’s part of the game of life as well.

I read an article recently by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., titled “Relax, You’re Going to Be Criticized.”

I knew the article had not been written for artists, but I couldn’t ignore the shock of recognition when I read Hanson’s words not only about criticism but also about the added sting we provide for ourselves with additional jabs when the criticism comes and we take it too much to heart.

As a sometime writing coach, I always remind my writers that my words (aka criticism) are mine and the piece of work is theirs.  They will be the final judges of whether to apply what I say.  As a visual artist, I tell myself the same thing.  I don’t need the “self-inflicted wound” as Hanson puts it of letting criticism bounce around my head after I hear or read someone else’s words about it.

My response depends in great part on how much the other person knows and how he or she has chosen to speak to me about my work.  Friends who don’t know a lot about art or about what I’m trying to do sometimes ask “Why didn’t you do x, y, or z instead of a, b, c?”  They often also opine that x, y, or z would have made a better painting.  I let these comments pass.

Hanson notes, too, that, “We also jab ourselves with needless pain when we brace ourselves against possible future criticism, or play needlessly small to avoid it.

Bingo!  This is exactly what we artists need to remember.  Let us not brace ourselves against the future. Let us remind ourselves that art, any kind of art, is a risktaking business.  Playing it small is not the business of a creative person, no matter what kind of art we’re pursuing.  As Joseph Campbell put it so well years ago, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”

We sit by ourselves in the studio, at the writing desk, on the dance floor, in the darkened theatre or concert hall and seek our own paths.  Inventors sit at their workbenches and seek their own paths.  Champion cooks stand in their kitchens and seek their own paths.  Musicians plunk away at the piano and seek their own paths.

Whatever it is we want to create will come only by seeking our own paths.  We can learn from others, of course, practice our drawing or our scales or our choreographed steps, even imitate our favorite artists in the beginning, and we can listen to criticism, consider the comments. We can do all this, but in the end we bravely seek our own paths.  We may be shy people about other things, but about our art, we’re risktaking warriors.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but friends, if you’re any kind of artist, you’re not going for flattery.  You’re going for your path. Find it, see where it takes you, and send some postcards home.

2 thoughts on “Playing Small May Be for Some People, But Not for the Artists of the World

  1. Thank you for this wonderful comment. You are dear to my heart. And on the way to your own good life as a writer.

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