Art is a process of making things visible. The thing we most often end up making visible is ourselves.
In my earlier days as an artist, I wanted so strongly for the piece to be viewed as separate from me.
Ideally, I wanted to disappear, and have people only see the work.
I didn’t realise this at the time, but this was an immense act of hubris. I was trying to hold myself separate from and above the things that I was creating. I have a lot of empathy for my earlier self – I was trying to protect my heart and my ego, and this mindset allowed me to persevere as a writer.
As I have gotten older, my feelings about the relationship between the artist and the art have shifted. I feel like this connection is something to be celebrated and nurtured. The artist is not their work – but these two things are deeply intertwined.
The things we create are made from us – our minds, feelings, viewpoints, experiences. How can we presume to hold ourselves separate? That need to say ‘that isn’t part of me’ carries whiffs of self-doubt, or in its most severe manifestations, self-loathing.
I ended up going down a little rabbit hole this week, watching a whole bunch of music videos from artists that seem to be straddling the boundary between amateur and professional work. It’s fascinating to look at ones from artists who are clearly talented, but where something hasn’t clicked into place yet.
Obviously production values can make a big difference between artists at this level and true stars, but the biggest thing I noticed was the self-consciousness. I could see some of them wondering, ‘how do I look to the camera’, or moving in ways that felt really practiced. It’s like they were watching themselves from the outside.
The gap that separates the really exceptional artists is this: exceptional artists want to be seen, everyone else wants to be admired.
The desire to be admired is tempting, and leads nowhere but to misery.
I’m speaking from experience here. I did quite a lot of performing as a child, through high school, and then at university. And I found myself often approaching it as something competitive. The goal was to communicate an idea or feeling, sure, but I also had something to prove.
When I sang, I think I was just as concerned whether people would think ‘that is a beautifully sung note’ as I was about singing from my soul. When I wrote a poem, I wanted people to think ‘oh that’s clever’ and wasn’t focusing on being as honesty as the main goal. When I acted in a play, I wanted people to think I was beautiful, and I wasn’t interested in characters that would puncture this facade.
I had no idea how much joy and freedom I was missing out on.
When I would watch the artists whose work touched me most, I would often feel jealous of their seeming abandon and unselfconsciousness. I would try to find it by studying their patterns and motions – not realising this was something that could only be created from the inside.
I didn’t know how to connect with this approach, but it feels like this is finally coming into focus for me through the self-reflective process of this blog.
I kept this blog secret and private for about 18 months because I needed the time to find my own voice and to write without the fear of judgment. But my goal from the start is to allow myself to be seen and known as fully as possible – mostly for Rose.
It has been so liberating to experience this shift in mindset – even though I didn’t realise it was happening at the time. I just kept experiencing more joy and more flow – and when I lost it, I could re-centre by asking myself whether I was being willing to be seen, or whether there was still part of myself that was hiding.
It’s worth saying that trying to be seen doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything or be available and visible all the time. Privacy has its place. Exhibitionism is just as tied up in the need to manipulate others into a response that drives a desire for admiration. I’m not looking for a kind of vulnerability that strips me bare, but instead total presence.
Now, my goal with my work is not to fit into a box of others’ approval. I am still susceptible to this urge, like most people, but I’m working with the artistic process to discover my fullest self and let it be seen.
I’m trying to bring this approach – which grew out of deeply personal writing – more and more into my fictional work. Can I still be as ‘me’ as possible? How much of my heart and soul can I bring into it? Can I let go of my preconceptions of what things should be to create the work that only I can make?
As human beings, most of us spend so much of our lives packaging ourselves to be palatable and appealing to some imaginary societal force. There is nothing wrong with desiring recognition and approval – and the social capital that comes along with this. It’s a pretty basic motivation. But it limits expressiveness.
When we make work, the people are making up their minds about it – in effect judging us. We can go down this rabbit hole of trying to understand and manipulate this response. Or we can refocus on staying inside our own experiences and being our truest selves.
This is what I am reaching towards every day.
Now, when I find myself getting stuck and losing the flow in my work, I reset my compass by asking myself: “Am I trying to be admired, or am I trying to be seen?”
‘Seen’ is by far the richer choice.