“Nothing is more apt to deceive us than our own judgement of our work. We derive more benefit from having our faults pointed out by our enemies than from hearing the opinions of friends.” (Leonardo da Vinci)
As artists we take risks by putting our work out into the world for others to see and experience. We hope others will relate to it. We hope that they will connect with it. The risk however is that when we put our work out into the world we do not know how others will react. Some people may offer compliments and encouragement. Others may be critical or derisive. We must learn to deal with any judgment or reaction that may come our way and be graceful at accepting the compliments as well as the criticism.
Recently, a colleague commented on one of my tapestries. I mentioned that the piece had been in an exhibit opening and that I did not receive any feedback about it. Yes, friends and family told me they liked the work, but somehow that doesn’t mean as much as receiving feedback from colleagues. That is not to say that the praise of friends and family is not appreciated, it’s just that comments from your colleagues, other artists, carry greater weight. After all the time and hard work spent on executing a piece it is encouraging to know other artists understand and connect with what I have done.
This experience caused me to think about validation, both internal and external. I recalled the first time I had work accepted to an exhibit and how good that felt. I also recalled the first rejection and how bad that felt. It didn’t take me long to realize that I couldn’t continue to take the rejection personally. It’s not personal. Work is chosen or not for many reasons and it is not about me (see two articles on the Jurying Process). I quickly learned to take rejection in stride. And, I learned about the subjectivity of rejection and acceptance. In 2014, I submitted my tapestry, Revolution, to ATB10 and it was rejected. That allowed me to submit the same tapestry to Atjlie 61’s 5th Triennial of Tapestry, in Novi Sad, Serbia where it won best traditional tapestry. One door closes and another one opens. Rejection hurts only if you allow it to. It can be a good thing.
Is it wrong to want others to appreciate our work? I would say it is only a mistake if we are putting our value as artists in the hands of others. If we come from a place of confidence, knowing that our work is worthy, then outside validation is icing on the cake. When we look for validation from others without a strong belief in ourselves and our work, we are giving our power away. We must first see our own value before we take in the validation by others. Both are important but the former must precede the later.
Once we personally identify with ourselves as artists and know the value of our own work, we can move on to accept the validation by others. This external validation can be very satisfying and helpful as we establish our reputations.
External validation and building your reputation
Receiving external validation that you can put on your CV is very useful. And if, like me, you don’t have an art degree it is imperative if you wish to establish yourself as a serious artist. There are many different forms of external validation, including but not limited to:
Verbal or written praise
When someone says they connect with your experience as a human, you may feel like the effort, no matter how big or small was worth your time and energy. Creating to seek connection is vastly different from creating for validation. Creating in order to make a connection means hoping others will find themselves in your work. Creating for validation could lead to others accepting your work superficially without being emotionally provoked.
Acceptance into exhibits
Another way to receive validation of your artistic skills is to enter juried competitions. These can be anything from local to international; the wider the scope of the exhibit the more significant the reward of inclusion and recognition. Begin with local competitions and, if you are so inclined, move up towards larger and more prestigious competitions. Where you exhibit your work makes a difference. As you move up to more prestigious exhibits the competition will become fiercer because you will be facing artists of a higher caliber. However, the benefit you will receive if your work is accepted will be proportionally more meaningful.
If you are trying to build a reputation, whether you have an art degree or not, being accepted in juried exhibitions is a good way to begin. If you receive awards along the way all the better. Awards are a sure way of knowing you have made a connection and if you are fortunate enough to receive a letter from the juror(s) they will likely explain why they were moved to choose your work which makes the award all the more valuable to you.
Teaching can be a form of artistic validation. Passing your skills on to others, sharing what you have learned, helping others benefit from your experience, preventing others from making the mistakes you made, can be a validating experience. Translating your skills into a language that others, your students, can understand allows you to learn at a new level as well. However, one needs to have both the skills and the desire to teach. Knowing how to do something well is not the same as knowing how to teach a subject well. Teaching requires preparation, patience and reflection. Preparing for a class and reflecting about how you taught this class are as important as teaching the class. This self-awareness and personal education can come at a cost as teaching is a time-consuming activity that will take away time that would otherwise be spent weaving. You need to find the balance that is right for you.
One is a “published artist” if your work has appeared in books, magazines, newspapers, or if you have had articles that you have written published in catalogues, newsletters, magazines, books, or newspapers. Either your work is good enough that someone wants, for example, to use it in a book, or you know enough about a subject to have an article published. This is another notch in the belt of credibility and validation.
Sales of work and being recognized as an artist are two fundamentally different things. What generates regular sales of one’s work are marketing and business skills. What generates artistic recognition is the creation of works of art that demonstrates a unique personal style that resonates with the viewer. Making sales is a two edged sword. On the one hand you have people who like your work enough to pay for it. On the other hand, you must detach yourself enough to part with it. You must be careful that your pricing is not so low that someone makes a purchase because it is a bargain, but not so high that you price your work out of your market (see three articles on Pricing).
Receiving praise is enormously gratifying, but it shouldn’t, in and of itself, be the reason you create. I believe in self-validation, though I find it difficult at times myself. Believing in yourself comes first. An artist’s job includes following your own instincts and vision. Only then will you be able to truly appreciate the validation that comes from others.