January 3, 2014

Why Art Sucks.

Warning: naughty language ahead!

A guy friend of mine recently made a comment about one of my articles recently that really, really pissed me off.

He said that in calling myself ‘moderately attractive’ at the beginning of Ten Things NOT To Do While Hitting On Me, I myself was breaking not one, but two of my own rules within the article: 1) Don’t neg, and 2) Be confident.

He said the fact that I didn’t just outright own the fact that I’m attractive (not ‘moderately’ attractive) was an un-confident neg.

“What you’re saying is that you think I’m attractive,” I said.

“No, I’m saying you are attractive,” he corrected me, “which is why it was stupid to say ‘moderately.’”

“According to you.”

“According to me, him, any guy in this bar!” he said, gesturing around. “If we asked all of them to vote, that’s what they’d say. You should just admit it—you shouldn’t have done that in the piece.”

All right. Momentarily setting aside the absurdity of being on the wrong side of an argument about my level of attractiveness, there were several troubling things going on here.

First of all, on a strictly logical level, I was annoyed. It will never be absolutely true that I am attractive, just as it will never be absolutely true that anyone is. Attractiveness really is personal: everyone has a type, and the truth is I’m simply not every person’s type.

The more insidious thing was the fact that in a way, he was right. (God, I hate it when they’re right). I had consciously not owned that I was attractive. I’d gone back and forth on whether to keep the word ‘moderately,’ going so far as to write it out one way, then the other.

But I wasn’t negging myself. I feel confident and attractive with respect to my looks most of the time. I don’t have a problem attracting men. I know how to walk, how to flirt, how to drop the right hints, how to escalate. But I also have insecurities, just like anyone else. Some days I’m proud of how I look and some days I hate my body. Some days I feel great and some days I feel fat; sometimes I feel unstoppable and sometimes I feel disgusting.

So I made a strategic decision to include the word ‘moderately.’ I wanted to be modest and accurate, and I really didn’t want to be shamed for calling myself attractive and stating it in a truly up front way. In other words, I wasn’t negging myself—I was protecting myself.

But no matter what I said or how I explained it, this ‘friend’ wasn’t budging. He thought I did exactly the thing I said not to do and I thought he just wasn’t listening and somewhere in the midst of all of it, I felt like crying. I couldn’t figure out why it felt so awful, why this deep, aching hole had formed within me, and in particular why it felt so incredibly, profoundly unfair.

Then I had an epiphany.

I realized that the content of the comment wasn’t what pissed me off—it was the offhanded nature of it.

It was his cavalier disregard, the simplemindedness of judging what someone else is doing without having to do it yourself. As he enumerated the ways in which I was wrong, I could feel myself becoming defensive, shutting down. And not because he was wrong.

Because I felt terribly, numbingly misunderstood.

It was in that moment that I truly grasped that sometimes, art sucks.

It blows to be misunderstood. It’s shitty to not have control over how other people take your art, take your words, take your meaning. It’s really annoying not being able to control other people’s perception of you—especially when your perception is that their perception is that you’re weak.

I was particularly frustrated at the idea of being judged, having my words minced and extracted and analyzed, without the balance of the other person having to come out, as well.

You want to judge me?

Then let’s see you put yourself out there.

Let’s see you write (or paint or sing or build) something you believe in—where you share where you’re raw, where you lay your soul out, like meat on a platter to be viewed and judged and tasted and deemed delicious or mediocre or wanting.

Because when I publish—whatever I publish, whenever I publish—I’m putting myself out there. I’m making my work available for the judgments of others. All of a sudden the inclusion or exclusion of a single word is what hinges upon me being taken seriously or someone cutting me down.

And honestly, why would anyone put themselves in a position to get cut down?

Because that’s what artists do. They go out on the limb, no matter how tenuous. They are the kingpins and the dummies and the lightning rods and the canaries in the collective coalmine. They say what others are unwilling to or unable to or unaware of. They clarify and amplify the noises in the culture around us and hold it right up to people’s faces and say, “Here! Here is what I’m talking about!” And the most powerful of these messages are when they say, “Here! Here it is. Here I am.”

But saying, “Here I am” is also incredibly risky.

It is when we are most exposed that we are most influential, because the message is undiluted and unprocessed and undeniable. That vulnerability—real vulnerability—is what real art is.

Whether it is expressed through dance or sculpture or writing or song or a cover letter or a letter of resignation, it is authentic vulnerability that produces great art.

So it is that artists are often the ones everyone else is talking about, the ones about whom topics revolve, the ones who spark the discussions that inspire the judgments and unearth the rifts and shine a light on the dark places.

Ultimately that’s our place and our purpose.

Yet we are also some of the most sensitive members of society. We are often more vulnerable than others, but because of the nature of our work we’re even more criticized. Yes—we are also venerated. Our words and murals and films and songs uplift and inspire and refine the voices and experiences of those around us. Sometimes, many times—we are recognized for that. Sometimes we’re attacked for it.

It’s easy to judge, criticize, and evaluate someone else’s art, someone else’s creation.

It’s not easy to share. Real sharing takes guts and brilliance and determination and heart and fire.

When I felt criticized, there was a part of me that wanted to tell him to shut up. There was a part that wanted to run away and hide the hurt. There was a part that wanted to scream, “You don’t understand!” and explain myself louder. But a bigger part of me wanted to say, “Actually, you know what? If you’re not in the ring, then get the fuck out the way.”

Because if you’re not willing to make yourself vulnerable like me—in some area of your life, I don’t care where—then no matter what I say, I’m better than you.

Yeah, I said it. I’m better than you. If I’m really putting my ass on the line, doing my thing, expressing my humanity, and you’re not—then I’m beating you at life. I’m beating you at life even if you think you’re right, even if you are right. Because you’re right about the thing I made.

I can’t do anything about the hurt. I can’t do anything about the fact that I am incredibly sensitive, that what makes me brilliant also leaves me more open to searing pain.

But I can make a powerful decision about it. In fact, I can make a series of powerful decisions.

So here’s what I decide, as an artist:

  1. I’m an artist.
  2. In sharing my art, I may not always feel safe.
  3. In sharing my art, I may not always feel good.
  4. In sharing my art, I may not always get to be right.
  5. So I won’t do it to be right, or to get praised.
  6. I won’t do it to get agreement, to get Likes, to get rich, or to get off.
  7. I’ll do it because it’s my truth.
  8. I’ll do it because it matters.
  9. I’ll do it because it’s the deepest part of me, it’s the real-est thing I have to offer, and it’s the greatest gift I have to give.
  10. I’ll do it because it’s my job.

My job is not to control your reaction to my art. My job is not to pre-determine whether my art will be popular. My job is not to please the critics or test the waters or ensure that everyone on The Internet understands exactly what I meant (and not what they heard).

My job is solely to share my art.

To share it, and keep sharing it, and when I have crazy intense emotional reactions to others’ reactions to my art, to share that.

In a way, it’s much simpler. I don’t have to worry about what anyone will think or whether it’s good or how good it is or how it ‘does’ or whether I’m right, because once it’s shared—once it’s given, once it’s out there—my job is done.

So I commit to doing my job. I commit to my art.

It’s my calling.

I’ve decided to answer it.


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Courtesy of the Author.

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