ART IS OFTEN MADE IN ABANDONMENT, emerging unbidden in moments of selfless rapport with the materials and ideas we care about. In such moments we leave no space for others. That’s probably as it should be. Art, after all, rarely emerges from committees.
But while others’ reactions need not cause problems for the artist, they usually do. The problems arise when we confuse others’ priorities with our own. We carry real and imagined critics with us constantly — a veritable babble of voices, some remembered, some prophesied, and each eager to comment on all we do…
When the work goes well, we keep such inner distractions at bay, but in times of uncertainty or need, we begin listening. We abdicate artistic decision-making to others when we fear that the work itself will not bring us the understanding, acceptance and approval we seek.
…With commercial art this issue is often less troublesome since approval from the client is primary, and other rewards appropriately secondary. But for most art there is no client, and in making it you lay bare a truth you perhaps never anticipated: that by your very contact with what you love, you have exposed yourself to the world. How could you not take criticism of that work personally?– David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.
I made a small change to my blog a few days ago. There’s a box in the top right where you can enter your email address to subscribe to the blog. Up until last week, it also displayed the number of blog subscribers. The number was at 623 when I decided to hide it.
Here’s the thing. I’ve been writing my blog for sixteen years. (I started in October 2003, when I left on my six-month trip through Southeast Asia.)
For almost all of those years, I honestly didn’t care how many people read my blog or whether they liked it or not. I mean, it was nice when they did, but I wasn’t writing it for them; I was writing it for me, because it was fun to write up my creative adventures and share them with the world.
It wasn’t until I started creating an online business that I started caring about things like subscriber count. Because suddenly, the number of people who wanted to read what I had to say mattered, because it could translate into dollars, and I needed those dollars to make a living. So over at Warp & Weave, I care a lot about subscribers, and I write things that are specifically designed to convince people to read my articles, subscribe to my mailing list, and hopefully one day buy my courses. That’s how an online business works. It’s commercial writing; it’s commercial art. Approval from the client, as the quote above points out, is the primary measure of success. And that’s totally appropriate, in that context.
The problem, as Art and Fear points out, comes when commercial priorities start creeping into what should be personal ones. The beginning of the quote, “Art is often made in abandonment, emerging unbidden in moments of selfless rapport with the materials and ideas we care about,” is something that resonates deeply with me and one that I have done damn little of over the last several years. I’ve been intently focused on commercial creativity – for completely appropriate reasons, since I have to eat! – but that focus has been devastating for my personal creative life, along two planes.
The obvious one is that I simply haven’t had much energy for anything that isn’t researching, writing course material, or teaching about color – unless, of course, it’s writing marketing materials, creating sales copy, learning about Facebook ads, search engine optimization, and other aspects of online marketing.
The more subtle one is that my thinking has shifted from writing and creating for the sheer joy of it, to writing/creating for the purpose of attracting an audience. And that, frankly, is no fun at all, which is one of the reasons I haven’t been writing much lately. I have so little free time and creative energy – why would I want to spend it on things that feel like more work??
So I basically quit writing my personal blog posts, because every time I sat down to write a blog post, I had this little critic sitting on my shoulder asking, over and over, “Are your subscribers going to like this? Are you going to lose readers by writing this?” And, of course, that subscriber count would tell me whether or not that particular blog post had gained me subscribers or not. Great for commercial writing. Terrible for something that’s supposed to be fun.
This blog isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about making money. This blog is about sharing my creative process and my creative life with others. And it should be fun, not work.
So I’ve hidden my subscriber count. And I hope to post more often. Smaller chunks of my life. Stuff about tomatoes, and cats, and the endless process of getting Grace ready for velvet-weaving. Stuff that’s fun, creative, and – most importantly – full of artistic abandonment, not worrying about who is or isn’t reading.
I need my artistic voice back.