Care for a bath of artistic self-esteem?

perhaps a la this guy?  thought not. (apologies to Senator Al Franken aka Stuart Smalley)  If you’re old enough,  you might remember back in the 80’s when we were all being told to look in our respective bathroom mirrors, and feed ourselves self-affirmative statements. believe-behave-become.. ta dum ta dum ta dum.

the graveyard of self-esteem baths
the graveyard of self-esteem baths

The theory was that if you repeated it enough then it became true.  This was also the age when kids were given medals just for showing up and having a pulse.  Everyone was doing a “good job!”  just by trying.  Can we please not go there again?

I was recently listening in to an interview with Daniel Pink, author of  A Whole New Mind  and To Sell is Human among other titles. One thing he discussed was the difference between affirmative vs. interrogative self talk; how a bath of self esteem feels good, but is not as effective as interrogative self-talk in moving you along toward your goals.
“You’re going to be great!”  vs.  “Can you do this?”  The second will allow you to form a response to affirm the ways you perhaps CAN do it. You will be thinking about what you’re going to do or say, and why. Pink uses himself as an example: waiting in an office to meet with his publisher to pitch a book idea.  The interrogative self-talk helps him anticipate what questions or challenges he might encounter and what his response will be.

These questions elicit an active response.  If we challenge ourselves this way, we’ll be ready for questions from others, and I believe, more able to question ourselves.  And there is nothing negative about that.

(There also seems to be a change in thinking about the way that brainstorming should function in this regard as well.  The new theory – people challenging each other can create even better solutions than just affirming whatever anyone says.)

Dave Hickey wrote in his column “Simple Hearts” in 1999,
“This is my beef with the bulk of contemporary criticism: It presumes that a work of art is validated at its source- that if an ‘Artist’ made it and an accredited institution sponsored its exhibition, the work is, ipso facto, worthy of commentary. ” Hickey says this is to presume what must be argued – that the public’s responses to art don’t have to comply with authorial or institutional intentions.  So…in other words…Question Authority .
He’s for more talk- conversation about art- not spoken writing, but contentious argument and challenges.  “The cruel, brilliant, happy, brave, and stupid atmosphere in which art lives and dies is very noisy; its vitality is a matter of urgent concern, and I am all too serious about doing what I can to ensure it’s survival”

But let’s aim for more than mere survival. It’s beginning to seem that anyone can call themselves an artist- no extended years of practice or challenge necessary.  No thick skin built up over time.  But as Hickey points out,  … “Eyes and reflexes need training to understand how to see the world in a visual way  (not a literal way). So we can risk making lines that for a split second depend on the intelligence of our hands and arms to carry out the command of our eyes and our mental judgement.” ( remember Malcolm Gladwell telling us about the 10,000 hours of practice necessary to gain mastery.)

So, knowing from first-hand experience how filled with doubt most artists are, why would I advocate for even more doubt-inducing internal voices?  Don’t we want to be in a state where all noise, both internal and external falls away, and we are absorbed and totally engaged by what we do?  Sure.  But if we are only propelled by what feels good we might be missing some deeper mark.

There is also the time when we open the door in the morning, or go sit in a chair, and just look. And question, and say “what if?” or “why”…   Because working hard on something, wading through the awkward and frustrating passages, might just start to eliminate the derivative, the formulaic and the merely decorative.   I think Daniel Pink’s idea of Interrogative Self-Talk has something to offer individual artists.   A truly valuable response to what an artist does might involve more than just being a cheerleader or someone to supply the “good job” all of us are inherently seeking on some level.  Nice to be on the receiving end and when you feel it’s rightly deserved, but does it do anything to further the work?

English: thinking

Does it demean us as artists for people to just gush over everything we do, without also asking us to question or challenge our efforts as well?   If they don’t do it, then we must. Someone must. Perhaps this kind of questioning and self-talk will ultimately build more resilience, which is a more valuable trait than mere self-esteem. It’s a trait built on responding to challenge. And challenge will help us to elevate the work we do beyond feel-good stuff.

2 thoughts on “Care for a bath of artistic self-esteem?

  1. Great post Nancy! I am going to share the link in my art Ecourse private support group.They need to hear this. Keep them coming.! I Read your other post too.Sounds like you have lots of ideas and connections between things to share. I had never heard of Dave Hickey and the others you mentioned.

    1. thanks Pauline! I would be honored if you shared my writing with your students. I always seem to have a mix of ideas tumbling around in my brain!

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