Some thoughts on the voices we listen to. My disclaimer: I’m still on meds that make writing a little tough. I feel foggy. I probably write more from my gut right now, which is good unless you want this stuff to make actual sense. So this one might be a little more rambling than others…
As artists and creators we listen to a lot of voices, some of them helpful and others less so. I’ve written elsewhere that to grow in our art or craft it’s important to seek critics and not merely fans. While some fans can also be helpful critics, it’s rare. The two voices perform different and beautiful roles, but they aren’t to be confused. Nor, for that matter, should they be listened to exclusively. There is, among all the other competing voices, a third voice, a more important voice, but I’ll get to that.
The Fan encourages us, gives us the strength to push on when we’re not sure the struggle is worth the effort. The Fan reminds us that the worst of our work doesn’t define us. The Fan is the cheerleader – often found in friends and family – that gives us hope. But while the Fan’s voice is always positive it’s not always helpful and can in fact be ruinous if we listen to it alone. The Fan, for all her enthusiasm, isn’t usually qualified to do much more than cheer-lead. It may feel good to be told your work is the best work ever, but if that Fan doesn’t know so much as one other photographer or the history of the art, that voice isn’t qualified. And in that case the voice of the fan is misleading. A voice enthusiastically cheering you on, while you merrily run in the wrong direction isn’t a helpful voice, no matter how well-meaning.
The Critic helps us see our blind spots and asks a lot of questions. The critic is honest and – assuming you’ve chosen your critics well – wants only to make your work better through a more objective view of it. The Critic pushes us, sometimes harder than we want to be pushed. The Critic, when he knows his stuff and – importantly – knows us – can help us ask questions of ourselves, make us aware when we’re repeating our own work, and call us forward. The Critic, properly chosen is not a negative voice, though there are many of those. I’m not referring to those voices. Critical voices can be good, criticizing ones just squelch our creative souls. The Critical voice can be the most helpful one as we push our art past our comfortable places and into the unknown places. That push can give us courage to do better.
I’ve been talking through these issues with a friend of mine and have come down to more questions than answers. How do you know when to listen to which voices? What do you do when the voices of the Fans just seems like empty praise and the voice of the Critic seems to be killing your soul? How do we know how much weight to give these opinions of others in the pursuit of something so personal? Does actively seeking feedback impact creativity and originality? All good questions, and probably ones we need to keep asking.
I think above it all we need to remember the third voice. Or rather, the voice that should be – must be – our own. That voice is our Gut. No mentor, critic, fan or otherwise will ever, ever, know what sits in our souls hoping to get out in some form of expression. Art is solitary and the decisions to make honest art are ours and ours alone. Yes, we need teachers to push us in our craft, and we need people to lay eyes on our work, but the first and last voice is our own. We need to trust our instincts, trust our gut. But we need to be open to the fact that, in the world of art, some people just have lousy instincts. The world of Art beckons. It’s alluring, a siren. Or maybe it’s just an unquenchable longing from within to express. But remember, you can express yourself in a million ways, just like every human on this planet of, what, 7 billion? And you may never become the celebrated artist you wish you could be. But if that’s the case, your longing is not expression: it’s fame. And if that’s the case you’re chasing the wrong thing and you don’t stand a chance of creating something others will respond to until you deal with that toxicity that’s strangling your creativity. Creativity is a fragile thing, easily killed if we chase money, fame, praise, or anything other than the act of creating something true instead. The reason I even bring it up is that none of this is easy and even our own instinct will betray us at times.
And on top of these voices, it’s to be remembered that different voices will be heard differently at different times in our lives as artists. At the beginning, as a photographer of one-year’s practice, the voices I need to listen to will differ from the ones I need now as a photographer who has been wrestling with his craft for 25 years. So I still weigh those voices against what my instinct is telling me. My gut might take me in some unusual directions, and it’s likely those will lead me to neither fame nor commercial success, but most important is that my instinct take me in a direction that is true.
Listen to the voices, at least the legitimate ones. Hear them out. Weigh them against your instinct and the reality that we all have blind spots, we all need a push in one area of our craft or another. Arrogance and a teachable spirit are mutually exclusive, but then listening to every voice but your own is the fastest way I can imagine to creating work that is uninspired, homogeneous, and lacks the most important element of art – yourself.