One of the most heartbreaking things I hear from photographers, when I ask why they do not share their work, is this: who am I to put my work out there? Who wants to hear what I have to say? It’s heartbreaking for so many reasons, not the least of which is how often I hear it. From photographers, from writers, from almost anyone that has finally come to grips with their desire, their need, to make something, I hear it in as many different ways as there are people to say it. What they are collectively saying is that they don’t matter. Or, perhaps worse, they know they matter and they’re just plain scared. Scared of rejection. Scared of the vulnerability that must happen when we make and share something that matters to us, into which we’ve poured a part of our soul. Scared others will not so much dislike our work – that happens – but that they won’t care enough to even register an opinion. We worry that if our art is unimportant or unnoticed, we must be too.
When did we become so timid? How many voices have we listened to that we finally gave in and swallowed the lie that unless what we share is better than others we shouldn’t share it at all? Who told us that sharing our art was first about the expectations of the people who will experience it and not first about the simple need to speak, to create, to do?
We have been robbed of something beautiful and fundamentally human: the freedom to create and add whatever we create, however good or bad in the eyes of others, to the great tapestry. And now, in a culture where the most common metrics of individual worth are likes and hearts – the approval of others – I worry we’re heading further from home, from the safe place in which we create for the joy of creation, and share our work as a gift, not a way to test our value.*
Someone told me recently she was a coward, as though that were an inescapable state of being. We are all afraid. But fear is not what we are. Fear is only a voice. We can listen to it, we can learn from it, we can let it point us in the direction of important (read: scary) work. But we need not obey it. When did we all become so g*d-damn obedient? When did we start taking no for an answer when we used to be so good at taking the cookie from the cookie jar and pressing the button we were told not to press, just to see what happens? Someone used to insult us and we’d hurl back: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. It was bullshit, of course. Words hurt more. The scars go much deeper and stay much longer. But at least we were defiant.
The art spirit is a lot of things. One of them is defiant. That word has been rattling around in my brain a lot lately, settling in to some old wounds and helping me find new freedoms. It’s another way of looking at what I’ve long called this beautiful anarchy. Not because there’s value in rebellion for rebellion’s sake but because there is danger in being obedient for the sake of obedience. Conformity pushes the human soul in the wrong direction; it only works because it feels safe. Just keep your head down, blend in, it’ll all be OK. Again: bullshit.
The human heart longs to be loved and accepted. But it’s hollow unless we are loved and accepted for who we truly are. That means standing out – not for the sake of standing out but for the sake of being unashamedly you. Just you. Cracks and all. The cracks let the light in. But they also let it out. Honour the cracks. Uncover them. Let those cracks be the way you pour your soul into your work.
*Disclaimer One: I have been critical of social media lately, more so than usual. I’m not being negative; I’m trying to be unmistakeably positive about the things that matter most: the artist that I see in all of you, and the artist** that I hope is in me. Critical thinking is a good thing, especially about something I worry threatens our last threads of courage, something I worry might be pushing us all towards homogeny. But let me be clear: it’s not the technology, it’s the way we use it that either serves our humanity, deepens connections, and allows us to share like never before, or we use it to compare ourselves, to see if we measure up, and on a stage of millions that’s a frightening prospect if what we’re hoping for is to end up near the top. It is enough that we just find the place that is uniquely ours.
**Disclaimer Two: When I use the words art and artist I mean them in the least precious way possible. There is no implication that because I create art it is necessarily good art, important art, or anything more than relentlessly practicing my craft with increasing vulnerability, discipline, passion, and curiosity. It is art, not Art, if you catch my drift.
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