Robert Genn is an artist who publishes a twice-weekly e-letter. His articles often apply to arts (and life) in general, as does the article below, which we are grateful to feature with his permission. Please visit Robert's web site and check it out. I recommend reading “The Painter's Keys” portion of the site, and don't forget to branch out and visit some of the suggested sites that appear as well.
May 8, 2009
Back in the good old days, the Girl Guides used to get badges for accomplishments. Nowadays they're also getting badges for loving themselves. The self-esteem movement is an epidemic that's been sweeping parts of the Western World--claiming that even young girls need to feel good about themselves before they can do good things. I don't think so. I think you have to do good things to feel good.
It's particularly noticeable in the art game. In some quarters, we go to a lot of trouble to help others feel good. These days some of us are getting all sorts of praise for just trying. The Internet is full of it. Jack writes to Bill: "Right on, Bill--I love your fence posts." Even though Bill's fence posts are substandard, he still gets approval and encouragement. I guess it's more democratic.
Instead of measuring work against examples of excellence, we now honour mediocrity as well. Actually, it's human nature--it makes us feel comfortable, particularly if we're mediocre ourselves. What's going to become of a society that persists in this folly? No child left behind in the field means fewer peaks on the hill.
True professionals don't stand for this nonsense. For one thing, they don't listen to non-authoritative commentary or ingratiating praise. They try to decide what excellence is, challenge themselves and bend their bones to make it happen. Actually, the whole self-esteem thing leads artists into marketing courses before they're producing creditable work. But just get reasonably good and the world will love and reward you. Stay bad and all the marketing in the world won't help you--and you'll end up thinking less of yourself, anyway.
Quality deserves approval and gets it. Quality breeds success, cash flow and, curiously, genuine self-esteem because it's warranted. And while all artists, no matter how evolved, need a little perk from time to time, when you're on top of your game, you can take things less seriously.
We once attended a concert where little tykes played solos on the piano, cello, violin and trumpet. It was all pretty cute, and we all applauded like mad, especially when one of the little people was ours. At the end, every last kid got a trophy or a ribbon. Some system.
PS: "People thought that kids who felt good about themselves would get higher grades. They don't. They only feel entitled to get them." (Margaret Wente)
Esoterica: "Self-esteem," says cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman, "cannot be directly injected. It needs to result from doing well, from being warranted." Artists need to consider this when awarding and receiving prizes and honours. I recently juried an art-club show where in my heart of hearts it seemed to me that no one deserved even an honourable mention. "You have to give prizes," the president told me, "or the club will collapse." I didn't. It didn't. Fortunately there was another juror available, so they gave my job to him.
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