External Validation and Art

I have an admission to make: I’m a bit of a golden retriever.

That’s not just a joke about my hair color.  All the golden retrievers I’ve ever met have been ridiculously friendly and affectionate.  It seems like all they want in the entire world is attention. Being petted is the highlight of their day.  And they don’t care who they get that attention from.  They will wag their tails at anybody—master or stranger—if they think it will get them a “good boy” or a pat on the head.  

I’m the same way about my art: nothing motivates my work more than praise.  My happiness soars when I get positive feedback, whether that means “likes” on Facebook or a direct compliment from a photographer.  I can practically imagine my tail wagging blissfully.  But my happiness plummets when I don’t get that external feedback.  I’m crushed when something I make is largely ignored, or when I receive criticism, even well-intended.  

This is a problem.  If my happiness depends on external motivation, then I have no control over it.  It means that my mood is dependent on the whims of other people, who don’t even realize that I translate what they think about my art into what I think about myself.  

I decided to try and fix this.  If I was too dependent on sharing my work with an audience, I would make art for just myself, to enjoy for it’s own sake. 

I wrote essays so personal I would never dare share them on the blog.  I wrote short stories solely for my own entertainment, with no thoughts about how publishable they would be.   I posted fewer modeling pictures.  At one point, I even stopped updating my portfolio.  Like a Fuck You project, I thought my little experiment would remind me of what I loved about making art, and divorce my expectations of happiness from external feedback.

It didn’t work at all.  I was absolutely miserable.  It was worse than my work being ignored; I started to dislike what I was doing for its own sake.  My work started feeling pointless and empty without people to show it to.  

I’m starting to think that some external validation is necessary in art.

This may be an unpopular thing to say, but I’m starting to think that some external validation is necessary in art, for me at least.  Ultimately, my art is meant for others to enjoy.  When I create a beautiful picture, I’m saddened if only the photographer and I see it.  I write this blog in the hope that people read it.  I feel weird writing about topics I don’t want other people to know about.  (And now I think the correct response may be to share those things I’m afraid to, instead of hiding them away).  

I realized after the fact that I had targeted the wrong part of the problem.  It wasn’t an issue that I made art for other people.  Making art for other people’s enjoyment is okay, as long as I enjoy it too.  The problem was that I derived my self-worth from other people’s reactions to it.  

That, unfortunately, is a harder problem to fix.  But I did learn one useful skill from my failed external validation fast: now I make my art for other people AND for myself.  That way, if something doesn’t go well—whether that’s a lack of attention or direct criticism—I know that at least one person in my audience enjoyed what I make.  Even if that one person is me, it’s still enough to make my tail wag.