The Yin and Yang of the Artist’s Ego

January 5, 2012

It’s hard to know who is learning more in CEPD 190, the Professional Studies course offered in Emily Carr University’s Continuing Studies program – the teacher (me) or the students. Having completed three years and nine terms of teaching, I have learned much more than my students who attend for only one term.

I just finished marking thirty papers by my students, most of who are mature people (I teach in the Continuing Studies program). Their assignment was to write a short explanation of the function display plays in their residence – they were to explain why the things displayed on the walls and shelves were there, focusing on the reason they were displayed, not the items themselves.
When the marking was over, it struck me that no one had referenced the needs of anyone but themselves in addressing the assignment. So I took a piece of paper and I wrote me at the top of one column, and viewer on the top of the other and started to re-read the thirty artist statements submitted earlier in the term by the same students. Under the “me” column, I put a check every time I read words such as me, I, or my, and under viewer column I put a check every time the writer/artist referenced those of us for whom, presumably, the work was created – their patrons, customers and viewers. Final score: 87 versus 2.
There were 87 self-references and the statistic is a dramatic illustration of one of my greatest challenges of teaching CEPD 190: getting the consciousness and understanding of artists out of self and into the minds, hearts and souls of the people who they want to see and buy their work.
I ran an art gallery for several years and organized several exhibitions independently during my career. Consequently, I spent a lot of time reading cover letters, artist statements, biographies and resumes from artists seeking my cooperation. As with the recent assignments, all the text screamed: me, me, me. Rarely did an applicant address my needs or demonstrate an awareness of my needs or objectives.
Think about it. I know a couple of people who love to talk about themselves but rarely ask anything about me when we are together. I find these acquaintances highly stimulating but they are not people to whom I would turn for emotional support. Also, when playing the dating game, shouldn’t a red flag go up when your date only talks about him and never asks anything about you? It’s the same thing when artists deliver an “egolog.”
The yang of our profession as visual artists, is that our ego plays a fundamental role in the creation process; the yin requires that we be the customer and ego free to be effective when marketing. We must be able to turn our ego off and on. Trouble often happens, however, when we have to approach the gatekeepers of our profession – curators, gallery owners, and grant or residency officers. On these occasions we understandably become focused on ourselves because we are excited, nervous, hopeful and aware of the competitive nature of the process in which we are engaged.
But the artist who earns the interest and respect of people in authority is the artist who brings the other party into the conversation. I often cringe when I hear artists explain at length about themselves and their art when they are asked, “What is that about?” It is the artist who wisely turns the question back on the questioner who earns my admiration, asking the questioner: “What do you think it is about?” Then you aim to sincerely find a way to praise whatever is said.
Our conduct with galleries, website designers and other service providers also requires of us that we contain our egos. On a blog I follow, the hosts posted a fairly scathing generalization about artist websites that riled many artist subscribers, but the deluge of agreement from service providers was telling. Here is a comment from a designer working with a large graphic design firm:
“…Aside from the bad aesthetic and bad internet manners, [artists are] lousy as customers – a lot of micro-managing, obsessive-compulsive attention to every unimportant detail, fickleness, and of course the lack of ability to pay for any of the work…. I learned these lessons long ago and don’t service many artists anymore. Unless they pay in advance and have a day job.”
OK, that’s not you. Perhaps you are more on the other end of the ego spectrum – one aspect of personality that is prevalent in the visual arts world is the absence of a healthy ego. When it comes to being appropriately and compellingly persuasive with gatekeepers and customers, you will sell yourself short if you demure when self-assertion is necessary. You must be able to be your own champion at the right time and in the right language.
A thoughtful balancing of the ego yin and yang is a professional requirement of successful visual artists. At least be conscious of the wisdom of being able to turn your ego on and off to best serve your career.