Application Sunday, Part VII: Dealing with rejection

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I submitted my work to the magazine Beautiful Decay.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part VII:

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. _Epictetus (A.D. c. 55 – 135)

The taste of rejection and what is really at steak

If you have ever submitted your work to any kind of outside official judgment, and done it more than once, then you must have seen your work being rejected as well. Odds are, if you happen to have submitted your work many times over a certain period of time, in response to exhibition open calls, calls for artist residencies, grants, etc., you tasted rejection many times as well, and with it one or more of the following: Self doubt, confusion, anger, frustration, withdrawal from submitting any more work, symptoms of depression, feelings of hostility towards the “unjust” outside world and the kind of overall anxiety you cannot put your finger on and effectively deal with. Oh, did I mention envy towards other artists’ successes? Needless to say that what all these maladies have in common, is their ability to drain you from your energy, deprive you of your focus, sink you in negativity and ultimately incapacitate you in regard to the single thing most valuable for an artist: his/her ability to work.

What is known as an artist block can often be the result of a loosing battle with rejection. How then can we beat rejection?

Since the outcome here is one that is out of our control, we cannot beat rejection itself, that is, prevent it from happening. We can however overcome it, that is, rise above it and prevent it from destroying what we value most. The desired here is to render rejection powerless in inflicting us any kind of pain, psychological or other, and compromising our creativity.

Fixing our relationship with rejection

Like most problems of this nature, that is, of the kind that lie outside of our control, the solution lies mostly in our perception of rejection. To bring Epictetus, who opens the debate of this article, some fitting company, here is a dictum by Seneca: We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.

What is imagined here is that rejection is indeed in and of itself an evil. Regarding rejection as a bad in and of itself we ourselves award it the ability to hurt us.

But how does rejection ends up being considered a bad in and of itself? A series of misconceptions seem to be lying on the basis of our distorted relation with rejection.  Seeing rejection for what it is would require that we identify these misconceptions one by one and neutralize them:

  • Mistaking rejection within a certain institutional framework for rejection of the work per se. Juries and committees of organizations, judge in reference to that organizations’ particular set of values and criteria. The rejection therefore is relative and should not be perceived as a rejection neither of a specific work’s value, nor of one’s entire artistic practice.
  • Ignorance about the real odds of succeeding. If there is one lesson I learned from my first year of rigorously applying to artist calls is that rejection should come as no surprise. Instead, it should rather be expected as the rule: 18 out of my 28 applications were rejected. That is, there was an actual verdict communicated to me, that usually went like this: “…I regret to inform you that your application has not been selected….” (this is actually from a fresh one received today in my mailbox!). From the 10 applications out of 28 that were not met with a rejection, 3 were never answered (these calls never materialized into something), 1 fell through because of an application error on my part, and only 6 were met with success. It took 28 submissions for 6 successful outcomes. That represents a 21% success rate coupled by a 64% rejection rate. Which means that the no’s I received were 3 times more than the yeses. Still, it seems I did pretty well: In “How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul”, a book that contains quite a good amount of practical advice directed to artists, the success rates that should be expected from such a procedure are quite a lot slimmer. Which goes to say that the disappointment that many artists feel after applying to only a handful of artist calls and been rejected is unsubstantiated.
  • Overestimating the actual authority of authorities: Disregarding that often the gatekeepers are wrong
  • Lending the application venture itself more value and importance than it actually has. If, when served with a rejection, it is the actual value of our work we are agonizing over, and not the loss of certain honors or benefits, then our agony is simply not justified. As I already tried to demonstrate, more often than not success is determined by the institution’s agenda rather than the work’s actual value.

Since rejection is outside of our control, and since it cannot be considered a determining factor of our work’s inherent value, it should be regarded as being indifferent.

This, essentially stoic, view may seem as an impossible one to adopt or even one not befitting to humans: Artists, after all, like everyone else, have the desire and the need to succeed in their careers. Therefore it is somewhat natural that every rejection would feel like a failure to march in that  direction (of success).

Nevertheless, it is also valid to maintain that if an artist is to achieve any real greatness, he/she should also be able to view the judgments about his/her work coldly and as being irrelevant to the work and to oneself in order to be able to continue with his/her mission. This must be almost impossible for someone that has made his/herself dependent on outside approval.

Having said that, the opinion of the environment is indeed a legitimate concern, especially when one is interested in impacting society in some way. But the usual place we look for approval is not always the right one.

An effective strategy in dealing with rejection

The pressures that are applied today on the artist from all sides, to a large extent due to the incompatibility in nature and objectives between the artist and the societal structure, are so great that a broader strategy is needed in order to deal with rejection. Seeing rejection for what it is is an essential first step of freeing oneself from its effects but it can’t be enough to triumph over it.

Rising above success and rejection (the former often being more harmful than the latter) especially when one happens to be particularly vulnerable to their influence, requires a positive set of actions as well the negative affirmation of what rejection is not. Here is a list of things I consider to be valuable:

  • Working on one’s projects with single mindedness, bringing them to an end undisturbed, and only then subjecting them to outside judgment.
    The Other’s view on an artist’s process should not get in the way or predetermine the creative process itself. This can be especially disorienting if this Other represents the art market.
  • Having said that, one should have people around them they trust, in their opinion and judgment. It is they who will provide him/her with the necessary outside support and reality check an artist often needs, especially when rejections seem to be falling down like rain.
  • Don’t let anxiety turn a waiting period into a dead period. One shouldn’t just wait for the results of an application to come in, especially if they are anxious. This will sink them deeper in their imaginary quicksand and make them a victim of something over which they have no control. I don’t usually quote Andy Warhol but here is something of his touching on the matter, that I like: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art”.No matter the verdict, you know that at least you are safeguarding your creativity and advancing in your work. This possibly sets the scene for a future success, even if all you get now is rejection.
  • Make the best of the successes you do have, no matter how scarce. You can find creative ways to use these successes as an opportunity to communicate your work and reach more people, in a more regular/consistent manner.

Some hands-on practical methods against rejection

Whether you are in the process of sending out applications and are finding yourself overwhelmed from the answers you receive, or are trying to bring yourself to start submitting work and are paralyzed at the prospect of rejection, here is an actionable set of methods you can start applying today that can make a difference in how you deal with rejection next time around:

  1. If you aren’t already sending one, start sending out an artist newsletter. When I started having some few but nevertheless consistent application successes, I began sending out a newsletter through e-mail to a list of contacts. This newsletter is now a standard, trusted, and personalized means of communicating my news in the workshop and my accomplishments and keeping my audience updated on my course. Also, it is a means of broadening this audience. And even though this method of communication would have never been initiated if I wasn’t doing work I felt confident about and wanted to share, the extra bit of wind behind my sails for the first newsletter to be composed was probably these first successes: They lifted my morale and gave me one more newsworthy element to share. There is a lot to be said about learning how to see the glass half-full instead of half-empty and leveraging your successes even if they come few and far in between.

    You are the one that can give courage to yourself by not letting your successes, no matter how scarce, run through your fingers like water. Turn them into something concrete instead.

  2. Document your application process and its results. Create a document in Google Drive, Evernote, or some other application and each time you send out a submission, note the date and the other basic information regarding the application. When the result comes in seal the respective application report with this final piece of information. This way you will be able to have an objective record of this process that over time will provide you with essential information about your actual success rates, and about whether or not your application frequency justifies feelings of disappointment.
  3. If you want to become immune to rejection, or the closest to that you can be, apply often. The fewer the applications, the more their importance gets blown up in our imagination. The more frequent the applications, the easier it becomes to complete them, and the smaller the perceived importance of each individual one. Simply put, by applying often we become better in it and we also mathematically increase our chances of success.
  4. Spare yourself from any unnecessary pain early on by choosing the right kind of artist opportunities.

Closing this report of what I consider to be effective when dealing with rejection I ‘d like to add: No matter how important it may be for an artist to have some successes of the kind discussed here, no submission goes to waste regardless of its outcome. The process one undergoes because of it and the particular kind of work involved always adds something valuable to his/her practice.

How do you deal with rejection? Is it something that can get in the way of your creativity? Do you have any strategies of your own or practical methods you would recommend to other artists?

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Application Sunday, Part IV: The value of putting one’s work into words

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I submitted a project for publishing to designboom.

Lesson 4: The value of putting one’s work into words

An artist’s statement (or artist statement) is an artist’s written description of their work. The brief verbal representation is for, and in support of, his or her own work to give the viewer understanding. As such it aims to inform, connect with an art context, and present the basis for the work; it is therefore didactic, descriptive, or reflective in nature.

Artist’s statement – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Once an artist decides to give this applications enterprise a chance and start submitting work to artist calls, one of the first things they are confronted with is composing this brief text, known as an artist statement. For me this proved to be quite a daunting task, but intimidating as it was, it also proved to be quite a revelatory experience.

One would think that every artist should be able to compose such a text off the top of his/her head. After all, if one isn’t in a position to say what one’s work is all about, or at least utter a few words on the subject, then who can? But therein lies the first obstacle; In order for one to be able to define something they must first understand it. Or at least be able to trace some of its basic components. And for that to be remotely possible one has to be free from the utter state of confusion such as the one I described here, one that essentially comes from the inability to discern basic elements of one’s desire, elements of the self.

Naturally, this process that leads to a certain degree of self-coherence is gradual and cannot be forced, but, as explained in the last post, it is a development that can also be determined by our actions. We only have to persevere, to not give up, and trust in the law according to which quantity (of efforts) eventually leads to a change in quality.

Only, as I eventually realized, all these steps, all the battles won, would probably have remained unfulfilled if not for that first artist statement that forced me to put my work into words.

Plato in one of his writings has Socrates arguing that something had only to be named correctly in order for its essence to emerge. Knowing a thing’s true name was therefore enough to offer us an insight into its true nature.

There is something magical in the process of putting things into words. Something coming from the simple fact that this process forces us to make sense of what it is we are trying to describe, to see the connections, and to name them.

The opposite is also true. Failing to lend a thing its proper name leads to losing sight of its nature. Something that is especially evident in an era named and therefore ruled by whoever has control over the mass media. Yet in issues of self-coherence, the importance of a self-audit that would lead to the correct naming, and therefore understanding of things, is usually underrated.

If you are to have any chance of grasping the essence of things that go on inside you, you need to sit down and ask yourself specific questions. 

And this is exactly the service that the seemingly mundane task of writing a paragraph about my work provided me with. It forced me to name things. Connections between works and periods that until then seemed to be randomly succeeding one another started to emerge. I realized that there were indeed recurring preoccupations in my practice, but which, because they were expressed in all sorts of different forms, and because I hadn’t looked for the connections, had remained hidden. I started seeing patterns that were repeating themselves, meanings and processes revisited underneath the “garment” they happened to wear.

From this process a brand new world of me emerged, and I felt like a child with a new toy. Having named my demons I had managed (albeit for a moment) to conquer them, and break the vicious cycle of them dominating over me.

Have you had the experience, of a seemingly “mundane” task surprisingly offering you some kind of insight into your practice? Has putting your work into words at any point helped you to overcome obstacles in the work itself?

 

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Kurfürstendamm, Trace A, Improvisation VI, detail, 15 x 24 cm, powdered pigment on paper, 2014

Application Sunday, Part III: Why to not give up

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I applied for the HORDALAND KUNSTSENTER artist residency.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part III: Why to not give up

Having a clearer view of myself (see part II) was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes and everything, my past works, the works of other artists, the skills I had acquired up until then, suddenly appeared in a new light.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact source of this brand new sense of clarity or the precise moment in time when it emerged. Perhaps the best way to describe it’s beginnings is by invoking a word from one of my favorite books, back from the beautiful age of eighteen, when one begins to delve into the wonders of knowledge, after the notoriety school has stained it with starts to wear off: Maturare. This is the word that Mr Test, the main character of A night with Mr Test by Paul Valery, used to describe the necessary process for a syllogism or intellectual problem to come to a resolution. Things have to mature, the stars have to align in a certain way, events have to play out, before something “suddenly” becomes clear.

But: This process and its fruition, as much as it lies outside of our control, linked as it is with the slow and painful process of maturation, also depends on our being there to see it through. Mr Test, an imaginary creature that had chosen the citadel of the mind, putting it in Markus Aurelius’ words, as his battlefield (or, had the battlefield chosen him?), was as much an object of his thought processes as he was their master, taking the steering wheel of the intellect when he had to and leaving the boat to its devices when the coordinates were right.

So I was aware of that logic. I believed in this law, one that is also rooted in our culture as Greeks: Things do come by the virtue of the gods, or, if one prefers, by the virtue of destiny, or chance, but they also come by virtue of our efforts. And so, as much as I despaired, feeling trapped in this vicious cycle, I never really believed that this cycle was all there was to it. Since the need was there, the question was there, there must have been a well grounded reason for it.

Eventually, another, more material law than the divine one described above made itself apparent. One often invoked by economists but having an extremely broad range of applications. That which refers to the transformation of quantity into quality. According to this dialectical law known from antiquity, small changes, that are incapable of bringing a qualitative change by themselves, reach a point where they do exactly that. They change quantity into quality.

At some point the quantity of our efforts (not disregarding the importance of their quality) is bound to turn into a qualitative change in our condition, whether it be our material condition or that of our consciousness. In other words, our efforts must amount to what in scientific terms is known as critical mass. They must reach the point that will allow for that qualitative leap to happen.

All we have to do is not give up, keep listening to our desire and be attentive to anything that sounds like good advice from our surroundings.

Is this process something you have experienced in your work? Has there been a turning point that seemingly came out of nowhere but in reality was the result of a consistent effort on your part? If the answer is yes, contribute with your version in the comments section below.

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Athens, Trace A, Improvisation XV, detail, 28 x 34.5 cm, powdered pigment on handmade paper, 2014

Application Sunday, Part II: The value of knowing one’s self

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I submitted my work to an exhibition: The Telfer Gallery Open Call 2016.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part II:
The value of knowing one’s self

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto I, Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For a long time the word that could best describe my relationship with my work, and my “artist” identity was agony. Fortunately not in the sense of a maniacal crisis, but more like the silent, paralyzing agony that takes over one that is lost in a dense forest, or tied by an undecipherable riddle. That is not to say that love and desire, in the way Plato means it when he uses the word eros (it’s meaning can’t be fully translated in English), weren’t also there. But this desire to give birth within beauty, recalling Plato’s definition of his love, had become too elusive, too vague, and thus too unfulfilled. Typically I would start working on an idea, or an impulse, only to abandon it, feeling no strong commitment, no strong desire to complete it. And despite the fact that I managed to get into the flow of creation several times and complete some series of works over the years, I still didn’t have the feeling, or the understanding of continuity in my work. I didn’t feel I was building something. All these were more or less perceived as fragments, sparagmata (in Greek), failing to form a picture of self.

Either in the form of incomplete works or as what I perceived to be series of works disconnected to each other, the vicious cycle would repeat itself again and again paving a path of unfinished works, fragments of an unfulfilled desire. A desire that was there, but only to torment me and make me feel trapped. It existed, but it was weak, lacking in direction, clarity and focus.

This landscape of torment and despair (as if the myth of the tormented artist needed any further reinforcement!) makes it sometimes hard even for myself to understand how I reached the point (described in part I) where I began to actively take steps towards getting my work outside the confines of the studio. It would seem that I would have had a lot to deal with before any concern about showing my work would be legitimate. And this is exactly where the key out of that vicious circle lied.

I don’t think that things would lead up to that first artist call application in January 2014 that marked the beginning of a drastic shift, if not in my overall position in the art world, at least in my psychology and sense of control, without the necessary work within.

As much as it was several factors that came into play, the basic prerequisite for a change to happen was the untangling of the mess inside. I had to realize what I wanted, where my heart and mind were as an artist, who I was, or, if this seems rather unattainable considered in absolute terms, what certain fragments of myself looked like and how they connected to each other. This may sound dramatic, and I know I have the tendency of being that sometimes (a friend once told me I have a weak spot for the tragic, which of course I took as a compliment) but I believe there is something there.

When this transition started to happen, from my confused state to a sense of self-coherence, things started falling into place. A newly acquired confidence set in, hesitation and fear started to recede, the paralyzing self-doubting started to dissolve. This allowed for me to act more readily on my impulses in the studio and defend my work more naturally outside of it. The connections between my past works started to become obvious and my desire could at last be traced. I could eventually make out a picture of myself, or rather a rough design (how could it be compete since a proper picture of one’s self can only emerge through a life’s work?). It seems that a rough design was all I needed to begin.

What about you? Was there a point where confusion had taken over your practice and your desire to create failed to liberate you (in fact, it did exactly the opposite)? Does any part of my experience resonates with you and what you might have been through or facing right now? In what ways it is the same and how is it different?

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Belgrade, Trace A, Improvisation IX, detail, drawing, 33 x 23 cm, powdered pigment on paper, 2014