The expectation that an artist’s work keeps improving can leave us feeling ours isn’t good enough, and envious of other people’s success.
Spinning all the art practice plates is pretty exhausting. Most of us have multiple projects running at any one time, and constantly switch between creativity and project managing with a sprinkle of marketing or application writing on top. It can feel like you’re never going to be on top of it, never going to ‘get there’.
In the final stages of prep for a show or launch your subconscious is buzzing away while you get on with the work of Making the Things. You get it all to the right place at the right time (via that big hardware shop for more fixings). Your head is now 10 steps further on, and in that hopped up superperson mode your brain is swimming in adrenaline and cortisol. All you can see are the teeny tiny things you could have done better. We don’t allow for the creative run-on generated in the momentum of those last weeks of preparation. Other people’s work looks perfect, and on worst days we doubt if our own is good enough.
This issue always brings me back to Ira Glass talking about the gap between our idea for the work and our ability to deliver it. He says:
your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
That discomfort is really signalling your ambition for your work – the gap between what it is and what it could be. Glass suggests you can ‘fight your way through’ and reach some future point where the work and your ambition are in alignment.
But in conversation with Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham says:
It is not your business to determine how good (your work) is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased… There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
So maybe we accept the internal dissatisfaction as a given, but then other people achieve things we might want too. Suddenly we’re pinned by envy but Philippa Perry suggests
Instead of thinking of this [envy] as a bad thing, think of it as information. It is alerting you to what you want. It can be hard to work out what we do want in life and envy is a feeling that can help us identify what our aspirations might be. Think of envy as a catalyst that helps you identify and motivate ambition, not as a pathological condition, but a normal part of mental processing.
Mind the Gap
The discomfort may or may not recede, but in the meantime that gap has (at least) two sides, and can be reduced from many directions. Your real ambition might be found via a small internal voice that just wants time to read in the afternoons. You don’t have to outdo yourself every single time. What if you’re good enough already?