On Making Art and Feeling like Sh*t


After Wikipedia, what I got when I googled "self-esteem" is a site called Psych Central. Here’s their opener on the subject:

Have you wondered about what self-esteem is and how to get more of it? Do you think your self-esteem is low? Do you know how to tell? Do you know what to do about it?

We’ve been gnawing on this bone for a long time. Publishers have churned out mountains of books on self-esteem. It’s made careers, and filled thousands of hours of therapy and television—a slew of anxieties and adorations around the holy grail of liking ourselves better.

But for all the wringing of hands, money spent, the talking and toil, the search has flopped. People aren’t wiser or happier for it. Except for maybe the advice peddlers. At least they’re richer.

But what about artists? That’s a vocation where getting your self-esteem pummeled is pretty well the norm. When you’re not being ignored completely, rejection notices arrive in steady parades. Aside from those, the attention you do get—unless you’re a commercial success—often takes a peculiar form: rancorous questions and insinuations about the utility, if not very point, of what you’re doing. And speaking of money, unless you chose your parents wisely or you’re a star (just room for a few of those), there’s the matter of never having enough of it.

With all that to navigate—and look forward to—wouldn’t at least a small injection of self-esteem be helpful for artists? Instead of long days and nights of self- and other-inflicted beatings, mightn’t a shot of I'm-okay-and-maybe-sometimes-even-a-little-bit-better-than-that be just the thing to spur artists on? Wouldn’t liking ourselves more help us push out a few more words, verses, pictures, or notes?

Karl Ove Knausgård, novelist and author of the recent My Struggle memoirs, disagrees:

If I have learned one thing over these years which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:

Don't believe you are anybody.

Do not bloody believe you are somebody.

Because you are not. You're just a smug mediocre little shit.

Do not believe that you're anything special. Do not believe that you're worth anything, because you aren't. You're just a little shit.

So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least you'll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you're not worth a shit.

Well, that was harsh.

But drenched in truth.

Self-esteem is the most overrated, overhyped, and overindulged quality when it comes to doing anything, including making art. Especially making art. I’ve hung around artists for a long time, all kinds of them—young ones, old ones, poor, rich, smart, dense, gifted, not-so-gifted.

Lousy self-esteem isn’t what keeps them from creating.

(Okay, there’s one dramatic—sometimes not so dramatic—exception. That’s when self-loathing leads to killing yourself. Fine, I get that. And let me add that lots of people who kill themselves don’t suffer from low self-esteem.)

Self Portrait with Bare Shoulder   Egon Schiele, c.1912

Self Portrait with Bare Shoulder
Egon Schiele, c.1912

On the contrary, I’ve seen artists—artists who work hour after hour honing their craft, who show up for dreadful day gigs totally bagged and goggle-eyed after working through the night, artists who keep hammering at that impossible thing of making the music they create as good as the music they hear in their heads—I see those artists pushed on precisely by not feeling good about themselves. A sense of worthlessness seems to drive them.

That sense of worthlessness seems to make them incapable of settling for work that’s fair to middling, work that doesn't come from what they care about most. These artists work like buzz saws and put out good, sometimes great, stuff.

And I’ve seen artists who seem full of self-esteem mostly sit on their adorable asses or, when they do work, pump out insipid stuff.

I’ve seen lots of things hold back people who say they want to be artists. Mostly they’re waiting. For the right time and the right circumstances to get down to it. For—I’m suppressing my gag reflex here—inspiration. For the kids to be grown, or to have enough money to buy just the right tools or live in the right place, or for that soul-destroying fucker of a sibling or parent to get lost or better yet die and leave them alone. And very often they’re waiting for that pep talk, the honeyed message that hits all the right notes, the one that kicks them into feeling better about, well, being who they are. Then—then—they’ll get down to work and, yeah, set the world on fire.

The problem about waiting to feel good about yourself before you get to work, is that there’s a good chance you wait forever. And in the meantime you’ll miss using whatever fuel and experience there is right at hand, including that very sense of feeling like shit.

Or, if self-esteem comes—whether delivered by sage, syringe, therapist, religious vision, sales rep, prescribed pharmaceutical, or some combination thereof—be warned: that self-satisfaction may surface with a beatific shit-eating smile and complacent attitude, the kind that narcotizes you into adoring mediocre work, most chillingly your own.

An artist who feels like a piece of shit? Looks like they’re in good company, even if that company won’t always admit it. Many of the titans of art history didn’t care much for themselves in private, especially at three in the morning when weariness and hours of night and solitude wear down defenses. Picasso—no shrinking violet in the ego department—knew better in his most lucid moments. I bet it’s the same for the others, especially when they can still the yattering of sycophants, hangers-on, and realtors. And if they don’t—if they start believing they really do shit honey-vanilla Häagen-Dazs, like the posse says—just wait for the mediocre work to come gushing, if it hasn’t already.

One of the great calamities of the last few decades is the fetishization of marketing and self-promotion. Everything, including you and me, is supposed to be great, just great—or will be if we just buy that product or this advice (and if you don't you'll stay forever fucked, which will be on you). Well, it's not. We're not. And that tension—the tension between what actually is and what might be—that obsessive tension is the foundation of the holy chore of trying to make art.

Granted, all this doesn’t sound much like happiness, whatever that is. My guess is that if you want to be happy—the word is so superficial I can barely keep a straight face saying it—you should probably find some other vocation than being an artist, though I have no idea what that might be. Most of us do the art grind because we feel psychically compelled. We have itches to scratch, bones to pick, a few planets to burn and crosses to carry, wounds that won’t heal. Once in long while, things might fall into place and we soar with the stars—for a time. But mostly it’s about feeling incomplete, about feeling worse when we don't work, strained and edgy when we’re not out there there slogging away, trying to get closer to that indefinable place we’re looking for.

If there’s any comfort at all, I've found it when I acknowledge my feelings of worthlessness. At least I don’t fight them so much anymore. They’re part of who I am, less an enemy though hardly a friend—more like an old colleague full of dark quirks and corners less threatening than they once were.

I may not know a whole lot, but one thing I'm sure of: the world owes me nothing. Not affection, not respect, not even barely decent manners. For certain, not money or security. When I expect any of those things, I hold myself back. Same for self-esteem. If I wait for feelings of self-contempt or worthlessness to melt away, wait to somehow transcend them before I really get to work, then I’m playing a dreadful killing joke on myself.

So, I guess I’ll keep my head down and work—especially since, today at least, I haven't been too good about shutting up. I'll work for as long as I can. Me? I try to make pictures. I make them because I want to. I don’t need a better reason than that. And, I dare to say, you don't need a better reason either.