“Do I have a future as a poet?,” my student asked me during our coaching session the other day. “You have a present as a poet,” I replied. “You are writing poems and enjoying it. It is bringing blessings to your life.”
Over the years I have been asked this question in one form or another by aspiring artists. And I have wondered about my own creations. Essentially it boils down to “How do I know if I am any good?”
The short answer is you don’t. And you never will. Unless you decide that you are good or that your art is good.
But even deciding that you are a good artist, or that some creation of yours is good, can be a tricky business.
The Dance of Self-Worth
In order to thrive as an artist and keep making art, you need to encourage and support yourself. It is up to you to cultivate belief in yourself, your voice, your worth, the value of what you make, and your right to make it. This is vital. And can be challenging.
Most good artists I know have doubts or questions about their work. They are always reaching higher, seeing their flaws or where they could grow, the next mountain they can climb in their artistry and skills. And wondering if a particular piece is working well or not. One day, your new creation seems like pure genius. The next, it seems utterly worthless.
A modicum of doubt is healthy and can keep you stretching as an artist. It can also keep you from being a deluded ego-maniac. More than a modicum can stifle your imagination and your best work.
It is good not to rest on your laurels, be self-satisfied in your art, think you are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Humility is helpful when dealing with the extraordinary power of art. A willingness to be a beginner again and again, to keep learning and growing in your art is excellent.
So, we aim to dance with humility and faith in ourselves. Loving and supporting our work and being willing to see how we can grow. We aim to cultivate a healthy sense of our gifts, our strengths, our beautiful uniqueness, and also our weaknesses and limitations.
Seeking Validation from Others
It’s normal to seek validation from others, even to need it—we are hard-wired to want to belong—but it’s a slippery slope. Giving the power to determine your worth as an artist to a teacher, critic, committee, gallery owner, or audience is dangerous indeed. That’s why one of the core skills of an artist is being able to self-validate.
But, let me return to the original question. Can anyone confer on you the title of “good artist”? No. No judging committee, no prize, no teacher, no amount of audience or sales guarantees that for you.
There are no ultimate metrics to measure “goodness” in an artist or in a work of art. There is imagination and craft and technique, but in the end, whether what you make is good is a deeply subjective matter.
I have heard wildly famous musicians whose work leaves me cold or bores me. It’s technically virtuosic but it lacks heart and vulnerability. It feels like empty show. To me. Remember, I said this is all subjective.
The work of every good artist, and great artist, is hated by some people, often many people. Not everyone likes Michael Jackson, not everyone likes Beethoven. All good artists, if they put their work out to a wide enough audience, will find detractors, both among critics and audience.
Mary Oliver, one of the best-selling contemporary poets in America, was lambasted by some critics. And pooh-poohed by some of her peers. Does this mean she is a bad poet? No.
There are hugely popular novelists whose work I think is just awful. Both unskilled and unsatisfying. Does that mean they are bad artists? Who am I to say?
But What About Technique?
Yes, there are recognized parameters of technique, craft, skill, but often what is deemed “good” or “bad” art has much to do with current trends and the dominant cultural paradigm at the time.
Is dissonance appreciated in music or considered noise? Is painting allowed to be non-representational? Are we open to the fresh rhythms, images, and expressions of Native American poets, or do we judge them by the standards of a White, largely-male, and often-academic canon?
So many now-famous artists were ignored in their day. Emily Dickinson couldn’t get her poems published. Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t sell his paintings. The list goes on.
In the end, it is you and your art. And your audience. Do you love what you do? Are you learning and growing, studying your craft and the work of other artists? Do you strive to make the best art that you can? Do you share it with generosity and a sense of service to others? Are there people who enjoy it?
Wonderful. You are a good artist. Now, go make some art.