An Artist’s Dilemma: Why Do I Hate What I Create?
The splendid garden at his home in Giverney, France served as the muse for the famed Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series of landscape paintings. Done in the en plein air style, they are among his most recognizable works today. But in 1908, just before setting off to Paris for an exhibition of the new pieces, the master of Impressionism wielded a merciless knife and paintbrush to 15 of the canvases set to be shown.
In 1924, a 40-year-old Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis with two novels unpublished, The Trial and The Castle, incomplete in their manuscript form. The mildly known lawyer did not desire to share them with the world; prior to his death, he wrote a letter to his closest friend instructing him to burn all manuscripts, letters, and diaries upon his passing.
The inimitable Michelangelo spent eight years chiseling marble for the sculpture known today as the Florentine Pietà or The Deposition. The statue, depicting Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, a hooded man purported to be St. Nicodemus, and the dead body of Jesus Christ, was intended to go atop Michelangelo’s tomb. But one day, leaving Christ with only one leg, the sculptor halted work on it, smashing it in pieces with a chisel.
While I would never presume to include myself in a line-up of the artists mentioned above, their curious plight, identical to my own, makes me ask of the creative world—why do we hate the art we make?
The Commercialization of a Calling
I often wonder how fellow creatives cast off the draw of societal expectation when it comes to their creative output. Or is it always there—even in the noblest of artistic characters—a consideration of the work’s reception so carefully disguised as the artist’s original intention that when the structure of the work shifts, it is attributed to the chaotic nature of the piece before completion? Is this, perhaps, what compounds our later rejection of it?
In our modern world, the unavoidable consideration of the marketplace is subject to forethought, at least, when an artist creates. But it seems at opposition with the natural overflow of one’s creatives gifts. To incorporate in the structure of art a premise for commercialization detracts from its meaning, its originality, its vulnerability as a work beholden to no one—at times, not even its creator—so it may lend itself to individual enjoyment. This has been said a thousand times before, but it bears repeating in a culture that largely determines a creator’s value, and frequently, a person’s, by the size of their digital audience, ghost fingertips scrolling on a cold device.
As a writer desirous of securing a literary agent and relationship with a publishing house from which to publish my work, I find the times we live in often dictate art is only worth appraising when an artist is already established independently in the public eye. But in my case, without published works, how is one to secure this audience? By little other means I can identify but the ego-driven wheel of comparison that is social media. So do we compromise our integrity and the integrity of our work for the world to possess it as we desire?
Or maybe it's not so much about the commercial value of the piece as it is an artist’s chaotic self-perception. At its initial formation, at least, our work is a part of us, a reflection of what we find valuable.
Meaning in Progress
To me, put simply, art is an expression of what the artist holds true. I believe this is often the difficulty in releasing creative works upon completion, or completing them at all: what we believe of ourselves, of others, of the world, is subject to change. Sometimes our belief in the value, and in its value, the beauty, of a created thing shifts throughout the act of creating it. Only upon stepping away from the process of its making can we fully comprehend what it instills in us—and ultimately, what it succeeds or fails to impress upon others. This is both the joy and devastation of this final divorce of artist from art: we don't know how the world will receive it, and in turn, don't know how we are to receive ourselves at our creation’s worst critique.
Personally, I can’t seem to disassociate the art from the artist, but I believe it’s necessary. A work of art emulates the artist’s experience far more than it emulates the artist themselves; in other terms, you are not what you create. It may be a reflection of your attributes, your beliefs, or the stories of your life, but your value is not wrapped up in its perfection, or lack thereof. Just think: if we were to find our value in objects, and objects we created, what sorry, what arrogant, lives we would lead.
I’m not certain of the psychology behind my own rejection of projects I’ve completed and those I’ve yet to complete. It is likely a byproduct of the unflinching vulnerability with which I have always tried to write. The fact is I do flinch, with almost every essay I post on this site, with every ideation I type up for an eventual book proposal, and indeed when someone tells me, they’ve bought my little self-indulgent collection of the anguish-filled poetry of my youth. It was at the expense of the latter I felt compelled to write of the frustration faced by so many artists before me. Because I don’t know the answer. I’m ever-changing, but the art of my past is irrevocable.
Still, there must be a way to cast aside the shame of knowing perfection in this life is unattainable—that true beauty is not in pursuit of perfection, but in pursuit of truth.
The Art of Letting Go
Although Monet destroyed a reported $100,000 worth of paintings, $2 million today, the rest of his alluring Water Lilies continue to captivate art lovers the world over. Because Kafka’s destructive request was ignored, students of the written word now possess two notable titles of German and Jewish literary heritage to discuss amongst themselves for all time. And despite his intentions to chip away at its construction, Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà was partially restored and preserved. It now resides at the Museum of Opera of Saint Maria of Fiore as yet another Renaissance masterpiece to instill wonder in its viewers.
Given these eventualities, I believe that sometimes, the value of a work of art is not known until the tools with which it was rendered have long rusted, and the artist is gone. It’s the purpose of the work, the meaning it was meant to emanate, which lives on in place of those who first received it, even the artists themselves. It’s the message, not the object’s reception, which counts.
I can’t help but conclude now with the ultimate relationship between art and artist, between humanity as the created and God as our Creator. When applying theology, I know well my Creator did not reject me once the world got ahold of my physical flaws, my inner failings, the value of my soul once corrupted by sin. It doesn't matter to God how commercially successful I am, nor what humanity’s perception of me is; I have been let into the world to emanate His message. That message will live far beyond me and the world’s reception of my existence. And therein lies the beauty of my life, His work of art: not a single day I live of it will alter His truth. So all I can do is my best in the moments I’m given to affect others and leave the rest to Him.
So perhaps an answer to the artist’s dilemma is a simple one, albeit cliche: once you create a thing, you must let it go.