On insecurity and art

If you watched my video of "Year of Grace," you're ahead of me.

I just can't do it.

That was filmed by my lovely assistant (aka sister-in-law) Sharon at ARTspeak, the Quest Church arts festival. Steve and I were part of hosting Quest's first art festival several years ago, which we naively assumed then would be annual. It was a big hit, but I guess no one felt like volunteering to organize it the next year, and so it fell by the wayside. Until this May, with the two-day extravaganza culminating in an Open Mic night.

Which is where our story picks up.

So I signed up to sing, and picked a song I felt good about. I'd sung another one ("I Don't Want to Hurt You Anymore") at the last arts fest, back when those songs were new. (Note to self: Write some new songs.)

The open mic at the first fest was kind of homey, a bunch of friends getting together and sharing some songs and written words. I actually knew almost all of the people presenting.

This time around, I felt like a producer's distant relation who'd elbowed her way onto the stage. Like I'd been grandfathered in and was allowed to perform while everyone was secretly snickering behind my back.

Because, dang it, everyone else was good.

No one was mean to me — it's church! But, man, I felt like a total loser. It didn't help that I arrived late and messed up the set arrangement, and then when I went up to play my keyboard, I had the choice of standing or perching on a stool. I tried the perch, but it felt unsteady, so I went with standing. Not realizing that in heels, standing and pedaling is really painful. My calves, already raw from ballet class that week, immediately seized up, and it kept throwing me off.

Not that that's my "excuse," I'm just saying it didn't help.

Here's the thing about art. Here I am, putting myself out there, fiction and poetry, songs and articles. I could just avoid all fear of criticism by keeping it close to the chest, but for every Emily Dickinson and George Herbert, there are hundreds more for whom hiding away their art makes the art meaningless.

Here's an interesting quote from Wikipedia when I was looking up Gerard Manley Hopkins, another posthumously published poet who sprang to mind:

"As a devout Jesuit, he found himself in an artistic dilemma. To subdue any egotism which would violate the humility required by his religious position, he decided never to publish his poems. But Hopkins realized that any true poet requires an audience for criticism and encouragement. This conflict between his religious obligations and his poetic talent caused him to feel that he had failed them both."

I don't struggle with the whole religious-people-don't-perform thing (heh heh), but I do agree with the idea that art, ideally, requires an audience.

But then the problem with an audience is that you're suddenly opening yourself up to vulnerability.

They might like you; they might hate you; they might be (sigh) dismissive of you. And now you have no control over it.

I've worried since having my book posted on Amazon that someone might write a bad review, and I won't be allowed to delete it. I was sort of prepared for opening myself up to critical reviews when I publish my mystery novel, but I'm doing that for the money anyway, and all press is good press. But when it's a personal, confessional sort of artwork — oh. Then you just want everyone to feel good about it. And not just pretend, but actually to enjoy it. But you can't force that. The dilemma...

And when people are kind to you about your work, you don't know if they really think it's quality or they're just being nice. Because I've heard people be nice (in church especially) when people sang off-key and forgot half the lyrics. Clearly a compliment is no indicator of the standards for judgment.

Take ugly babies, for example, and that way I can end on a lighter note. Ever since plastering Corin on YouTube, it's become clear to me that people could rate and comment on his videos, and perhaps on his relative cuteness. So far, no one's been mean, thankfully. I would say it's because, Of course he's cute! There's nothing to criticize.

But the thing is, there are ugly babies everywhere, and the particular parents are always clueless about it, probably because their ugly babies most resemble what they see in the mirror. (Oh, burn!)

I have always complimented every baby I was invited to behold, even when it deserved no such accolades. You can sometimes tell if I think a baby is actually attractive by the note of surprise and relief in my voice: "Oh, wow, that's in fact a lovely baby! I don't even have to lie this time."

But, for the other cases, I've stored up some useful phrases. Feel free to add your own in the comments. Say each one in a tone of animated wonder.

  • "Oh, look at her!"
  • "Wow! Amazing!"
  • "He looks just like you."
  • "What an adorable ... outfit."
  • "Look at that hair!"
Oh, shoot, I just remembered we get that last one all the time. Well, our kid does have some crazy cute hair. (I think.)

Here are some good all-purpose compliments for art and performances:
  • "You were simply unbelievable!" (This was a suggestion from a drama professor for whom believability was a plus.)
  • "How about you!" (Passed on to me by the same drama professor, a favorite phrase of a friend of his. Just say it slowly and excitedly enough, and it sounds vaguely complimentary.)
  • "I've never seen anything like it."
  • "Only you could have done something like that."
  • "That was so much better than last time." (Just joking, sort of — this is an actual "compliment" I got one time after singing in church. No, you know what, I've heard that one twice. Think about the words coming out of your mouth, people.)
All right, feel free to pass any of the above on to me about that video. Bleh.


Courtney said... Best Blogger Tips

In one of the many books I've started but never finished (Madeleine L'Engle, Walking On Water) I remember reading about this idea that art needs an audience because art is, at its heart, a form of communication. Art is meant to be heard, read, experienced, and responded to--or it loses much of its meaning.

And yes, that makes us artists very vulnerable. Nearly all of my art is of the personal kind, really an extension of who I am as a person. And when my art isn't well received, it very much feels as though I myself am not acceptable or cool or wanted or whatever it is that I wish I was.

As to your performance at ARTspeak, I wish I had been there in person but will offer what I can from watching the video: I could tell when you were speaking initially that you were a little nervous, but that's because I know you well enough to hear it in your voice. I didn't get the idea at all that you were struggling or feeling "off" while you were singing. I was intrigued by the song's premise, found the melody pleasing, and liked what I could hear and understand of the lyrics. You have a great voice--and this is not a church compliment! I am not good with descriptions, but I think "lilting" might be good word for it? I find it very pleasing, and the melody of this song showcased your voice very well.

So that's my two cents--or five cents--or half a cent? Whatever :o)

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