How do you describe yourself when someone asks what you do? For many professions, your job title immediately conveys your status – if you are a doctor, a dentist, a solicitor or a vet there can be little doubt in anyone’s mind about your line of work and the significance of your role. Other titles are more ambiguous – manager, admin assistant, civil servant – all rather vague positions that may sound a little less prestigious than being a doctor or a vet.
We are identified in the eyes of others by our job roles and when we introduce ourselves to new colleagues or acquaintances we may be apprehensive about the judgements we feel they are likely to make about us based on what we do. None of us wants to appear dull or lacking in ambition to people we have just met, yet we can’t all be brain surgeons or hot shot lawyers.
However, nor should we be reticent about describing the role we have. I remember when I quit my job as a senior manager to become a student I spent many months saying, ‘I’m a student – but I used to be a senior manager’ – as if to justify my new status.
I have a friend who has three part-time jobs – two in arts administration and one in academia. When she is asked what she does, she always says she is a university lecturer as she feels that this conveys more status and intellect than her other jobs – but that is playing down her role in the Arts. Another friend, a textile artist, was advised (by a man) to describe herself as an artist working in textiles – a small but significant difference that only serves to undervalue her craft and herself. It’s a shame – the emancipation of women means speaking up, not changing yourself to fit.
Recently I attended parents’ evening at my son’s school where, asked by a teacher what I did, I replied that I was an artist. It’s the first time that I have publicly admitted that I am an artist outside of my circle of artist friends and I felt uncomfortable, almost a fraud. As with other professions, people can make judgements about artists. There seem to be two rather extreme views – views that on the one hand disparage the likes of Damien Hurst or Tracey Emin and on the other ridicule the hobbyist who ‘dabbles’ with being an artist. Either way, it often feels as if artists don’t have the respect or gravitas of other professions.
Perhaps the diffidence of many artists is also because the profession is so distinct from the conventional 9-5 job where employees have yearly appraisals and are set clear targets – here, constructive criticism is set against an accepted job description and within known parameters. For an artist, criticism can be brutal (and knock confidence) because it’s so personal. Everyone has a right to an opinion about a piece of art but being negative is not helpful or constructive to the artist. It’s the context and purpose of a work of art that is important and as long as what you make fits the medium, then your choice as an artist is paramount.
And yet ultimaately it is down to artists to project themselves and their work – self-promotion go a long way towards gaining respect as people will respond to how you present yourself: if you are positive, others will respond accordingly. I recently had lunch with a woman whose son is a top photographer in New York. Afterwards I looked at his website to find that he oozes who he is – he looks right, talks the talk and plays the part of a top-flight photographer.
The problem for many artists is that it’s so difficult to make a living through your art. I exhibit, but very often don’t make money from exhibiting. Society is all about what something is worth – so how do you value yourself when others don’t?
It comes down to self-belief and who you think you are – if you don’t believe you are anyone then no one else will regard you as someone. With self-belief comes confidence and, as an artist, the ability to articulate your work. Getting yourself out into the world and talking to people provides feedback which both reaffirms to you the validity of what you are doing and communicates to others the validity of what you are doing. Put simply, have self-belief – and others will believe in you.
In order to follow the model of ‘practicing what we preach’ myself along with a couple of other artists have started a critical thinking crit group at our studios in Making Space. If you are interested in joining us please contact us directly by filling in the form below.