Saturday, August 27, 2022

The art of rejection

Rose Campion in Bloom, Washington

Being rejected is a terrible, terrible feeling. But in art, let alone life, I’m not aware of any way to avoid it.

We’re conditioned to only share the positive. We worry that if we show any sign of weakness, it will taint our public image and close the door to future opportunities. Who wants to work with a loser?

Social media makes rejection infinitely worse. We’re always on stage now. Ten years ago, if you lost a job or a competition you might have been able to share the disappointment with a close friend over a drink. To admit defeat on social media, however, people you barely know will see it. And five years from now, Facebook will serve up a “memory” reminding you of your defeat.

The thing is, nobody who does anything worthwhile wins every single time. And every reaction — win or lose — provides valuable information that you can use to become a better artist.

That’s the idea behind “failure resumes,” which some academics began publicly sharing a few years ago. A failure resume is an anti-resume. It’s a collection of failings. Schools you didn’t get into. Awards where you weren’t the first choice. Opportunities that passed you by. Opportunities that you did get but bungled. Some academics shared their failures to show everyone that their success wasn’t a steady path forward.

Instead of simply posting my failure resume, however, I want to talk to you about what you can learn from failure, specifically as it relates to the art world. Early this year I applied to participate in a group exhibit. A lot of photographers are accepted. One in four got invitations. I got a rejection. And it was the second year in a row that I was rejected.

I’m not going to lie — that stings a bit. But let’s talk about why one’s work might be rejected.

The one reason that we all want to believe is that others just don’t recognize our genius. It happens. The French Impressionists are just one such example. While we now celebrate the new worlds they created with sketchy brushstrokes and exaggerated colors, at the time critics thought that wallpaper had more redeeming value. “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished," decried Louis Leroy. Ouch!

So, are people who reject our work wrong? Maybe not.

Art curators have a difficult job. When you put together a series of images, each has to work together to say something. This is a ridiculous comparison, but it will help to illustrate the point. My photograph of a bald eagle flying with a fox and a rabbit is an award-winning image, but it would be completely out of place in a series of Icelandic landscapes. Just as my set of pictures has to make an artistic statement, a curator has to make sure the entire exhibit has some sort of harmony. Your work may be fine, but it might not fit with everyone else’s or with the narrative the curator is trying to express.

Before you take your work someplace else, however, it’s worth taking a second look at it. Is it as strong as you think it is?

It can be an uncomfortable question, but I think that asking it is a critical part of growing as an artist. Family and friends are no substitute for an expert eye. Especially if you’re getting rejection after rejection, it’s worth reevaluating your work.

I’m making changes to the portfolio that was rejected a year ago. The thumbs down from the gallery prompted me to look at the series with fresh eyes. I think my set of images was a little too diverse, so the overall theme wasn’t as clear to them as it was in my mind.

I’m not making changes to the portfolio that was rejected this year. I still think it’s strong. I’ll work to find a new place to show it. My confidence comes from experience and knowing what I want my art to express. A few months after their rejection, my work took first prize in a regional art festival.

But regardless of experience, it’s always good to step back and think about whether your confidence is leading you in the right direction. It’s a key part of the artistic process.

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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