Artist Therapy: Rejection

Artist Therapy Posts: Where we face the feels all artists struggle with.

It’s the end of the year, and that means it’s Entry season. All the juried annuals and awards for every kind of art have put out their Calls for Entries. And in the wake of the deadline announcements there comes the wave of artist anxiety and fear and sometimes anger and frustration over these contests. Being judged is never a comfortable experience, but I’m here to tell you all that if you’re experiencing a great deal of anxiety or fear over entering these contests, then you’re thinking about them entirely wrong. If the fear of rejection is keeping you from putting your work out there, going after opportunities, talking to the right people, or entering contests then you’re giving way too much power to chance.

Now, before we get into that, let me just make one thing clear. There are different kinds of contests. I’m not talking about contests where you have to make new work to enter. Those should be approached with the utmost of caution, because most of the are thinly-veiled attempts at getting spec work. We’re talking about contests that usually come attached with a print book, or annual. These are juried competitions. Although you do have to pay to enter, they are not to be confused with pay-to-advertise books that are not juried. Those are guaranteed inclusion and much more expensive to enter. However, because anyone can buy their way in, those ad books are much less highly regarded. Before the internet Art Directors needed a lot more books. Now that we can follow artists directly, Art Directors tend to only look at the best juried books in their industry. A good annual should have a jury of judges that are known (you should check them out and see who they are before you enter) and are very often attached to a well-established arts organization (like the Society of Illustrators, Art Director’s Club, Type Directors Club, etc.) or be a book/competition of long standing in your community (like Spectrum, American Illustration, etc.) This advice isn’t just for visual artists — every industry has books and contests and annuals. Although there are entry fees (usually this is how the professional organizations raise their operating money for the year) they shouldn’t be astronomical. Still not sure what kind of competition you’re looking at? Ask your peers on social media.

Ok, back to the topic at hand. Rejection.

We are all scared of Rejection, but have you ever stopped to think about why it’s so scary? It’s been hardwired into us from millions of years of human evolution. Back in the caveman days, if you were rejected from the tribe you were kicked out of the cave…and probably eaten by a sabertooth tiger. If you didn’t freeze to death first. For a great deal of human history, rejection equaled death. However all kinds of rejection doesn’t equal death. Rejection from a crush may hurt but won’t actually kill us. And not getting into an annual won’t kill us either. But if you’re thinking about these contests the wrong way, they could cause the death of our identity as an artist…and that’s where a lot people need a change of perspective.

We’ve said it many times before on this blog: If you make art, you are an artist. End of story. We shouldn’t need anything to prove our identity to ourselves. It’s something we decide, we create. No one needs to give us permission to be an artist. No artist fairy comes down and taps you with her magic wand and turns you into an artist when you get into THAT contest or get hired by THAT client or make THAT much money. We are all guilty of reaching for external validation, because being a creative can be really scary. Who among us hasn’t heard that they shouldn’t be an artist, they should do something more stable, artists can’t make a living. So it makes us especially susceptible to wanting an award or a milestone to shore up the walls of our creative identity. And sure, awards are nice, but let me tell you something I see over and over again from the Art Director’s POV — in many cases awards make artists feel worse, because they expected the award to silence that voice of doubt in their head, and when it doesn’t, the panic is twice as big. So then they go chase the bigger award, or paycheck, or client…constantly hoping that THIS time it’ll make them feel like a “real artist”.

And that’s where the fear of rejection comes in. If your identity is in the hands of a jury of strangers, chance of technical malfunction or undelivered files, of course that’s scary! But your identity shouldn’t be in their hands. You decide your identity. Only you can give yourself permission to feel like a “real artist”. And once you do that, then awards are just icing with a little bit of good promotion. In fact, that’s exactly how you should think of entering contests. As self-promotion. And like any self-promotion, you should weigh the cost against the potential benefit. Personally, my Art Director advice is to definitely enter the contests and annuals that are important to your art community. If you get in it’s a great bit of promotion and if you don’t, well at least you supported your art community and industry. If you can’t afford it this year, then wait until you can. It’s not as big a deal as so many artists make it out to be.

If you are secure in your identity, then you have nothing to fear from rejection. Is it fun? No. But it’s no longer lethal.