Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov

Paintings and Words


December 7, 2014

In honor of three rejections in a row.

The best and most mature reaction to rejection.

Unfortunately the judges decided not to grant you the prize this year.
We thank you for participating and wish you continued success in your creative work.

I would like to write about coping with rejection in the art world not in order to kvetch, but rather to point out the connection between this subject and an inherent anomaly in the life of any active artist, one who strives, in addition to his or her creative work, to be part of the discussion (not to mention discourse) on art in his place and time. The anomaly is this: the very same qualities that turn people into artists are those that interfere with their success in the art world.

I’ll try to clarify this with a chart, showing the qualities that I take with me into the studio, and then those that I need to take with me elsewhere, say to a meeting with a curator:

In the Studio At the Curator’s Office
Silence and action Talking and appearing
Introversion, internal conversation Extroversion, interpersonal communication
Moments of doubt and despair mixed with      moments of elation Façade of steady self-confidence
Heightened sensitivity Thick skin

Taking a closer look at the last line, most of us would agree that heightened sensitivity is a quality shared by creative people, one that enables them to see the world differently and more deeply than the norm, and to express that difference and depth (leaving aside the question of how culturally-specific this image of an artist is). But what happens to that high level of sensitivity when it encounters rejection, or apathetic and insulting reactions? It naturally may lead to extremely difficult, even paralyzing reactions. The question remains whether artists should develop their creative sensitivity in the studio, nurture their thin skin, their receptivity to the world without any protective coating at all, and then exit the studio and grow a thick skin that enables them to cope with rejection?

The short answer (to a long question) is yes.

The long answer is that I have no idea how to do this, but here are some preliminary thoughts: I described heightened sensitivity as an asset in the studio but a hindrance outside it, but actually these are two very different kinds of sensitivity. The first one relates to receiving images and meanings from the world, and translating them into art. This hypersensitivity enables me to enter a state in which the specific painting (in my case) that I’m working on, or even one square inch of it, is the center of the universe for me at that moment. (And the fact that the universe will actually be fine without it is irrelevant, since if I’m not able to feel this way then what am I doing there in the first place? There are plenty of more useful things one can do instead.) The point is that the work itself lies at the heart of those precious and rare moments, and not me. In contrast, if when encountering a negative response, whether in writing or face-to-face, my reaction is that my world has imploded, that is a different sort of sensitivity, one that is actually pretty childish, placing me and my prestige at center stage, rather than my art. If this second form of sensitivity can be reduced (not eliminated completely) it won’t hurt the other “good” sensitivity, but rather free us to expand it even further. As I write this it occurs to me that it may be the confusion between these two forms of sensitivity that sometimes causes artists to behave (paradoxically?) callously toward others.

All of the above doesn’t mean to say that one shouldn’t strive for success, or that one shouldn’t feel bad when faced with disappointment. But maybe we can define success at showing our work to others as a way to deepen communication through it, rather than a way to validate our worth. And perhaps we can view rejection and disappointments as tests of our commitment to our work, challenging us to persevere with it, in the words of Ethics of the Fathers. “not for a reward,” “for its own sake,” and out of “love that is not dependent on anything.”

Finally, a quote from Haim Beer’s novel The Pure Element of Time (translated by Barbara Harshav, p. 263), in which he speaks with his mother after he was hurt by the reaction of a man named Furman to his poem:

‘You don’t think Furman’s right?’
‘That’s not what’s bothering me,’ she said slowly, and explained, choosing her words carefully, that, as far as she knew, writing a real poem is such a complicated and delicate thing that depends on doing so many things at the same time. So she didn’t understand how I had any energy left over to get involved in peripheral matters. ‘You should do your work. Sometimes that by itself is too much for a person.’

P.S. For another view on dealing with rejection in the art world, check out Joanne Mattera’s first post in a highly recommended series entitled Marketing Mondays (and read the comments too).



One Response to “Rejection”

  1. Judith Margolis

    This is excellent and utterly relevant. You are “outing” a concern that rarely goes public and I, for one, appreciate it. Re: Joanne Mattera’s post, I also have a box with hundreds of rejections, starting with one from when I was 13 and submitted a drawing to Seventeen magazine. Now most applications and responses are on-line. I was just thinking yesterday (before I saw your post) whether to print out the electronic rejection slips from the last several years, in order to keep my Archive of Rejection complete. Thanks for making me smile at something that usually feels more like a stone in my shoe. Yes, I keep walking but it sure makes the journey sometimes seem like a hurtful trial sometimes.


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