How to Be Self-Compassionate as an Artist and Photographer

London, 2014
London, 2014

I think as artists and photographers we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We always put pressure on ourselves to improve our photography, to take our work to the next level, and to make “original” work.

In “Akademie x Lessons in Art and Life” artist (and our tutor) Shirley Tse gave lots of interesting ideas on art that are quite taoist/buddhist in nature. Her ideas reflect on self-compassion in art, and some of her lessons include loving (not judging), being critical without being judgmental, sharpening one’s visual intelligence, and not worrying so much about being original (but more focus on being authentic).

Let’s dive in.

1. Love, not judge

Whenever you put your work out there, you are always putting yourself into a vulnerable spot. You make yourself open to judgement, criticism, and this process can be quite scary. I know a lot of artists and photographers who rarely put work out there because they are afraid of being negatively criticized.

I think we should always practice the golden rule that our buddy Jesus told us when it comes to art and photography: Treat others how you would like to be treated.

So one practical piece of advice and wisdom that Shirley Tse gives us is the importance of “Love, not judge.” This applies when giving critique and feedback on the work of others. She explains more below:

“Another useful thing that should be taught in art schools is the Buddhist mantra ‘Love, not judge’. This applies to yourself, your work and the people around you. In a critique situation, this state of mind can be very powerful.”

Why should we focus on being more emotional and open to the work of others, instead of giving them critical feedback right off the bat? Well, it allows us to slow down and think to ourselves: “Why did that artist or photographer create that work of art? Why is it valuable to them, and what are they trying to say?” It allows us to be more open and empathetic to what they value.

Shirley continues by sharing the concept that in art, the idea of “value” is subjective. And trying to convince others that your work is better than theirs is also a path of delusion and ego-centeredness:

“Invariably, art comes down to a question of value. There is a kind of fallacy in convincing others that your value is higher than theirs. It took me an awfully long time to answer (and to live) the question and value in these three words: ‘Love, not judge’.”

Takeaway point:

I think whenever you are giving feedback or critique to another artist or photographer, you are trying to help them grow, develop, and mature as an artist/photographer. Giving a critique isn’t to beat them down, discourage them, and to show your own superiority over them.

Whenever giving feedback, always give it from a place of love, not judgement.

But how can we be honest, open, and critical (in a constructive way), without being judgmental? Well, let’s continue to the next point.

2. Be critical without being judgemental

So how can we avoid passing judgment, while also being critical (in a positive way)?

Shirley Tse explains how it is possible to be critical without being judgmental:

“You may be puzzled how it is possible to avoid passing judgment when we’re presenting our artistic decision-making for analysis. I think it is totally possible to be critical without being judgmental. In a nonhierachical setting presenting the reasoning for one’s artistic decisions is not done for the purpose of one-upmanship, but rather for the purpose of challenging preconceived notions or assumptions in ways that make everyone reassess where and who they are.

So to break down what she said, focus on these points:

a) Have a nonhierarchical setting

When you are giving critique, receiving critique, on a critique-group, nobody is better than anybody else. Everyone is on the equal playing field. Everyone is colleagues, and on equal footing.

Just because one artist or photographer might have more art school experience, more followers on social media, more established bodies of work, etc – it doesn’t mean that they have the “ultimate say” over what others say.

By having a nonhierarchical setting, you treat everyone’s opinion as being equal.

b) Having the chance to share your artistic decisions

Whenever I look at a piece of art or a photograph by another artist (and I don’t like it), I ask myself, “What is it about this artwork do I not like? And why did this artist decide to make this piece of work, or make this photograph? What did they see that I didn’t see?

If it is a photograph, I then spend more time looking at the edges of the frame, and really analyzing all of the details in the frame. This then helps me get a better landscape of the image, and all of the pertinent information that the photographer was trying to capture.

I then try to put myself in the mind of the photographer. I try to ask myself, “What did they try to capture, why did they try to capture it, and how did they try to capture this?”

Once I have really understood all of the details in the photograph (and perhaps psycho-analyzed the photographer a bit), I can then give a piece of feedback that is for the purpose of helping the photographer, not putting them down.

c) Challenge assumptions

The reason why other artists and photographers need your feedback and critique is because they become blindsighted by their own work.

It is easy to love our work, and fall in love with the back-stories of how we made the images.

It is hard to be 100% objective when it comes to our own artwork, because we gave birth to them. Our art and photographs are like our babies and children– we love them all unconditionally. Sometimes irrationally so.

So if you are on the other end (having your work critiqued), don’t feel like you need to defend yourself. When others give you feedback, don’t take it as an assault on your ego or who you are as a human being. Treat it as that the people giving you a critique is trying to challenge your assumptions as an artist, and trying to help you see another perspective.

Sometimes I know for me, I have a certain intention for a photograph (in terms of what I want the viewer to get out of it). I think to myself, “Oh, that message is so obvious to the viewer! Of course this photograph shows the pain, suffering, and destruction of the socio-economic class in America”. Someone might then look at the photograph and might totally not “get it”.

I then get frustrated at the viewer for not understanding my grandiose artistic vision, but then I remind myself, “It is not the viewer’s fault for not ‘understanding’ the image– there is some inherent shortcoming in the image itself that doesn’t communicate my message.”

So whenever it comes to being an artist, don’t make assumptions. Don’t make assumptions about the work of others, or assumptions about your own work. Use communication in an open, friendly way that fosters dialogue and collaboration.

And what is the best way to communicate these ideas? Shirley Tse recommends the idea of “nonviolent communication”– in which we try to reach a mutual understanding:

“There is a tool available to aid this process: ‘Nonviolent Communication’ – a process that Marshall Rosenberg began to develop in the 1960s. The premise is that we share basic needs that are not in conflict; rather it is our strategies for meeting those needs that are in conflict.”

3. Thinking to sharpen a person’s visual intelligence

In “Akademie x Lessons in Art and Life” one of the questions prompted by the editor is, ‘Is there an activity you would recommend for sharpening a person’s visual intelligence?’

Shirley Tse responds by saying how important thinking is a strong tool to sharpen a person’s visual intelligence. And “thinking” can be the same as “looking” (as we photographers do). And thinking/looking is about spotting relationships and differences:

“My answer is simply ‘thinking’. To me, thinking and looking are one and the same thing. Looking is about discerning relations and differences; so is thinking. We learn new things by summoning the old; we see new visual relations when we are fluent in the old ones.”

Shirley continues by sharing the importance of using art as a tool to experience the world and to grow our knowledge about the world:

“That’s why art is both experience and knowledge production. What I learn from the economics about the complexity of relations will help me see relationships in the world.”

Takeaway point:

One of the best ways to improve your art and photography is to see relationships and differences in the world by mindfully looking.

I think a photographer’s most important tool are his/her eyes. It doesn’t matter how technically adept a photographer is– without a good pair of eyes to see relationships, interesting juxtapositions, and oddities– a photographer cannot make a good image.

But how does a photographer better improve their “visual intelligence” in a practical sense?

My suggestion: give yourself as what Jay Maisel calls “visual push-ups”. If you want to grow muscles and get fit, you do push-ups for your body. If you want to grow the muscles of your eyes, you do “visual push-ups” by working them out.

How can one do “visual push-ups”? Well, do things that challenge and stimulate your visual cortex. Look at art that is exciting, challenging, and confusing. Douse your eyes with colors, shapes, forms, lines, and complexity.

Don’t just look at photographs, look at modern art, look at impressionist art, look at watercolor paintings, acrylic paintings, watch dance performers, watch films (which give you 24 images per second), and walk around a lot and look at people, things, and places with a discerning eye.

Everyday I try to do at least one sort of physical exercise to stay fit (push-ups, squats, deadlifts, yoga, chin-ups, etc). But everyday I also try to do one sort of visual exercise to stay fit (look at photography books, look at photographic images and analyze them, read photography books, and go out and shoot).

If you don’t do your daily visual push-ups, your eyes will atrophy, become fat, out-of-shape, and you will begin to “dumb-down” your visual intelligence.

Stay visually fit.

4. Don’t get hung up on originality

One of the challenges I personally faced when I started in photography was trying to be original. I got a lot of criticism early-on that I was just copying Henri Cartier-Bresson or the work of Bruce Gilden. It hurt a lot, and I started to go soul-searching, trying to “rebel” against the box in which others put me into.

But looking back, I should have taken those criticisms as a compliment. My critics saw a similarity between my work and the work of photographers far greater than me.

Not only that, but I should have realized and been grateful that these photographers and I shared some sort of common history and path.

Shirley Tse shares her experiences about the jadedness that artists can face with the whole “it’s already been done before” plague:

“When I was a student, I looked at a lot of artwork by other artists both in exhibitions and in reproduction. It was easy to be plagued by that ‘Oh, that has already been done’ jadedness.

So how did Shirley Tse overcome the jadedness of trying to be original? She shares an interesting quote from Duchamp:

Duchamp said art is about choosing, not creating. That really helped me to not get hung up in the idea of originality.

The way I interpret that quote is that when it comes to creating art, we are trying to choose what path we want to go down. All types of art has already been created before, but we try to go down a path that is a little different from the footsteps of artists who have come before us. Creating “original” artwork is about the small variations and our unique perspective on things.

Shirley Tse continues by expanding on the idea that as artists, we all share in a mutual sense of kinship. We shouldn’t see other artists or photographers as foes, but rather as friends and potential collaborators. We are all in the same boat together:

Seeing other people’s work, even if it happens to be based on an idea I’ve also had, can become a form of excitement in kinship.”

But choosing what path we decide to pursue in our photography or art can be challenging and scary:

“Since we have so may options or models for making a work, it can be very frightening to have to choose. Writers refer to this as the terror of the blank page.”

So how does one find his/her own style? I think a big part of finding your originality as an artist is knowing what not to do. Avoiding the types of art that you aren’t interested in:

“When I look at other artists’ work, I often say to myself, ‘How lucky I am to have seen how others have travelled down that specific path and to recognize it’s not quite for me.”’

Takeaway point:

Don’t get too hung up on originality. Every piece of art you create will inevitably be “original” – because you created it.

Even if you try to copy or imitate another artist, you can never truly replicate their work 100%.

I think it is great to have this global community or artists and photographers we can relate with. Creating art is about kinship– it is about sharing our personal outlook of the world that others may also share.

Art wants to thrive, grow, and remix itself.

Art is about the spread of ideas. If your art happens to be similar to the work of others, see how you can perhaps collaborate with them. Not only that, but perhaps the thinking of others can help inform your thinking, and fill in the gaps of your own creativity and outlook.

If you find others “copying” your work, don’t become defensive and upset. Rather, be honored and complimented that someone saw something unique in your work which resonate with them.

Continue to make work that makes you happy, that makes you feel alive, that brings you in closer unison with others.

Originality is overrated.

5. Learn from the work of others

I think a common fallacy that a lot of photographers fall into is purposefully not exposing themselves to the work of others, in order not to be “influenced” by their work.

I think it is silly to work in a black box. We all inevitably are influenced in our art by the things we see, the people we interact with, and other artists we may bump into.

Don’t be afraid of exposing yourself to the artwork of others. For me, I find that exposing myself to the work of others helps re-inspire me, and helps re-invigorate my own work.

Shirley Tse shares a similar philosophy of the importance of exposing yourself to the work of others:

“That really helps me make up my mind how I want to proceed in my work. There’s nothing to lose in exposing yourself to other artists’ work.”

Even when you disagree with an artist, you can still admire their way of thinking:

Sometimes, I can’t stand certain artists’ or wriers’ work but do admire their way of thinking, their way of processing information and re-presenting it.”

And also remember that you don’t need to agree or even like the work of another artist or photographer. You can still learn from them by appreciating your differences from them:

“I’ve come to understand that I don’t need to agree with them in order to learn something from them. It surprises me to find that many young artists are afraid of losing their naivety or becoming corrupted if they look at other artists’ work. That’s an awfully Romantic idea that belongs in the nineteenth century.”

Takeaway point:

Always expose yourself to the art and ideas of others. There are so many beautiful creative ideas to swim in.

But at the same time, be selective about the art you expose yourself to. Only surround yourself with art that inspires you, makes you excited, and makes you thrive. Disregard art or photographs that do nothing for you emotionally, spiritually, or creatively.

6. What is your motivation for being an artist?

One of the questions that we rarely ask ourselves as artists or photographers is: “What is my motivation for creating art?”

Shirley Tse shares her motivation, which was creating art in order to give meaning to our shared experience in the world:

“When I was 23, my motivation for being an artist was simple and direct. I was on a mission to give form to the profundity of our experience.”

She expands by sharing the communal aspect of her artistic thinking:

I deliberately say ‘our’, not ‘my’. In the process of giving forms to the profundity of our experience, I would question the conditions in which forms are available to artists. I believe this is one place where epistemology, critical theory, and politics come in.”

Not only that, but Shirley Tse notes the importance of being excited about creating art. When you create art, it might be difficult and challenging, but the payoff is hugely rewarding:

“For me, this is also when I get excited about making— again, this making will involve difficult negotiations in myriad ways but the reward for inventive thinking and making is tremendous.”

Takeaway point:

When it comes to creating art, why do you do it? What drives you to go out into the streets, and take photographs?

For me personally, I create art (through writing, teaching, and photographing) because it makes me feel fully alive. Creating art makes me fully present in the moment, and relieves my stresses, anxieties, and fears about the future (and frustrations about the past).

Creating art helps connect me to a like-minded community of inspired people. Creating art helps me express my own ideas which I hope help other people. Creating art for me is a form of self-therapy, that helps bring me happiness and fulfillment in life.

So why do you create art? Share your motivations, inspirations, and thoughts in the comments below.

Recommended books on creativity & being an artist

In addition to the book: “Akademie x Lessons in Art and Life“, here are also some inspirational books on art and creativity:

  1. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
  2. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
  3. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind
  4. Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered
  5. The Artist’s Way; A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Read more on being an artist and photographer

Continuing my series “On Being an Artist and Photographer”, I recommend my prior posts:

  1. How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone in Art and Photography
  2. How to Have a Creative and Flexible Mind as an Artist and Photographer
  3. How to Express Yourself as an Artist and Photographer
  4. How to Succeed and Survive as a Photographer and Artist
  5. The Role of the Artist and Photographer
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