Make More Bad Art

Make more bad art.

My roommate and I scrawled this sentence on our living room wall on New Year’s Day 2008. This injunction from myself remains as pertinent today as it did then. Wise words Alex and Madeline of the past.


Sometime last year I turned against painting, the activity that has provided me with solace and satisfaction since I was old enough to hold a dried-out marker, dunk it in poster paint, and scrawl all over a piece of paper. I didn’t want to see a paint brush, let alone pick it up or think about what I might do with it. The strength of my revulsion mirrored the strength of my awe when, during college, I discovered the creative power I wielded with a small collection of colored tubes and a stick with animal hair at one end.

There are a whole collection of reasons why I took an extended hiatus from painting last year, (a hiatus that continues, though ideas are simmering and stirring) but one is the very simple factor that my critical inner voice drowned out my inner cheerleader.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Late Bloomers, a lovely piece about the different speeds at which artists find their rhythm, Gladwell points out that not all successful artists storm out of the gate at the age of 23 and many don’t hit their stride until they are in their 40s, 50s or 60s. This is an encouraging truth for any living artist, but one of the unsettling conundrums of the article is that the failures that occur as part of the experimental process on the way to something great, look a lot like the failures of someone who just isn’t going to cut it. And how do you know the difference between the two?

When Robert Hughes died in August of last year, a number of newspapers published collections of this iconoclastic critic’s quotes. One quote in particular grabbed my attention:

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is given to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

This is a lovely thought, but I am immediately reminded of a character in Good Omens (a cult fantasy novel that served as fount of wisdom in my family) who believes she is anorexic because every time she looks in the mirror she does, indeed, see a fat woman. Though a cruel joke against this woman, the authors are making a very succinct point about humans’ capacity for self-delusion and the need for occasional harsh truths.

So, i’m back to the question of how does an artist know the difference between legitimate self-doubt and overly critical self-doubt?

Apparently it is fairly common to reach this point–a wall of exhaustion, self-recrimination and perhaps hopelessness–and possibly a lot of what separates the success stories from the failures is how you deal with this wall and the enshrouding doubt. Can you power through like a marathon runner, embracing the pain, and win through sheer determination? Or do you see the wall and think “I’ve already hit my head on a couple of things like that, and it really hurt. This time I will have a picnic in the shade and not worry too much about the other side.” In other words, do you continue to hustle and dream, or do you decide to go work in an office, get health benefits and take your weekends off? (Or is there a magical compromise? I hope to find it and report back from the land of creative and monetary fulfillment.)

I suspect that the difference between legitimate self-doubt and overly critical self-doubt is that the first one pushes the process deeper while the second one stops the work from happening at all. And I would like to think that the difference between bad art on the road to something good and bad art on the road to more failures is just a matter of time.  The only way to know is to make more art, bad or otherwise.


  • April 8, 2013 - 3:18 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this post and the reference to the Late Bloomers article. This cheered me especially as I was just thinking about what I was trying to do in the studio earlier today. I hope you find your way back to painting soon.

    • alex.charlotte
      April 8, 2013 - 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for reading Sophia, and I’m really glad it struck a chord. I discovered that Late Bloomers piece on a particularly dark day and it really helped. And I am confident I will find my way into the studio sometime soon…lots of images and ideas are circulating.

  • April 8, 2013 - 3:20 am | Permalink

    Fantastic topic, beautifully written

  • Catherine
    April 8, 2013 - 4:44 am | Permalink

    This is great; now you’re the one who’s speaking for me 🙂 I feel where you’re at. And I feel sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that your self-doubt is of the variety that will push you deeper. And even if you decide to enjoy your picnic in the shade and not worry about what’s on the other side of the wall, I feel confident that one day your natural curiosity and need for discovery will push you up over that wall to see what’s on the other side. It’s not going anywhere.

    • alex.charlotte
      April 8, 2013 - 2:04 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Catherine. I think maybe i’m having a picnic before launching my next charge forwards!

  • Kristyn
    April 8, 2013 - 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Well said, Alex! Even though I am trying to create stories in words, in an office whilst enjoying health benefits and (most) weekends off, I often wonder whether I’m experiencing “the failures that occur as part of the experimental process on the way to something great” or the “failures of someone who just isn’t going to cut it.” I’ve found that, if I can suppress the desire to ask others—my boss, my peers, the readers—for the absolute answer to this question, I usually find that I already know the answer. When self-doubt sends you into a skid, you have to turn into the skid to regain traction. Push up against it to support your next move.

    • alex.charlotte
      April 8, 2013 - 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Yes! Turn into the skid indeed. And also thank you for the reminder that office, salary and health benefits don’t necessarily mean the end of self-doubt or creativity. It is just a different set of choices and negotiations.

  • October 15, 2013 - 4:36 am | Permalink

    Alex, this is a great little rumination on something that seems to plague artists more than any other class/group of people. So hard to face all the time! In a given studio time, I prolly choose the nice picnic about half the time.

    • alex.charlotte
      October 22, 2013 - 2:53 am | Permalink

      Oh me too! One thing I find myself talking about a lot is the sustainability of an art practice–how do you keep going day in and day out? Glad to hear you are still battling away in the studio 🙂

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