When it comes to artists comparing their work with that of their peers, superiors and subordinates, most artists should be familiar with the following thought processes:
[sees a rudimentary painting sold at a ridiculous price]: I could have done that. It’s just some lines on a canvas. I’d be so rich right now…
The thinking here is that your skill is superior to the artist’s in question and if you’d had the desire, time and wherewithal, you could have achieved the same (if not better) result.
Challenging, but fun
[sees a stylistically unique painting]: I’d like to try that. Yep, could probs do it.
While not so much child’s play, you’d need a fair amount of time to pull off the result that looks fun, yet challenging, but within your reach – maybe you feel on par with the artist in question.
I should get a real job
[sees a realistic painting that’s admired for its almost lifelike qualities]: I could never do that. I suck.
The thinking here is that the artist is far superior to you in skill and that a) it’s attainable, but you’ll need to bust some balls to reach that level, or b) you should just give up now and become a window washer or fruit picker.
The popular response
You will probably hear the supportive reverberations of your friends and professional artists who are convinced that comparing yourself to other artists is a fruitless (and thereby unpickable) exercise. To a certain degree, that’s true.
However, comparing yourself to other artists can actually be a productive exercise if you are proactive about the comparisons you’re drawing and not letting them lead you down the destructive path of seeing your art (and by extension, yourself) as worthless.
The key lies in the concept of…
Social Comparison Theory
According to the perpetually useful summaries on Wikipedia (shush, it’s easy this way), social comparison theory is basically the idea that we compare ourselves (as human beings in general) to others in order to self-evaluate – to see how we measure up in relation to our peers.
We want to reduce our uncertainty – am I doing this right? Is this the right opinion? – and define ourselves and our skills based the people around us. Who cares, right? Well, social comparison theory is also a tool for motivating our improvement.
- Downward comparison is somewhat defensive and a little nasty, but it’s a mechanism of self-evaluation that confirms that we’re not at the bottom of the pile. If someone else is worse off or seemingly unskilled by comparison, then we’re doing okay.
- Upward comparison – while initially thought to decrease our self-regard (since we’re comparing ourselves to those who are better off (in skill, money, looks, etc.)) – can also be a powerful motivator for self-enhancement: look what can be achieved, it says. It shows that we’re not there yet, but can be motivating to light the fire under our bum and get us into high gear for achieving what we want to.
There’s a lot more to social comparison theory, but this little bit highlights the usefulness of the habit artists have of comparing their work to other artists’.
The Destructive Side of Comparing
While comparing your work to other artists’ work can be good for your motivation, what usually happens is that you devolve into a green-eyed monster with raging envy, guilt, and even anger towards an artist who appears to be skillful and successful – I WANT THAT!! MOVE OVER SO THAT I CAN HAVE WHAT YOU HAVE!!
But why the bad vibes? Why hate on another artist whose art, journey, and life in general have nothing to do with you?
Is it because you have a goal for your art and you aren’t there yet?
Is it because you have low self-esteem – an inner demon that feels that if you can’t succeed (yet), then no one else can or should, so *beep* them?
Is it because you think there’s only so much artistic success to go around?
It’s time to turn that shit on its head and change your beliefs about yourself, your art and your life. Here’s how:
What to do with the bad vibes of comparison
Realise that you are NOT them
As an artist, you bring a unique style and flavour to the world, which won’t be able to flourish if you’re constantly comparing your work to others’. Your owned sense of expression will not really want to come out on the blank sheet in front of you if you don’t give it the room to do so. How can you expect your creativity to show up if you’re constantly focused (positively or negatively) on elevating the skill and success of another artist?
Give yourself permission to be your own artist.
Identify your reason for doing art
What’s the larger goal here? Personally, I want to be a well-known artist whose work makes people feel a range of emotions. I also use my gift to raise money for animal welfare.
Boom! Notice how, as soon as you focus on the bigger picture, there’s no room for comparison with other artists’ work. When you take all of the self-gratification out of your reason for doing art, then drawing comparisons with other artists becomes pointless. It’s not about them, it’s about your audience – identifying your purpose shifts ALL of the attention away from other artists’ journeys and makes you focus on your own.
Celebrate your own journey
Closely linked to the purpose of your art, see and celebrate the journey you’re on as an artist. Once you realise that it’s a journey, the necessity for comparison becomes null. You have your own processes to follow, your own improvements to make, your own lessons to learn, and your own art to create – it has nothing to do with anyone else (so don’t mind anyone’s opinions either). And hopefully through your journey, you’ll grow as a person too. The harder you have to work to gain recognition and realise your goal, the stronger you’ll become as a person (granted you appreciate the hard road and don’t become resentful in your struggles).
Cheerlead and support the artists you admire/are envious of
Appreciate too, that the artist/s you’re comparing yourself to was/were not born with the skills they have and probably had to struggle and learn a few lessons of their own. The best way to get over any comparison envy is to support the artists you secretly admire, yet are envious of their success. Go to their shows, Like and share their social media posts, thank them for putting themselves out there and doing what they do.
BE INSPIRED by them. And remember that what goes around, comes around.
Have you compared your own art to others’ and felt a bit icky and sad afterwards? Or did the comparison process motivate you to create amazing stuff? Please share in the comments 🙂