Longtime reader Sarah asked in the comments on my post about Edith Pearlman if I could share my thoughts on how I skate the inevitable line of doing work for work sake and doing work to be seen. To which I say:
Oh boy–how much time do you have?
Every artist I know struggles with this dynamic–don’t you? Isn’t this at the very core of wanting a life in the arts? You have something to say and don’t you want someone to hear it/see it? This seems like a very simple idea, though we know it is not. The minute someone DOES hear/see/notice your work is when things get really FUNKY. For me, it has been thrilling. It has been thrilling and then addictive and then anxiety producing and at times even debilitating. I went through a period this spring where I got some first inklings of attention for my comics and it freaked me out. It freaked me out so much that I started to get anxiety attacks every time I tried to make a comic. What had just weeks before been something deeply satisfying and simple to me now became something I HAD TO DO OR I WAS GOING TO LOSE LOSE LOSE. Eventually, I found my footing and this is what I’ve learned only in the last year:
Attention is not the same thing as being valued and ultimately I want to be valued. Attention is easy to get (especially now with the internet), but it’s also fleeting, mercurial, and a cheap high that can leave you crazy with longing. Being valued is a deeper long term project. I spent a long time mistaking attention for being valued. I still forget they are not the same thing and can get stymied and caught up in desires for attention. Attention depends solely on numbers of outside people and their momentary opinions. The internet is based on an attention economy and so no wonder we crave attention. But attention doesn’t pay–in money or in the long run of life. Value on the other hand is about respect, a sense of trust, and a deep commitment between the artist, the art, and whoever else values art. Attention does not require self-respect or commitment. In order to be valued, you have to value yourself.
After I came home from SPX in September, I felt crazy with vulnerability at meeting the comics world for the first time. I had handed out my comic to people I didn’t know, and who had been at this comic game for longer than me. I met many people I had long admired and felt I had a kinship with them through their work–only to discover that I was one of MANY people who felt a kinship with them. I had a ton of conflicted feelings of longing and jealousy and all that STUFF that comes up in a place of artistic desire. Finally I stopped and just asked myself the simple question: What is it that I REALLY want to do in comics? This is what I wrote:
1. To tell the stories that are inside me.
2. To set them free by publishing them.
3. To be a friend, colleague, and peer in the comics community.
The minute I wrote that down all that ego shit and worry dissolved. Here’s the thing: I don’t make comics to get attention. I make them because I have stories inside me that are dying to get out. I don’t publish to get attention. I publish to throw my hat in the ring, to be PART of something I love and value. Attention is always just about ME. Value is about something bigger–a larger effort that I want to be PART of.
So to answer the question directly–my work (meaning my personal work and not commissioned or illustration work) is always for work sake–if it hits a chord with someone outside of me, I am very very fortunate. The minute I try to make something with an audience in mind, I am in attention seeking mode. If it doesn’t affect my effort then, it will bite me in the ass after it’s out.
I am lucky that I am older and have a child, which means I don’t have nearly enough time to do everything I could have done as a younger and childless person. I say “lucky” because I am forced every day to choose consciously what I am going to work on due to time and energy constraints. This is a blessing for someone who lost years “getting ready” for my “real” work and who was desperate to please people and their ideas. I used to hop-to whenever someone asked me to “contribute” a specific piece somewhere, but unless it is something I am already doing and/or it is a paid commission, I have learned to say no. I am my only unpaying client (and also my favorite client), so I have to constantly prioritize my work. I constantly have to ask: if I was to die tomorrow would I want to make this? In this way, I both value my time and my effort.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE ATTENTION, but paying attention to rates of attention has costs that I can’t ultimately afford. It has taken me 20 years and several attempts at various artistic careers (not to mention two books published) to learn this. I forget this all the time, but the minute I remember it I’m home.