Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by KQED.org.
Is your practice hot or not? Frieze Magazine is ready to assist you with your latest statement.
I am having a rather embarrassing problem with some of my local colleagues in the visual arts. That problem is a general enmity and competitiveness when it comes to grants and exhibitions. I have always taken a ‘win some lose some’ approach to my own art career and have always applied this sentiment to the failures and successes of my peers. Lately however, I have noticed that as I move up the food chain, as it were, many of the people I have known for a long time are now taking a much nastier tack with me, making underhanded digs at my decision making or being sure to insert a subtle insult along with their congratulations. I also notice that new artists that I meet at this same level act the same toward me, being generally snotty and backstabbing. Is this just a necessary evil of being an up-and-coming artist? Is there an end to it? Do blue chip artists have to deal with the petty insecurities of their peers or does everyone just get along past a certain point?
I wonder why you’re embarrassed by this problem when the poor behavior is coming from your colleagues and not from you. It seems that if anyone should be embarrassed, it’s them—after all, who hasn’t felt a little green-eyed when faced with the news of a competitor’s good fortune, even if that competitor is a friend—but they should have the good sense to offer their best wishes and leave it at that. Sulking is best done at home where no one can see your frowny little face.
It’s true that the competition model breeds insecurity. When 300 artists apply for one $10,000 grant, that leaves 299 disappointed; and everyone expresses disappointment in their own way. A few can shrug it off, as you seem to do, and others grow embittered and let it poison their relationships. Limited resources can sometimes turn friends into frenemies and complete strangers into adversaries. Yes, some people live their lives like this, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow suit, and no matter what else you decide to do, please don’t adopt their paradigm.
So what can you do with your current situation? First, I hope you will take a moment to review all those underhanded digs and subtle insults and make sure you’re not just being hypersensitive. Sometimes we imagine the responses of others in advance (“Gosh, this new award is going to make everyone jealous!”) and then project those imaginings onto reality. Before you go any further, make sure you read the situation correctly and keep your own insecurities out of the driver’s seat. Got it? Okay, just checking.
Then, assuming you are really being insulted, you have a few options. You could ignore it and hope to find some nicer, more generous colleagues soon, or you can respond when your current pals start misbehaving. If they don’t know enough to say, “Congratulations!” and then bite their tongues, you are free to acknowledge their unkindness.
There are probably some people with whom you’d like to remain on friendly terms. You might consider speaking to these people in private, letting them know that they’ve hurt your feelings and that you’re uncomfortable with your current interactions. Tread carefully here, using “I feel” and “I think” assertions, instead of “you” statements, which tend to make people defensive and combative. If your goal is to preserve and even enhance former good feelings between the two of you, be ready to listen as well as talk.
When in public, the indirect and slippery nature of the left-handed compliment becomes trickier to address. You might try to face the issue head on by asking innocently, “Why do you say that?” or “What do you mean?” when you’re served with a subtle taunt. Pretending to not comprehend is a great way to get your antagonists to own what they are saying. With a little luck, they’ll either quickly learn to keep the belittling innuendoes in check, or bash you more openly—at which point you’re free to cut them loose. But at least you won’t die of a thousand tiny cuts.
For the really rude remarks made by people you don’t care about, one old favorite is complete silence coupled with a blank face and full eye contact, letting the remark hang uncomfortably in the air before turning away and talking to someone else. Save that for the really asinine over-the-top jabs. Anyone who is rude to you does not deserve your attention, so just remove yourself from this person’s presence and don’t subject yourself to any more bad energy. If jealousy and insecurity is making a colleague temporarily (or permanently) insane, you want to get away before the knives come out.
And what to do with the people you’ve only just met? Kill them with kindness by being as generous and sympathetic as you can. Self-awareness is something that most people lack, so maybe they aren’t even cognizant of how their remarks are perceived. Give them the benefit of the doubt until you get to know them better.
Is there an end to it? Do you ever get to pass through some pearly gates to join an enlightened level of arts participation where everyone is gracious and respectful? I wouldn’t know, but I sincerely doubt it. There’s no end to the competition (well, okay, maybe if you win a MacArthur), so there’s probably not an end to the sniping. That’s fine, you don’t have to engage in that kind of thing. Choose what kind of artist you want to be, and choose how you want to interact with people. You can’t dictate what other people do, but you can control how you operate and who you let into your life based on how they behave. The trick is to find people that you trust, who are open and aware of their own feelings, and then be as loving and honest as you can with them—and with yourself.