Why Artists Need Community, Even if You Hate Community (and I Know You Do)

We’ve all experienced struggles related to feelings of isolation. Maybe it’s because there isn’t a strong artistic network in our area. Or our loved ones can’t relate to our passion. Or we spend so much time inside of our own heads that we forget how to talk to other people. Whatever the reason, all artists feel alone from time to time.

Our most profound conversations often occur within our own mind. Think about it. We’ve all been there. There is nothing more isolating than stumbling upon the Most Important Thought Of Your Life, and having no one to share it with. It highlights our need for a receptive audience already engaged with the same ideas.

That receptive audience is community. As far as we might be able to reach on our own, a like-minded community of peers helps us to reach so much further. They are a sounding board, critical but never negative. They can be a motivating source of accountability. They can be collaborators, partners, mentors, and students. Or friends. We can talk to them, share with them, and sympathize with them in a way that we simply can’t with those who aren’t facing down similar challenges every day. There’s no way to fully convey the value of this, because ohmygod it is impossible to connect with people outside of the art world in the way that we need.

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It’s easy to feel alone when you can’t connect with those around you.

 

Let’s break it down.

Accountability. A network of peers imbues you with a sense of accountability that can be difficult to achieve on your own. Client accountability, deadline accountability, paycheck accountability—these are different beasts altogether. We’re talking about personal momentum and focus.

This may not be so for everybody, but generally, the quickest way to lose momentum is to go it alone. We lose inertia and focus. We get excited about every new idea. We want to do everything at once and so do nothing well. We don’t acknowledge our limits, biting off more than we can chew. Or we jump past essential planning and research. Then we get the wind knocked out of us at the first unforeseen obstacle and stagger, looking for the next new idea.

With solo projects, we’re often far more likely to take the path of least resistance, and then give up as soon as things heat up. We end up rationalizing it away as a bad idea in the first place, and slink away. After all, if a tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to draw it… or something?

Accountability can come in many different forms. From an online hangout to a weekly meet-up, or even just a group-wide update. If you set goals for yourself where others can see them, you’ll be more likely to try to meet them. It’s that simple.

Actionable feedback. Criticism can be helpful, but actionable feedback much more so. Criticism is having a problem pointed out to you. Actionable feedback means getting a list of potential solutions to that problem. It gives you a direction, something to try right away so that you don’t lose time or momentum just searching. This is especially important if, as so often happens with creatives, we fall in love with our first idea. We’d sooner try to to find the “fix” for that idea than try pushing it in a different direction, to evolve.

You need a safe place to express your ideas and goals.

Criticism is never easy to hear, especially when you’re certain you’ve just struck artistic gold. But there is nothing more valuable than peers who are willing to engage with you on their critiques. These are the people who help you discover alternative approaches, who help to identify what’s holding back your piece. They won’t just tell you that you need to “push harder”, they’ll take the time to show you where to push, and how hard.

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Useless critique is everywhere.

Learning through teaching. This one is my personal favorite. Do you know what happens when someone who trusts your opinion, and whose opinion you trust in kind, asks you for feedback? You are RESPONSIBLE for what you say to them. It’s not about patting each other on the back. You consider the work carefully, construct criticism and suggestions for that specific artist. Do you see something wrong with their value structure? Great! What? And how should they fix it?

Nothing helps you understand your own work better than building thoughtful critique of another artist’s piece. It doesn’t matter if you feel like they’re leagues ahead of you or miles behind. Break their work down. What’s causing problems? What’s making it work? Why?

New avenues of exploration. Whether in the form of new collaborations, or the advantage of having a new set of eyes on a project, a peer network provides challenges and opportunities we simply don’t get on our own. It exposes us to skill sets, stylistic tendencies, and resources we may not possess individually.

Further, a large proportion of one’s success as an artist is going to come from the simple measure of how well they play with others. Do great work, be great to work with. You’ll find that those holding the purse strings tend towards the latter. Be positive, reliable, hit your deadlines, help out when there’s an emergency. These things carry far more weight in the professional world than having a special style or even fresher ideas.

 
Working collaboratively exposes you to responsibilities you couldn’t have anticipated. By the same token, you’re also beholden to your collaborators. The combined effort of a group with mutual trust and respect will always be greater than the sum of its parts. Such efforts represent an opportunity for growth that we cannot overstate.

More than a few of us here at Boneshaker are perfectly happy as quiet wallflowers. And at least one of us would flee from all human contact if it were feasible (ahem). But none of us would be where we are today had we not put ourselves out there. We’ve connected with others experiencing similar struggles. We’ve learned to ask for help when we need it, while also extending a hand to those who need help from us. We support one another both artistically and emotionally.

It’s unanimous here, we’re fortunate to have found each other and to have put in the effort to make it work. We encourage artists struggling, lonely, or just looking for someone who shares their passion for art to do the same.

We don’t bite.

Usually.

bite
Usually.
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One thought on “Why Artists Need Community, Even if You Hate Community (and I Know You Do)

  1. David Joyce

    I don’t hate community. If fact, I love it so much that it’s become potentially detrimental. I’ve always sought out, and appreciated, the company of other artists. I have spent the vast majority of my life syncing up with like minded individuals, finding many of the benefits listed in the article above, and I’ve heard the same of other artists. I think just as many of us crave community as do those who hate it.

    Art is scary. Art is hard. Art is poorly taught and poorly understood by non artists. Worse, art is often considered to be safe, to be easy. It is taught everywhere, and you’ll find that everyone you meet thinks they’re somehow an expert compared to you (even though you’ve been living it day in and day out and they read an article once). I think this is a huge factor behind the rise of online art communities. So many of us have been, and perhaps still are, constantly bombarded with bad advice, ignorant points of view, and general stupidity cloaked, and defended, as intelligent opinion, that we sought out “people like us”. And when we found them, we didn’t hesitate to stake our claim in that space. To ensure that we could get back there and share our experiences, to double check that we weren’t crazy, and that the people who took it upon themselves to guide us without doing any research whatsoever weren’t right.

    There are some substantial problems with community though. The biggest is when you lose it. The emotional toll of a creative partner betraying you (something I’ve experienced several times now) can be such that it leaves you deeply depressed. Not only have you lost the mountain of motivation, energy, accountability, and so on that was generated by that relationship, it’s quite likely that the negative pull of depression and disappointment will make it feel like you’re in a deep crater.

    Another danger is the possibility that you will become dependent on community. Without the “deadline” of an artistic meet up, without others to try to impress or engage, and without others pushing you, you may find yourself directionless and uncertain. Internal motivation can be a huge struggle, and if you’ve spent years relying on external motivation in its stead you’ll have that much more difficulty getting yourself moving when there’s no one cheering you on.

    And finally, again for me, I find that community can quickly become an emotional, and temporal, drain. When you devote hour after hour engaging with the community instead of working, you’re not getting ahead, you’re helping others get ahead, which technically puts you behind. It’s easy to confuse your priorities, to be dedicated to the group, not the work, and that can be very costly too.

    So while I can’t deny the value of being a part of an artistic community, like all things I think it’s best when kept in balance. It’s important to learn from others, to connect with people who’ve had experiences that you haven’t, and to use that connection to push one another ever higher. It’s just as important though to learn how to go it alone, to motivate yourself, to set and achieve goals, and to stay dedicated such that you can master this thing you love so dearly.

    Liked by 2 people

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