James on Jazz | Art & critique

JamesOnJazzsquareWhen it comes to artists, their methods of craft, and the all-encompassing quest for true artistry, why are artists their toughest critic? I raise this question only because of a recent email exchange with a dear artist friend who reminded me of this fact.

I guess you could say that some artists are perfectionists. Many tend to compete more with themselves than others.

Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk famously dealt with a lot of self-criticism and so their music changed and went off in many amazing creative directions. They were never satisfied with their craft and also dealt with many levels of rejection and evolving transformation —Davis and Bitches Brew and Monk and his European tours are examples that come to mind. There was love. There was pain. There was a lack of understanding. But, then came a greater awareness that the artists and audiences had to deal with alone and together. People are still dealing with it. But what followed was growth, and an even greater sustainability and fuller love.

(Image taken from Live Stream)
(Image taken from Live Stream)

Perhaps what it comes down to is a desire to create something of real lasting value, or maybe it’s about self-improvement, as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested at the Schomburg Center last week.

Some artists are very protective of their work, others aren’t so much. Striking a balance, I would imagine, is the goal. Either way, vulnerability is involved. Sharing your art with the world can be rewarding as well.

Many years ago I bought artwork from a local artist as a wedding gift for a colleague at work. It was a small, simple framed painting with a heart and two fingers crossed with the words “Love Luck.”

I’m not exactly certain whether they liked or appreciated my gift, as I wasn’t there when they opened it. I hope they liked it and that it brought them love luck and that they are still married.

It felt good to support a local artist based on their creativity and buy something as special as a wedding gift for a friend. It taught me a great lesson about the meaning of art and the act of giving it. The priceless thing about giving art as a gift is that you never know how it will impact another human being in a positive way.

Yet, because I believe we’re more alike than different, when you give art to someone specific or just to the world in general — whether it’s by you or someone else — the gift is usually appreciated and affectionately so.

For someone who is experiencing a performance by an artist, maybe for the first time, this is also usually the case. Think of your favorite artists and the impact that they made in the world. Think about the kinds of criticism they might have experienced over the course of their lifetime.

What sorts of mean or kind things have they told themselves, and what have others told them in the mist of trying to be creative and live a creative life?

Worse of all, how might they have been bullied into believing they’ll not good enough?Talented enough. Not from the right family. Lack the skills set necessary to succeed in their careers. And does all of that really matter?

Maybe all of that does matter and that’s why they’re so hard on themselves. Think about the artist who really isn’t talented at all, but is hyped up to believe that they are. And what about the artist that doesn’t get a lot of opportunities, but is super talented? How must they feel? People know the difference, yet pick one artist over the other to champion.

Think of Prince’s line in the song “She’s Always in My Hair”: “whenever I’m feeling not too great at all… ” You know the rest of the song. It’s a great song and metaphor for what I’m getting at. So, it’s ok if an artist feels that way. The important thing is to get back to feeling great again. And how an artist gets there is different.

A mentor told me recently to just believe in yourself. Believe in your words. Believe in your truth. Maybe this is how some artists get over being their toughest critic.

Sometimes it takes an artist a long time to deal with criticism of every kind before they create new art that they hope we’ll all enjoy.

Think of D’Angelo. Think of Janet Jackson. Some artists aren’t just dealing with criticism, their dealing with life or careers. Think Tracy Morgan who returned to Saturday night live Saturday, October 17.

For one, an artist must believe in the beauty of art, and what comes from there. Enjoyment. Entertainment. Education. Enlightenment. These are all words that come to mind.

Some artists, like people, will sell out, or are called sell-outs. People called Miles Davis a sell out.

Think of Misty Copeland. Think of what she went through to get to where she is now. There are lots of artists that have dealt with criticism over their long careers yet they have endured. It’s not easy being an artist. If it was everyone would be one.

Not to mention, it’s tough dealing with criticism from loved ones, and critics in general. Cutting through the clutter takes work. So, sometimes just understanding how one of your favorite artists has dealt with criticism can be a good start at figuring out how to cope as an artist.


Robin James welcomes reader responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.com.