Beyond Perfection and Failure: Cultivating Artistic Growth

Michelangelo, Creation of Adam (detail), the Sistine Chapel, 1511, fresco. Wikipedia Commons.
Michelangelo, Creation of Adam (detail), the Sistine Chapel, 1511, fresco. Wikipedia Commons.

Artistic pursuits can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they offer boundless opportunities for creativity and self-expression. On the other hand, they can also trigger feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, leading artists to question their talent and potential. In the face of this challenge, there has been a lot of talk about embracing failure as a key ingredient of artistic success. While there is some truth to this idea, I believe that a more effective approach is to focus on a living, dynamic quality that underlies every successful artwork. This essay explores this approach in more detail and provides insights on how to cultivate a mindset that fosters artistic growth and flourishing.

Artists and other creatives often talk about embracing failure, but the truth is that focusing on a living, vital quality is the key to unlocking one’s creative potential. While some argue that failure is positive because it encourages artists to take risks and try new things, this notion can be misleading. Rather than associating taking risks with failure, it is important to recognize that failures have no inherent value. If an artist’s failures outnumber their successes, it may suggest that they lack the talent to succeed. Failures, like ill health, should be taken as warning signs. If they cannot be quickly resolved, it is better to cut them out and pursue other more rewarding ventures.

However, in moderation, failures can serve artists by offering them opportunities to solve the underlying causes and turn their weaknesses into strengths. But the more important issue is that artists should primarily build on what they do successfully. Rather than assessing artworks in terms of “good” and “bad,” it is better to focus on the alternatives of “aliveness” and “dead or dull spots.” This approach leads artists to a richer and kinder understanding of what gives art vitality, sensuality, and surprise. While it is often true that “good” art is merely correct without mistakes, it can also be dull as hell. Knowing what brings life to an artwork is 95% more important than criticism, which only tells one what is not right.

Many artists also believe they have to live with a feeling of inadequacy, but they cannot accept that at face value. The feeling of inadequacy may stem from overly ambitious ideas, unfair comparisons to other artists, or trying to do something that they don’t have time for. It is a waste of energy to berate oneself for not being able to accomplish a project in an unrealistic timeframe. Striving for “good, better, best” is a psychological distraction that prevents artists from achieving an authentic and living feeling in their artwork. The focus should be on what exactly the artist wants to express, and then feelings of inadequacy become irrelevant and dissipate.

By focusing on strengths, aliveness, and solving weaknesses, artists don’t have time to worry about self-doubt. They will be 100% immersed in unlocking their potential, achieving an authentic and living feeling in their artwork, and ultimately creating a body of work that represents their unique voice and vision. The pursuit of artistic fulfillment is not about avoiding failure or striving for perfection, rather it is about infusing one’s art with aliveness.

First published on my reader supported Subtack, The Shrewd Artist by Michael Newberry.

2 Replies to “Beyond Perfection and Failure: Cultivating Artistic Growth”

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