I have been striving for gold stars all my life, or at least since I was in elementary school. I know Mrs. Hutchings was only trying to improve my penmanship, she didn’t know she was launching me onto the path of seeking outside approval to validate everything I do. Anyone that could copy her beautiful palmer method scripted poem off the board perfectly, and I mean perfectly, every period and comma intact, got a coveted gold star. Not just a little gummed one, I mean a 1 inch beautiful gold foil star placed on my paper and tacked to the bulletin board for all to see. My penmanship became my first real art award. Of course, one gold star wasn’t enough. Then it became a competition of sorts, to get more gold stars than anyone else. It’s not that the goal of good legible handwriting was bad, it was the motivation. I didn’t improve because I had learned to value beautiful penmanship, I had become addicted to stars. I felt the thrill of separation, of somehow being superior to my peers.
I continue to see this sort of "reward for excellence" system playing out in art societies. We cut ourselves off into little groups that seek to separate us by building barriers of distinction. We give out “special” awards, create letters to string after our names to distinguish us from the rest of the “wannabes”. For all those who are willing to work hard to assimilate to the aspirations and aesthetics of the group, they are rewarded by being accepted, but only at the cost of those that didn’t make the cut and are rejected. You see, there is only a thrill if it is truly exclusive.
I don’t want to participate in a system where my success is only achieved through someone else's failure, if being included means that others have to be excluded so that I can feel special and superior. That just feels so icky and only breeds contempt and further separation for those that don’t make the cut. Adolf Hitler described how, in his youth, he wanted to become a professional artist, but his aspirations were ruined because he failed the entrance exam of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He was rejected twice by the institute. He often frequented the artists' cafes in Munich in the unfulfilled hope that established artists might help him with his ambition to paint professionally. But they didn’t. Now, I don’t mean to say that things might have gone different in the world if he’d been accepted, but you can’t help but wonder.
Of course I want all artists to improve and perfect their craft. I want them to learn to draw better, to compose more dynamically, to learn how to manipulate color better. Not for the purpose of winning awards, but to become more discerning and develop the sensory skills required to communicate experiences where words fail. I want artists to learn to tap into what makes us human, what unites and sustains us, not what separates us. I want artists to create work that others will recognize as a shared experience with something greater than the sum of perfectly placed daubs of paint. There are countless perfectly painted award winning paintings out there that are dead because they were painted with the sole ambition of winning that distinction. They are boringly perfect and miss the whole point of art and life which is decidedly imperfect.
Ask yourself how much of what you create is motivated by the gold stars of outside approval. You can recognize it by the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are working. That touch of anxiety that keeps interrupting the flow with that little nagging voice questioning whether it is good enough, whether anyone will appreciate it. The obsession of looking at the painting you posted on social media to see how many people have “liked” it. The envy you feel when you see someone else’s that got more “likes” than yours. It can just eat away at any hope of authenticity and frighten away any chance of discovery. New things need a safe environment in which to emerge, they don't like being judged.
I dream of a more supportive place for artists. One that stops dividing us as winners and losers. A place where we can all work on improving our craft and be accepted for where we are on our individual journeys. A place where there are no gold stars.