#ArtistTherapy: Subjectivity Can Be Hard to Understand

"Maybe I'm not your audience..." You've heard this or said it. Let's not argue, I'm sure you have.

This is subjectivity. The thing that makes people wonder why books that are lauded get so much praise when he/she may think "It's alright." Subjectivity is what allows some books to be critically praised and not sell well and vice versa. It's why many things aren't made public and why others are. And subjectivity is not an easy thing to come to terms with as an artist.

Say you've workshopped a piece of writing or got feedback on an illustration or arrangement that was helpful. You revised as far as you could and ultimately got the "okay" from those whose opinion you trust. The work feels finished. So you start sending it out to others for publication or showings/shows (what some of us will call 'validation') and you get back 'no's. And not necessarily concrete ones either. You are not necessarily getting back reasons for why this isn't working or being accepted, but more so you're seeing a trend of "not for me/us" or "I can't champion this the way I'd want" or "didn't grab me" and with that "perhaps someone else may feel differently as this is a subjective business."

Now, you may hear/read this more in the writing world than others but subjectivity applies in all things. Where some like romance novels others like action, where some like their thrillers dark some like them PG-13 with some humor. Where people like sarcasm others like friendly humor and so on. We have our tastes and in all honesty nothing is universal. There is no universally amazing film, book, song, painting. Yes, the Mona Lisa is loved and revered my many. Shakespeare is a man whose work will more than likely always be taught in schools and honored and adapted. And don't even get me started on The Beatles or the Jackson 5.

My point is when I submit work I have gotten the "not for me/us" "not our market" "someone may feel differently" "I like it but..." and where you are attempting to champion it it seems as though you're getting sucker punched repeatedly when there's a non-distinctive reason for the rejection. But why you may be wondering and hell I do wonder it myself. As artists we're used to getting concrete feedback for how to improve, so what is this "subjectivity" business? What do you mean you can't tell me why? From one end it is hard to comprehend. You've put months, years, decades into this work and it's good. You know it's good. It's won contests, gotten praise, portions may have appeared elsewhere, so why is the whole not working? And it comes back down to the S-word and also the L-word (love). It wasn't until I became an even more voracious reader that I would sort books I read into categories such as: like but didn't love, LOVED--tell everyone(!), didn't like, okay and I see the merits of it, and so on. When you absorb as much work as you're producing you can see that there's a precedent and that even you do it as well. If given a book you liked would you champion it? Nope? Well then you can't ask someone else to either.

I'm not going to get into the other aspects like the monetary or the "trends" or otherwise. I'm looking at this as someone who's gotten (and will get more) rejection but who has also had responses of "loved this." I'm here to tell you that subjectivity will be something that keeps you back but will also push you forward. The phrase "there's something for everyone" is not moot, it's real. People fall in love with new work all the time.

So we come back to the L-word. Do you love it? Because that's what matters. I understand, believe me I do, that putting time and effort into something you love but others don't seem to may feel like a waste. It may seem like your time is not being put to good use but it is. Truly it is. Author Maggie Stiefvater revisited a work she had an idea for and attempted but it did not work at the time. Years later and with success in other works she pursued it again because, you got it, she loved the idea and also felt better equipped to make it something that worked. There are authors who shelve that first book (or books) and sell their third, fourth, or fifth and afterwards whip those other ones out and say, "Hey! Happen to have these too. Wanna look?"

Subjectivity can be a somewhat ugly word or a disheartening one to an artist. But it doesn't mean you work doesn't have merit, it simply means you have to push harder to find a home for it. And maybe the home isn't clear but the progress and work put into it is because when you next create perhaps subjectivity won't be what you see in responses but "yes," a resounding "yes."