Artists walk a tightrope. If they are overly and overtly self assured, it can be interpreted as pride, hubris and arrogance and people will tend to be harsh, critical, unappreciative and repelling in response. If they lack self assuredness, they will also lack the necessary confidence to work courageously, originally and in a way that means their art will have meaning and relevance to other people. The may lack the confidence to even go on. Clearly there is a delicate balance to be struck. But how do you maintain a sense of self-assuredness?
There is the sort of person (often comedians) who bluster their way through life, their performances, or their many social gatherings by putting other people down and laughing collectively at their efforts and foibles. Their self-assuredness derives from intimidating others into letting them hold the alpha position in the group. It’s all very funny and entertaining and people are drawn to such seemingly charismatic characters, so long as the venom is directed toward somebody else. Every art class seems to have one of these confidence saboteurs, at one time or another.
I didn’t start to paint until I was in my late forties because all my life, people that were good at art used their talent to intimidate others (me) into never trying. I was told I was no good at art and never would be, but in contrast to my artistic talents, they portrayed themselves as if they were chosen by the Gods to be Their aesthetic delegates on Earth. Their method of building self assurance was to ensure that nobody could ever be compared to them, by dint of the fact that they were too scared and undermined to even try.
Sadly, most of those artists don’t paint any more. That is very sad because painting is joyful and because the more you paint, the more you develop as a painter. They have remained stuck in a time warp, despite their efforts to big themselves up by making everyone else feel small.
These people equate the destruction of other people’s self-esteem and credibility with their own empowerment. Often, this shallow and ineffectual form of flimsy self-assuredness draws hordes of temporary followers and acolytes, but it is only temporary. Eventually, the saboteur turns on their own followers, in an effort to maintain their self-assuredness (they always need a new victim to consume), or they are discovered to have no substance to them, despite all the bravado, and their fans fall away.
It’s in our culture, this misplaced model of obtaining self assurance. An example is what I call “Spice Girl Feminism” – where the perpetrators hang out in gangs, employ overt sexual intimidation to ensure they always have the last word and use loud-mouthed, belittling put-downs of men to make themselves look like they’re in charge and in command of it all. They called it “Girl Power”. They even had a “Scary” Spice, as a frank admission of sheer bullying. But as solo artists, when the gang dissolved, they floundered individually. They lacked genuine self assuredness and this came out in their art. In fairness to them, they have all mellowed, of course, and for me, Mel C always was the closest to just “being”, as an artist. But gone is the mouthy, in-your-face, faux self-confidence. It was all a sham.
Before any committed feminists attack me, girls aren’t the only ones that mistake this kind of bullying for self-assuredness. Sir Les Patterson, a character creation of Barry Humphries, also uses overt sexual intimidation and put downs to appear self assured. There are always blonde bimbettes hanging off his arms and his every word. We laugh because the pastiche of the man oblivious to his own manifold and manifest shortcomings, but overly self-confident and bombastic anyway, is somebody we recognise in real life. We laugh because we all know somebody utterly offensive like that, but less amped up, perhaps. We laugh because that sort of man is an anachronism. I’m not sure we’ve consigned the female counterpart of Sir Les to history just yet, but it is bound to happen.
In it’s most extreme form, the practitioner of this brittle and thin version of “self-assuredness” issues endless, screeching demands to those around them. Elton John knew he had lost it completely, in the seventies, when he woke one morning, phoned his agent and demanded that he stop the wind. The tantrums don’t hide the fact that, inside, an artist like that is afraid and alone and perhaps not feeling worthy of the adulation or clear-sighted enough to continue to guide his or her art toward ever greater levels of quality and originality.
Genuine self assuredness is much more gentle. It doesn’t require constant self deprecation or minimisation of your skills and achievements, but you do need to wear them lightly and not use your gifts and talents as a weapon to beat others with. Nobody knows everything and everybody knows something. Often, what others know is amazing. But so is what you know.
Genuine self assuredness is where you acknowledge your skills and achievements, even publicly, but not in an ostentatious way. You always leave room for others. You always listen. You are relentlessly kind and you always sincerely praise others. You are grateful for your talents but never take them for granted. You never feel it gives you some sort of elite superiority to others. Your artistic expression just “is”.
Eric Clapton has grown into a man with genuine self assuredness. As a younger guitarist, acknowledged almost universally as being a “Guitar God”, there was always one gun slinging guitar player after another wanting to challenge him to an on-stage guitar duel, in an attempt to blow him away and make their name at his expense. Eric realised that this was a scenario he should never rise to. Today, he lets the other player rip, plays supporting rhythm, while generously sharing his stage and acknowledging them. Then he takes the last solo, often not playing as fast and furious as the gun slinging challenger, but with the authority that self assuredness brings. He always comes of looking and sounding like the real deal. Nobody loses face.
So next time somebody pays you or your work a compliment, don’t shrink from it, don’t act arrogant and superior, but thank the person for the compliment and say that you were pleased with what you produced. Don’t forget to ask them about their works and be sincerely interested in them and what they do. As Bob Dylan once said, “you should always be kind to everyone you meet. You don’t know what they’re going through”.
That’s genuine self-assuredness.