Every time visual artists submit their work for the consideration of a gallery owner, curator, buyer, jury, admission panel, professor, friend, neighbour and (above all) our fellow artists, one of three things will happen: your will get a positive response, a negative response or a neutral (balanced or mixed) response. Your chances of getting praise are 33%; your chances of not getting enthusiastic praise are 66%. Over a lifetime, artists can receive a lot of rejection; cumulative rejection can have a catastrophic effect on the artist’s soul. Too much rejection/criticism can cause an artist to lose faith in their mission and/or talent, or give up on their passion.
It is not rejection that can adversely affect you. Rather, it is how you react to rejection that is important. One must accept rejection as part of the process and move on when it occurs. Without acceptance, feelings such as anger, frustration, bitterness, or cynicism can destroy an artist’s career. Personalizing rejection is dangerous. It is very hard for many of us not to personalize rejection, but it is bad for us when we do. When we fail to manage our responses to adversity, we can become involved with “blame,” seeing all our misfortune, including rejection, as the “fault” of others.
For some, the antidote to rejection can be to make more art; pain can be a motivator. For others, rejection can be difficult. In some cases, artists mix their self-image and their work—their self worth and their work. Over time, their reaction to rejection can change because they take rejection personally. Whereas once rejection could be easily dismissed, cumulative rejection can lead to feelings of personal rejection, loss, withdrawal and depression in sensitive artists.
Huge numbers of artists—performing, visual, literary, the whole lot of them—are rejected every day. Think about actors going to several auditions every day. Rejections occur for many reasons that have nothing to do with talent. Gatekeepers of exhibition spaces, juries, calls, etc., have mandates to fulfill that may require them to balance the gender or ethnicity of selected artists, or they may have to make selections to meet geographic objectives. Gatekeepers may have strong preferences, just as many artists do, that precludes selection of your work. And there can be a compromise to neutral visual art programming due to the prejudices of board members, donors, the media etc. Also, your work may meet the standards of a gallery to which you submit work, but the subject of your work, your style or your media may render you ineligible due to the exhibition history of the gallery.
There can be a number of reasons for which you are rejected that have nothing to do with your skill and the value of your work. The key thing to remember when your work is rejected is that it is just that—your work has been rejected, not you. And not even “your work,” just the specific works that you submitted for consideration have, for one reason or another, been rejected—and rejected only for a singular and specific purpose.
If rejection leads to feelings of inadequacy, depression or failure, you have several remedial options to consider. Any one of them, or any other healing exercise that you may prefer, will definitely work if, and only if, you sincerely want to be happy or optimistic.
- Recall past successes
- Accept that rejection is part of the process (just as death is part of life)
- Pour your energy into applications to other venues or initiate a new project.
- Set the rejection in context—ask yourself, “What is more important—this rejection or my friendships?”
- Take self-help steps such as talking with peers and getting support, doing yoga or some other meditative practice
And remember, some artists have established their careers from rejection. There is a strong tradition of the “salon des réfusés” in art. The most famous such salon was in response to the Paris Salon of 1863. The Paris Salon was an annual official exhibition of leading artists of the time. In 1863, the jury of the Salon rejected 3000 pieces including Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and James McNeill Whistler’s Girl in White. The rejected artists mounted their own exhibition with the patronage of Emperor Napoleon III in an annex of the official salon and the emerging avant-garde movement in art was introduced to the world.
Finally, there is one good thing about rejection letters—a proven benefit! Save your rejection emails and letters in case you are ever audited. If you have annual losses declared in your income taxes ass an artist, you face an increased risk of being audited by Revenue Canada and if you are, your rejection letters can attest to both your professional ambitions and the reason for your losses.