Blog / 2020 / How To Love Your Art #7: Play with Your Self-expression Versus Communication Ratio

March 9, 2020

I know it’s popular these days for artists to say that they don’t care what other people think of their work. There are all kinds of self-help memes affirming that other people’s reactions to art are not the artist’s business. While I get the comforting logic behind this way of thinking, I still believe that cutting yourself off from your audience damages your work.

In order to love your art, you need to understand not only what it means for you, but also how it occurs in the world.

There are two basic ways of viewing the artistic process: as self-expression and as communication. The self-expression mindset focuses on making an artistic vision happen, while the communication one emphasizes an awareness of the people on the receiving end of the artwork. With each of these modes, there are strengths and weaknesses.

For self-expression, the main strength lies in the artist’s total confidence in their vision. Of course, the primary weakness is found there as well: in the artists’ certainty that, if the work flops, it’s got nothing to do with them. When self-expressers fail, they tend to blame the audience for being too stupid to understand the work.

For communication, the strength stems from the respect the artist has for their audience. Communicators are aware that people could be doing anything else in the whole world rather than looking at art, and so they work to make their art worthwhile. Of course, artists who allow communication to dominate their practice can lose any sense of vision when they try too hard to please the audience.

No artist is just a communicator or a self-expresser, but we do have tendencies towards one or the other. It’s useful to identify your default mode and then, when you are feeling stuck, you can push yourself towards the other mode to see how it might help you grow.

I am a communicator by nature, and Baby Sees ABCs puts that tendency front and center. My upcoming animal alphabet book originated in conversations with my audience after this animal book’s début, and the project’s crowdfunding gave backers the power to shape Baby Sees ABCs by deciding on the animals I would be painting as well as the first names I would be embedding in the book. If that doesn’t make me an artist who is aware of her audience, I don’t know what does!

That said, Baby Sees ABCs is actually a return to communication after concentrating on self-expression. Beginning in 2017 with my Tiki Torch Trump painting, I got on this whole kick of making art to vent my anger. After the Tiki Torch version of 45 got appropriated by some MAGAlicious people in my life, I fought back with another portrait of Trump, which got me censored in 2019. Over the last couple of years, I have painted everyone from Anita Hill and her main senatorial tormentor to Jesus and a polar bear.

While some of this satisfied me in a deep way, a lot of it—and especially the lies around the censorship of my art—made me feel a bit lost. So I’m taking some time in my happy place of communication to relax and rebuild a bit before exploring self-expression again.

regal angelfish, colorful wildlife art
Gwenn Seemel
A Is for Angelfish
2019
acrylic on panel
14 x 14 inches

The first names embedded in this image are Aaron, Abigail, Abracadabra, Achaean, Ada, Adam, Adrienne, Ahmed, Alana, Aleesha, Alder, Allison, Amaïa, Amber, Amelia, Amy, Amzi, Andrea, Anika, Anna, Annie, Annika, Aparna, Art, Ashton, and Aubrey.

The original painting is for sale for $1500 plus shipping. If you want prints or other pretty items with this image, check out my Redbubble shop! The full book will be available later this year.

regal angelfish painting by Gwenn Seemel
detail of A Is for Angelfish

Here’s what I’ve been reading since my last alphabet book update:

  • How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi

    The structure of this book is straightforward and very effective. Kendi names a kind of racism along with its opposing antiracism, defines them both, and then digs deeper with a story from his own life. Please read this beautiful and essential book.

  • Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

    This book killed me—maybe not as dead as Chanel Miller’s Know My Name did, but pretty dead all the same. All I have to say is that, if all women unleashed their repressed rage against the patriarchy at the same time, male humans would cease to exist in that instant.

  • I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

    I’ve enjoyed interviews with Ajayi and I find some of her writing funny, but the tone of I’m Judging You is, well, too judgy for my taste. I only made it halfway through the book. If you’re looking for memoirish humorous content, I recommend Lindy West’s Shrill. It’s more narrative than I’m Judging You, which is structured around commentary, but West’s book still has plenty of social criticism in it.

  • Métaphysique des Tubes by Amélie Nothomb

    This book is about what it’s like to be two and half as told from the context of a two and a half year old. It’s totally bizarre and pretty wonderful. I don’t know if it’s been translated into English, but the French is fairly simple.

  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker

    I have long thought that religion is primarily an excuse for hypocritical and dangerous behavior, so The Color Purple is the only book about god that I have ever liked, and I like it quite a lot.

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