8 Leading Artists on How to Build Confidence

Casey Lesser
Dec 18, 2018 4:16PM

We talk a lot about what it takes to be an artist. We focus on the failure and rejection that artists need to overcome, the hustle they must maintain, and the financial duress that the vast majority of them endure. To stand by your practice, become a target of criticism, and continue to pursue a career as an artist—even when the prospect of selling and exhibiting your art appears bleak—requires confidence.

Artists encounter unique challenges. They are required to continually make new work that feels original and significant, but not too close to that of their peers and predecessors. They encounter public audiences that are quick to deem contemporary art esoteric or absurd. Unsurprisingly, the high stakes drive some to feel the debilitating anxiety of “impostor syndrome,” the psychological phenomenon whereby a person underestimates their accomplishments and fears they may be a talentless fraud. Even the most successful artists can, at times, feel this way.

The internationally renowned artist Shirin Neshat admits to questioning herself often—but, she asserts, having doubts is only human. She remembers a particularly resonant piece of advice she received early on in her career from the late legend, artist Vito Acconci: “He told me rejections and disappointments hurt no matter what stage of your career, and so as a serious artist, you have to understand you will remain vulnerable,” she said. We recently reached out to Neshat and seven other leading contemporary artists to learn about their own experiences with doubt and impostor syndrome, and their strategies for building confidence.

Ursula von Rydingsvard

Follow your intuition

Portrait of Ursula von Rydingsvard by Alan Rokach. Courtesy of the artist.


“It’s okay to not know where you’re going as an artist. There will be possibilities for liberating things you thought you could never let go of. And for failure. I’ve experienced failure so deep that I ended up burning my sculpture; they burn for two days. You will rarely know what the right thing to do is as there are so few absolutely right things in life…instead, follow the quiet nudges of your intuition.”

Spencer Finch

Let doubt into your work

Portrait of Spencer Finch, 1988. Courtesy of the artist.

“Of all my many syndromes, the impostor syndrome is my favorite. I still feel like a total faker, even after all these years. I guess by now it’s pathological. However, I don’t think doubt is necessarily a bad thing, unless it totally paralyzes you. I used to be wracked by doubt on a pretty continuous basis, but now it just comes around about once a year, like an old friend, whom I welcome for a brief visit and then send on their way.

“My predominant doubt is not about how good my art is per se, but rather about the whole enterprise of artmaking—i.e., what’s the fucking point? The artists I admire most embed a sense of doubt—a questioning of what art is—within the work they make, and that is a method that I have adapted to my own practice. I think of it as a sort of psychological ‘box with sound of its own making,’ where the sound is a very resigned ‘hmmmmmm.’”

William Wegman

Find an audience outside of your circle

Portrait of William Wegman. Courtesy of the artist.


“I have always been confident which I think is built in... but this state became stronger when people I didn’t know—not my mother and aunt—teachers and fellow students, reacted positively to my work, especially in the video of the early ’70s. So I would say try to find an audience outside your circle. I really loved having my work reproduced in art magazines in that period. My photo pieces held up nicely in this situation. It may also have been video technicians I worked with while editing or strangers passing by an installation.

“Now I’m overconfident and that is an excellent quality for an artist. If someone doesn’t like my work I think they are stupid. Of course, this situation is fragile and if confronted with adverse criticism, you have to wrap yourself up in a nice wool blanket.”

Charles Gaines

Don’t try to control the expectations of others

Portrait of Charles Gaines in Rome, 1985. Courtesy of the artist.

“I have not had a problem with confidence. It’s not that I think I am ‘all that,’ it’s only that I never really thought that I had any other option than to be an artist. The issue of confidence is one that is related to what others think about you, whether you perform at a level that would meet the expectation of others. I believe that an artist has no control over the expectations of others. This comes from a deeper notion that the relationship of the individual to society is fundamentally an arbitrary one. Consistency can only be achieved through one’s personal commitment to the work.

“To feel that one might be an impostor comes from a belief that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between you and a social space that judges you, where both are playing by the same rules. I believe, however, that the idea of feeling unworthy is a sentiment produced in you to control you. You are given to believe in a universal authority like a father figure, a person to whom you are biologically linked and who, no matter what you do, represents an authority beyond you on such matters. This authority then has the right to judge you. In the case of the impostor, you feel that you are not legitimately linked to this ‘father,’ and in getting ‘his’ attention, you are carrying out a deception. Any rewards you might receive are undeserved. With respect to this sentiment I am more Lacanian than Freudian, in that it is not a matter of being unworthy, but feeling unworthy. Knowing the difference between the two helps me negotiate the sentiment.”

Carolee Schneemann

When someone tells you you can’t do something, prove them wrong

“I have resisted making public any of the most sensitive, thoughtful, elusive processes by which my work emerges. I have disparaged strategies, mantras, activities that ‘build confidence as an artist.’ I learned to build confidence whenever I was told ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’ ‘You paint like a boy,’ ‘We need these brushes more than you do,’ ‘Your films are not really films.’…

“I have, at times, had a vision of an installation which I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t seen as the work of another artist. This confluence of confusion has occurred several times, and in each instance, I was finally reassured.…[My installation of] handmade, cow-plop-like rocks was entirely original! The piece was titled Video Rocks (1987–88); incorporating 5–10 monitors and 50–100 handmade rocks, it was originally situated on the edge of Lake Winnipeg.”

Shirin Neshat

Accept that you won’t make masterpieces all the time

Portrait of Shirin Neshat by Lyle Ashton Harris. Courtesy of Shirin Neshat and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

“Whether the works that I’ve done are successful or not is not only up to other people, but myself as well, so I am always dealing with doubts and lack of confidence. But I’ve learned to deal with these moments of insecurity. For example, if I’m among a crowd as they look at my work and I can just tell that they didn’t like it, I talk myself into seeing through it. I remind myself that sometimes, people’s views are not completely correct, and that it’s okay not to please everyone and to have critical feedback.

“I get rejected, I get disappointed, and I feel like I fail constantly. I think that’s partially because of the multiple different types of work that I do—from film to performance to photography—and it’s really not possible to do everything very well. It’s natural that there are going to be works that are weaker. So, I am always reminding myself that it’s only human to fail, and to not make masterpieces all the time.

“I was surprised at a public screening of my film recently where it seemed like it was going well, but then this one person got up (it wasn’t the first time this has happened) and he started to attack me—for the film, for what I’ve done, for what I represent. At first, I was shocked and devastated, but then I found myself really rise to the occasion; I defended myself very well. His attack was really good in a way; he challenged me and made me re-examine myself and where I stand as an artist.

“Sometimes when you reach really low, in terms of your self-esteem and confidence, it’s a good excuse to re-examine your work, to start again. I always say to myself, when you fall down, help yourself up, because there’s nothing good about just remaining on the ground. You have to experience low moments in order to really appreciate the higher ones.”

Xu Bing

Take a look at your past work to see how you’ve grown

Portrait of Xu Bing. Courtesy of Xu Bing Studio.

“Everyone is unique. You have your own ‘gene,’ which could be composed of your sensibility, intelligence, education, and family background. But, in fact, neither your IQ nor your educational or family background can decide whether you will be an artist. The key is to bring the exceptional part of your ‘gene’ to the art world through your work and your art. When you add something new to the art world or try to adjust some blind spots and defects of the existing system, no matter how small your contribution might seem like, your work is important.

“I also occasionally question my ideas. But I later realized that the reason why I have doubts is because of the innovative part in the work I do. No one before has proved that your innovation works, so naturally, you will have questions about it. On the contrary, if there’s nothing inventive in your work and you only use forms that have been proven successful in the past, you won’t have doubts, but at the same time, this type of work is worthless.

“When you feel confused about your work or helpless facing the heavy history of art, take a look at your work from different stages of your career. You might realize that as an artist, you have grown so much from the immature or ignorant person in the beginning. More importantly, the changes are not clueless; they are magical. The arch of your change reflects who you are and can possibly reach to somewhere no one had reached before.”

Paola Pivi

Jump into the unknown

Portrait of Paola Pivi by © Luce Balzarini. Courtesy of the artist.

“When I joined the historical Brera Academy in Milan, I was 24. I considered myself a newcomer to the arts; I had just spent a summer learning about cartoonists, Egon Schiele, and Dada. A well-respected teacher with white hair, a beard, and a big reputation brought my class upstairs to the museum, Pinacoteca di Brera, to see the paintings of the great masters like Mantegna and Raphael. I was in awe at that moment, thinking I was about to receive some special teaching. I immediately realized that I had a truer connection to those paintings than he did; his words sounded empty.

“Most of the time, my artworks almost kill me with the amount of work I put into them, so I never really feel like an impostor. The closest thing that I’ve felt is a deep sense of doubt; I wonder, ‘Is it good?’ Usually, seeing the way people interact with my work, its independence and strength, cancels out any doubt I may have. I can doubt pieces before making them, but I have to jump into the unknown to get somewhere. I have to dare to make them.”

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.