How Artists Can Master Dealing with Rejection
Rejection is not easy to deal with, and most artists have experienced their fair share—be it from a gallery, an open-call exhibition, a residency, or a grant-giving institution. Frequently, advice on how to process rejection involves focusing on ways to feel better; those tactics tend to apply to any industry, but not necessarily the profession of being an artist. It may be difficult and disappointing not to get that job, promotion, or pay raise, but it’s quite different (and perhaps more intimate) for rejection to be based on your art, which is so closely linked to who you are as a person.
I’ve learned about how artists can deal with rejection from well over 1,000 interviews with artists for Yale University Radio, as well as my experience as an artist, and the books I’ve written to help artists develop their careers. Here, I share six ways to cope with rejection and become a stronger person in the process.
Get angry and express it—in your next work of art
Rather than making yourself focus on something other than your misfortune, go deep into it. The strong emotions that emanate from not getting that grant or that show can be channeled into your art. Use the rejection letter or voicemail you received as a jumping-off point to express anger, frustration, and sadness. Make artwork directly from the letters, or make a drawing, painting, photograph, sculpture, or poem based on your reactions. Make it big or small, but assume it is not for sale or public viewing; let out all your feelings in it. This is a moment not to hold back. It could even lead to greater works of art in the future, or—who knows—a breakthrough.
Ask for feedback
When you are rejected by a jury, it is a common practice to contact the organization and ask them for jurors’ notes or feedback regarding why you did not get the grant, residency, or whatever you may have applied for. Many times, they will have feedback to share with you, though some smaller organizations may not be able to—but it is worth asking.
Feedback can be very useful. Sometimes there is a very large pool of artists applying to the same grant, and it may not be that your work was given a thumbs down by all jurors; it may be, for example, that there were 10 finalists and only five places to fill. Knowing why you were rejected may not only ease the pain of it, but it can give you the knowledge you need to make your next application that much better in the future.
Use rejection as a tool for advancement
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor known as “the Philosopher,” wrote in his journal (later published as Meditations): “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
This stoic idea, which has been analyzed and discussed by various scholars, means we can take the obstacles that regularly come into our lives and turn them into tools for advancement and self-improvement. So rather than just accepting the pain of rejection, use it as the very tool to move beyond it, knowing that pain like this occurs to everyone, in different forms throughout our lives.
An example might be to see a rejection as a reason to research previous recipients of the grant or residency (or whatever it was you applied for), and then to find out how their approach might have differed from yours. Using that information will help you to improve your next application or strategize your next step, and it may help you develop a more optimistic outlook on the process.
If you need to, grieve. Take some days off and give yourself space to remember why you love making art. We all need time to recover from what we perceive as a loss or a judgement against us. Take time to be kind to yourself; treat yourself to something special or go for a long walk. Reflect on why art is important to you, why you are making it, and why you will continue to make it.
Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why you make art, and often, it is not a simple answer. Focus on that in your mourning, in your sadness, and hold on tight to the reason you became an artist—because that is probably the reason you should continue your practice.
Write a letter to the offending party—and never send it
Write an angry letter back to the rejecting organization, but refrain from sending it. If you’d rather speak than write, use your phone to record yourself, and then email it to yourself. Perfect your response by re-recording it or editing your writing.
The exercise will allow you to articulate all of your frustrations. Let it all fly and explain why you feel exasperated or disappointed. Again, refrain from sending it, or you will run the risk of burning bridges that may not be easily mended.
Consider joining a support group for artists, or start one of your own
As much as it might feel like you’re on your own as an artist, the fact is that you are surrounded by other artists who are often going through similar scenarios.
There are many accessible online support forums, through universities and other educational organizations. (I create support communities though my online school, Praxis Center, where I also offer practical resources on writing better applications, statements, and biographies.) If you’re a student, you can also facilitate group meetings on the subject of art and professional issues like rejection.
Creating your own support group can be as simple as asking three artist friends to meet at a café on a Saturday afternoon to talk about art—and specifically, about frustrations with art-world problems and ways to overcome them. One way to format meetings is to give each person five minutes to explain their situation, then give the rest of the group five minutes to respond (with four people, that works out to under an hour). Change up the group or invite others to join until you have a small gathering of people who can listen, as well as be supportive.
Brainard Carey is an author and artist. He runs the online school, Praxis Center for Aesthetics, and has a show on Yale University Radio where he interviews artists, curators, and writers.