Fear of judgement: the reason why artists can't truly be themselves. Not only is this true for the beginner, who consciously or unconsciously believes they aren't talented enough to try art. It can also true for artists at any stage in their career. The result can be making work that doesn't feel like it's yours, not feeling happy with the outcome or feeling disappointment even when others really enjoy what you've made.
What does being yourself actually mean? It's a common theme in every form of Eastern philosophy, but rarely is it ever described. To some, this can be a really annoying and vague form of advice. One of the most common phrases I heard from Phra KK during meditation was "please be yourself!" I think what KK wanted was for us to feel comfortable in our bodies and not worry about anyone judging us. He almost sounded like he was begging, which made me try my best. You might think it should come naturally, but being yourself is actually hard at first. It's an unlearning process, unraveling the labels and ideas socialized into one's being.
There are two issues plaguing the practicing artist: 1) trying so hard to be a unique individual that you cannot give yourself permission to make something that's been done before and 2) you feel your art must look or act a certain way to be accepted in the contemporary art canon. Both of these issues are subtle and are taught to us in Western academia, where individual genius and notions of the avant-garde dictate the value of art. When a friend sends me a picture of another artist's work that looks exactly like a new piece I'm making, I automatically feel frustrated - but I have to remind myself that human beings share so many common experiences in life. It's normal to think the same things, especially in this ever-connected, real-time world we live in. Regardless of this, everyone has a district way making work; giving us all an aesthetic as unique as our fingerprints.
In the second case, I might sound like I'm contradicting myself - but the underlying feeling is fear of judgment. You think people will look down on your art because it doesn't look a certain way. I most often experience this in terms of presentation and material. Because I don't feel confident in my building abilities, I worry that the way I install my artwork in the gallery isn't professional or "clean" enough, especially if something is unframed. I also worry when my medium or imagery is too "crafty" or kitsch.
For example, I recently made linocut prints of butterflies and moths for an upcoming gallery show. It sounds like something that belongs in a child's bedroom but they are relevant to a strong idea. So I regive permission to myself, practicing mindfulness as I acknowledge my thoughts and own judgments about the work. Some of the best artists are those who weren't trying to be a genius individual, they were just brave enough to be themselves, opening up new possibilities for what art could be.
Mindfulness is a practice from the Buddhist tradition that can be applied to our artistic practice. Mindfulness is knowing yourself - becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions and behaviors and acting on them in a kind, loving way. One way to find out how to be authentically you is to reconnect with your inner child. This is especially helpful if you're struggling with a concept. When you were a kid you weren't as worried about fitting into social norms, and probably didn't question the things you enjoyed. Often times, those things we loved then will continue over the course of our lives. What amazed you as a child? How did you play? For me, I grew up in the countryside and couldn't play with any friends. I was always outside with my animals; exploring in the prairie, the woods, collecting plants, sleeping under stars. Eventually, as a 25-year-old woman those things have come full circle and are still forces behind the work I make. It gives me energy to keep pursuing my conceptual path.
If you aren't sure what your aesthetic is, make a list of the colors, textures, shapes, images and patterns you're attracted to. It's also helpful to make a list of artists whose work you enjoy, so you know consciously where these influences come from. Often times artists will appropriate other's work, especially of someone they admire. Sometimes it's conscious, but most often its unconscious - the artwork we've seen and loved is stored somewhere deep in our memory. It's important to take the elements you've enjoyed and find out how it can be relevant to you. It's important to know that we, as humans, may have many collective experiences and interests, but we all express them in ways as subtly unique as a fingerprint. An effective way to know yourself is to go too far one way or the other, feeling out what seems balanced for you. This is true in the practice of Tai Chi, where practitioners fall on purpose in order to learn balance in a posture. In your artwork, for example, you may enjoy an artist who uses neon colors but when you try to use them yourself, it just doesn't look right. So you decide to stick to your more natural palette: this is mindfulness of color.
The second way is to learn how to follow your instinct. Artwork is all about exploring the things that fascinate you. Don't force anything that doesn't feel right. In Taoism, the gut is considered the second brain, which is the realm of instinct. When trying to make a decision, ask yourself which option you would prefer and see feel how they both feel in your body - that is your gut telling you the answer! Practice following instinct by letting your second brain choose what to draw, what time to go to the studio, when to stop making something. Following your instinct is acting on faith, which helps build trust in yourself. Once you build a little trust, the big existential questions become easier to answer.
And lastly, ask yourself: Am I doing this for me, or am I only doing this for someone else? Of course, it's important to think of the gift you can share with an audience as you make the piece. As Bill Viola says, "art is a gift" and Marina Abramovic believes sharing your work is your "obligation and duty to society". However, sometimes I get really excited about an idea and suddenly lose interest, but I feel compelled to finish it for a show or other deadline. I always feel like I wasted time, because I rarely am happy with the result. I made it not for me, but for the people who were expecting a finished piece. When making your artwork feels like a chore, it will show in the final result. You will know when you're making a piece for yourself. You will feel a deep joy and excitement; you'll want to share it with the world. Ultimately, making something that is truly yours comes down to intention. Intention is the determining factor to release us from delusion.