That Awkward Moment… When You Don’t Like Your Own Work

southwest stuccoland minimal color photography by Johnny Kerr

So, I’ve had this recurring experience recently:

While hanging out with a friend I am asked, “what’s new?” As an artist, my art is always a part of that answer. So, I inevitably include details about my most recent project, STUCCOLAND! I notice a look of polite, but feigned interest settle across my companion’s face, or a look of awkward avoidance. I venture a guess (with a disarming smile): “you’re not a fan of these new images, are you?” With a measure of discomfort, they admit as much. “No offense, it’s just that your black and white stuff appealed to me a lot more.”

Quick to offer consolation, I admit that I’m not a huge fan of the new work, either. My companion’s facial expression quickly changes to one of surprised relief. “But, wait… how can an artist not like his own work?” Well, it’s actually a little more complicated than that.

Johnny’s Hierarchy of “Like”

The word “like” is a little tricky in the age of social media. We could say we appreciate something, admire something, enjoy something, or flat out love it. But most of the time it’s just the words “like” or “love” overused to the point that they lose all emphasis and meaning. A big fan of analogies, I’ve created a hierarchy that I think might reflect peoples’ spectrum of social media engagement:

  1. Pause: you’re intrigued enough to stop scrolling your feed and investigate for a moment longer
  2. Like: the decisive action of tapping the “like” button
  3. Pin: more than like it, you want to pin it to a Pinterest board for future access
  4. Share: you commit to an official endorsement by adding it to your feed to proselytize your followers
  5. Buy: you’re willing to spend your hard-earned wages on it; you download the mp3, buy the book, get the Blu-Ray, etc.
  6. Invest: you’re willing to commit a larger sum of your resources by purchasing an original work of art or limited edition print to hang in your home and live with every day

This is, of course, mostly tongue-in-cheek. However, I do think there is some truth there.

Levity aside, I do believe in all the work I put out into the world. Otherwise, I’d never let it see the light of day. But my level of engagement when considering STUCCOLAND! as a subjective observer is probably in the “like it” to “pin it” area of the spectrum. If I saw this same work coming from some other artist, I think the graphic designer in me would definitely pause and consider its bold lines, shapes and colors for a moment. I’d most likely hit the “like” button and give a little kudos to the artist. I might even pop over to Pinterest and add it to my “Abstract/Minimal” collection. I doubt that I would share these photographs (if I hadn’t created them, that is) with my social media followers or purchase prints to hang in my house. And that’s okay.

southwest stuccoland minimal color photography by Johnny Kerr

All Part of The Process

I was honest from the start of STUCCOLAND! that this series was a stretch for me. Art, like most things, is boring if you’re just doing the same thing over and over again. Even if the vivid colors found in this portfolio are a bit much for my personality, I know it’s good work. That’s why I’ve pursued it and why I stand by it. Part of the beauty of art is that it is entirely subjective. Some people will like it, and others won’t.

I’m grateful to have received a lot of positive feedback for STUCCOLAND! when I was feeling insecure about it. Many of my social media followers liked it and even though I probably lost a few who didn’t like the new direction I also gained at least as many new followers. Behance featured it in their blog, which led to thousands more people finding my work who otherwise wouldn’t have (about 8k as of this writing). Adobe Lightroom featured it on their official Twitter account. French media company, Phototrend interviewed me and published an article. But this is all just gravy on the top. Validation feels good, but I try not to depend on it to define the value of my work. My interest in artistic pursuits is just as much about how what I’m doing transforms me, as it is about me transforming it.

In making this work I found structures that were relatively unimpressive and tried to hone in on one feature that could make an interesting photograph. When successful, I was able to transform something mundane into something a little more special. At the same time, the hunt for these images sharpened my awareness of design elements that I might otherwise have taken for granted if I was only looking for moody black and white images. Going through this process grew my skills as an artist and deepened my awareness of the beauty surrounding me. It was fun and playful in a way none of my previous work was. I’ll take those things with me into any future artistic endeavors. That’s exciting and worthwhile to me! On the other hand, I’m also ready to move on from it soon and turn my lens to something else.

southwest stuccoland minimal color photography by Johnny Kerr

As many artists have said before, art is not just something you put on the wall because it matches your curtains. It’s also not just about personal taste. Art is communication. Art reveals beauty to us in new and unexpected ways. Art can confront you with ideas you might not otherwise be open to in conversation. Art can make you feel in ways other experiences cannot. So, before you dismiss a work of art just because it doesn’t suit your personal taste or match the living room drapes, at least give it a pause. Consider what the artist is showing you. Free yourself from the pressure of having to choose whether you like it or not. Just take a minute to see something new and expand your mind. Be aware of how it speaks to you, whether positively, negatively or indifferently.

If you are a family member, friend or longtime fan, but don’t like my STUCCOLAND! series, that’s okay. I appreciate you being open-minded enough to look at something new with me. If you’re someone who does like the series, that’s great! I knew when I began creating it that it would really engage some people. I may not be eager to hang this work on the walls in my own home, as I have with much of my past work, but I am proud of it. I learned a lot and I had fun, and that’s enough for me.

2 Comments

  • Tessa DAGNELY
    Hi, Thanks for these considerations about you and your art, it’s very “speaking” to me because as an unknown artist (painter and photographer) I am constantly questioning myself about the quality of my work. I’ve discovered your work a few months ago “par hasard” and I like it very much. Specially Stuccoland II and your black and white photographs on architecture. I’m living in Belgium and English isn’t my native language...I hope you understand my words ;)
    • Johnny
      Hi Tessa, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! I'm glad you were able to connect with my post and I appreciate your kind comments about my work. Best wishes to you from America to Belgium!

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