Is Competition Good For Artists?

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From the time I was a child I’ve always felt a great need to please, to achieve and succeed, in short to win. While the reasons for this are probably a result of multiple factors and a bit too complex to go into here, I can say the need to achieve is a blessing and a curse. On one hand I feel that I strive to do the best I possibly can at whatever I’m doing which has led to achievement in many cases. On the other hand it can also cause crippling self-doubt, the constant feeling that I haven’t truly done enough and situations that, when I really think about them, can only be described as absurd (such as being upset when I don’t perform well in a harmless pickup game of volley ball when I don’t even like volley ball or sports in general and was probably dragged into playing the game in the first place). As a result of this, I find myself reflecting on my competitive nature and by extension competition.

Competition plays a large role in American society and there is certainly a fascination with it. There is the political realm with the competition between the parties as well as with other countries (think Sputnik or in today’s world the fears of the rising power of China). We’ve passed from Superbowl obsession into March Madness on the sports front. The world of the arts and entertainment is certainly not immune with shows like American Idol, The Voice, Project Runway and So You Think You Can Dance just to name a few. However, as an artist, I have certain qualms about competition particularly when applied to the arts.

I won’t deny that there can be benefits in competition. Artists can gain exposure, network with fellow artists, and receive feedback on their work. Winning a contest can provide a major boost of confidence while losing can help you learn what you need to improve on. There is also an argument to be made that artists will have to compete no matter what. After all, not everyone can be the conductor or star in the leading role. In short, there will be in everyone’s life “a time to win and a time to lose.”

Unfortunately, there are definite problems with competition in the arts. The most obvious being that art is by its very nature subjective. An individual’s favorite musician, artist, or writer might be (or heck, forget might be, probably IS) someone else’s most loathed. I remember a talent show I took part in where I played guitar and sang “19th Nervous Breakdown” with a friend accompanying on drums. We lost the talent show but the feedback was a definite example of subjectivity at work. The one judge that had experience in rock bands and enjoyed rock music gave us very high scores. Conversely, the other judges, who were most likely not of the same musical persuasion, were not as enthusiastic in their responses. Of course there are numerous examples of talented people who were overlooked and misunderstood by critics and peers. Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most well-known examples of this phenomena though he is by no means the only one.

Of course the issue of subjectivity does not account for general bias, favoritism, and nepotism which can be just as pervasive in the arts community if not more so. Shows with audience choice to determine a winner can simply lead to the most popular competitor winning instead of the most talented. Perhaps some of you reading this have seen examples of these factors in your own lives and careers; for instance, the mediocre actress who achieved a leading role while sleeping with the director or the arts council headed by people that have ethics more akin to members of the mafia.  

I believe that artists can benefit from competitions but we have to utilize them appropriately. We should not enter a competition to win but instead to learn whatever the outcome may be. Believe me I know this is harder than it sounds and even with this mindset I’ve still felt upset after a loss. However if we can master looking at competitions as a learning experience rather than a game that we must win, it will benefit our happiness and sanity. In conjunction with this we should take the opportunity seek feedback from reliable sources. This can be a contest judge or truthful friends and family members who appreciate your work but can be honest about any shortcomings. Ultimately, we should remember that our work is subject to opinion and interpretation which should liberate us to focus on our development as artists instead of trends or non-constructive criticisms. In the words of the Sue Sylvester of Glee (played by the amazing Jane Lynch) “There’s not much of a difference between a stadium full of cheering fans and an angry crowd screaming abuse at you. They’re both just making a lot of noise. How you take it is up to you. Convince yourself they’re cheering for you. You do that and someday they will.”

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