I received the nicest rejection letter the other day. In part because I wasn’t expecting one. I hadn’t applied to anything, and wasn’t sitting on pins and needles waiting for a response. It simply appeared.
That is, it appeared because someone else submitted my work for consideration to something. Which was both incredibly thoughtful and completely unexpected. So instead of emotionally registering as the outcome of some sort of high-stakes poker game, rejection felt like a sweet surprise.
The reason for the rejection was because my work isn’t controversial enough. It doesn’t inspire debate or push anyone’s buttons. All of this is true. I think our buttons are plenty pushed these days. I aim for a much lower bar – to instill a sense of calm. Anger is easy to provoke – thoughtfulness is much more difficult.
That’s not to say that one is better than the other. There are people who do button-pushing well, and organizations that collect that sort of work. But art has many roles, as do people. Some are leaders, some are thinkers, some are doers. Some are at the forefront, and some work diligently behind the scenes. As for me, I’m a thoughtful dialoguer. A calm presence. Just like my work.
I won’t share the letter, as it wasn’t meant for outside eyes. But I will share its parting line:
“An artist’s life is sustained through allies and advocacy.“
This line resonated with me for so many reasons. First, because it’s true. Just as there are many roles that art can play, there are many ways to support artists. Certainly, buying their work tops the list. But liking, commenting, sharing, interviewing, and promoting all help. And those don’t cost a dime.
Which led me to this…
Alan and I have been grappling with social justice issues lately, and what roles we can play. And we’re not alone. There are lots of conversations being sparked these days about what the “right” response is. But like many things in life, there is no right answer – no response that cleanly addresses a situation so it can be crossed off a list. Big, systemic problems can’t be solved overnight, and any work worth its salt takes time.
Much like art, the trick is to find the role you can fill and sustain over time. Have the qualities and charisma to be a leader? Be one. Have the persistence and energy to push for change? Do it. Have the skills and thoughtfulness to write persuasively? Sit down and write. Have the dedication and peace of mind to do the boring work? File papers. Address envelopes. Lick stamps. Because a movement needs stamp-lickers too.
Artists are important. But their work is sustained through allies and advocacy. One can’t get far without the other. Just like a movement. An individual only becomes a leader when others follow. Not that their ideas aren’t important in a vacuum, just as an artist’s work still has value even if no one sees it. But the true value of a message in society – whether creative or sociological – is in its impact.