Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was ashamed of his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Irish musician Bono said about their 1997 album Pop, “It is really the most expensive demo session in the history of music.”
Filmmaker David Fincher said about Alien 3,
“I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times, and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”
Yet, the artist’s dissatisfaction is part of their creative process.
If artists felt satisfied, why bother pushing themselves forward or embracing a different challenge? It’s far easier to become derivative. U2’s 1997 album Pop led to the far more successful 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, while Fincher later found his creative voice in Fight Club, Seven and Gone Girl.
Perhaps artists also hate their work because they must stop creating and eventually ship it and all its ugly imperfections.
The french poet Paul Valéry wrote
“Un ouvrage n’est jamais achevé…mais abandonné.”
Later on, both Gore Vidal and Oscar Wilde adapted that quote to make a similar argument. You might know it best as,
“A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.”
Artists, at least successful ones, appreciate the value of taking their creative work to a point where they can share it with an editor, readers or fans.
Even if they don’t, the artists are probably against a deadline or commercial constraint. They must ship. Sometimes, the result is Pop. And sometimes it’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
An offering for an audience
A work released out into the world no longer belongs to the artist and that includes books, articles and stories.
It belongs to his or her fans, and that’s sometimes difficult for the creator to accept. It’s no wonder many artists feel uneasy about marketing their art, even if it’s key to earning more money.
The musician and Nick Cave recently wrote,
“Personally, when I write a song and release it to the public, I feel it stops being my song. It has been offered up to my audience and they, if they care to, take possession of that song and become its custodian. The integrity of the song now rests not with the artist, but with the listener.”
The real problems begin when hating one’s work transforms into perfectionism. The artist finds an excuse for spending more time or resources on a creative project. Instead, of shipping, they dither, delay or tinker. Michael Cimino worked his 1980 American western Heaven’s Gate endlessly. When the film was finally released, critics and fans hated it.
New artists tend to imitate those they admire; more advanced ones reinterpret their early influences. A writer devours the works of an author from years gone and attempts a variation of their style.
When they compare their creative output to their influences, they find the gap off-putting. The result is a pale imitation, at least until the writer finds his or her voice. Compare David Fincher’s derivative Alien 3 to his masterpiece Seven.
Hating one’s work causes the artist to push forward with their next project. They master advanced skills and means of expression.
Consider tennis champion Andre Agassi. In his autobiography, Open, he writes, “I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.”
Yet, the entire book recounts his journey to becoming a better player and champion. He ends the book playing tennis with his wife Steffi Graf saying, “I want to play just a while longer.”
Perhaps every artist wants to play, paint or write a while longer. What they really hate is stopping.
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