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No Artist Is Pleased


Agnes de Mille

In 1943, Agnes de Mille was having a soda with the renown choreographer and dancer Martha Graham. After years of having difficulty finding work, Agnes de Mille had an unexpected, wild success for her choreography for the Broadway show Oklahoma!, which she thought her work was only “fairly good”. The production ran over 2,200 performances and eventually closed 5 years later. Mille recalls that her desire for greatness was always present, but her lack of faith is what kept her in the dark.

Martha Graham shared some timeless wisdom on creativity, artistry, and creation — words that we ought to remember and live by when pursuing an artistic endeavor like writing a book, creating a side business, or simply learning how to draw [emphasis by me]:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

I’d like to unpack this a bit further, two takeaways to help us embrace this admonishment and to remember it whenever we feel that our work is only fairly good.

1. Who’s the judge?: Who determines the quality of our work? Who stamps the label “Good” or “Bad” on it? Here’s what I think: The first answer is no one; the second answer is your audience (not the mass public, but your audience, the select few who love and trust you). In the many months you spend on your project, of course you’re going to think it’s good. But once it goes out the door, the feedback or lack thereof is a heavy anchor that could make us believe we’re sinking. Imagine realizing that the energy you put into an action fails to cause a vibration? It’s daunting and soul-sucking. Ultimately, as creators, the only panacea is to keep creating. And that brings us to point number 2.

2. Keep working: I drew a portrait, tagged the person on Instagram, all in hopes that they would acknowledge my work, maybe repost it on their profile, and I would have a barrage of likes and comments for the next few hours to feed my dopamine-lacking brain. This means that checking Instagram felt like work but ultimately wasn’t. She didn’t post it, or acknowledge, or like it. Because I didn’t get the desired acknowledgement, does that mean the drawing is bad? I can sit here trying to cajole her into seeing the portrait, trying to show her the effort I put into it and why it’s good. But that’s not our work, and more importantly, it’s a waste of time. What we do have control of is that we decide to wake up tomorrow and get back to work. We can get better, ruthlessly edit and refine, and keep creating. Feedback, especially good feedback, is the result of great work. Just because you create it doesn’t entail a response.

Whether you’re picking up that old musical instrument from your closet or attempting to start a small entrepreneurial endeavor, remember to keep your channels open, be aware of the urges that motivate you, but most of all, you will most likely be dissatisfied at first but will feel more alive than ever before.