The Self-Taught Stigma in the Art World: The Reality and Hidden Agenda
When you find something you love, you want to hold on to it for all that you are worth.
Many artists feel this way about their art. Once they discover it, it awakens something in them—something that has always been there, even if they could never put their finger on it before.
Falling in love with a form of art means you want to learn how to do it. So you could seek formal education or be self-taught. For me, the journey has been, through trial and error, exploring and experimenting on my own, without the benefit of formal education.
In the art world, that background can often stigmatize you in the eyes of others. It’s not always easy to understand why. Maybe they see it as a sign of having less money, less experience, or less prestige. Whatever it is, even in 2022, there is a prejudice against learning outside of major academic institutions.
Unfortunately, this not only pushes out artists with a lot of talent and an important perspective, but also can intimidate young people from entering the field altogether. What’s worse, many people who could be self-taught might end up going into expensive degree paths that aren’t necessary, all because they want to be accepted as part of this exclusive club.
Challenges for an Outsider
My Mona Lisa: A lady of the Street Market, Ordinary Wonders, BRYCE Watanasoponwong, 2019.
If you find yourself outside a circle looking in, as many newbies and self-taught artists do, you often run into people who do not want to let you inside.
Some see self-taught artists as a constant problem for the industry, and we are routinely treated like second-class citizens whose work is assumed to be low quality. It’s sad but true: the self-taught is not given the same respect, despite how good their artwork is. Without an academic education or a connection to high levels of the art world, you won’t be given the time of day.
And yet, if you count noses, the majority of artists in the world are self-taught! But it does not seem to matter.
There continue to be major barriers to entry if you do not have an official degree or connections. It runs the gamut from large to small. It might mean many galleries do not well receive your works. Moreover, it can also mean hurtful jokes at your expense and social exclusion.
This icy reception makes many newbies and self-taught individuals feel they do not belong — something that can have larger ramifications down the road, including depression.
How to Deal with Greed and Ego
A Ukrainian man spent an afternoon at a busy beach in Odessa City, Ordinary Wonders, BRYCE Watanasoponwong, 2019.
Perhaps the biggest causes of the problem come down to other people’s greed and their wounded egos.
Greed is something we’ve all seen in others and sometimes felt in our hearts. It’s a common part of the human experience. And sure, everyone knows that greed is an undesirable obsession with wealth, power, and/or fame — but it can be hard to recognise in ourselves.
For that reason, many people in the art world, including fine art photography, end up acting out of greed. And a big part of that is finding ways to cut out other artists that they view as the “competition.” Any difference is a potential wedge to keep out other people.
It’s a sad state of affairs because, ultimately, these people doing the gatekeeping are themselves in a state of suffering. If they could bring in their higher sense of things, they would see that acting this way only serves to alienate them from their fellow human beings. Meanwhile, it does not help their career to simply dismiss the work of others.
And where does this greed come from? Egos.
The ego is a complicated part of the human soul — something that acts as a guard between us and the world at large. It creates desires, and the ego usually wants things that bring pleasure or glory.
Whereas many teachers throughout the ages have given us ideas on how to fight against greed and the ego, we live in a time when these are blatantly celebrated. Children are raised in a world where acquiring things is the highest good, and are taught to celebrate themselves as the centre of the universe. It is no wonder that these features are rampant.
So, how do we overcome this? How do we combat greed and ego?
In my experience, the best path forward is positivity and respect. If someone is unkind, you do not have to reply in anger. If you act respectfully, these fellow artists and their wounded egos will gradually learn that they can trust you and that you aren’t out to hurt them.
Ultimately, their egos do not feel comfortable besides self-taught artists because they are worried about what it will say about them — it has nothing to do with the other person. Therefore, we need to lead with compassion.
Would our world be nicer if we could treat everyone equally and support one another without any conditions? In my series Crossing Boundaries, I investigate if greed and egos could contribute to the social boundaries of communities around the world.
It is always a good idea to lead with compassion, rather than strike back out of anger. But sometimes rudeness can become bullying, and bullying can — in extreme cases — become abuse.
If you have experienced any behaviour that seems unacceptable, it is essential to talk to someone and seek help. You should not bottle it in or excuse these kinds of actions.
And if you have felt excluded to the point that it is causing severe distress, you might benefit from talking to a therapist. 1 in 4 people have experienced mental illness, and the best way to deal with the issue is to seek the support of a mental health professional as soon as possible.
Be well, take care of yourselves, and don’t let the haters win!
Photographer and visual storyteller based in Bangkok
BRYCE Watanasoponwong is a photographer and visual storyteller. He is interested in producing a narrative series that evokes emotion and makes a personal impact. Becoming more involved in how photography is... read on
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