The Myth of Competition

What if I told you that there was no such thing as competition in the visual art world? You’d think I was probably delusional, right? Well, maybe I am, but hear me out because it’s based on theory and my observation.

As a musician, I have noticed a lot of differences between the two worlds: (art and music). Visual artists behave much differently than musicians, for sure. For one thing, there is a camaraderie that exists between musicians that doesn’t seem to exist among artists, at least not as strong as it should based on my own observations.

Realize that being a visual artist, for the most part, is a solitary endeavor. It is not like being a musician, where you depend on others to make music. Musicians have more of a team mentality. It’s definitely a collaborative effort. It’s another level of communication that is very difficult to explain, just like it’s hard to explain what is going on in the mental process of making a work of art.

What’s funny is that there is an awful lot of competition in music because it’s much less subjective than art. There will be some musicians that are just plain better than you are, and because of this, they might get the gig before you will. This can be based on their skill level and/or style of playing. There is more of a sense of control on your part than there is as a visual artist. You might be able to gauge a listener’s taste easier than a viewer’s taste, if that makes sense.

Since art is way more subjective, no one can control a viewer’s taste. You can’t control what people want to buy. You can show alongside another artist, and they can sell 90% of their work while you sell next to nothing, and that would be completely out of your circle of control (PDF). This is extremely difficult to keep in mind while it’s happening, but it’s just the facts.

Remember when I said that you already have an audience? Well, you do. Maybe they haven’t all shown up yet, but they are out there. Your audience might collide with another artist’s audience, but that is a bonafide coincidence. Sure, you can get an idea of your collector’s sense of aesthetic taste, but you still can’t control what they fall in love with. People who collect art generally love what they purchase, unless you’re talking about those who are making investments. Even those collectors have a degree of belief in that work, and more times than not, they also like it, especially if they display it where they live with it. Otherwise, it goes into storage. And who’s to say they don’t like it?

I think art investors get a bad rap most of the time. The one-percenters give most art collectors bad reputations because those are the collectors we read about in the news. Most people who collect art are in love with the work they acquire and the artists they’re investing in. That has been my personal, real-world observation.

Aside from art investors, most collectors are just buying art they like and want to hang on their walls. This is the majority of who artists sell to. These will be most of your collectors and your repeat collectors. You are not in competition with the other artists they collect because your art is different from those artists. Different art. Different audiences. Different collectors. There’s no point in competing.

Not only is it not a competition, it’s not a contest either. When your artist friend sells work, that doesn’t mean you have lost anything.

When other bands got signed or other musicians “made it,” I had to see it as a “win” for me. If I knew them, that was another person I knew that could pull the rest of us up with them. That was how the music world worked. Every musician couldn’t play every gig, so they recommended others they knew for this or that. We’d all be happy for our friends’ successes. And when I saw a drummer that was better than I was, I’d get incredibly inspired, not jealous.

To be honest, I have found it hard to see this same sense of camaraderie among visual artists because they don’t have the same sense of “team” that musicians do. That’s just an observation of mine. There is a lot of jealousy and a lot of false win-lose mentality that should not be there…

This all might be my own false view of artists and the differences between the art world and the world of music, but I have felt it so much that I don’t even reveal many of my successes to my artist friends and acquaintances because it generally feels unsafe. It feels like there’s a lot of judgment, comparison, jealousy, and at times, a sense of resentment that I never felt as a musician. But I accept that I could be delusional about all of this, and my self-preservation is completely unfounded. It might be based on the fewer negative comments I’ve received than the positive ones, as sometimes I tend to focus on the negative. (Something I’m always working on.)

But with this, I’d only like to reiterate that none of us should compare ourselves. This is so much easier said than done, and don’t I know it. I, too, have a difficult time not comparing myself to other artists because I see so much incredible work out there on Instagram. So many artists seem to be cranking out the work ten times faster than I can, and they make art that’s so much more innovative. I am guilty of getting caught up in feeling bad about myself at times, but the truth is we should only compare our work to our former work.

Wouldn’t it be nice to literally work with blinders on? Well, we can’t. We just need to be strong and remind ourselves of who we are. We should look at other artists’ work as inspiration, not a comparison study. It’s better to compete with our own selves in order to reach a higher level of excellence. There’s really not much else we can do. Anything other than this is an utter waste of time. Let’s keep remembering this.

EDIT: I was lying in bed this morning and realized that there was a little bit more I wanted to say in this post about how you already have a built-in audience that is unlike anyone else’s. I feel this is true, because there will always be something unique about your work that will connect to a unique facet of someone else. This connection is what we are all after (if you take all monetary wants and needs out of the equation).

Just like your work has that special something, so does each individual that experiences it. This experience can’t be duplicated between another artist and that same individual. It’s impossible.

I guess I just wanted to make that point in this post and wasn’t sure if I really hit that home.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of Competition

  1. Hannah January 26, 2023 / 12:32 pm

    Great observations. It’s important to remember that just because an artist posts to Instagram every day it doesn’t mean they are finishing a work every day. Instagram is an illusion, and everything on there is tweaked, altered, filtered, and massaged to make the poster look like they’re living the ultimate fabulous life. Including the comments that people post about themsleves. None of it is REAL real. It’s internet real, which often isn’t real at all.

    • Ayin Es January 26, 2023 / 12:42 pm

      Thank you for pointing that out. It helps!!! I often feel like I’m not keeping up with the Jones’ when I see all that stuff on Insta, but you are right. Most of them are staging a lot of their pics.

  2. JennieJo January 29, 2023 / 12:35 pm

    I came late to the art world, out of IT and education. I found IT very collaborative and education – talk about competitive. Where do I start! Back to the art world. What I don’t understand, from my world, is the need to put others down. Openly. As if it is a right. Shows your superior skill. I just don’t get that.

    • Ayin Es January 30, 2023 / 5:47 am

      I know the IT world is also very competitive, and education jobs are too. Education is very collaborative, and IT can be too, depending. Thanks for your feedback JennyJo. Always appreciated! 🙂

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