Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Art Show Rejections

This post is for other artists, especially the young ones, but really anyone who faces the challenge of a juried contest as part of their job.  Anytime you drop off work to be juried, you really hope your works get juried in. It would be great to get an award too!  In the time between submission and display, your heart may be leaping, maybe you are daydreaming about how nice it would be to win…

…until you see both pieces have been juried out and are waiting for pickup.

…until you see there is no award by your label.

If you are human, you probably feel at least a flutter of disappointment, but I am going to tell you about my first time trying to pick award winners, and hopefully you will learn not to take rejection too seriously.

I was part of committee recently that awarded 12 awards to young artists.  The show had already been placed on display.  A round of jurying had already been done.  The remaining pieces were amazingly good. Inevitably, I promise you some of the best work had been juried out or overlooked already. I am always amazed at what doesn’t get on the walls at any of the shows I have entered – some of the best work gets picked up as a rejected piece before anyone gets to enjoy it.  That initial cut was done, and now we were trying to select awards for young artists we thought should get a nod of the head from our association.

It was dizzying.  There are no right answers.  There are no clear answers.  We chose the best we could with a criteria of technical skill and “wow factor”.  And this is how it is judging art.  Some people took an immediate like to a piece that others in the group didn’t understand.  We all preferred a unique set of pieces – there was some overlap, but none of the lists matched.  The amazing photographer in our group chose a lot more photographs because he could appreciate their expertise.  Another artist chose 2D art with an emphasis on technical skill.  Another artist chose mostly the mixed media pieces, valuing innovation.  Another chose based entirely on a conceptual basis – ideas-driven criteria. We then compromised to try to give each person a little bit of satisfaction.  You can’t really judge art. Each piece is made under differing criteria and in order to be even remotely fair, it feels like you would have to have 1000 categories and make the categories ridiculously narrow:

“best oil painting of people with an overall sad feeling”

“best whimsical pastel cat”

“best bas-relief carved decorative gourd”

“best documentary-style photograph depicting the theme of death and loss”

How can all these things compete with each other?  It’s like apples, oranges, a live octopus and a pair of tennis shoes! Which one is best?  Well, are you planning to eat it, put it in the ocean, or run with it on your feet?

Which one is best?

Likewise how do you compare art that really doesn’t fill the same function at all?  Are you going to put it on your wall, place it on a decorative side table, place it in a museum, wear it, use it to help make people aware of a social issue, or illustrate a children’s book with it? This would be helpful to determine the “winner”, but in many shows, there’s no answer.  It’s all competing against each other.

Which of these masterpieces is the best? Wouldn’t this be a nightmare to jury?

We chose some pieces that were innovative, or thought-provoking, or beautiful, or skillful. Many were a combo of these things.  But this small set of awards wasn’t even remotely exhaustive of all the great pieces in the room that deserved recognition.  I loved a couple of pieces I felt were rather whimsical and I would rank them as my favorites, but they lost out because they were competing with amazing hard-hitting pieces with very serious themes.  We as a society often award the depressing things even if the whimsical pieces are just as technically wonderful.  I think this might be because the whimsical pieces are more likely to be purchased for display on a wall, whereas, we still want to provide some sort of encouragement to the things that are too painful to display all the time in our living spaces.  Some of the most amazing and tragic pieces couldn’t be awarded for technical issues, or because it was similar to a piece we awarded already and we were trying to at least touch on most of the various media. The process tried to be logical, but art is not logical.

In the end, every piece we selected was lauded by at least three of our members, often all of us.  I would have made different awards if left to my own devices, and I was grateful I wasn’t left to my own devices.  The biases of each artist at least are somewhat balanced in a group. This process showed me a lot about my own biases, and about what it means to jury, and what it means to lose.

Winning means something.  It means that at least one person thought your work was the best in the room.  They really connected with it.  Generally speaking, the winning pieces are usually really genuinely good technically and/or conceptually (not always both), so when I see an artists who is winning awards, I know they have wonderful quality to their work.

Losing means NOTHING. Some of the strongest pieces are cut because of a bias (“I don’t understand pottery”, “I don’t like pieces that make me feel anxious”), a belief (“whimsical work is less worthy of awards than depressing work”, “conceptual art is more important than decorative art”), or a desire to be less biased (“I like portraits and this one is amazing, but we already selected 2 other portraits for awards, so we better try to give the award to an abstract” “we ought to spread the awards to include the 3D artists too because we haven’t awarded any sculptors yet”). All kinds considerations and justifications enter into this process, and when you are on the choosing end, you realize how arbitrary some criteria really is, but it’s part of the process that is impossible to overcome. Even with a half-dozen jurors, we still ran into some odd reasons to select one piece over another.

This is why you should feel good when you win, but you shouldn’t feel bad if you lose.  Winning means you connected with the specific group that selects work and made them feel something, but losing means nothing. There were so many great pieces!  We could not possibly do a perfect job of choosing the most deserving works.

Next time you are feeling down about rejection, you can do the following things:

  1. Don’t quit making art.
  2.  See if you can detect something missing in your technical skill that you can improve for next time. Know it is perfectly possible to be technically superb and still get rejected.
  3. Shrug it off – a loss means nothing! You can even enter the same piece in a later show and win first place in a different show.
  4. Get a good night’s sleep and enjoy yourself with an activity that takes your mind off your troubles for a while.  With time and experience, you will get thicker skin.