Artistic resistance is something all artists face from time to time. Understanding what it is and learning to recognize when it is happening to you will help you cope with it and become productive again. Call it a blockage, frustration, lethargy, a sense of failure - it is all similar. Having worked alongside artists for a long time, I believe that resistance often manifests itself in various forms of self-sabotage. There are things that we do, or don’t do, that result in a self-perpetuating cycle of disappointment. Here are some common manifestations of resistance and some suggested counter-attacks.
Equating a lack of success today as overall failure. These are not the same things. First, consider how you are measuring success. Fame, for example, is a poor measure of success, because it is an unlikely outcome of most artistic work, is out of your control, and is guaranteed to recede the more you chase it. Try reframing success as being more along the lines of “I am developing in my craft and having fun.” These things are more in your control. Next, realize that all artists must go through phases where they are stalled and frustrated. This is when you are laying the groundwork for your next breakthrough. Take a class, read, or go and spend time around other forms of art. Seek inspiration by returning to the sources that inspire and uplift you.
Making big announcements and not following through. There’s a real rush that comes from announcing a new project, or a lofty goal. Your brain floods with well-being, and your networks come alive with support and encouragement. The problem is that you are getting most of the happy brain chemistry that usually comes from hard work and achievement, only you are getting it up-front before you actually do the hard work. This results in a real crash afterwards once the "likes” and words of support fade. There’s nothing left but the drudgery of the work, and frankly, a lot of these projects never get completed. Consider planning and working in relative secrecy, and only making public announcements as you hit major milestones.
Finding excuses not to train and study. Too busy at work, don’t need more training, timing of a course is not good, don’t have the money, just booked some work - the list goes on. If you don’t feel up to taking a class for whatever reason, then own that and get your training elsewhere though other means. Classes are great for getting structured skills development, but they aren’t the only way to learn. Read your way through the local library about craft, techniques, artists, biographies and other related subjects. Watch artist documentaries, surf YouTube for how-to videos, do some self-study by setting an artistic challenge for yourself and meeting it. Check out free courses online at places like FutureLearn and study on your own time.
Grabbing for work compulsively. For actors this shows up as going out for every piece of work they are remotely qualified for. Sometimes this is a result of the “Damn, I just gotta book something!” feeling, which is very human. It’s easy, though, to end up overloaded with auditions, and end up doing none of them very well, because you are short of both time and inspiration. As your resume builds up, you no longer have to go out for every mom, dad or party-goer role. Be more selective and leave stuff for less-experienced actors to go after. Remember that your favorite actors don’t work every month or even every year. Focus on the parts where you can really make an impact or that will stretch you in your development. Better yet, start developing your own material and writing those roles that you dream of playing.
Adopting negative ideas and language. You’ll hear it everywhere - how tough the business is, how slow things are, how the untalented are stealing all the work, how the writing sucks and so forth. Just smile and walk away. You are better off alone working on your craft than getting into a negative mindset. Refocus yourself on your own work, on getting better at your craft, and recommitting to your own measures of success. Yes, the art world is full of setbacks and difficulties, but those who are steadily making progress in their own development, and those who focus on being prepared, relaxed and ready to work always do best. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun!
There are many other forms of resistance - and each of us has their own unique ones - but whatever yours happens to be, the most important thing is to not beat yourself up about it, but to recognize it for what it is, and find a steady, positive way to get back to the inspired self you deserve to be.
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions Ltd. and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.