Agent Saboteur

Jail, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

As I was reading an article the other day about support and sabotage, I realized that I have not yet discussed this, though it can be an important factor in the success (or failure, I suppose) of many artists. How to identify and stop artistic sabotage seems like something out of a spy thriller, and not something you should be overly concerned about, but sabotage, in many forms, is out there. Yes, sabotage takes many forms and it comes from many different sources. Well meaning friends, even family members and other artists can seem to sabotage your artistic voice, sometimes even before it gets off the ground.

One of the problems with this type of behavior is that it can be difficult to identify. Often it comes from family and friends so you aren’t as aware that it’s happening. These are well-meaning people, not the kind of folks who would knowingly sabotage your artistic expression, right? Consider this. Mary and Ann go out for lunch. Mary has just taken a new workshop, is very excited about the prospect of working with a new medium, is even thinking she’s going to quit her day job and paint more. Ann says to her, “my son Johnny made the honor roll and he’s on the soccer team. We have soccer practice now every Saturday morning. You should come, it’s fun. You know Bill, that single dad shows up from time to time. You should meet him, it would give you something to do.” Is Ann trying to sabotage Mary? At first, it might appear not, but these sorts of seemingly innocent saboteurs can work in strange ways.

If there’s somebody in your life who is always trying to distract you, if they view your work only as a sort of “passing” hobby, if they continually interrupt you with phone calls, unnecessary email, unexpected visits, or impromptu “get togethers” when they know it’s your time to paint or take pictures, if all of this happens regularly, you just might have a saboteur on your hands.

Many of these people are well-meaning. They might even sabotage you in an effort to do what they think is best for you. Sometimes their behavior has very little to do with you, but is more about themselves. They see you, a busy artist with a bright future, and they let jealously and self-doubt into the mix. This type of person doesn’t like to be reminded of the path not taken-they don’t like to see you out living an interesting fun life, while they are stuck inside with the kids, wondering what could have been. Sometimes, it’s our own family that does this. Kids can be especially difficult here-they are needy. They don’t want Mom to paint or draw, it takes the focus off of them. You’re supposed to be “Mom” all of the time right? Your world revolves one hundred percent around them, their goals, their needs. This can create guilt and that’s never a good thing for an artist.

There’s only a few ways to stop this sort of destructive behavior. For starters, learn to recognize it and cut it off when it starts to happen. Mary could have said to Ann, “I’m sorry, but Saturday is my painting time. I’m excited about this work and I hope to have a show soon. Maybe you can invite Bill to the show?”

I think though the single most important thing you can do as an artist to sort of stop this destructive behavior is to treat yourself and your artwork as anything but a hobby. From the start, I’ve always viewed my art as a sort of “second job” and it is that-a job. That means regularly working on it, promotion, marketing, taxes, and all that goes along with it. It’s far from a “hobby” and I do not treat myself as a “hobbyist.” If you have to, disconnect your computer from the web, take the phone off the hook, shut off the TV, and force yourself to work set hours. You don’t have to work forty hours a week, like a desk job, but work regular hours. Make it clear that you have a purpose in mind-that you are creating art with intent. Maybe you won’t get a million shows or make a million dollars but take yourself seriously and other people will start to as well. It’s only a hobby if you dabble in it, and I’ve given up on “dabbling” a long time ago. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to tell somebody, “sorry, I have to work” when I’m actually talking about going on a photo shoot, a workshop, a class, or even a location shoot. Most people, especially in this economy, have a certain respect for the words, “I’m sorry, but I have to work” so use them and learn how to use them like you mean it. Art is a job, maybe not a traditional one, maybe one without a traditional “office” but it’s work too, and you should treat it that way. The saboteurs will slowly get the message and the work will get done once you’re free from their destructive behavior.

If you have any tips for dealing with these types of people, please feel free to share-either drop me a note or leave a comment and I’ll post a follow-on as a future topic.

Until next time…


  1. mythopolis
    October 21, 2009 / 3:57 pm

    It would seem about boundaries. Having boundaries, and making them clear to others.

  2. Janice / Dancing with Sunflowers
    October 21, 2009 / 6:22 pm

    I agree with Mythos – it is about boundaries – but these have to start within ourselves before we can make them clear to others and this can be hard. I don't doubt for a minute that sometimes other people do genuinely set out to sabotage, and for all the reasons you say, Carol, and many more. Other times well-meaning comments can have the effect of dumbing down what we're trying to do – describing something as 'home made' rather than 'hand made', for example, can imply it's somehow women's stuff and not serious.

  3. Carol
    October 21, 2009 / 9:17 pm

    Yes, boundaries are a start, but I think it's more than that. I think it has a lot to do with people seeing somebody work as an artist and think "oh, I wish I could do that." Deep down inside, there's a lot of frustration with the corporate "way of life" these days, and that kind of manifests itself as people lashing out against anybody who isn't part of "the system."

    Creativity, working in any kind of creative field, is very rewarding. The act of creating is its own reward and that gives creative people a certain cache, a certain perceived freedom. I do think a lot of people resent that, or maybe are, at least, a bit jealous.

    Interesting to think about though. Thanks for the comments.

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