Who are you really creating your art for?

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Thoughts

Crucify II detail by Nela Dunato
Detail of “Crucify II” by Nela Dunato, acrylic on canvas

This is sort of a follow-up to my article “Why are my artworks so dark and morbid?” so you might want to read that one if you haven’t already, because I want to build on that.

The original post sparked a lot of discussion, and there were some remarks and questions (either in the comments, or in private communication) that I wanted to respond to in more detail than I managed in the comments. A lot of things remained unsaid in the original post because it was getting too long as it is, and this one is a lengthy beast as well.

In the previous article I did my best to explain why I feel inspired to create dark art, and I stated that creating such art is a very healing process so I consider it entirely positive, and I don’t feel ashamed about sharing such art at all. I don’t have a problem with people considering me weird, and I don’t stress about the fact that most people won’t ever be fans of my work because it just doesn’t suit their taste.

But some people were concerned with the sharing aspect, suggesting that perhaps these personal explorations of mine were not meant to be public. Some people had issues sharing their work because they’re not sure if it should be public.

These issues are something I’ve thought about thoroughly (as I tend to over-think everything in my life), so I know what my stance on this is. Perhaps it will change over the years, and I’m not denying the possibility of further development — in fact it’s my mission to keep growing, and never stay stuck in a certain mentality. But right now it is what it is, and feel free to make of it what you will.

There was a time when I was concerned about what my art represents, and what it does to the viewers. I was concerned that I was spreading negativity through my art, that I was airing my dirty laundry, and that maybe it wasn’t a smart decision. My family’s concerns about them possibly looking bad in public cast doubt on my work as well. There was a phase when I really wasn’t sure whether I should publish such art at all.

After I examined this subject from all sides, I decided it’s OK for me to publish my art, and that I will continue to do it as long as I feel the need to.

I know that some people don’t agree with me on this subject, because they think all art should be uplifting, and that it should appeal to as many people as possible. But my opinion is different, and since this is my blog, I’m going to share my reasoning behind it.

I believe that we all create art for ourselves — whether that’s painting, writing or music, or any other form of art. I believe we only ever create “fine art” from our own depth of experience.

Quote: We only ever create art from our own depth of experience

When commercial forms of art are concerned, such as illustration, design or music scores for films, then you do your best to work with the audience in mind, and everything you do is evaluated based on how well it connects with the people that you intended it for.

This post is not concerned with commercial art, since rules for commercial art are entirely different from rules for fine art.

To be more precise, certain rules for commercial art exist, whereas “fine art” is better off without any rules so that the artists can have free reign with their expression. (I wrote more on this topic here: How to be an artist in a world of commerce.)

As a self-taught artist and a freelance designer, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, so believe me that nothing I say is meant to demean commercial artists. Commercial art isn’t worth less than fine art. I’m using the terms “commercial art” and “fine art” to differentiate between art created for a specific purpose, and art that is pure self-expression.

Art that is used commercially is not necessarily excluded from being fine art at the same time. Someone can hire an artist to do whatever they want, or they can purchase an existing work of art to be used in their project if the theme fits.

The rest of my post is about fine art, and only fine art. Let’s all leave our commercial applications, compromise, and ideal clients at the door and focus on our own inner world for a while.

I think you only ever create art for yourself, and then your art finds a way to reach people who are going to resonate with it.

If a lot of people resonate with it, what you do is clearly very interesting to a lot of different people. But some of us have more of a “niche”, and what we do is only interesting to a handful of people. We can’t say that the taste of this group of people is not as refined, or that this type of work is not as good as those that appeal to a more mainstream audience.

Appeal of various artworks depends on a lot of conditions. Different styles were more popular at different times in history, and you can’t predict whether something is going to be popular in the future, and in the end it really doesn’t matter if something becomes popular or not. There are a lot of amazing artists that were never famous—some just don’t win the popularity lottery.

It’s never the aim of fine art to appeal to as many people as possible. We can’t use the fact that a lot of people like or dislike something as a measure of whether something is “good art”.

I’m not an art major, in fact I have never studied art in a school setting. I don’t have any fancy credentials to my name. But I have studied art, philosophy, psychology, and spirituality in practice throughout my life. While my life hasn’t been that long (28 years at the time of writing this), I do think I learned a great deal. I’m not saying my learning is complete—I look forward to decades of learning about the human nature, the nature of consciousness, and other mysteries of the universe.

My search for truth has brought me to face different “rules” and presumptions that I found constricting and limiting. I had to examine those limitations (set up by previous generations) and break through them so that I can live a better life. In this process, I came up with new explanations and beliefs, ones that I can accept as my own and that make me feel expansive.

First of all, I believe that anyone is free to express their truth.

More so, I think it’s everyone’s duty to express their own truth in way that’s most natural to them, and not just repeat the truths they learned from other people.

(I wrote on this more in my mission statement This is the main reason behind everything I do.)

The process of this kind of expression is an artistic process, regardless of the quality of the result. The only criteria by which we can judge whether something is fine art or not is whether this piece of art is an authentic expression and came from the depths of the artist’s being. Other people’s responses toward these works of art are not a way to judge the value of such art.

Regardless of whether your art is uplifting, beautiful, magical, scary, grotesque, poignant, or simply ugly, it’s perfectly fine to create art that you feel called to create and share it with the world.

Quote: It's perfectly fine to create art that you feel called to create and share it with the world.

I’m not saying you should expect praise for it, or that you’re entitled to a lot of fans, because that is beyond your control.

The only thing you can do is show up for your art and share it. Whether you get a large audience or not is something that will happen organically, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a large following right away. That is where your responsibility stops. The size of your following is not a measure of your art’s worth.

Whatever you do with your art, you’ll never satisfy everyone. I don’t think there is a single piece of art ever created that everyone loves.

So what can we do then as artists? Create art we enjoy creating and hope that it will find a way to people who will love it. And there will be people who love it.

My personal experience shows that art is not only beneficial for the artist, art is also beneficial to the viewer. But not all art moves all people equally, because our inner worlds differ very much and depending on what’s inside those inner worlds, we either respond well to art, or we don’t.

Artists will attract like-minded people whose content of their inner world is similar to the content of the artist’s inner world.

For example, people who resonate with my art usually shared similar experiences in their life, such as social rejection, bullying, emotional abuse, and faced similar issues like low self-esteem, depression, negative body image, feeling disconnected from other people, etc. These are often the underlying themes in my art, and so my art speaks to these people because in a way we share the same language—the language other people don’t understand.

You might wonder, what benefit can those people have from being reminded of this negativity in their life? Why would anyone enjoy viewing art that reminds them of these feelings and experiences? That’s a valid question. Here’s what I’ve found:

A lot of our emotional problems stem from the fact that we feel isolated from others, and we feel like no one will ever understand us.

The only reason why psychologists have so much work with “normal” people is that these perfectly “normal” people think their problems are abnormal, and they’re too ashamed to talk about it with their friends and family so they have to pay a total stranger to listen to them. These people need someone who will witness their honesty and emotional rawness in a way that their loved ones aren’t willing to.

We’re raised to hide our challenging aspects, because whenever we shared them, there were some kind of negative consequences. We’re forced to censor ourselves in order not to disturb the rest of the human tribe and stay safe and loved.

When we don’t feel like we can truly be ourselves in our totality, good and bad, encountering any kind of art that reflects our suppressed feelings feels like release.

We see ourselves reflected back in that piece of art, and we feel validated. That piece of art has created a bridge between the inner world of the artist and the inner world of the viewer, and for a moment they were joined like long lost friends.

Quote: Art creates a bridge between the inner world of the artist and the inner world of the viewer

I’ve felt this connection many times through music, literature, and various forms of visual art. I’ve never met the creators of these pieces, but the connection felt so true because they poured their being into their art.

The piece of art in question won’t affect people who don’t already possess these qualities inside of themselves. People who do possess these qualities won’t be worse off—in fact, they will likely be better off because these subconscious processes will be invited toward the surface, and the person will have a chance to address them. (That’s what the term “trigger” means, and sometimes triggering experiences can be extremely uncomfortable for people with PTSD. That’s why content warnings are helpful when we deal with very sensitive subjects, such as violence.)

If the person doesn’t do anything about it, the content will just retreat back into the depths of consciousness and remain a part of our dreams, only jumping back up when provoked.

Emotional art has the potential to heal not only the artist, but the viewer as well, if they allow it.

I know this because of all the messages people from all around the world have sent me, and it’s probably the one thing that has kept me going even during the moments when I considered giving up art. When complete strangers write to me how my art has touched them, and that they feel so grateful to have found it, I know that I cannot allow myself to keep my art hidden.

But back to my initial point: these people weren’t the reason why I created that art. I see it as a wonderful side-effect, but I didn’t think of them at all as I was creating it, and I had no idea it would lead to this.

My only responsibility is to myself. This may sound selfish on the surface, but when you really think about it, it’s not.

When we think we do things for other people, we make assumptions about what they might like. We collapse their entire being into a mental model that is supposed to give us an idea of what they would want to see. But mental models aren’t real people, and we don’t truly know anyone. By assuming we know other people, we’re insulting them. Doing what we think is best for other people, when in fact we have no idea what they really need, is not generous—it’s arrogant.

Why bother making projections and trying to fit yourself into a vision of what we think other people would want, when it’s easier to just be yourself?

Being able to express yourself authentically is a gift that sadly many people don’t use in their life. But when you hear the calling to express yourself, not only is it beneficial for you to do so, it’s necessary. Stifling your expression becomes difficult and at times even painful, and the only way to effectively get rid of this discomfort is to let it flow out into a work of art.

Some people decide they don’t want to do that, and instead they numb these feelings with substances. There was a time in my life when I was acting in such a way as well. But when I finally accepted my self-expression as a gift and not the little devil on my shoulder that’s constantly nagging me and making my life difficult, all need for self-medication went away.

Accepting this gift is accepting yourself in totality. It’s not always pleasant, and you may find skeletons buried beneath the floorboards, but that’s part of being human. It will only serve your growth.

So, what’s your take on this?

Agree in a way, completely disagree, or think I’m full of crap? Feel free to share whatever your view is!

Who are you creating your artwork for?


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18 responses to “Who are you really creating your art for?”

  1. Though I am not too much into dark art, I do agree with your justification of differentiating between fine art and commercial art.

  2. Thanks for your feedback, Abhijit!
    Sometimes the line is blurred, and the difference doesn’t really matter, but for me personally internal motivation is most important for creating art.

  3. This. So much this! I’m not going to lie: although I can’t make pictures as an art, I DO start doodling (looks like a 5 year old doing sketches, but whatever) and “weird, morbid stuff” keeps coming. I’ve made up my mind. I’ll take your philosophy and I’ll start to make more drawings for those people out there. Thank you Nela, thank you very much!

  4. Fidel, I’m so thrilled to hear this!
    Art can create powerful connections with other people, and we should not let this opportunity pass :)

    Please come back and drop me a link once you upload your work online :)

  5. I wish I’d had so much wisdom when I was 28! So much of what you say rings true for me, and I love your clear explanations. Talking about this without ‘hooks’ creeping in {like defiance for example} isn’t easy, but you make it look like it is. :)

    You make such an interesting point about the kind of art that isn’t as ‘happy and shiny’ as a lot of what’s popular. But then I think of Frida Kahlo – although I wouldn’t hang her work in my home, I really love her ability to express the truth of herself and her experience of life, and to tell a story with her art. Your work reminds me of hers in some ways. It’s honest and real. And I think necessary because not everyone resonates with more obviously ‘happy’ art, and there are many who need both the validation, as you say, and that sense of someone speaking out for them, and speaking their language. For me too, any pleasure or other positive experience others derive from my art is a happy side effect, not part of why I do it. But it’s lovely when you discover that telling the truth benefited someone else.

  6. Oh my, thank you, dear Tara :)
    Funny how you mention defiance – I think it pops up here and there in my writing, but I suppose this post isn’t one of them.

    Ah yes, I am a huge fan of Frida Kahlo’s work, and the comparison flatters me :) The fist time I even heard of her was when someone commented how my work reminds them of hers, and I was so shocked that I haven’t encountered her work before. They didn’t mention her in any of the art history books I’ve had, art history books that were entirely male-centered as I recall now.

    Oh yes, that feeling of having also been of service to another person is wonderful, and I think it’s somehow even “purer” because it wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t fabricated or forced.
    You were just following your inspiration, and what came out of it is making a ripple in the world.

  7. I have a big show coming up at a gallery with two other artists. One artist is much more talented than me and my work is much more personal than both of them. Mine covers PTSD, gender identity, sexual abuse and fears. It’s pretty dark and I feel really vulnerable putting it out there. I also feel really ashamed of my work compared to the hyperealist artist.
    I’m panicked. Embarassed.
    I want to run….but my name and work is already on those stark white walls.

  8. Dear Anonymousartist,
    I know and feel your pain of comparing yourself to artists who have greater skill (not talent, though). That is completely normal, especially given the fact that a lot of art appreciators don’t know how to value art, other than by the painting/drawing skill displayed.

    I’ve been in many group art shows where my art has been the odd one out among realistic landscapes, boats, portraits etc. Once I’ve included a realistic still life pencil drawing among my dark surreal ones, and guess which one the audience oohed and aahed over? Yes, the still life, even though I consider it just a study, not “real art”.

    So that said, I get the source of your worry. We get very self-conscious about our skills when we know we’ll be viewed side by side with other types of art. Still, I think it’s worth it showing your art in exhibitions and interacting with your audience directly.
    The other artist may be more skilled technique-wise, but your art has a story. That’s your unique advantage. You’re sending a very important message with your art. Some realist artists have told me in private “I wish I had your imagination”. For all you know, they may be feeling self-conscious too (in fact, I bet they are – us artists always find flaws in our own work.)

    People have different tastes and preferences, and believe me, some of the viewers will be drawn to your work and intrigued by it. They will want to know more, so prepare to answer some questions. No need to discuss personal stuff, just state that you’ve decided to speak out about these issues – which are both personal and cultural – through your art, and how you see it helping the cause of ending the cycle of abuse (if you think it’s helping – I do).

    I wish you the best with your show, and I’d be very glad to hear how it went!

  9. In contemplating my own “dark” art, it is so helpful and validating to read your thoughts and feelings. I want to trust that I am making the art I need to make, but sometimes I can lose my way and need some help to feel certain again. I’m so appreciative of this post.

  10. Hey Diana,
    I’m so glad this post was validating for you – I’m so happy that you’ve found it right when you needed it :)
    I agree, it’s difficult to hold onto our own path sometimes, with all the confusing stuff that’s happening outside of us. I write these as much as a reminder to myself, as to anyone else.

  11. Hi Nela,

    First of all thank you for the read, it has uplifted me as a creator as I find myself in a time where I feel completely disconnected from my art (I’m a writer and perform/create circus theatre). I often find myself stuck between wanting to do everything completely my own way but also receiving constructive criticism from my peers. It’s hard to know what to listen to and what not to for fear of being pigheaded. I know like you say the art is for the one who creates it and we have no choice about how it resonates with others. But there is something in wanting to do something well. Maybe just a little more faith in myself is what I’m lacking. Trust in my own creative process. The work tends to come first with me and then the meaning later, stemmed from an idea and then incubated inside of me until it’s ready to come out. The meaning quite often gets resonated back to me in what other people think about, their view sometimes challenging one I didn’t realise I had.

  12. Hi Danielle,
    Thank you for your comment and sharing your experience :)

    I know what you mean by wanting to do something well. For people like us who feel that way, making “art for art’s sake” is a challenging concept to grasp.
    Since you’re a writer, maybe journaling with questions could help you unlock some understanding that could make this easier for you. Questions like,
    “What if it didn’t matter if I do it well?”
    “If the value isn’t in doing it well, where is the real value of art then?”
    “If all art is subjective, whose opinion and critique matters, and whose doesn’t?”
    “Does me growing as an artist absolutely require critique, or can I pursue growth through other means?”
    “Is there a way for me to glean what I need from the critique and don’t take things that aren’t relevant to me to heart?”
    “How can I respond to critique respectfully, but without feeling like I owe anybody an explanation or a promise that I will change my art accordingly?”

    I should do some journaling on this topic as well :))

    What you describe re: meaning is precisely why talking to people about your art is so helpful. We often create instinctively, and only realize what we’ve done later on. It’s our subconscious process speaking to us through art. We may not know what it’s going to say until it’s complete. Very intriguing process.

  13. Hi Nela,

    I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your openness, sincerity, and honesty in these posts. I have been someone who has always attempted to “fit in a box” with expectations of what others think of my work (codependency/fear of abandonment issues from childhood). I have slowly but surely pushed the envelope further and further to create things that I actually feel. It was not until this year that I finally feel I have come to a fight or flight point after several major life events all failed catastrophically in a row as if I was laying on the ground in a fetal position, and the kicks just kept coming. One of the key events for my breaking point was 2 major relationships in my life were severed at once. One of the relationships made me want to surpress my art in fear of who I was “supposed to be”, and the other started to, but made me give up creating completely for several months due to expectations… I decided that it was time for a change of scenery, and family stepped in to give me safe haven for now. However, I can say with certainty because I have been researching my own depression and reasons for things that I do to find my purpose again that I am about to put it all out there and not give a damn who sees! For me, photographing, drawing, painting, or creating music has always been an extension of what/who/where I feel so deeply. It helps me to understand, to process, to heal, to grow, and so many ways. To think I almost gave it up for someone and something temporary has started to upset me greatly (which is good because if I am feeling something, at least I am moving towards expression or talking about it which will eventually allow me to address and hopefully heal to move fwd). I am also empath and feel everything so terribly deep in the world. What takes “normal” people 1 week to do takes me 4 sometimes. So my point in sharing all of this is just to say thank you! It really helps to know that there are others out there on the same path with darker arts that use it to process and express. I find comfort in my dark arts personally. Others want to see bright/happy, but as a teacher myself, I have been able to draw those that get it too. And sometimes our arts are not meant to address people, but we share them because we want to simply put it out there in the world as a bookmark of a time in our lives that we acknowledged. Some connect as a byproduct, and that is cool, but most are too busy/don’t understand which is ok too. Keep up the good fight, and thanks again for sharing! I needed to hear this at this point in my life for sure.

  14. Hi Charlie,
    thank you so much for your kind words, and for sharing your own experience here.

    I’m sorry you went through that period of separation from your true creative expression. I’m glad that now you have a better understanding of yourself, and what art really means to you. Sometimes we need to get away from art for a while only to come back to it with renewed appreciation and commitment!

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment, it’s always a pleasure to connect with fellow artists who just get it :)

  15. Thank you very much for this post! I was really puzzled with ethics about my music, even depressed by it, but now i know it’s right thing to release it. (Sorry for english, I’m from Russia)

  16. Thank you, Nikita! Many of us tend to overthink about the impact of our work. I’m glad you’re moving forward with releasing it. The world will be richer for it.

    Nick Cave poured his grief after his son’s passing into his latest album, and us listeners were touched by its emotional strength. I’m certain many grieving people found solace in his music. Nobody would dare to tell him that he’s not allowed to put his pain out into the world, would they?

  17. I completely agree with you, though I do also feel that therapy is beneficial not just as a way to let it all out but as a method of self-reflection. I’ve been with the same therapist for the last decade and he has greatly helped me be more true to myself when it comes to the work that I do. The problem unfortunately is that people buy into the idea that a successful Artist is one who is shown far and wide and collected for exorbitant amounts of money. That is a wholly superficial measure of success and it doesn’t mean that the artist are successful WITHIN themselves. Take Jackson Pollock for example… He had great success with his drip paintings but nobody much cared for his other more image based works… This caused him to doubt himself constantly. He was a victim of his own success in a way. Then you have painters like Joan Mitchell who had great success both monetarily and personally despite suffering loss in her life. She didn’t give a damn about trends or what was hot and new, she followed her own beat. As artists we need to get away from the idea of “making it” and see our need to create as a vocation, not a job. The best and most successful artists I’ve met don’t show their work in fancy prestigious galleries. They hold down regular jobs to fund their art practice. They have ups and downs but they continue and remain true to themselves. This idea that we need to be famous and highly sought after to be successful is a fairytale that others can use to exploit those of us who buy into it.

  18. Thank you for your insightful comment, Glenn.

    I wrote about the differences between “success” and what I consider to be a superior achievement: “wholeness”. (The article is called “Devoted to wholeness instead of pursuing success” , if you haven’t read it yet.)

    Some artists redefine the word “success” so that it means something different, like you described. I use the word “success” like most people understand it: notability and financial rewards.

    “Wholeness” describes how we feel when we’re in alignment with our art; when our art reflects our deepest held values and what we truly care about, regardless of how others feel about it.

    For some artists, success and wholeness can happen at the same time, and they’re the lucky ones! But others are forced to choose between the two.
    I don’t blame those who choose to pursue success at the expense of wholeness, because our society is not kind to workers, and often creatives are made to feel like we absolutely have to support ourselves with our art, especially if that’s the only real skill we have… But that’s an entirely separate discussion that’s a bit out of scope of one blog comment :)

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