I think what separates good art from great art is this tiny switch, this niggling feeling that you aren’t seeing the full expression of someone, that they’re holding back. The difference between art that is pretty to look at and looks nice above your couch and pieces that make guests say “holy shit who painted that?”; the difference between easy punchlines and stale set ups in stand up comedy and those storytellers who rip your guts out while making you laugh and think at the trivial and profound and absurd; the difference between work that merely feeds you versus work that sustains, challenges and surprises you is the glimmer of or full on admittance of raw vulnerability.
I think a lot of people who hit that initial successful milestone of whatever level of public praise face the challenge of starting over yet again. Which is exactly what you have to do constantly to be an artist. You have to stay true to this thing you’ve willingly or unwillingly given your life over to and many days it sucks and you wonder why you made the choices you did. But there’s always just a glimmer of the next itch, the next nebulous form that your work will take, the possibilities and limitations, the themes that hammer at your consciousness when your guards are down like a Greek chorus singing to you in an anxious sleep: “you must” they chant as you eventually give in to the physicality of slumber.
It’s a terrible trap when you feel beholden to reproduce work that elicited such a great response before. You can coast on that for a while but you will feel empty and false and safe and that’s no place to stay. You die a little each day if you’re not making yourself constantly uncomfortable, constantly searching for the next edge, the next thing to throw you off balance and heighten your perceptive senses. It’s not easy. But you wouldn’t be happy if it was.
And the people who won’t push you and won’t ask for more aren’t your ideal audience anyway; they may give you praise but they won’t needle you to be better. This is not to say that you won’t convert people along the way; you must do that. In fact it is critical that you somehow draw people out of their shells and push their comfort zones. Most will stare at you with bewilderment and refuse to go on but some will take the trip with you, for however many steps, and I think as an artist that’s actually a huge victory. That you made someone take the leap with you, that you got them past their own obstacles, that you made them psychically uncomfortable for any amount of time, that you made them aware of their own identity or physicality or their own perception.
There will always be skeptics and overly vocal detractors who have their own agenda to force upon you (resist this kind of manipulative propaganda at all costs I beg of you). These are the voices of people trying to imprint their own fears and discomfort upon you. Acknowledge that they are trying the best they can with the tools they have but leave them behind. You may gently enlighten some of those you cross to your specific vision and bring others along until they can’t stay with you; but at least you took them farther than they thought they could go.
If you try to give people what you think they want or if you hold yourself back and try cater to an audience for easy accolades there’s something just a bit off about the work and it may be good, sure, it may look great, it conveys the message but it won’t have that sting of recognition, that prick that makes you go, “oh f***” and if your work is not hitting that vein, if it’s not truly authentic and vibrating at the capacity that connects to others then it will quickly get forgotten in so much sensory detritus.