Being Ashamed of Past Work
As I was going through my files of texts I’ve written over the years to see if any of them should be reanimated by Dr. Krabby, it occurred to me how the older the text was, the more shameful I felt reading it. It is a common feeling that any artist or student has, I imagine, to feel that way about past work — because, obviously, we’re so much better than we were. Are we really, though? Does this sense of shame, of a sort of Fremdschämen towards another Self, not anymore recognized as one, really stem from we being so superior to who we once were? Of course, we are in constant change. We are shaped by our experiences, but do these make us objectively better at our art? Not at all: just think of the art you prefer. Very often, I like a singer’s first albums more than their later ones (e.g. Adele), a theorist’s first ideas rather than their latest (e.g. Judith Butler), a writer’s first texts (e.g. Amélie Nothomb). So why would I see a progress in me that I do recognize in others? When critiquing others, we do not consider their progress as artists, the growth in the mastery of their skills, we simply consider different styles, variations, artistic directions taken. There is a clear rift between the art and the artist that we see in others. We recognize our own subjectivity in saying “I personally prefer Romeo and Juliet over Hamlet,” without implying that Shakespeare got worse with time, and without considering that his writing skills should have improved.
So why are we so different? Are we narcissistic in thinking we’re so much better than our past self, we evolve so much, but when it comes to others, it’s a non-variable? Why are we ashamed of our own past work? Aren’t we hypocritical in almost always preferring our own latest work, while we almost always do not prefer our favorite artists’ latest work? I’m simply thinking out loud here, but to answer my own questions, I wouldn’t say hypocritical per se, and not quite narcissistic, but lacking perspective, navel-gazing. We always see our own improvement in what we do because we know exactly the amount of time and energy that has gone in any piece of work, without thinking of the life the piece of work we created has. Once something is out there, it’s not ours anymore. We try to control everything we create like possessive parents, but much like kids, the work of art is out there on its own. We are responsible for its content, but not for its reception. And without any reception, we are doomed to be both the performer and the public, and we’re a terrible public, in that we are unable to see the work only for what it is, we see the work we’ve done. We see a mirror of ourselves. And so, when we view a piece of art that was created by what seems a different us, we feel shame not because of the piece of art itself, but because of the artist we once were. The mirror is reflecting a different person who is supposed to be us, but is not. I don’t think it’s fair to be ashamed of ourselves, because it’s not so much that we lacked experience and skills, but that we were in a different time and space, a different emotional, mental, and physical state which gave rise to a piece of art we would not create today. We have to learn to see our own art for what it is: art. Not our art, it does not belong to us anymore. We also need to stop focusing so much on improving constantly, because that perpetually sets impossibly high standards, and because it is simply not true. We gain more knowledge and skills from which our art benefits, but that does not de facto make our art better to every single individual that receives it, because they also come with their own baggage and will interact with our art differently than we do. Fear not: your skills are improving, but this isn’t about you. It’s about all of us as individuals.