Elitism in the Arts

This is a post I’ve dreaded writing, because in order to do so, I have to relive some painful memories. But I feel like this is a message that needs to be said. And so, though it comes from a negative part of my life, I’ll try my best to keep it positive. First, some raw honesty:

Throughout my creative journey, I’ve tried many different branches. And I’ve felt like an outsider every time. The writing community has been welcoming, but recently, I realized that the literary one is a completely different beast, and that I will once again be facing down the enemy of being different. This isn’t a battle that’s new to me, though. In art, I was ostracized for being too commercial. In the Martial Arts, I wasn’t traditional enough. And in writing, I’m not literary, coming from a film background rather than one in English. But, you see, the problem isn’t me. Those are all things I’ve been told, things that have created scars I’ll never fully erase. They’re not the product of a lack of ability, or talent. No, they’re the product of a phenomenon that should never exist — elitism.

People hold the arts up as this ideal place for individuality, where you’ll be free to express yourself without fear of judgement and prejudice. But those people are wrong. Rooted in subjectivity, the arts are actually worse than other industries. Instead of embracing the different, the weird, the innovative, they shun it, viciously tearing down anyone who dares to try something new, or becomes too popular. And who can blame them? People who do things differently risk the status quo. And we can’t have that. (Even though that’s the motto flying on our brilliantly-colored flag of creativity.)

Humans are pack animals, no matter what we’re led to believe. And nowhere do you see that penchant for cliques more prominent than in the arts.

I came face to face with it for the first time in college. (Now, you should know that I went to college at the ripe age of 16, so I was still highly impressionable.) There I was, testing my wings for the first time in what I thought was a safe environment to do so. College is all about experimenting, right? Finding one’s self, and blah blah blah. Well, I had the good fortune to find a college professor whose close-minded bullying nearly had me hanging up my pencils for good.

I don’t know the story behind what was happening in that woman’s life, but that also shouldn’t matter. She was an educator, someone entrusted to help mold the minds of our youth. And she abused that power. I was stuck with her for three classes that semester — color theory, figure drawing, and beginning painting. Things started off great. I’d never been exposed to formal art classes, so I was a sponge, putting my best into every assignment. (I’m also a perfectionist with a compulsive need to get A’s, so you can connect the dots on my level of participation.) She seemed to like me, and I did well in all three classes. Until one day, about halfway through the semester, when she asked me the fated question I would learn never to answer honestly — what kind of artist do you want to be? Stupid me, I told her the truth:

“I want to be an animator,” I said, not realizing that word was akin to the most vulgar thing in the dictionary.

She looked like I’d spat in her drink. She backed away from me, a completely disgusted look on her face, mumbled something snide and walked away. After that, my grades plummeted, she wouldn’t call on me during class, and it was like I didn’t exist. But the kicker was the final project for the painting class. The assignment was to create an abstract painting that had no clear top or bottom. I’d never done abstract before, but I did my best, following the assignment to the letter.

Like all teenagers, I was battling some emotional instability, so I tried to capture that turmoil in paint. Doesn’t get more “tortured artist” than that, right? Well, when it came time for the final critique, this woman took my painting to the front of the class, turned it on its side and said, “Oh my God, where’s Bambi?” (Yes, that’s a direct quote.) I’ve never seen a room full of young people so silent. I swear, they all stopped breathing, staring at me with wide eyes as this teacher continued to ridicule me in front of them all, informing me I had failed because clearly, I had portrayed a forest fire.

I left that class in tears, dropped out of school and gave up on art for the next five years. All because I’d made the mistake of uttering the “A” word.

That’s not the only time I’ve run into that kind of elitist attitude either. Over the years, I’ve been accused of plagiarism (because I happened to write a sci-fi story that featured a weapon mildly resembling a light saber), told I wasn’t good enough to amount to anything, and been patronized because I don’t do things by the majority norm. And I know I’m not alone. These kinds of experiences are par for the course in the arts.

You want to be a singer? Too bad, you suck.

You want to paint? Well, you’re not Van Gogh, so you may as well give up.

You want to be published? Every door will be slammed in your face.

Overcoming adversity is the very definition of being an artist. But it doesn’t have to be that way. So what if someone wants to play the violin with their toes. Or paints murals on street signs. Or writes something a little rough around the edges. It doesn’t make them any less of an artist. The different creative communities claim to be so welcoming and open-minded, but instead, offer only elitism and rejection. If you’re not the alpha of the pack, then you’re the scapegoat. Or worse, lost somewhere in the middle, amongst a sea of sheep.

What’s the point to all this? Simple — don’t let yourself fall prey to elitism. Words have power, whether they be said in jest or seriousness. And that power lasts. To those of us in a position of authority (agents, editors, publishers, teachers, etc.) I implore you to think about what your rejections do to the people who receive them. So it wasn’t your cup of tea. That’s fine, but be nice about it. There must be something good you can give them, some piece of encouragement and/or advice. There’s no reason to get up on a high horse and strip them of their dignity. It’s our job to be the mentors, to help people achieve their creative dreams. Falling into the pack mentality is easy to do, but if we all try a little harder to remember our humanity, and not our need to feel important, we can eliminate experiences like those I went through.

And for those of you who have suffered, or are suffering, under the sword of elitism, keep your head up. Just because one person says you can’t, does not mean you can’t. It took me a long time to get over what that painting teacher said, and I would have destroyed the piece if my mom hadn’t saved it. But I’m glad she did, because I no longer see the emotional turmoil it represented. I see a fire-breathing dragon. It’s a reminder of what I’ve overcome, and that it’s okay to fight for your dreams. So remember, as the great Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” We all have a choice. We can become victims, or we can become dragons. I chose to be a dragon, to fight back against elitism and approach my creativity with strength and resolution. Which will you be?


Abstract Painting


by Kisa Whipkey

Copyright: 2000
All Rights Reserved


20 thoughts on “Elitism in the Arts

    • Thank you! I’ve grown attached to it, but I no longer own it. I let my mom keep it, since it never contained the negative connotations for her that it did for me. That’s the only abstract I’ve ever done, but maybe I’ll try it again. 😉

      • do! i’m envious at your talent.

        i fully and freely admit that i don’t do abstract well. i’m a mimic artist, great at copying but not very good at original.

  1. Absolutely amazing. I am so glad you wrote about this. It’s something I’ve noticed and been thinking about lately. This was my favorite: “Humans are pack animals, no matter what we’re led to believe. And nowhere do you see that penchant for cliques more prominent than in the arts.” I’m so glad you didn’t let your experiences beat you. We definitely need more dragons in the world. And those that have the courage to be dragons, should help others find their wings as well. 🙂 Well done.

    • Thanks, Summer! I knew it was a topic that would hit close to home for a lot of people, but it was one that was hard for me to write about. I had to wait until I could find the positive in it, otherwise it was just going to be depressing. Lol.

      But I do truly believe that we can change the arts, one person at a time, if need be. It’s part of why I approach my critiques, whether in editing or just leaving a book review on Amazon, with empathy and encouragement. There’s too much negativity in the arts. I refuse to add to it. And if I can help brighten someone’s day with a word of encouragement, why shouldn’t I extend that? I’m fairly sure you feel the same way. 😉

      • I wholeheartedly agree. You can always find good in every project. No one should feel shot down or discouraged in their creative efforts. There IS too much negativity and it’s so easy to get sucked into that hole. It takes a conscious effort to rise above it and spread positive encouragement in its place. 🙂

  2. My economics teacher saw I was an art major and announced to the class that at least my graphs would look pretty … well, yeah. I took my A from him and left.
    When my Painting teacher, painting being my major, asked what I wanted to do … I said illustrate books! He told me illustration was not art and focused on all his ‘art’ students. Felt pretty stupid in that class, not good enough. But I had tremendous drawing teachers who really inspired me. And now … I will have an illustration in a book (yes, I’m crying right now)!
    I have not run across this in writing. I am prepared to swerve wildly to avoid it!
    True acceptance is out there, we have to bring it to life.
    I love your painting! Expressionistic!
    Thanks for sharing.

    • So you’ve had a very similar experience to mine, then. With a painting teacher, no less! Maybe it goes with the territory?

      I’m glad that you were able to overcome it as well. And now, like me, you get to laugh at the people who told you no, who said you weren’t good enough. Because you are good enough, and I can’t wait to see your illustration! ❤

      • As a student … I could’ve sworn I was the only one who didn’t quite fit. Now I’m glad I don’t fit! Strange what a few years can do.

  3. Kisa, you and Kathy should have staged an Impressionist style revolution in your class. Have you seen that movie? It encourages me to see what those men went through and I’m so thankful they didn’t give up, despite adversity. The world would sorely miss their artistic genius! I’m glad you and REUTS are changing the game and giving people a chance. 🙂

  4. Narrow minded people, the worst and the ‘undying’ kind! I believe your words Kisa, and i hear the same encouraging words from my family too.
    “Do always what makes you happy”
    “Don’t listen to those who discourage you; they are not to be trusted.”
    “University proffesors shouldbe eliminated” —> that’s mine 🙂

    In the same way there are also the people who belive in your talent and help you explore it, chalenge it and make it better. My high school History teacher told me that i had good memory and research abilities. I belived him and now i study something that keeps me working and i enjoy it at the same time. 🙂

    For that reason, i feel you and i thank you for the post Kisa. Also i like the combination in the use of the colors! The lighter ones look like wings to me. 🙂

    • Thanks! That is the beauty of an abstract–everyone sees what resonates with them.

      It sounds like you have a loving, supportive family, and that’s fantastic. That definitely helps get you through moments of doubt. Teachers are also fantastic resources. I owe a lot of my success to the belief and encouragement of many I learned from. That one particular professor was the exception, thankfully, not the norm. There are good people in all aspects of the arts, just like there are some not-so-good ones. It’s my hope that eventually we can tip the scales so that there are more good than not-so-good. 🙂

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