When Artists are Rejected — and a Fear of Failure

Steven Spielberg was rejected three times from the University of Southern California’s School of Theatre, Film and Television; J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers; Stephen King’s first and most famous book Carrie was rejected 30 times; and Andy Warhol was rejected by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Read more about artists and rejection in my article in the October 2020 issue of the Pastel Journal.

I have had varied experiences with rejection.

For four consecutive years I applied for a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts for three different projects. Each year my proposal was rejected. After the fourth rejection, I launched my own investigation and learned that one staff member was blocking my application, but for reasons that were so petty I could only attribute them to a “personality conflict.”

Venting my frustration, I wrote to the council’s executive director, detailing the four-year history of grant applications, the hours spent completing forms, answering questions, attending meetings and interviews, and providing letters of recommendation. But most important, I reiterated the merits of the project that I wanted funded. I also named the staff member who had been giving me such a hard time and sent a copy of my diatribe to that person. About three weeks later I received a letter from the arts council stating that it had reversed its decision – the project would be funded.

In 2016 my literary agent sent letters to various publishers proposing a new edition of my book How to Survive & Prosper as an Artists: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul. The last edition had been published in 2009 and it was greatly in need of an update and overhaul.

A very prestigious university press expressed interest and in turn sent a copy of the 2009  edition to two artists for feedback. I was not privy to the names of the artists and was merely told that one reader was “a working artist and longtime teacher of art” and the other reader was “a more junior commercial artist.” Since my book had nothing to do with commercial art fields, I thought that it was odd that the editor’s choice of a reader would be a commercial artist!

In the feedback notes the young reader wrote that he/she was an “artist and an illustrator,” conducted all business and marketing online and never showed at galleries. “Because of this, I won’t address chapters 7-9.”

I do not know whether the young reader entirely skipped the three chapters or felt that he/she could not comment because of  lack of experience in the fine art world. But regardless of whether the chapters went unread or read, each of the three chapters represented the most competitive aspects of an artist’s career: applying for exhibitions, grants, and gallery representation!

The young reader’s 576-word critique tore into my book with such wrath, I sensed that the book hit a raw nerve. I suspected that chapters 7-9 were the raw nerve because they reminded the reader of his/her fear of failure, fear of competition, and fear of rejection in the fine art world!

Instead of being brave and chancing rejection, the young artist, was happy to live online, finding the “consumer market” most appealing. It felt safe, secure and comfortable; a place where the reader would not be judged — unlike the fine art world comprised of artists, curators, art dealers, critics, art historians, and collectors. This safe and  secure place is what author Aaron Velky* refers to as “the bubble.”

“Failure is a word that seems to be offensive in today’s times . . . Significant avoidance of failure is what I like to refer to as ‘the bubble,’ and it’s where many of my friends live. Safe. Secure. Serene. Life’s great in the bubble. You never get hurt, you can’t fail, and you won’t stumble. You never get hurt because the bubble (someone else, privilege, income, race) shields you. You can’t fail because you won’t be allowed to. The bubble will insulate you from risk, and you won’t stumble because the floor underneath you is made of marble, so there are no sharp edges or holes.”

Velky’s bubble description was included in his recently published book Let Her Play: The Unfiltered Guide to Empowerment Through Sports.  Velky, himself a millennial, has coached young  soccer players for nearly a decade, seven of which were spent coaching young women. In his perceptive book directed at parents, coaches, and gym instructors, he delves into the best way young female athletes can succeed on many levels and discusses at great length the subject of failure.

In the end, my book was rejected. The university press valued more the opinions of the young artist/illustrator than the working artist and longtime teacher who praised the book and wrote that “. . . [it] is a necessary read for everyone, regardless of age entering any creative field.

In 2017, the 7th edition found a home with Allworth Press and was published the following year.


*Aaron  Velky is the CEO and co-founder of the Ortus Academy, a nonprofit organization that provides millennials and those in Gen Z with the resources and information to elevate their lives financially. During the last few years, he has worked with more than 1500 young adults, helping them to shift their mindset and develop skills related to money, careers and happiness. https://aaronvelky.com