The Fine Line Between Confidence and Hubris

The contradiction inherent in artistic self-assessment

I’ve been trying to make sense of two necessarily contrary positions in regard to skill, art, and aesthetics. This is something of which I’ve been trying to make sense for quite some time.

Aesthetics, Technique, and Intent

The fundamental balance of aesthetics in any art-form is, in my supposition, the balance between the personal sense and the general public sense. This is somewhat necessitated by a very strange mechanism – that of our inherent inability to accurately self-assess our own skills and works. I would secondarily posit that art is effectively a combination of technique (skill) and intent. (Some have additionally added context to that, but I’m going to put that aside as an adjunct of intent for now.)

Technique is teachable. Technique is learnable (depending on the amount of time put in, internal aptitudes, etc). Technique is something which, to one degree or another, is somewhat quantifiable. A great deal of education in the arts is devoted to attempting to teach classical techniques, if only for the sake of eventually learning which ones can be accepted and which ones can be disregarded.

Intent, on the other hand, is a really hairy beast. It is not able to be deterministically divined from a work in a vacuum. Even more frustrating is that it can be broken into perceived intent (how we internalize what we’ve seen, heard, and experienced), and original intent (how the artist actually originally intended the art to be consumed). But wait – the original intent can further be broken into original intent and revisionist intent, where the artist retro-fits an original intent onto a piece for one reason or another – even though it was not originally present in the design and execution phases. (My personal belief is that this is done primary for reasons dealing with popularity, but I don’t have any data to back this up.)

If art is a combination of these two things, how can art be “judged” by others if the original artist’s intent cannot be accurately determined? Should it be consumed and rated based on the perceived intent, which is completely subjective based on the person consuming it?

Coming back to Confidence and Hubris

The next logical question in the context of this reading would be “what does this have to do with the difference between confidence and hubris?”

Confidence is somewhat necessary in the artistic process, as it helps shape the intent of the work. If we have no belief or confidence in what we are doing, it is very difficult to move forward with doing it.

Technique, however, requires a certain amount of humble nature to learn and master. If we believe that we have nothing else to learn, we stop learning. As the source material from Dunning-Kruger concludes:

the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others

So, hubris is a base requirement for successful intent, as we need to believe that what we are doing has some sort of artistic merit, both to ourselves and for the external validation provided by others. We would need to be able to weather the concerns of others to forge our own artistic path.

But technique requires a humility which contradicts that hubris, for if we do not know our place in the grand spectrum of abilities, how can we ever hope to know when we can improve, or how to improve?

Societal Homogenization

To a degree, all artists who come in contact with other art or other artists will experience a level of homogenization of their work. The Millenial generation, replete with Instagram pictures, Doge-level memes, and an inflated sense of self (unencumbered by a history of perceived failures) seem to experience this effect at a greater magnitude than seen before. I’m not sure if this is due to the replicating effect of social networking, an increased population size (similar to the compounding effect of scientific discoveries with larger populations), or some other ancillary effect with which I’m unfamiliar.

I mention societal homogenization of art-forms because it leads me to the next question…

Is it me, or is it the world?

The question that I ask is “Is it me, or is it the world?”

If my aesthetic is different than the vast popular aesthetic, am I wrong, or does society at large just have bad taste? I can’t answer that question. If aesthetics are the domain of popular opinion, I’m wrong, and confidence needs to be cut back in favor of humility and a level of homogenization. If original intent is the important part of the equation, I should be forging ahead, allowing confidence (and eventually hubris) to shape the end-products of artistic labor.

What do you do?

I’ve struggled with this – and due to the paradoxical nature of the problem, the only solution I can offer is to make the decision about how to proceed with your art based on your intent. If you’re trying to make a living from your art, primarily, go for the homogenization – you will see better returns from a more commercially viable product. If you’re trying to make “better art”, go your own way – either you will create something which will transcend you or you won’t, but at least you will have made art which is yours.

Good luck!