The Toughest Thing to Hear
Written by Emma Holter
During my senior year of college I became pretty adept at juggling a full load of upper-division classes with an unpaid internship in the arts and a job that would allow me to afford to take an unpaid internship. In that last semester of undergrad, I was able to swap my unrelated paying work-study job for a paid position assisting an emerita professor. I knew that she had written several important books, had travelled extensively throughout Europe in the course of her research, and discovered a work of art that is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (casual, right?). I was most looking forward to her stories. I hoped, in the back of my mind, that she might give me advice that would make the whole prospect of creating a sustainable career in the arts after graduation less overwhelming.
Over the course of the semester, and many cups of pungent Tazo green tea later, I heard plenty of stories. During those afternoons we organized sections of her library (first by era, then geographic region, then artistic medium, and then by artist), she told me about touching the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before it was cleaned in the 1980s, balancing her sculptural art practice with becoming an academic, how attractive German art historians used to be, and how, to her, the majority of the contemporary world’s issues could be traced back to the missteps of the Hapsburg Empire.
But the one occasion I did ask for her career advice, she gave me an answer I would have never anticipated from someone as well established as her.
She told me that I was better off becoming a car mechanic or an x-ray technician. She, point blank, implored me to forget the past four years of work I had put into my undergraduate art history degree, and instead do something that was ‘more useful’ to society.
I was floored. I honestly don’t know how I kept myself from bursting into tears right then and there. This was a woman who is well respected in the New York art world, having dedicated her life to writing about, and teaching art and art history. She was someone who I had hoped would become one of my mentors. Her comment made me feel as if my efforts were worthless—that the experiences I had cobbled together and pursued for myself were meaningless in the long run. But that was a brief, intense feeling.
Continuing to apply for post-grad jobs in the arts, with the same sustained enthusiasm and determination, was one of the most challenging parts of the days that followed that conversation. The toughest thing to hear is discouragement. And hearing it blatantly for the first time, especially from someone I trusted, made me realize that I needed to gain a thicker skin. I needed to become less affected by rejection and to not get caught in undertow of someone’s disheartening advice. Those voices that make you think that all of the energy and time you put into your passion is for nothing, are only helpful if they motivate you to continue to do what you love.