On Artistic Jealousy

I am sometimes jealous of my colleagues in the arts.

Envious, too, of course, nearly always — but it’s the jealousy that makes me feel guilty.  The Internet will tell you fifty different definitions of envy vs. jealousy, but my understanding has always been this:

ENVY is wanting something someone else has.  It doesn’t require wanting to take that thing away from them — just wanting “one of your own.”  If I’m envious of your significant other, that just means I wish I had a significant other myself because I’m lonely or something.

JEALOUSY is not wanting someone else to have something you want/possess.  If I’m jealous of your significant other, that means I’m upset that your SO is taking you away from me, because I want more of your time (or just want you to myself).

I’m not trying to be pedantic, I just want to differentiate between how I’m going to be talking about these two emotions in this particular post.

Plenty of artists in the fields I work in — music, theatre, fiction — have more than me.  They have access to resources, they have praise and success, they have support networks and followers, they even have skills that I do not, and I wish I had.  I sometimes question my own value if I have not achieved what they’ve achieved (especially if they’re younger than me), and sometimes get upset and rail against the inequities, but overall I don’t think this envy is particularly unhealthy, so long as it generally motivates me to try harder.

The jealousy, however, is another pair of shoes on another pair of stinky feet.  Limited opportunities exist — particularly in the theatre — and sometimes the mere fact of me wanting, say, this contest prize or that development opportunity means that if someone I know has won it over me, I automatically wish they hadn’t.  Because if only one of us can get it and I want it, then it follows that I want them not to have it, even if it’s not personal.

But there’s a more insidious jealousy that really bothers me when it crops up.  It’s the kind that makes me question how decent a person I really am, and if my modesty is just a façade over a vicious ego, if I’m all a friendly supportive apple pie on the surface but inside I’m full of cockroaches and worms.  We all know and dislike the people (often found trolling online forums) who do nothing but proclaim themselves better and more talented than the folks who have gotten success, the ones who say “it’s everyone else’s blindness/the system’s fault I haven’t been recognized” but have nothing to really back it up.  I don’t want to be one of those types.

Bug Pie

Imagery!

Yet I can’t help myself sometimes.  I hear that X or Y writer I know won Z or Q contest or a place in some theatre company’s season, and not only do I wish I’d gotten it instead of them, but my reaction is that they don’t deserve it.  The theatre company is like a romantic crush I have, and the writer is their crappy new beau who totally is awful for them totally don’t you people see it?  Really does nobody see it?  If only the theatre knew what I had to offer, I’d surely be the one whose work was onstage.  (Metaphor… straining… bear with me…)  In fact, it almost diminishes my opinion of the theatre company that such an undeserving hack was chosen over me.

I suppose it is inherent to being an artist that you must think that you have something to offer, if you care at all about other people seeing the fruits of your labor.  You can’t be an artist without opinions, and everyone has opinions, some of which will disagree with yours, so by necessity, people who, in your deeply held opinion, just plain suck will be thought good by people who you wanted to approve of you.  Perhaps, in this way, the rotten-pie jealousy is not just natural to being an artist, it is required.  If I didn’t have strong enough opinions about writing to be able to judge others harshly, then there would be no way I could even put something on the page.  The pen must be wielded as arrogantly as the sword.  The higher my ambition rides, the more likely it will look down on others.

Or is this just a way of trying to twist this into “being spiteful equals being visionary?”  Is it not possible to be a singular, driven artist who makes bold choices, and also a decent human being who can find good in the work of every colleague?  Or would you have to be a Buddha to be so magnanimous?  Can a gourmet chef somehow say “Well, if you like your steak burnt, your vegetables soggy, and your bread moldy, that’s just a different vision and I’m cool with that… even if if your burnt, soggy, moldy meal wins the Iron Chef championship over my tender, crispy and fresh version”?

In other words, to shove in one more metaphor, if deciding to pursue art is like training to be a long-distance runner, I wonder if these jealousies are like the typical soreness and strains that you’d expect as an athlete — something to be repaired, but an expected consequence — or if they’re like sprains and splints — signs that you’re running wrong.  Should I be addressing the jealousy when it happens — or should it not be happening at all?

I don’t know.  Although I guess I could always say “screw it” and go full-bore “I’m an asshole artist who thinks I’m better than everyone.”

Kanye Amadeus Uwe Morrissey

This can turn out a number of different ways.

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3 comments

  1. […] I saw Bachelorette by Lesley Headland, last week at Studio Theatre, and came out feeling envious (but not, this time, jealous), needy, hungry, excited, entertained, coaxed, stunned, ambitious, and knowing that every day I […]

  2. […] like them and didn’t invite them to the wedding.  All three are nakedly envious (not jealous) of Becky for not only being the first to get married, not only for marrying a rich, likeable guy, […]

  3. […] of Realism in Dialogue Writers: You Are the Theme The Aspiring Artist’s Chicken-or-the-Egg On Artistic Jealousy A Writer’s Motivations: So Many Ideas, So Little Time A Writer’s Motivations: Would I Be A […]

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