On the art of rejection

(and not egging the panellists' cars)

BY CHRISTOPHER HEALEY, COMPOSER

 

Anyone who has ever applied for something – be it a competition, grant, or educational program – has at some point awoken and checked their inbox, only to want to crawl back under the covers.

We’ve all had them. They usually start with such predictable phrases as ‘Thank you for your application’, and The [judges/panellists/committee members] were very impressed’. But inevitably, they’re followed up with ‘Unfortunately’ and/or We regret to advise you…’.

These emails fascinate me in the same way that passers-by find their attention drawn almost irresistibly toward the scene of a car crash in a sort of morbid interest; a kind of linguistic equivalent to a three-car pile-up. It’s not the possibly soul-destroying outcome I’m talking about, but the sheer contradiction between words and the usual rules of human interaction. They’re like some sort of Orwellian double-speak. For instance:

 

Original:

There were a substantial number of applications this year, and the panel members were very impressed with the high standard of works submitted.

Translation:

We’re going to say that the standard was very high so that you don’t get angry and egg the panellists’ cars. However, the truth is, not only was your work not good enough, but it was not even good enough for you to deserve any sort of response beyond the same template text that we use every year. Congratulations, your months of work, your money spent applying and posting your entries, have won you one ctrl+c, one ctrl+v, and one click of the ‘send’ button.

Original: 

I regret to advise you that your application was unsuccessful on this occasion.

Translation:

I, the receptionist in charge of writing an email to a group of people whose work I have never seen or heard, regret having to send rejection letters because I have better things to do with my time. Fortunately, I can just reuse the same email from last year. No one will notice!

 

As for the panellists themselves, yes, I’m sure they are busy people with lives to live. But if you’re going to sign up to be a panellist, especially when it relates to an educational program, then you’re taking on a very serious responsibility. You hold in your hands an opportunity for someone to grow and become better, which is basically a person’s whole hope for a future. Instead of respecting that, and the enormous consequences your decisions will have on a lot of people (perhaps you justify it to yourself by claiming it’s a meritocracy and that you have the right and power to decide whose merit is worthy), you make your list and tell the receptionist to send out the rejections. On what happens after this, I’m vaguer. Perhaps you then sit back in your armchair by the fire with a glass of whisky, twirl your moustache, and laugh maniacally at a solid day of work? (Note: I am speaking tongue-in-cheek, here.)

I’m not suggesting that we just go: Yay! Everyone-gets-a-gold-star!’. Because in many of the situations I have in mind, it’s not about anyone winning at all. It’s about who gets the chance to have a valuable learning experience, and that is a very, very different thing. After all, weren’t those panel members ‘very impressed with the high standard of works submitted’? Yet, if there is no feedback process, then there is also no way for the rejected persons to course-correct. Further, if there is no transparency in the judging process, then we can have no faith in the judging fairness.

Simply, if, as an organisation, you wish to take applications for projects, competitions, or educational experiences; or as a panellist, you wish to have the power to choose who gets to participate, then you should also have certain obligations to those whom you reject. For example, feedback should always be given or made available upon request. The process of judging should be controlled and transparent. Safeguards against personal biases implemented. And in my opinion, being a panellist should hands-down be the most singularly torturous and awful thing one can do. When invited to be a panellist, your first response should be to run to your letterbox hoping you have a Jury Duty summons instead so you have an excuse; which is to say that the responsibility you have been given should weigh so heavy upon your shoulders – that it is a duty and burden, not a privilege.

Even if you are a panellist for a competition or grant that is non-educational, you must not allow yourself to turn away from the fact that you are being invited to bias what the future of art-making looks like, by filtering who gets to be involved, who gets recognised, who gets rewarded. And you are doing this with all your invisible biases: your human inclinations to help those you know and like personally over those you don’t know or with whom you have personal conflicts.

Then there are your subjective tastes, the limits of your knowledge (you will only know what excellence looks like from your own idea of excellence), combined with your own human inability to truly and fairly judge a person’s abilities from an application in which you see only the smallest fragments of their abilities.

Because, really, if you wish to be a panellist and it doesn’t cause you as much pain as it will for all the people you deem unworthy – for all the particular kinds of art-making that you are effectively censoring – then, unfortunately, I regret to advise you that your application was unsuccessful on this occasion.

 

To the survivors of such letters, and the indifference and neglect these letters seem to represent:

 

I only want to say that there are so many of you who truly deserve better; who, through no fault of your own, are producing fantastic, valuable and powerful work. And yet, are facing not just the numbers-game but often invisible biases, which such canned rejection letters do not make visible. Because that is the funny thing with excellence in the arts: it has a shape which has been crafted through a complex combination of tradition and invisible aesthetic judgements, built off philosophical premises millennia old, and which aren’t universally valued. Even in a post-post-modern world, these biases are still profoundly present in our art-making and our valuing. In some ways, it is perhaps even worse because we assume we are smarter, more aware, more knowledge about our subjectivity. But that understanding  only tends to makes us more confident in our blindness.

However, the reality of rejection is just that — reality.

As much as I wish I could change it, or could propose an alternative (for example, I recently heard some suggest that it would be fairer if funding was awarded by lottery), I have no solution to offer. Only the solace that you’re not alone. That you aren’t failing, rather, you are being failed. This is a truth that some competitions and funding bodies fail to clearly articulate to those they reject.

It’s also challenging to see how commonplace your own situation of being failed is, because such failures tend to shame people into silence. And the way social interactions work mean we really only tend to see the success stories. All the time, we hear about the people who win grants, prizes, competitions, and the art world uses those numbers to justify how well it is doing in service of those incredible people who give their lives, their prosperity, and so much more to the service of art. Unfortunately, it conveniently fails to mention the enormous swathes of art and artists that it is regularly – and perhaps consistently – failing.

Just saying that it’s supply and demand doesn’t achieve anything, because the supply and demand situation is the same for everyone. Some people succeed in spite of this, and not because their work is necessarily qualitatively different, but for a lot of complex and tangential reasons. Yes, I appreciate it’s largely about the sheer abundance of practitioners versus the opportunities available. But this only exaggerates the issues. Consider that with less competition there is more space for diversity to be recognised.

 

I think we need to see more completely what the shape of the status quo is, and to that end, I have created a short anonymous survey. I would very much like to hear from artists about your own experiences of rejection versus success. So fill this in, and I might just have a crack at analysing in a future article.

As ever, I welcome all forms of rebuttal, or to hear more about your own experiences. Conversations like these are important and I believe are of value to everyone, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what I have said.

Thank you for reading and, more importantly, thank you for your art.

 

Click here to participate in Christopher Healey’s survey.

Your survey response will remain anonymous. Survey data will be collected and published at the author and publication’s discretion.

 

This opinion piece was written by Christopher Healey, a young Australian composer and PhD Composition Student at the University of Queensland. You can support him by visiting his website, Facebook page, or performing his music. 

 

8Birches (recording).
Christopher Healey (score and album artwork). Solo flute played by Brigette Tubb.
8Springtime Dances, Winter Weeps (recording).
Christopher Healey (score and album artwork). Solo flute played by Brigette Tubb.

 

Find more scores from Christopher Healey here.

 

Disclaimer: CutCommon provides ALL entrants in its Young Writer of the Year Competition with in-depth feedback and editorial advice on their submissions as well as the opportunity for further discussion.


Images supplied. Featured credit: Britt-Knee via Flickr CC-BY-ND-2.0.

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