September 28, 2009

“Never ask people, not about your work.” Howard Roark

Last night I watched one of my favorite movies; The Fountainhead.   Gary Cooper stars as architect Howard Roark, a stubborn and uncompromising individualist.  His designs are uniquely his, rejecting tradition and the opinions of the experts.  Because of these attitudes, he is a threat to those who require subservience.

As I seek to create, to find my own vision, Howard Roark has the ideals and standards that I admire; strong, confident, independent, and uniquely creative.

The title of this blog is “Never ask people, not about your work” and is a quote from The Fountainhead.  Roark had attended college with a fellow architect who’s idea of success was to gain the approval and admiration of others.  He came to Howard to ask him what he thought of his work:

“If you want my advice, Peter,” he said at last, “you’ve made a mistake already.  By asking me, by asking anyone.  Never ask people, not about your work. Don’t you know what you want?  How can you stand it, not to know?”

Roark’s designs were not based on what the public wanted, and he didn’t judge his success by how others reacted to it.  He had a vision and it was unimportant what others thought.  In another scene Roark declares:

“I don’t make comparisons. I never think of myself in relation to anyone else. I just refuse to measure myself as part of anything. I’m an utter egotist.

The exact opposite of Howard Roarke is Ellsworth M. Tooey, an architectural critic who depends on the opinions of others for his power.  He fears individualistic thinking because he knows that such men cannot be controlled.  Here is Tooey’s thoughts on art:

“Artistic value is achieved collectively by each man subordinating himself to the standards of the majority.”

Because Tooey fears Roark’s individualism and refusal to subordinate himself to Tooey, he attempts to destroy him by ensuring that no one will commission him to design a building.  After having successfully accomplishing this, Tooey has a chance encounter with Roark and wants to hear Roark acknowledge him:

“We’re alone.  Why don’t you tell me what you think of me?”

“But I don’t think of you”

Tooey is devastated, for his self worth is measured externally by how others view him.  Roark gave him the worse blow he could have received, he didn’t hate or admire Tooey, he didn’t think of him at all.

Roark is ultimately confident and is not constrained by others, he knows that he can do anything that he wants.  In this exchange, Roark’s is being expelled from college for not conforming to his professor’s views on architectural design.  The College Dean tells Roark that no one will allow him to design such work:

“My dear fellow, who will let you [design such work]?”

“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”

This is how I wish to live my art; Independently, strongly, passionately and confidently. My only measure of success shall be against my own internal standards.  I simply seek to develop my talent and to express myself through my art.

To be able to do that, and to be true to myself, is success.


20 thoughts on ““Never ask people, not about your work.” Howard Roark

  1. I totally agree with the title of your post. Somebody ones said: “We are all born like originals, but sadly most will die like copies” The mayor problem for artist is not what others think about his work, but what does he think and if he is confident in his work. To find unique visual language is about finding your self.
    As I develop my artistic expression, I also develop my spiritual, emotional, inner me and that is the reason why my art is my statement.
    If our desire for money is our motivation to make art, that is a waste of energy and talent (if any). Of course we need to earn and live, but that is not the reason why we create.

  2. So true! I loved the Fountainhead, but forgot about it. It seems, in my life and work, that I only ask others for opinions when I myself am insecure. Work that I know is great, I don’t need to ask anyone for validation. (Except on those particularly insecure days…) Thank you!

  3. This is an important reminder in these times. Collectivism seems to be politically popular and so called “artists” are selling out as propaganda pushers to the NEA.

  4. I don’t think it’s wrong to enjoy the praise of others, it’s quite nice to have our work appreciated and enjoyed. But we cannot rely on those opinions as a measure of our self worth nor let them set our artistic direction.

    I feel that I am very lucky to be able to create as I see fit, unconstrained by money or opinion. And if I find others, with like tastes, who appreciates my work; then I am doubly lucky.

  5. Without trying to go too deep, one of my favorite quotes is:

    “Beware those who ask for feedback. They are really asking for validation.” – Richard A. Moran, from one of his books.

  6. John, I think we all have been there before and can relate to this quote. I think it’s all about growing and becoming comfortable with just our opinion.

    I was talking to a friend today and he asked me about what happened when I showed my work to a prominent gallery owner several years ago. I said “she hated it!”

    He said “that’s too bad”

    To which I replied, “no, it’s okay, I didn’t create the work for her.”

  7. You are now on my blogroll and I am your new Follower, so you can change that number to “8” followers! Speaking of needing vaidation, I ask people to comment all the time. I have an active meter on my site so I know of all who visit, but I seem to NEED comments AND Followers. Sometimes, I feel so incapacitated in the area of creativity. I should feel better in my skin, right? It’s a work in progress … nice to have you aboard, Cole.

    Nina / “Abbey”

  8. Good thought Cole. I’ve always been the independent sort who doesn’t need validation from others to feel worthy. Some call it egotistical, I just feel it’s self confidence. The images I make are not for others to like or dislike but if they do I am honored. Keep up your work, I have told several people about your site and what type of images you seek to create.

  9. I am not as deeply into photography and artistic expression as you (Cole) and others who have commented but can I suggest that in the end the question to be answered is “why should I take photographs”. Maybe the next question is “what would success look like to me”. To find the answers we have to look inward AND outward – no person is an island.

  10. I like John’s idea of asking “what is success” too. Speaking of pleasing people, I was disappointed that my entries in our yearly local “contest” received only one honorable mention from the photographer who was the lone judge this year. Then a couple of weeks later I got a call that one of my photos was People’s Choice…so the judge didn’t care for them, but others did…I wish I didn’t care, but it does feel good when your work gets a good response in others! It seems that everything in life needs the right balance, and that’s how I try to look at photography…I care what others think, but my goal is to have fun and please my own tastes.

  11. I think if you believe in yourself and your work then external validation isn’t necessary. However, feedback can be useful in other ways. I don’t often ask for opinions on my work but when I do, I only ask those people whose work I like and respect and who I know will give me their views in a balanced and constructive way, even if they don’t actually like what I’ve done. Constructive feedback can help you improve and give interesting insights and I wouldn’t want to isolate myself from this completely, although ultimately I aim to make the final decision.

    However, I think you make a great point, Cole, and one that more of us could do with taking on board. Creativity is really about the process and not the end result – if people enjoy the end result that’s a bonus, but if you’ve experienced joy and fulfillment in the creation of it, that’s even better and all that really matters in the end.

  12. Great read, why ask or not to ask…it was just recently that I started a new group and am committed to its mission of seeking out the merits of another’s work. I feel confident enough about my own to do just that and feedback says the extra time and work is worth it. Good photographers who submit to the group are surprised that someone would take the time to write more to the long list of accolades and awards and finally add something meaningful. is the group and I issue no apologies for my own self proclaimed status as a almost totally content with their work photographer. You deserve that peace, too.

  13. Name: Steven Dempsey

    Great post Cole. It got me thinking about my own creative journey and how much the opinions of others mattered to me.

    As much as I would have people believe that I am immune to others’ approval, I would be less than honest if I said it didn’t matter. What I can say with absolute certainty is that it matters less in my life at this moment, particularly because my confidence as an artist is at a higher level.

    I think it’s pretty much established by therapists worldwide that if our motives to express ourselves are only to appease others, then success will always be elusive. That is to say that if I am creating photographs because I’m catering to what I know people like, then I will churn out material that is mediocre at best. While it may be great art to some, I know from experience that I cannot reach my full potential as an artist unless I am at one with my own vision and to hell with what anyone else thinks.

    I’m not suggesting that we become egotistical fools wearing arrogance on our sleeves but I am saying that you must express your vision from within, not without. It took me 45 years to find myself and when I did, I began to produce my best work.

    For a long time people would say that I needed to find a style because I didn’t seem to have one. Most of this was a necessary process of experimentation and discovery to find out what it is that inspires me.

    I spent too long trying to find that style and what I learned was that a style cannot be found. You grow into it. Your style becomes you. If you give yourself over completely to your art and let it emanate from your soul, you will reach your full potential.

    As arrogant as Howard Roark appeared in the Fountainhead, in my mind he had actually attained creative enlightenment by refusing to be encumbered by outside influences and simply expressing himself in the purest sense possible.

    So that’s what I thought about when I stumbled upon your blog this morning. I am gearing up for a trip to Ireland to see my family for Christmas and today I will go to the bookstore and by a copy of the Fountainhead. It will be good to revisit this story with new eyes and a great way to kill 16 hours to boot!

  14. Cole,

    I’ve admired your work for a while now. The Auschwitz project was particularly innovative and intriguing. Whatever your are doing you should keep on doing. This includes your adherence to the philosophy of individualism promoted by Ayn Rand through the character of Howard Roark!

    I must admit, however, that I find Ayn Rand’s philosophy to be a bit extreme and self-indulgent. Personally, I find that the work of others, including yourself, has much to offer, as I proceed with my journey, without any particular destination in mind, along the road of personal development as a fine art photographer.

    I get to Ft. Collins many times each year. Perhaps we could discuss this some time over the excellent apple pie at the f/stop cafe?

    Michael Flicek

  15. What page is “Artistic value is achieved collectively by each man subordinating himself to the standards of the majority” found on? Need to know quickly, writing an essay due tomorrow!

  16. Hi Cole,
    Just found my way to your great photographs and to your blog. This post caught my eye. I, too, thought Howard Roarke had a point – you don’t live and justify yourself for others. If you do, then as an artist you will be weak and swayed by this opinion, that trend and this criticism, etc. I think art has gone down this road with so many artists trying to ‘please’ other artists, gallery owners, funders and prize bestowers!

    But, of course it is not Howard Roarke that says these things, it is Ayn Rand. And I think that, in the end, she goes too far, maybe right to the other extreme. That all art is created by the artist without reference to other at all. It seems, in my view, that she takes the values of individuality too far, divorcing them from ‘other’ and ‘others’, and twisting them into a perverted individuality – individualism, if you like.

    I wonder if there is a middle-way that is not just a muddle of appeasement or a poor mediocrity. Where the values of the individual are upkept and that the values of others are also respected. In all art, especially photography, there is a communication of our way of seeing the world and people. Our photographs are very rarely just for ourselves, they are also for others to enjoy, learn something, ponder over, reflect upon, be shocked by etc. Of course, what they take from our work is up to them, just as it is up to us what we communicate.

    So basically I do believe in the ‘individual’ and, as a photographer, that is absolutely crucial. At the same time I do live in a world, I do photograph other people, I am in communication with them and those factors will have their bearing on my work. They won’t be the determining factors, but their mark will be there in my work and, indeed, any artist’s work.

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