As I waited for my suitcase at Miami International Airport’s baggage claim—my first real independent trip outside of California—I was dangerously surviving on a bag of BBQ Frito Twists and the mediocre 30 minutes of scattered naps one manages to snag on a 6-hour plane ride. Despite my delirium, I was exhilarated. Goodbye college-app-filled winter break! I was ready for National YoungArts week.
YoungArts (the National Foundation for the Advancement of Artists) finalists attend National YoungArts week to collaborate with peers and develop their crafts with internationally recognized leaders in their fields through classes and interdisciplinary workshops. Even after the week is technically over, YoungArts provides award winners with “critical, ongoing support to propel them forward at every stage of their artistic careers.” These include grants, creative and emergency microgrants, artist residencies, skills-building workshops, and an intergenerational community of artists. Past award recipients include artists such as designer (and “Euphoria” actress) Hunter Schafer, musician Terence Blanchard, choreographer Camille A. Brown, actors Timothée Chalamet and Viola Davis, and celebrated poet Amanda Gorman. Needless to say, I was intimidated.
To say I was ready for National YoungArts week might have been an overstatement. The truth was that I had no idea what to expect. As a finalist in Writing (spoken word) I knew that I had admired many writers from the Bay Area who had been previous YoungArts winners (e.g. Anouk Yeh, the 2021 Santa Clara Youth Poet Laureate, and Samuel Getachew, the 2019 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate and 2020 Finalist for National Youth Poet Laureate), but despite “winning,” I knew that there’d still be monetary scholarships that certain artists (selected by our discipline panelists) would be earning as well as a nomination (selected by YoungArts judges) as a candidate for U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts. While eager to become a potential recipient of a scholarship and nomination, something still irked me: Why did art always end up feeling like a competition?
From spitting poetry at a spoken word slam to vying for a publication in some prestigious journal to hoping you’ll get accepted by a college through your art supplement to wanting your classmates to be like “wow your poem was really cool,” artistic validation, the proof that pursuing art in a culture that pushes for more STEM-finance-lawyer, “logical,” career goals might be worth it, feels affirming. You’ve somehow stuck it to The Man. But have you?
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my economics class, it’s that competition drives us to produce, to be better than our competitors. But if you’re making art with the intention of winning something, or impressing someone else, you may not actually be growing as an artist. There’s empty fulfillment in knowing what kind of art “sells.”
What I learned from YoungArts is that chasing artistic affirmation doesn’t come from competing. It comes from collaborating. It comes from building community. From creating a Cobra Kai Broadway production with a hip hop dancer, a filmmaker, a classical pianist, a photographer, and an actor, to the support my spoken word group gave each other—our nervous selves—before the final show, to bus rides where I talked with my writer friends about our shared insecurities and dreams of becoming arts educators, to simply being present when listening and watching a fellow artist perform without judging or comparing myself to them, felt liberating in a way. I was no longer fixated on myself. I was immersed in creating art, in talking about art, in feeling held by someone else’s art. That’s when I felt the most affirmed.
While I still find myself comparing my poems to that of other poets or feeling a pang of jealousy when another writer receives a cool award, I have to remind myself that this will get me nowhere. It’s one thing to feel motivated by competition. But it isn’t worth it if you’ve sunk into a hole, isolating yourself, becoming the “starving artist” up in your attic with your only light being some dingy candle as you write your Pulitzer-worthy piece of woe. Let yourself be sad, but don’t let it consume you. Instead, find a community of artists who don’t care how many awards you’ve won. Find a community of artists who make you feel excited to create art– who make you feel alive.