What’s Your Take: In Praise of Gatekeepers by Ronald Mackay

In this series, Northumberland artists share their views on issues related to the arts.

If I’m honest, I write not only to satisfy an urge but to seek validation. I want thoughtful, educated people — like I imagine myself to be – to nod in recognition of what I proffer. I seek confirmation that my scribblings about this world that we share, resonate in the minds of others I respect.

Ronald Mackay

We artists spend hours creating our darlings, then we solicit feedback. If it’s less than complimentary, we react defensively.

“How dare you!” Or: “You don’t understand. Let me explain.”

Indignation, or worse, is an inappropriate response to well-founded criticism.

Claims that we create merely to please ourselves are usually insincere. If they were true, why would we be compelled to share our efforts with another or submit them to an editor hoping for favour?

If I’m honest, I write not only to satisfy an urge but to seek validation. I want thoughtful, educated people — like I imagine myself to be – to nod in recognition of what I proffer. I seek confirmation that my scribblings about this world that we share, resonate in the minds of others I respect.

We who self-identify as creative, cultivate around us concentric rings made up of valued others before whom we make ourselves vulnerable by exposing our darlings in the medium we strive to master.

Within our innermost ring are those closest to us in spirit, those who have won our trust. We crave that first nod of understanding. We learn to overcome our dismissive instinct when the nod is followed by reasoned charges as to how we have fallen short.

Exposing our darlings to more distant circles, we steel ourselves for the narrowed look, forewarning: “There’s ample room for improvement!”

We reach the ultimate circle before launching our work on a public abundantly bored with mediocrity. We long for our work to be broadcast yet there are still gatekeepers to be satisfied, the most nonpartisan of all. The gallery-owner who risks expensive and precious hanging space. The publisher risking money and reputation.

Why should we satisfy them? One answer is that we may lack business acumen, even affect to despise it, and so prefer the gallery-owner or the editor to risk their precious resources while we hoard our own. Artists seek viewers; writers book sales.

Another answer is because we long to be endorsed by recognized experts. To use the phrase “my agent”, “my publisher”. By uttering these magic words, we escape the accusation that our vanity exceeds our talent.

Today, it is not difficult to convert a room into a temporary gallery or self-publish through Amazon thereby bypassing the gatekeepers.

Once, I stood at the gate to assure that quality was assured. I supervised students preparing master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. Age, experience and expertise trumped youth, enthusiasm and ingenuousness. My critical eye detected those flaws, which if undetected, would result in a stumble at the final gate.

Once my critical role was understood, my charges learned to accept and value my function. Counsel heeded assured success. True, that was in the days before the fashion of spurning a gatekeeper’s advice with the accusation that it might be tainted by one of the proliferating “isms” or “phobias”.

To heed and address suggestions offered in good faith by the professional gatekeeper is the best way of converting mediocrity into excellence, shortcomings into triumph.

What is my own appropriate reaction in response to an editor who refuses my work yet pays me the courtesy of identifying its failings? Is it to take offence? Accuse her of one of a range of increasingly mischievous transgressions? “Why not?” my cynical side asks. A startling accusation may disarm and bewilder and so work in my favour, at least until the ploy becomes a threadbare cliché and the legitimate gatekeeper regains firm footing.

Surely, I should attend to the gatekeepers’ observations, then ask myself, honestly, if there might be a kernel of truth in the criticism rendered on the beauty, form, or substance of my darling.

Are we artists so self-absorbed that we can’t accept that expert others may view our work with greater objectivity and less conceit than we ourselves employ?

Let’s shelve our outrage, lay aside inflated egos, relinquish self-serving grudges. Our maturation as artists demands this of us. Ungoverned emotions blind our eyes and plug our ears. Let’s strive to be humble, willing to listen, open to grow. Therein lies the reliable route to our improvement. Growth rewards us; indignation wounds us and all who share our circles.

Here’s to the gatekeeper! May she contribute to our continuous betterment.

Ronald Mackay

About Ron:

A career in international development has persuaded Ronald that cultures have always borrowed and continue to borrow from one another. Without self-serving and often asymmetric learning from others, no culture flourishes. Ronald has worked with peoples from the Arctic to the Southern Cone and in Asia, Africa, Europe and Oceania. His published memoirs include Fortunate Isle about Tenerife and The Kilt Behind the Curtain about Romania in the late ‘60s. His insights into his own humanizing influences and those of others in https://www.fd81.net/ appear in the several anthologies published separately by Robert Fear and Alyson Sheldrake.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. dmwauthor says:

    Well said, Ron. Covers the gamut.

  2. Thank you Ron. For a writer there is scarcely anything more valuable than a good critic.

  3. Euan Lindsay-Smith says:

    Ron, certainly, addresses a really important issue, which many of us need to be reminded of, and that is that not everyone sees life as we do. Indeed, we may not always see life as accurately as we imagine. I am reminded of the words of that great Scots poet, Rabbie Burns, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us; To see oursels as ithers see us!” (Oh, would some Power give us the gift; To see ourselves as others see us!)

    1. ronaldmackay says:

      You, Euan — along with Robert Burns — hit the nail on the head. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Alister Cumming says:

    Interesting, useful thoughts, Ron. I wondered, though, if there might be a more charitable word than “gatekeeper” for the roles you describe? Respondent? Or even critic, advisor, supporter, or mentor?

    I have long made it a practice to revise any section of any text of mine about which anyone raises a any kind of query or concern. I follow the assumption that if another person is compelled to raise an issue when reading or listening to me, then my writing needs to be clarified, refined, reoriented, or just pared down. Sometimes my changes are small but usually they involve a reformulation that benefits my intentions. Feedback from others needs to be seen as an opportunity to improve and communicate rather than an affront, challenge, or misunderstanding.

    As for working as a professor with students, I hope to be a supportive coach with useful advice rather than an admonishing demon. But you would have to ask my former students how well I may have fulfilled that role.

  5. Shane Joseph says:

    There are gatekeepers and gatekeepers – those who offer feedback as a gift without expectation of return, and those who keep the gateway so narrow that few get in, ensuring that those who do reap the benefits of the many bestowed upon the few. I would praise the former gatekeepers and damn the latter.

    1. Shane, that comment sounds almost biblical – or at the very least, a cross between Christian doctrine and communism. Hmmm…

    2. ronaldmackay says:

      You make a very good point, Shane. I wonder what the solution to this challenge might be? In whose court does the ball lie? Is there something that the individual aspiring writer might be able to do to begin to chip away at the obstacle you identify? Or does the obstacle simply lie beyond the reach of us writers?

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