The Art Of Rejection

Is receiving a ‘no’ an obstruction or a force for creativity?


Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.16.14       By Kate Romano

How’s your day? Not your social media whoo-hoo day, but your real, emotional, volatile, unpredictable, roller-coaster day? The one that causes you to take long, hard breaths when something doesn’t quite work out, the one that requires you to dig deep and find a bit more resilience. There cannot be many of us – musicians, writers, actors, artists  – who have not lived through (or are still to experience) a patch of our artistic life where rejection features quite significantly. To survive as an artist, a young Sinead O’Connor once said, you need to have the delicacy of a feather and a core of steel. Too right.

‘No’ of course, comes in many forms. The unanswered email. The phone that doesn’t ring back. The stomach-lurching grant refusal letter. The face-to-face verbal feedback in an audition. The score returned to the composer. The harsh review. The scathing look in response to a passionate project pitch. When I was trying to get a place at a music conservatoire some 20 years ago, one college posted up names of those who had made it through to the final round. Around 200 hopeful 17 year olds (and their parents) crowded round that piece of A4 paper that revealed our fate. It would have made great reality TV.

The ‘brace-yourself’ clues are often there if you know what to look for. A grant rejection letter is thin and has a second class stamp. Its fat, first-class counterpart is the one you want. A cursory skim usually confirms the presence of the words ‘unfortunately’ and ‘unsuccessful’ in close proximity. But hang on…it says there was ‘an unprecedented number of applications and competition was very high’. I wait for the feelings of warmth and optimism to kick back in…except they don’t.

Is there any other way of saying ‘no’? Is there anything that the over-stretched administrator could have written that prevents our psyche from interpreting these well-mannered words as, ‘Dear applicant, your project sucks, love from The Funding People’. Feedback on the application might be constructive  – a welcome spot of logic to ease injured feelings. But no funding body has the man-power to provide this level of individual response. The best rejection I ever had came from Sound & Music a few years ago. My project didn’t make it on to the scheme, but my ‘no’ email came with an offer of some free publicity and promotion of my event. That simple consolation gesture not only saved me a few quid on my marketing, but it also said ‘hey, your project doesn’t completely suck…and to prove it, we’ll get behind it and help promote it for you’.

But what does ‘no’ really mean? Is ‘no’ always an end-point or is it an obstacle to be overcome and a creative force?

Perhaps those of us who head up small organisations or are self-employed are at an advantage when faced with barriers; we can often scurry around these obstacles (financial, logistic, geographic, structural…) in our path like ants on the forest floor and we sometimes find a better route in the process. Temporarily scattered, we re-group, we-rejoin, the circles close up again. Most projects and organisations feature some ‘well, I didn’t quite see THAT coming…’ moments. Maybe, in fact, we need the injection of these surprises, these sudden turning points to keep our minds, our art, and our processes lively. In a culture that expects us have well-formed ‘right or wrong’ opinions, an obstacle can offer up the luxury to rethink, to understand better, to learn. And almost certainly provides an extra boost of adrenaline too.

Can obstacles themselves be creative forces? Certainly. In the 2003 film The Five Obstructions, Danish director Lars von Trier makes a deal with his mentor and idol, filmmaker Jørgen Leth. Trier asks Leth to remake one of his own films five times with a series of ever-more difficult obstructions (rules) that Leth must adhere to. Trier describes the Leth film as ‘a little gem we are now going to ruin’. His premise is a belief that ‘the greatest gift an actor can offer a director is to screw up’. Trier’s intention is for the obstructions to trip Leth up in order that Leth might unlock more of his own creative potential. The Five Obstructions is like watching Jørgen Leth’s own personal Room 101 unfold; each set of obstructions is more elaborate and challenging than the last, from ‘no set, no shot lasting longer than twelve frames’ through to filming in the ‘worst place in the world’ and finally (Leth’s personal horror) re-making the film as a cartoon. It’s a fascinating documentary-essay-film on the nature of artistic thought processes and encapsulates Leth’s can-do ability to find a new creative stride in this world of ‘no’s’. In an interview about the film, Leth stresses the importance of being receptive to accept obstacles: ‘There must be room for them and humility to receive them – the key word is open-ness’.

History is full of stories about artists who worked within severe restrictions, who persevered in the face of astonishing adversity, who proved their critics wrong (or at least stopped giving a hoot about what they thought). Of course, our knowledge and hence our culture is built upon the successes, upon what did happen. But I’m curious about what didn’t happen; all that was considered untenable, unfundable, undesirable at a particular moment in time. What might be done with these rejected ideas? It seems rather a missed opportunity to let them fall beside the wayside and slip away unnoticed and unheard.

To put the scope and scale of unrealised ideas into a mind-boggling context, look to the British Library where the UK’s national patent database is housed. Established in the mid 19th century, this is a collection of some fifty million patent specifications with another million added annually. For anyone with geek-ish Rowland Emmett tendencies (such as me) this database is a Wunderkammer of inspiration, a treasure trove of humanity’s response to historical concerns, delightful, shocking and poignant. With help, you could locate the patent for the ATM, the hovercraft, the cat’s-eye, the thermos flask. But most striking of all are the countless bright ideas in the collection that never got off the ground – quite literally in the case of British Rail who applied for a flying saucer patent in 1970 as an unrealised attempt to move into other methods of transport. 

Rejected, unrealised ideas sit dormant in databanks, in notepads, in creative minds. In 2012, art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist devised the Agency of Unrealized Projects. The premise was to draw attention to unrealised artworks which were unnoticed or little-known. It was also a chance to explore ideas of partial expression, of incompleteness in art, the whisper of unfulfilled intention. The Agency of Unrealized Projects also highlighted a working practice common to many creative thinkers: that not all projects are intended to be completed and that there is great value in experiments and interesting ‘failures’. Some of the projects featured were rendered impossible due to the utopian or conceptual contexts needed to realise them. In the musical world, I think immediately of Varèse and his well-documented 1930s prophecies for electronic sound-projection and a future time when one could compose ‘symphonies in space’.

For Varèse, for thousands of ideas in the patent-bank and the Agency exhibition, that lack of a supportive context was often the crucial missing ingredient for success. What might commuter life be like today if British Rail had indeed pursued urban space travel in the 1970s? What if funding had not been withdrawn from Nikola Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower plans? Had they come to fruition, ‘magnifying transmitter’ towers could have provided free electricity and wireless communication as early as the 1920s. What would contemporary art have been like if New York had not embraced John Cage and Marcel Duchamp? What would 20th century music have been like if the spirit of the 1940s been less receptive to the fiery young Boulez and his revolt against his forefathers? Ideas blossom when they are presented at the right place and in the right time. They need a nurturing infrastructure to thrive.

Who drives the criteria for this infrastructure? We do. What society values in inventiveness will directly influence the kinds of innovation that it produces. As a direct extension of our work, I would strongly suggest that we – the creators –  play a role in establishing that criteria for acceptance. If you like it, if you value it then support it and get excited about it. Want more funding for opera? Go to the opera and keep going to the opera. Want more support for new music? Programme it, talk about it, write about it. In one of my producer notebooks is a quietly unrealised ambition to curate a project all about quietly unrealised musical projects of the past. And now I’m interested in building an infrastructure for it to flourish in…replete with obstacles, obstructions, rejections and all.

Noted as ‘one of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now creates ‘Adventures in Sound’ with her own production company and chamber music ensemble. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at