Whether one is in art school or participating in an art contest, it is quite easy to fall into the trap of thinking this is all about competition. After all they train us from an early age to compete and beat your opponent, be it in sports or any other discipline. This may well be ingrained in our ancestral genes as we strived for survival and in pursuit of scarce resources. But let's not forget our hunter/gatherer ancestors also learned to cooperate with each other in order to survive. In a modern capitalist society it seems most natural to compete against each other. But allow me to question this competitive attitude for a moment and briefly explain why I believe it is unhealthy when it comes to art practices.
Art unlike science, math or even sports is a subjective field. Proper measurements on what is good or not can be debated for hours and it's nearly impossible to agree on a set of rules of what makes good art. Cultural background, age, nationality, race, politics, religion and education play a decisive part in a person's judgment on what makes good art. On top of that, aesthetic definitions change all the time. What most mainstream contemporary art connoisseurs consider good art will most likely change within a generation and keep changing afterward. Truth is we are filled with so many adopted preconceptions and ideas about what art is, that when it comes to comparing our own art with others, we are either extremely unfair with ourselves or overtly complacent.
The problem with the competing "me v.s. them" mentality is twofold. We either compare ourselves to other artists that we consider inexperienced or way more advanced than us. The problem when we compare ourselves with artists we believe to be unprepared or lacking artistic skills is that we then become lazy and conformist with what we already master, assuming we are on top. When we compare ourselves to artists that are ahead of us in level of mastery, we end up being too harsh with our outcomes and end up frustrated. Often we ignore that these artists could have started practicing when they were much younger than us. Sometimes they are simply "gifted". Some of us have to work harder to achieve a successful work of art, but that should not be a discouragement. Many "gifted" artists take for granted their talents and go to waste. Sometimes it's better to sweat it and work harder so one can really appreciate what one has reaped.
My Studio in Savannah, GA in 2006
Even if we compete against artist we consider to be at the same level as us, we forget that everyone's path is different and there is no "one" right way to do art.
Instead, why not compete with yourself. If last year you produced 10 high quality paintings, try to make 15 this year without sacrificing quality. Do not try to speed up your process just because other artists are producing 30 or even 40 paintings a year. This is not a race to see who makes more, but rather make art that pleases you and you feel proud of. Most of the time this requires time and perseverance. One can learn from other's mistakes but even better: Learn from your own mistakes.
My studio in Houston, Texas in 2016
Most professional painters I know are individualistic and prefer create their work while they are alone n their private studios. That fact alone should already reveal a hidden truth in all of this. In this competitive society we live in, the only real competition out there should be with yourself. Strive for excellence but never forget there is no finish line as long as you're alive and enjoy art. Never mind what "comparison obsessed" critics have to say. No matter what you hear or see out there, allow yourself to be inspired by others but focus on your own art and create your own path.