The Self-Taught Artist

Monday, 15. December 2014 0:05 | Author:

Recently I was considering the term “self-taught artist.” Several things about the use of the term arouse my curiosity: why would anyone other than an academic care who taught an artist? Many academics have a thing about where people went to school, but it seems to me hardly anyone else cares—if the art is any good, that is. And the truth is every teacher and mentor has students who succeed and those who do not, so while knowing the teacher might tell us something, it certainly cannot predict the quality of the art a particular person produces.

Another question I have is whether the term is pejorative or complimentary. Is it better to have gone to art school or is it better to have learned on one’s own? Or does it matter? More importantly, why would an artist want to label him/herself anyway?

Evidently some see the label “self-taught” as a matter of pride. Not long ago a former student, now a scenic painter said, “Everything I know, I taught myself.” It was said proudly rather than complaining. It should have been a complaint; this person has attended two different schools and is currently trying to get into a third, curious behavior for someone who is learning only from himself.

And the statement is untrue. And while there is little doubt that much of what this person can do is the result of experimentation, that experimentation is based on a foundation acquired in educational theatre shops. There he learned the basics of color mixing and the fundamentals of basic painting techniques; along the way, he learned more about the materials and how they work.

In that sense, most of us are “self-taught.” We take what we learn from mentors and teachers and make it our own, modifying, adapting, and experimenting once we have the fundamentals in hand. This is, I’m sure, part of why no two artists who train with the same people in the same place develop the same way. There is influence, to be certain, but our skills develop according to our native talent, how much time and effort we are willing to put in, and our personal aesthetics and artistic vision.

The term “self-taught” applies more accurately to those artists who, for whatever reason, have not trained in a formal school situation. It is a short cut for saying “I did not attend a school to learn what I know.” But, my bet would be that most of them have had instruction of some kind. They may have attended workshops and seminars; they may have read extensively; they may have studied the work of others; they may have done some sort of informal apprenticeship or have been in a casual mentored situation. But it is highly likely that some sort of information and perhaps guidance came from outside themselves.

The difference then between a self-taught artist and any other is simply the formality of the situation in which the artist trained. The term (or indication of an arts degree) says nothing about the nature of the art the person is likely to produce, nor does it say anything about the artist’s skill level or sophistication in handling tools, materials, or ideas.

Regardless of how we obtained our basic skills and artistic approach, it is more than likely that we took that as a starting point and went on to improve those skills and build on what we already knew. Artists are not simply the products of their training; they are visionaries who develop over time and whose work usually gets better the more they mature and the further they move from that source of initial education.

Wonder why we even have the label?

 

Category:Aesthetics, Originality | Comments (3)

The Art of Transition

Monday, 1. December 2014 0:32 | Author:

As I was listening near the end of an older Stephen King novel (Yes, I am addicted to audio books), I realized that King is, among other things, a master of the transition. He knows when and where to put them and, more importantly, how to make them work so that the reader is moved from one place/time/idea to another seamlessly and unnoticeably. As I think about it, it is one of the things that makes King so very readable (or in my case, listenable).

Whether he/she works in fiction, non-fiction, essay, or poetry, every writer is (hopefully) aware of the transition and the attendant difficulties. The good writer does exactly what King does, move the reader smoothly and effortlessly from one place/time/idea to another. And if those transitions can be made invisible, or at least transparent, so much the better. Anyone who writes seriously knows how difficult that is.

Mulling over King’s ability, it occurred to me that all artists have to deal with transitions. Certainly composers do; they must move the listener from one section of their music to another. Likewise the instrumentalists and vocalists who interpret that music must make those transitions as well. Similarly, all theatre artists (playwrights, directors, actors, set designers, lighting designers) must do the same thing in moving from one scene to another, one stage picture to another, one look to another. And certainly filmmakers (directors, editors) must master transition: not only must the dramatic units transition, but the camera shots must transition as well, and on a much more frequent basis

All this talk of transitions make sense in arts that take place, at least from an audience perspective, in a time sequence, but what of other arts? At first I thought that transition was a function of story or argument, then I realized that it exists in non-narrative art as well.

My own photographic work is an example: most of my recent work is gridded abstract collage. Even though these pieces fall into the category of meditation rather than story images, there must be transition between the pieces in the grid or the overall piece will absolutely fail. Likewise there must be transition between the parts of any visual or plastic composition. While each part may be interesting in itself, those parts must relate to each other and to the composition as a whole to tell the story or complete the meditation. Thus the transitions can make or break any piece art.

Given their importance, a reasonable expectation would be that transitioning would be taught in arts schools of all varieties. My experiences is that it isn’t. And when I read about art technique, I seldom find it mentioned. The single exception is film editing/directing, where it is not only taught, but the methods have names. It is as if once those of us who are not film editors or directors get out of those freshman composition classes, it is presumed that we know all that we need to know about transitions.

And that is not the case. Sometimes we find the piece that we are working on isn’t coming together the way that we want it to, and are not sure where to look to correct the situation. We would do well to look at the transitions, particularly if the work seems inappropriately fragmented or lacking in cohesiveness. In more cases than you’d think, that’s where the problems are, and so that’s the place to start repairs. Perhaps we should even take a little time out to study and learn how to transition better. After all, anything that results in better work is time well spent.

Category:Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0)

Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art

Monday, 17. November 2014 0:52 | Author:

In his book Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that Americans don’t like ambiguous endings on their movies. And he’s right. A number of Americans (and probably people of other nationalities as well) dislike ambiguity, particularly at the end of movies. Talk to any three people about the ending of the movie Inception. Indeed, if you plug “Inception ending” into Google, you get 36,000,000 hits, so something must be of interest there.

This is one of the reasons that many audience members are troubled by the endings of Edward Albee’s plays or what are perhaps the most ambiguous of the arts, abstract painting, sculpture, photography.

None of this is new and interesting; we all know that some people don’t like ambiguity, and some people don’t like abstract art, and many of us have formed opinions as to why that is, often citing lack of sufficient education. However, there is a new and interesting development in this area; it is two related studies done by Antonio Chirumbolo, Ambra Brizi, Stefano Mastandrea, and Lucia Mannetti. This psychological research team reports that that “people with a strong need for cognitive closure—that is to have quick, definitive answers to vexing questions—are less likely to appreciate abstract art.”

Even more interesting is that one of the studies suggested that the “desire for certainty is a constant for some people, it can be induced in others,” which means that “if environmental cues are unwittingly prompting this mindset, they are effectively making people less open to abstract art.”

And what does all that mean to us? If we are artists who produce abstract art or who produce art that leans ambiguous, we need to be worried about how that art is presented to our audiences. We can probably do nothing about those who have an inherent need for closure, but we need to be concerned about the state of mind of everyone else in our potential audience, and that means the environment in which our art is shown.

The study showed that if and when there are too many distractions, tolerance for ambiguity is reduced, so ambiguous art becomes “unpleasant and displeasing.” Pacific Standard Magazine reports “’Curators of exhibitions of modern and abstract art should take into account environmental factors which may induce greater need for closure in visitors, and thus negatively affect viewers’ implicit evaluation of the artworks,’ the researchers write. Anything that reduces viewers’ cognitive load, from simple-to-navigate galleries to clear, understandable explanatory labels accompanying the works, will help.”

Except for the in-gallery or lobby bar dispensing alcoholic calmness, there is little to be done if audience brings their distractions with them in the form of long to-do lists, or emotional turmoil. But if our ambiguous, abstract work is to appeal, it would be well to find a way to reduce those internal distractions.

Practically speaking, if we are in the business of trying to have our work seen and perhaps purchased, in the business of tribe-building, then this information is invaluable; potential patrons may not be able to like our work simply because of the environment. Solutions may not be readily apparent or easy to implement, but just knowing what is going on in the minds of some of our potential audience can lead us to explore new paths and find new venues for our work.

Category:Presentation | Comments (1)

The Fear Factor

Sunday, 2. November 2014 22:41 | Author:

We in the US have become quite adept at being afraid. Perhaps we always have been; remember the Red Scare from your history books? Today, however it seems more infectious and widespread. We are afraid of terrorists, of Ebola, of that woman in the burka, of being on an airplane with someone who has more than 2 ounces of gel or liquid, of being mugged, of brown kids at the border. And, sadly, we have politicians who feed those fears in order to gain the power of an elective office.

It is difficult to tell if this seeming rise in number of things we fear has contributed to our individual psychologies, but I rather suspect it has. It seems that many people hear only a portion of what is said, particularly if it is a complex statement, and the part that they hear invariably is the part that contains something to fear.

A case in point is the email I received just this past week: a former student is taking an acting class at an upper-level institution, and the instructor is in the Strasberg camp of method actors. The student was alarmed and concerned that what the instructor was asking of her and her classmates would be “damaging to their psyches.” She was seeking advice on how to proceed.

In all fairness, I had said in a class that she took with me that I thought that Strasberg’s methodology was flawed and could be dangerous, primarily because Strasberg insisted that all emotion come directly from the actor’s personal experience. Stanislavski, creator of method acting, endorsed this approach, but only after it was clear that the actor could not get the requisite emotion from the script. I would agree. I also recommend doing nothing using method techniques unless a trained coach is present—primarily because those new to method may not have sufficient judgment to make correct choices. This student (and others, I’m sure) heard only part of this. In her new class she wants, it seems, to avoid all those potential dangers not only for herself, but for everyone in the room.

That’s a lot to ask, and almost certainly guaranteed to inhibit learning. My response included these points:

  • Keep an open mind always.
  • Whatever one thinks about Strasberg’s methodology, it has significant value to offer. Strasberg trained some really good actors using his techniques, so it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
  • It is really doubtful that exposure to a couple of semesters using of this technique under the guidance of an experienced coach would be damaging to any person who did not have serious problems to begin with.
  • The evidence presented indicates that the instructor is knowledgeable and gets results. This is the guy you want running the class.
  • Give it an honest try. There is much to be learned from this technique and much to be learned about one’s self as well.
  • How the teacher impacts other students is not properly your concern, unless all students are impacted in a seriously negative fashion.
  • Sometimes exercises that make the actor uncomfortable are the most effective way for the actor to learn what he/she needs at the moment. Art is not always comfortable.
  • Any artist unwilling to risk or unwilling to allow him/herself to be vulnerable cannot expect much artistic success.

And the last point is really the point. Unfortunately, many now default to a fear response in any situation that is the least bit challenging, mentally wandering off into a series of worst-case scenarios. This may be the least useful reaction to any situation for an artist. And the medium doesn’t matter. The last post discusses this problem; I couldn’t follow my plan and was temporarily afraid to explore new areas—a typical fear response. It’s such a significant problem for artists that David Bayles and Ted Orland have written a book about it, Art & Fear.

Fear can be intimidating or even immobilizing. Artists who want to be successful must be fearless. As I look back over my responses to the former student, it seems that they would apply to any artist in any medium. We must stay open to possibilities and information regardless of the source. We must be willing to be uncomfortable. And, above all, we must be willing to risk, to become completely vulnerable; only then can we really create.

Category:Creativity, Education | Comment (0)

New Wine

Sunday, 19. October 2014 23:04 | Author:

It may be that you have never even thought about photographic formats, and you probably did not expect to be reading about them today, but a recent experience caused me to think that there may be something valuable to be learned from them.

Those who know my photographic work know that I do abstract work, much of which is sort of a photographic collage that assembles separate images of parts of a subject into a new image wherein the relationships between the parts are changed. In order to present these ideas I often arrange the images in a variety of gridded structures which allow me to examine and modify those relationships.

Let me hasten to say that I do not believe that there is anything wrong with the single-image square or rectangle (in any number of length-width ratios). Many photographers would never consider using anything else. I use them myself, but for this recent work, more complex formats provide a better structure.

This gridded structure was what I had in mind as I began work on my latest project. The photo shoot was challenging and quite lengthy, and I recall thinking at one time that the subject matter was unlike anything I had ever done before. I did not realize how different until I looked at the images in LightRoom.™ As with almost all of my shoots, there are a few images that I want to print just as they are, with no collage, no restructuring. And in this shoot, there were those. However, among the other images the potential relationships that I am used to seeing and restructuring were not there.

My first response was something close to panic. I had no idea what to do. Once the panic subsided, I realized that I would have to find new ways to deal with this material. This subject matter and the formats I had thought to use were simply not a fit; existing structures, at least those in my repertoire, would not support this imagery. What to do?

Take a flying leap into the unknown: create  new structures. Find new ways to talk about the relationships of the parts. Think not just out of the box, but out of the warehouse.

This could have been devastating. Instead it was exhilarating. The old structures were comfortable and provided a known framework on which to hang images and ideas. But this material demanded otherwise. New forms were necessary to allow the communication of the ideas and emotions I was going for.

So I set out to develop new structures, new ways to present the material, and I am still developing. It is definitely a work in progress, and currently I am at the stage where I don’t like much of anything that is “completed.” So I have decided to let images sit for a time before I go back to them for editing or reconfiguring or trashing and starting over. But since I can’t quite let go of the project, I am using that “dead time” to write about it.

The lesson? Regardless of our medium (it is not such a big jump from photography to other arts), we must not confine ourselves. Yes, sometimes it is both comfortable and exciting to work within the confines of a given form, to find the limits or to find variants of those forms that might work better for certain subject matter. But sometimes even a complete reworking of old forms won’t do the job. Sometimes, the structure of the containers themselves must be different in order to reflect the uniqueness of the subject matter. Perhaps we may even want to consider new forms and structures every time we do a new project. New wine requires new bottles.

Category:Aesthetics, Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0)

Seizing Serendipity

Sunday, 5. October 2014 23:52 | Author:

Photographer/writer Kayla Chobotiuk begins her brief Juxtapozarticle, “’Salt’ by Emma Phillips” with the statement, “Sometimes the best subjects aren’t planned or scouted, but simply happen by chance.” Certainly some of the most fortuitous turns that a creative process can take happen mysteriously, seemingly “by chance.” But I rather think something else is happening.

A number of artists have commented on the idea that at least a part of their art comes from a god, or a muse, or inspiration, or a daemon, or some other supernatural being or higher power. Julia Cameron has said, “Creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control.” It is a theme that comes up repeatedly in her writing: “I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me. I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard.”

Regardless of what you think of Cameron, or of supernatural beings for that matter, there does seem to be, at least in the minds of many artists, a recognition of ideas appearing spontaneously and mysteriously from somewhere outside themselves. Many artists will talk about tapping into the universe when they are working.

The idea then becomes to develop a process that creates conditions that allow for the arrival of those new and sometimes surprising ideas. This arrival event is called serendipity. Defined as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for,”serendipity is sort of a “happy accident,” and is recognized in scientific discovery and business as well as art.

The accidental aspect of this theory troubles me a bit. It is difficult for a rational person to believe that many of the world’s greatest scientific discoveries, business advances, or works of art were the result of happy accidents. But if not some sort of accident or supernatural intervention, then what? My answer is the subconscious, and the ultimate process by which we get there is called flow (discussed previously here, here, here, and here).

Flow theory says that artists who are in flow are not even aware of themselves, resulting in ideas seeming to come from some mysterious otherwhere. Essentially, what happens is that in flow consciousness all but disappears, allowing the subconscious to take control in a way that it usually does not. In flow we can see relationships that elude us in an unaltered state. Possibilities emerge that in a normal, waking state would remain hidden. In other words, flow, or a flow-like state creates a state of mind that enhances creativity, that invites serendipity. The characteristics of flow are much the same as meditation, which also is said to aid in creativity.

Other methods seem to me to be rebranded expressions of flow, or methods of inducing flow. Indeed, Cameron’s exercises are designed to generate the conditions of flow so that creativity will “come.” And there are other ways to invite serendipity into our creative process: James Lawley and Penny Tompkins suggest in “Maximising Serendipity: The art of recognising and fostering unexpected potential – A Systematic Approach to Change” that through preparation one can “invite” serendipity and systematically take advantage of it. Whatever method we choose to prepare, the next steps are always the same, clearly diagrammed and explained by Lawley and Tompkins: recognize the potential of the unexpected and seize it!

What we find is that such events can lead our art to places that we would not have consciously thought to go, and will invariable make it better. It’s a little scary, so some would rather stay on their comfortable, preplanned course. Others, however, would say, “When the universe presents a gift, it would be very bad form not to accept.” I must agree.

Whatever path we take to get there, we must, as Lawley and Tompkins advise, learn to prepare, then to seize those opportunities when they present themselves—if our work is to be the best it can be.

Category:Creativity, Originality | Comment (0)

Art or Masturbation?

Monday, 22. September 2014 0:54 | Author:

If one is to believe Susie Hodge and Jackie Higgins, authors of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained and Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained, respectively, a significant portion of “modern” art is little more than artistic masturbation. These writers certainly do not say that; what they do say on page after page is that much recent art has been produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artists and those few who are knowledgeable enough to get the joke. Additionally, that art which is not meant to be an inside joke, does little more than make an obscure comment on the contemporary art world, or the medium, or the audience. Such comments are just another form self-referencing self-pleasure.

And the comments can be mean-spirited. One artist is said to create work “to satirize…the inflated esteem for traditional materials…to mock viewers for their acceptance without questioning…to ridicule artistic conventions and snobbery.” Now all of that may need doing, but when one reads it over and over and over again, it’s not just a single artist attacking the current state of art, it’s a trend. And on top of that, many times the artist’s intent is so inwardly-directed that it has to be explained.

The artistic inside joke, and art produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artist and a close circle of like-minded friends is not new. Remember Marcel Duchamp? However, Jed Perl in his review of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective makes the point that Duchamp, the “inventor” of the readymade, meant Fountain as personal and private joke—a comment on the art world certainly, but probably not intended for exhibition. That is a very different sort of thing from the gaggle of artists producing and showing work simply to be able to pleasure themselves with a sly giggle.

And what gives them pleasure is the self-reflexive, the inside-inside joke or comment: “photography that is about photography;” paintings and sculptures which are comments on the art world wherein they exist and nothing else; plays about doing plays; movies about making movies; books about writing books.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing or painting or photographing material that is self-reflexive. There is, however, at least in my mind, a problem when the work of art does not reflect or comment on its world in a way that a potential audience of non-insiders might understand, when it serves merely to entertain the maker and those three people who “get it.”

Certainly there are artists who are commenting on things outside the art business, but sometimes it seems that the ones who are making the money are the ones who are participating in the inside jokes. Perhaps because those who support the arts with their dollars want to be in on the joke, so whether they get it or not, they buy a couple of tickets, or a painting, or a piece of sculpture, thereby proving that they’re “in the know.”

Wanting to be in on the joke is a very different thing from actually appreciating or understanding a piece of art. As Perl points out, those who hail Koons as “the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art” likely do not “know what anti-art is all about.”

It seems to me that while inside-joke art is interesting, and even apropos of the current situation of the arts, it’s cheap. It’s masturbation. It enables the maker and his/her inner circle to be privately funny and sly and ironic at the expense of everyone else. And more often than not, it is the obvious joke, the easy joke that allows the artist to avoid dealing with a broader world, doing real work, using real imagination, making real art.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Presentation | Comment (0)

The Illusion of Simplicity

Monday, 8. September 2014 0:47 | Author:

This post started with the thesis that good art is complex, which often means has many layers or many interactive parts. Some who agree with this position will talk about how much they enjoy discovering the intricacies of a piece, which increases their appreciation of the work.

Then two things happened: (1) during a conversation with an actor about the difficulties of producing the musical, The Fantasticks, the actor said, “But it has to look simple.” I said, “Yes it does.” What I thought was, “It always should; it should look effortless.” (2) At a juried art show reception that same week, I found myself looking at a stunning black-and-white land/seascape of the Galveston estuary. Another photographer was telling me, “He [the photographer who made the image on the wall] has been moving toward minimalism for a couple of years now.” Minimalism had not figured into my theory concerning complexity as a necessary characteristic of quality art. These incidents taken together caused me to rethink the whole idea, resulting in a new question: If complexity is one of the marks of quality art, then how does one explain Minimalism and similar sorts of work?

The answer came with the realization that the word complexity can have two applications in reference to art. (1) It can be apparent complexity, as in a work with many facets and/or layers and parts that interact on many different levels. This is the sort of complexity you might find in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dali, or Jackson Pollock. (2) Complex can also be used to describe the process by which art is produced. American filmmakers, for example expend great effort to hide the artifice by which their work is created, opting instead—at least in most cases—for a story that is easily digested by the audience, allowing that audience to concentrate on the characters and the plot without having to be concerned with how difficult it was to create that seamless narrative.

And this second meaning of complex applies to some things we have already mentioned. We will work very hard to make not only The Fantasticks but any play, no matter how complex, look effortless, for much the same reason as the filmmakers. This is true of nearly any performing art; all seek to hide the difficulty of the task by employing the highest levels of expertise. Both performers and those behind the scenes do what they do with an apparent ease that belies the unending planning, training, preparation, and rehearsal.

Even though we think of them differently, visual and plastic arts are much the same. The photographer who made the piece mentioned above did not do so by simply setting up his camera in the grasslands and snapping the picture. If you are familiar with photography, you realize that this image was the result of a great deal of planning, better-than-competent execution, skilled post-processing, and expert printing, all so the result would be precise, clean, and minimal.

Whether it is a Buddhist raked rock garden or Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, the creation of such apparently simple things requires enormous imagination, planning, and expertise. But, just as in Hollywood films, the artifice is hidden.

So it turns out that good minimalist art, or any art that appears effortless or visually simple may not be simple at all; nor was it produced easily. The complexity and the effort are just hidden. If you’ve ever tried to this kind of work, you already know: simplicity is an illusion.

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Buddha Got It Wrong

Sunday, 24. August 2014 23:18 | Author:

Well, he got it wrong with regard to creating art, at least in my estimation. Two of the basic tenants of Buddhism are non-attachment and the middle way. Non-attachment is normally presented as essentially “holding the world at arms length slightly and looking askance at it.” This applies to pleasures as well as pain. The middle way is “a balanced approach to life and the regulation of one’s impulses and behavior” between “self-denial and self-indulgence.”

The last post suggested that passion is a requisite for making art. If that is true, then the artist could not be detached or distant. Rather, the artist must be invested in the act of creation or the results, even though technically perfect, are likely to be mediocre or worse.

For example, not long ago at notes for a play rehearsal in a production utilizing very young actors, I heard myself tell one of those young actors that he needed to “own” the cross that he took in a particular scene (We had already had the motivated/unmotivated cross discussion). His mental and emotional detachment from his movement made his work unbelievable. Actors must own, or at least appear to own, not only their movement, but their words and gestures as well.

And “own it” is what other artists must do too. No matter what our medium, we must invest ourselves in our art. We must connect with it and nurture it and love it and hate it and expend our passion on it. Otherwise, it is likely to be bland or mechanical and certainly less than it could be

So while the notion of non-attachment may be an excellent principle to live by and while it is very, very useful for an artist when the creative process is over—in the critique, showing, and selling stages, during the process of creation, it is a distinct liability. It keeps us from engaging with, investing in, and owning our work.

The middle way, avoiding extremes, is also a very useful way to approach life. And it is also useful after the creative process has come to an end. The middle way coupled with non-attachment can be a great help to us in withstanding criticism and rejection, which, unfortunately, seem to come with life as an artist.

However, while the artist embraces creativity and the artistic process, he/she may be lead into behaviors that are anything but balanced. Obsession or creative frenzy is necessary—at least for some artists. Many have commented on it. George Sand said, “The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession.” Barbara Streisand said, “I’ve been called many names like perfectionist, difficult and obsessive. I think it takes obsession for any artist to be good.” Obsession is the opposite of the middle way; rather it is an extreme single-minded self-immersion in the process of creation. Hazel Dooney has summarized, “Art can never be part of a balanced life. It only works if it’s a complete obsession.

So Buddha got it wrong? Certainly not with regard to life, but it does seem to be so with regard to creating art. Perhaps I do not fully understand the concepts of the middle way and non-attachment, or maybe I don’t fully understand creating art. But the more I think about it, the more difficulty I have in reconciling these notions with the intense attachment and extreme focus that it takes to make good art. Your thoughts?

Category:Creativity | Comments (4)

An Artist’s Passion

Monday, 11. August 2014 0:15 | Author:

Not long ago someone told me that she admired my passion. Passionate is not a word that I would normally use to describe myself. It seems a bit pretentious; I was pretty sure that passion was something that belonged to other people—probably those who spell art with a capital “A” or who view themselves as Romantic with a capital “R.” Now it’s true that I feel things deeply and believe things strongly, but I also believe in logic and reason and have a very practical nature as well—hardly passionate. But as we talked, I learned that what she meant was that I go all out when I’m interested in something. True. If that’s passion, then I guess I have it.

But if people have passion, what do they do with it? We read “follow your passion” in lots of places. It’s advice given by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Jim Carrey and any number of other artists. At the same time there are many who give contrary advice. Interestingly much of the contrary advice is given by people who have record of successfully following their own passions, but who then urge others to take a path they consider more practical. Additionally, it seems that they believe that if people follows their passions, they will fail to develop skills because they will simply rely on the passion alone, or they might burn out.

These arguments might be valid if that is what happened, but often it isn’t. What really happens is that when people are really passionate, they not only want to spend time on whatever it is that interests them, they work to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to further their development in that area. So they go to school, apprentice themselves to someone, take internships; in short, they do all they can to make themselves more proficient in the area of interest. And if the passion continues to live, they continue to develop and work—at increasingly higher levels.

The question of money also comes up in the writings of these naysayers. There is no question that money is necessary to survive, but to make art to get money is, according to almost every successful artist, exactly the wrong reason to do it. Artists who agree acknowledge that they are not willing do some of the things required to maximize income from their art. This may cause them to make fewer dollars than might otherwise. For example, Terry Border just announced publication of his new book in a blog post, and in that same post explained why he would not provide a link to the book, even though his not doing so cost him money. But making a little less does not necessarily mean that following one’s passion will lead straight to the poorhouse.

One way some finance their passion is by taking a day job (This has been discussed here before). There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach and much to recommend it. It will, however, will give a person less time to spend with that which interests them. For some, this price is not too high: they have sufficient income to live and sufficient time to devote to their real interests. Some are even lucky enough to find a related job, or at least one that is tolerable, which makes life that much better.

It’s difficult to see how any artist could survive without passion. As noted in the last post, “the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist.” An artist without passion is at best an artisan and at worst a fraud. So I’m with those who say, “Follow your passion.” My advice for those with passion is to let it loose, follow it, and develop skills and knowledge that help realize that passion. Fail occasionally; learn from that and succeed. Learn even more, and make the art that passion demands.

 

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