Making Art is Not for the Timid

Susan Holland, writing on Empty Easel advises artists to make paintings with “for sure” statements, not “sort of” paintings. By that she means paintings that “make a clear, unambiguous statement.”  What she says about painting applies to all arts, whether it is photography, acting, directing, dance, sculpture, or writing.

“But I love ambiguity,” you say. I do too. But the ambiguity that we love is in the material, not in the presentation of the material. So ideally we would present subject matter that is ambiguous rather than presenting subject matter in an ambiguous, wishy-washy manner. In the latter case, we would be, in the words of Holland, presenting work that “just doesn’t ‘pop.’” It may be “benign,” but it won’t “really say anything.” This is certainly not a situation we want to be in as artists.

If you are painting, or photographing, or directing, or acting, or writing a situation that is ambiguous, say so, and say so with conviction; hit the audience in the face with the ambiguity. Do not piddle around with it; that will only make it confusing for your audience. In fact, the ambiguity of the situation may be lost because of your inability to present it in a clear and robust manner.

In terms of presentation, the opposite of clear is not ambiguous, but timid. This is seen in almost every art, but it is particularly evident in acting. Many beginning actors do not understand the necessity of making firm choices, so their work tends to be tentative, lacking conviction, and not very interesting to watch. Once an actor makes a choice about his character and that character’s motivations and characteristics, his/her work immediately becomes more interesting, more watchable. Acting is not an art for the timid; actually, no art is an art for the timid if it is to be interesting, thought-provoking, or beautiful.

In my own work, whether it be stage work or photography, the work that really delivers, and thus the work that appeals most is work that is clear and clean—work that makes not only an unambiguous statement, but a strong statement. The impact of the work is stronger; the work is more interesting to the viewer; the meaning of the work is more available to the audience. It’s better work.

And if you look at the work of respected artists, you will find that in every case the work makes a definite statement, a strong statement. You may disagree with what a particular artist is saying, but there is no question that he/she is saying something definitive. The subject matter may be ambiguous, but it is presented clearly, boldly, even provocatively.

The question then is how do you do that? How do you move your work from “sort of” to definite, strong, meaningful? My first suggestion is the one that I give actors: make a choice. Don’t let your work wander around and sort of suggest something; make a choice and stick with it. You may have to change it if it doesn’t work, but making a choice will give you direction and lead you to do stronger, clearer, cleaner work.

Holland suggests that you look at your work with a critical eye and edit. Both of these things are necessary, but you have to be able to be able to separate yourself from your work in order to see it critically. In Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self, Don Hahn says that you have to “become completely detached, so that you can criticize and edit your own work.”

Additionally, Holland offers a list of concrete suggestions that an artist could use to make his/her paintings better. With a little imagination, you could modify her list to apply to almost any art.

So as you create, make strong choices, separate yourself and be critical of your own work, edit. Make strong definitive statements. You may be a shy person; many artists are, but you cannot let that carry over to your work. Making art—of any kind—is not for the timid.

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Date: Sunday, 31. July 2011 23:59
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Communication, Presentation

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2 comments

  1. 1

    This reminds me of something you told me a long time ago about doing “sentiment” on stage. You said if you’re going to do sentiment, don’t apologize for it. Just lay it out there on the stage. I’ve always remembered that and that’s what I aim for. Mostly, I believe I hit it. 🙂

  2. 2

    From your work that I have seen, I mostly believe that you hit it too.

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