Post from December, 2011

We Can Do Better: The Need for a Fresh Approach

Monday, 26. December 2011 0:29

Well, the Ovation Channel was at it again. Evidently their “Battle of the Nutcrackers” is an annual event; those who watched have had the opportunity to see five different versions of the seasonal ballet again this year and vote on their favorite.

Although I have written about this television event before, it is still a very interesting thing to watch five different interpretations of the same basic story, told to (mostly) the same music.  What struck me this year, however, was the effort that the director/choreographers put into making their work fresh and new.

We all know of recurrent productions, be they plays, musical performances, or ballets that simply repeat every year what has been done by that particular producing organization before. It’s much like they know there is a market for the seasonal production, but somehow they can’t put their hearts into it—after all, they’ve done it and done it and done it before. We also know of directors and choreographers who, instead of doing what is required to bring a new vision to the stage, will attempt to reproduce other productions or movies of the work they are staging.

Not so with those who produced these world-class versions of the famous ballet. Productions ranged from the traditional to the surreal to a complete restructuring of the story and the characters.  Each is remarkable in its own way, and each fresh and new in some way. And each seems to be aimed at a different audience. It does not seem to matter that the directors have done the show before; this time it’s different and new and important that it be that.

Certainly, I do not want to tackle the question of which one was the best. That, after all, is the point of the “competition,” with the audience favorite having been aired in prime time on Christmas Eve. But some departures are worthy of note. One is British director/choreographer Matthew Bourne’s version. To say that Bourne has reimagined the Nutcracker is a gross understatement. His version retains the plot and a few of the characters, but the rest is completely new and different. Of course, Bourne has the habit of reimagining almost all of the traditional pieces that he directs. And there are other innovators: Mikhail Chemiakinâ’s surrealistic approach is  a “darker and more adult retelling” of the familiar story, produced at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. And then there is the version by Patrice Bart, set during the Russian Revolution, which, again, is a significant reimagining of an old story.

The point, of course, is that each of these artists works to make his work his own.  Moreover, these director/choreographers do not rely on what has gone before, or the interpretations of others. These works, although retaining identifiable parts of the traditional story, are fresh departures, new ways of telling that story, and aimed at a particular audience. These artists are following Ezra Pound’s injunction, “Make it new.” We would do well to do likewise. And although I have written on this topic before, it is a topic that deserves to be discussed repeatedly for those interested in art and creativity.

Regardless of the medium in which we work, we could learn a lot from these experts in staging ballet. We might step out of our comfort zone, let our imaginations run, and follow where they lead. We might consider our audience, or rather, a different audience or segment of audience.  We might find that stepping into the scary world of the unknown is just what our art needs. If all we do is repeat our past successes (or someone else’s), we cease to be artists and become artifact- or performance-producing mechanics. We can do better.


Category:Audience, Creativity, Originality | Comments (3) | Author:

It’s All About the Money…Or Is It?

Monday, 19. December 2011 0:23

It’s That Time of Year when there is much public discussion of materialism. Interestingly, this year the discussion takes place during the same time frame as a show in Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi called “Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli, and the Bonfire of the Vanities,” which “explores the links between that unique interweave of high finance, economy and art, and the religious and political upheavals of the time.” The opening of this show about the connection between banking and Renaissance art was followed by a “a private conference on the future of art and finance” and numerous articles on the show and both the historical and contemporary interconnections between art and money.

Although the connections between art and money may not be fully understood, almost everyone in the arts is aware of some link. The patronage system that was developed during the Renaissance is still alive and well, if not in the form of direct sponsorship, in the form of scholarships and grants to both individual artists and arts organizations. Basically, money keeps the art world going, and big money keeps big art going.

This is true even of individual sales to collectors and is seen in both the primary and secondary art market. Daniel Grant says that art and money are now so intertwined that price has come to substitute for quality.  He goes on to say that the emphasis on sales coupled with a “lack of any consensus about aesthetics or standards of taste” has resulted in a new definition of art: “Art is whatever someone puts down money for and says ‘This is art.’ The corollary of this is that quality is identifiable only in terms of the sums spent.” Jed Perl goes further to say that “culture is now in retreat before the brute force of money.”

For those interested in the topic, the tangle of art-as-commodity and money is fully explored in Robert Hughes’ International Emmy-winning The Mona Lisa Curse. This documentary, which is very difficult to find, is summarized on “Art for a Change.”

Because the current measure of artistic quality is money and because of the enormous sums currently being paid for the most-in-demand art, a number of artists have begun to network and hustle and promote themselves. The result is group of artists who have developed larger-than-life personas in order to generate larger-than-life incomes. They have become celebrities. It is quite common to read about these “art stars,” almost as if they were performers. Perhaps they are.

The attitude of this new breed of artist is much that of a salesman or marketer rather than that of the traditional artist. This approach is summed up by one of the most notorious of the current “art stars,” Damien Hirst: “You also have to ask yourself as an artist, ‘What would be more appealing … to have made the Mona Lisa painting itself or have made the merchandising possibilities — putting a postcard on everyone’s walls all over the world? Both are brilliant, but in a way I would probably prefer the postcards — just to get my art out there.’” Somehow, in Hirst’s case, it doesn’t seem to be about just getting his work out there, but about being paid very well for it—about, as he says, “merchandising possibilities.”

One would hope that art is about more than merchandising possibilities. We will never disentangle money and art. I’m not sure that we should even try. But we can resolve to use standards other than price to evaluate art. And maybe, at this time of year, we might remind ourselves that, at least for some of us, it’s not just about the money.

And, if you happen to be in Florence before January 22, 2012, you might drop in and see two curators’ take on how it all started.

Category:Aesthetics, Criticism, Marketing | Comment (0) | Author:

Less than Successful as an Artist? Consider Reducing your Output

Monday, 12. December 2011 1:38

As you may know, there is currently a glut of advice to artists. It doesn’t matter what sort of artist you are, or what medium you work in, advice is abundant and easily found. Some advisors want to charge you for their words of wisdom; others will happily give you their opinion for free. Almost all of the advice out there boils down to one thing: be prolific; produce and then produce some more. This is always followed by sales advice, which is a whole subject unto itself. Lately, however, I have come across suggestions that perhaps high-volume output may not be exactly what we need to be doing.

This is not to suggest that you can become an expert in any less than the 10,000 hours that studies suggest are required to gain expertise in any field. But it is to suggest that in order to be successful, or influential, or even famous, you do not necessarily have to produce a new piece of art every week. Real art takes time, and often requires repeated tries to get it right. And unless you are a hack, my guess is what you want to put out into the world is work that is right, or as close to right as you can get it.

And I am serious about the successful, influential or famous part. Consider, for example, that Dutch painter Jan Vermeer produced less than 40 canvases during his lifetime, or that award-winning poet Grace Paley produced only three books in her thirty-year career, all three of which were critical successes. Robert M. Pirsig has written exactly two books, at least one of which may be the one of the most influential philosophical writings of the twentieth century.  Harper Lee produced a single book: To Kill a Mockingbird. Even Leonardo da Vinci completed “only about 15 paintings in his whole lifetime.”

There are a number of reasons for this level of output. Some artists may have said what they have to say and feel that to keep making unsubstantial work is a waste of time and energy. Some are involved in other equally important activities. Such was the case with Grace Paley: “Part of the reason she had such a small output is that she was busy with other things , not just raising kids but working as a peace activist.”

Sometimes it’s the nature of the work. Daniel Grant in his article “The Art World’s Slowpokes” lists seven contemporary artists with relatively small annual output: William Beckman, Barbara Dixon Drewa, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, Candace Jans, Scott Pryor, Douglas Safranek. All of these artists are photorealistic painters, an art which require painstakingly detailed painting, which, of course takes enormous amounts of time.

Christina Patterson says that, based on his writing in his notebooks, Leonardo “thought, like all great artists, that nothing he did was ever good enough. He knew that people who thought their work was good enough were nearly always wrong.”

So it’s a matter of quality and judging what is good enough to show other people, at least according to Leonardo. It’s a novel concept in an era when every image that a photographer produces and every painting that an artist makes appears instantly on Tumblr, or whatever the current “in” website is. And if we’re so busy producing that we lose sight of quality, maybe it’s time we reevaluate. Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Maybe that’s something that we should all think about.



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Creative Advice from Spoken Word Poet Sarah Kay

Monday, 5. December 2011 0:08

The Domino Project, founded by Seth Godin, is about reimagining publishing in the twenty-first century.  Last week under the title Why publish poetry? The Domino Project introduced Sarah Kay to those of us who hadn’t heard of her.  Living up to the idea of using new media to spread ideas, the posting included a YouTube video of Sarah Kay at TED, where she earned not one but two standing ovations. Her presentation was a demonstration of her first love, spoken word poetry, followed by a talk about making spoken word poetry.

Kay, it turns out, is not only a remarkable poet, but has taken it as her mission to teach and encourage others to make spoken word poetry. The majority of her presentation was about this aspect of her career. As I listened to her, I realized that what she was saying not only applied to spoken word poetry, but to any creative undertaking, irrespective of the medium. And it is valuable advice—probably as important as her poetry.

Kay notes that her poems are for her a way of learning and “figuring things out;” I think this approach to creating may be true of a number of artists. She says that artists should bring all they know to bear on the project at hand, “gathering up all the knowledge and experience you’ve collected up to now to help you dive into the things you don’t know.” Of herself, she says, “I show up to each new poem with a backpack full of everywhere else I’ve been.”

A second thing that Kay teaches is how to get to the poem. She uses a list-making exercise as a springboard for creativity. This exercise often takes the form, “list of 10 things you know to be true” or, in one case, “list of 10 things you should have learned by now.” One has the feeling that she has hundreds of list possibilities. In any case, the lists can be compared to the lists of others, or simply used as a way to discover an interesting story or idea, which in this case, can result in an interesting poem, or for those of us who are not poets (yet), an interesting painting or play or photograph or dance or sculpture or novel. It is truly an inspired creative tool, even for those who, like one of Kay’s students, think they don’t have anything interesting to say.

Another thing that Kay believes and tries to pass along to others is her belief that each artist is unique. “I’m trying to tell stories only I can tell.”  Then she combines the ideas of utilizing things you know to be true and allowing yourself to be unique. She says this of one of her students, Charlotte: “By putting the things she knows to be true into the work she’s doing, she can created poems that only Charlotte can write.”

All you have to do is take that statement, change the pronouns to “I,” change “poems” to whatever your art is, plug in your name instead of Charlotte’s, and you have a mantra that you can live by, at least artistically speaking.

Kay’s last piece of advice for artists is one that we have all heard before: “grow and explore and take risks.” But you have the feeling that when Kay says it, she not only means it, she lives by it. Perhaps we too can use her words to guide our artistic lives.



Category:Creativity, Originality | Comment (0) | Author: