Post from March, 2012

Great Art Requires Great Craft

Monday, 26. March 2012 0:04

It should be self-evident, but somehow it isn’t. If you want to be great artist, or even a good one, you must master the use of your tools. You must develop the humble craft side of your art as well as lofty artistic side. It’s the part that no one wants to do. Hardly anyone wants to spend hours drawing body parts, or painting still lifes, or learning the intricacies of photo processing software, or doing acting or dance exercises, or singing scales. But it’s necessary.

Often beginning actors want to perform significant plays before they learn to analyze character, visual artists want to paint collectable images before they learn to draw, dancers want to dance Giselle before they can successfully execute a pirouette, photographers want to win a national photography award before they master all the controls on their digital cameras. The fact is that doing all those exercises that build craft is simply unappealing—it’s work, and sometimes unpleasant work.

But regardless of the appeal or lack of it, mastering craft is necessary; it is the base upon which art is built. When you examine the work of acknowledged masters, regardless of the medium in which they excel, one of the things that literally jumps at you is the obvious mastery of the medium. This has nothing to do with the ideas or emotions they manage to incorporate into their work, and everything to do with having put in the time and effort to learn what the medium can and cannot do, and how best to manipulate it in order to say what they need to say.

The impetus for the rush to bypass craft seems to be the desire for instant celebrity. Because there are some very young, relatively inexperienced people who are successful in some arts, less-experienced artists have come to believe that there are shortcuts that will make them famous faster.

It does seem, however, that this instant fame occurs less frequently in arts that require significant investment on the part of their audiences, e.g. reading a novel or contemplating serious visual and plastic art or watching live theatre. I want to read novels by writers who not only have something to say, but know how to tell a story and how to make a metaphor. If I am going to pay $120 for a theatre seat, I want someone with the acting chops of a Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Willie Loman, not someone who has been catapulted to pop fame because of an outstanding profile and someone else’s skilled direction and editing.

And to obtain those chops in acting or any other the art, you have to build up a set of skills. You have to know how to handle your medium. And, unfortunately, development of skill requires time—time to make mistakes, time to let your voice and body mature, time to experiment with various aspects and various approaches, time to practice. That’s the way artists learn. Because it’s not just what’s in the imagination, it’s what you do with that imagination and how you present it to the world that matters.

Yes, mastering a craft can be tedious. It can seem endless, and it can seem difficult, but it is necessary. If you are to make the art of which you are capable, if you are to make something of worth, you must not only be creative, but you must have a means for presenting those ideas and feelings to the world. To try to do so with a skill level less than mastery is to do a disservice to yourself and your art.

 

 

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Want to Do Better Art? Develop Discipline

Sunday, 18. March 2012 22:52

No matter how much imagination and creativity and talent you have, it’s of little use unless it is applied. And often the application requires something that many in the arts tend to avoid: discipline. From experience I know that discipline is a trait lacking in many theatre arts students, and I can think of no reason that students of any other art would be different. These students, like most of us, get into the arts because it satisfies a felt need, or we have talent, or we find it really appealing. Then to succeed, we have to figure out how to take it to the next level, and the level after that, and the level after that.

And that takes imagination. It also takes discipline. This is an idea that comes up again and again when artists talk about what it takes to make art. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner says:

There is a romantic notion to writing a novel, especially when you are starting it. You are embarking on this incredibly exciting journey, and you’re going to write your first novel, you’re going to write a book. Until you’re about 50 pages into it, and that romance wears off, and then you’re left with a very stark reality of having to write the rest of this thing. […] A lot of 50-page unfinished novels are sitting in a lot of drawers across this country. Well, what it takes at that point is discipline … You have to be more stubborn than the manuscript, and you have to punch in and punch out every day, regardless of whether it’s going well, regardless of whether it’s going badly. […] It’s largely an act of perseverance […] The story really wants to defeat you, and you just have to be more mulish than the story.

A number of artists have commented on the relationship between discipline and inspiration. Douglas Eby in a post on “The Creative Mind” quotes Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love in a TED talk, “Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it. If your job is to dance, then do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius [muse] assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment for your efforts, then Ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow. Ole to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

Notice that Gilbert is not just talking about writing, but about any art. Painter and photographer Chuck Close advises:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

To paraphrase Seth Godin, the first rule of doing work that matters, no matter what it is, is to “go to work on a regular basis.” To be brilliant, we must not only go to extremes with our imaginations, we must do so on a regular basis. Discipline is also a requirement.

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To Create Brilliant Art, Push Your Imagination to Extremes

Sunday, 11. March 2012 23:51

A friend of mine recently went to see a show in which there was an actor with only five lines. But, she said, his performance was so intense and interesting that she bought another ticket and came back to another performance just to watch him. She described his work as “brilliant.” Some who heard her description of the actor’s performance thought that he had gone to extremes. The same week, I attended a performance which was essentially an exercise in missed opportunities, both in terms of acting and directing. No one connected with the production had gone to extremes.

What compelled my friend’s interest and was lacking in the performance I attended was not just the interpretation of the characters, but the originality and imagination that the actors brought to the roles they were playing. It’s the difference between being competent and being amazing.

This is not so much about a lack of creativity, but rather about an unwillingness or inability on the part of artists to allow themselves to venture into the risky areas of imagination. And this is not just an issue in theatre. In all the arts we find a sort of “this is enough” mentality with regard to creativity. The art reaches an “acceptable” level of imagination and inventiveness and we call it finished.  The result is that much art looks and sounds alike, whether it is acting, directing, painting, photography, or writing.

We have a tendency to work in our creative comfort zone, producing art that will please, and maybe even delight, our respective audiences. Within our comfortable framework we generate work that is clever and innovative. Photographer David LaChapelle says, however, “There’s always clever art being made and there’s always something novel being made and I don’t think that’s enough anymore.

If we are, in fact, artists and not merely artifact production units, we must agree with LaChapelle. Competency, cleverness, and novelty are not enough. We must always be reaching for the metaphor, the image, the idea, the detail, the technique that will move our work from good to outstanding. We must not be satisfied with just producing work that our audience will like and perhaps appreciate; we need to think about taking those extra steps, those risks, that will allow us to create art that is, like the actor’s work mentioned in the first paragraph, so intense and interesting and compelling that our audience wants to experience it again and again.

We must create art that is not just attractive or poignant or meaningful but is strikingly so. Those of us who work in the arts cannot allow ourselves to become complacent, doing what we know works. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, we must be willing to stretch our imaginations to discover new possibilities.  Those of us who teach in the arts must challenge our students to reach for more, to explore their imaginations to the fullest and apply that exploration to their creations.

To be brilliant, we must dare to go to extremes with our imaginations. This striving to expand the limits of our imaginations is not just something that we aspire to, it is a requirement.

Category:Audience, Creativity | Comments (2) | Author:

Improve Your Chances in Juried Contests

Monday, 5. March 2012 0:27

Most of us have, at one time or other, entered a juried show or contest. Many times this results in disappointment because we see these shows as wide-open opportunities to have our work viewed by a large number of people who wouldn’t ordinarily see it, and we don’t think at all about the jury process.

Recently, however, I had the opportunity to look at such contests from a very different viewpoint. I was invited to be a juror at a district high school arts competition. The result was the awarding of prizes and the transporting of the top four pieces in each category to a state-level competition.

In attempting to prepare for this new endeavor I spoke with others who had already been jurors in other shows. One talked about the necessity to create the best show possible. This was not the case for me, since the goal was not to create a show as such, but rather to evaluate.

Another artist with whom I spoke talked about some juror’s demands that works exhibit certain qualities, for example, that it tell a clear story or possess some other “must.” Of course, my ideas about what constitutes good art cannot but govern my choices, and while I have very definite opinions in that area, I like to believe that my approach is more inclusive than exclusive.

In this particular instance, there were four jurors of varied genders, ages, and backgrounds.  Presumably we all had slightly different criteria; the subject was not discussed. If any had specific agendas, they were well hidden. Each category was to be evaluated by at least two people. We were to evaluate and rank the top six pieces in each category.

The first task was to separate the keepers from the others. Selections were made without consultation and then the results compared. Interestingly, in many cases the decisions were unanimous.

Once the best pieces were selected, they were ranked. The questions were seldom about which pieces were to be included, but were about which of two ranks they should receive. When there was a difference of opinion, the cases were discussed. Each juror listened to the others, evaluated their reasoning, and then came to a decision.

In this particular instance, it was all about the art—which work was best and sometimes why. This may not be representative, but I suspect that most multi-juror situations work in the same fashion. The jurors are trying to select the best pieces in the most efficient manner, given what they have to work with.

Before anyone screams about this not being a “real” juried contest because it was a secondary school contest, let me assert that to these students, it was a very real contest. Influence on college entry and scholarships were on the line, not to mention that, as many of us know, winning an award at this level can help make or unmake a career path. Let me also assure you that there was in this show some very good art. There was much that was not so good; some we disqualified. But the outstanding pieces were not just outstanding for the level of work; they were good art.

Being inside the juried show gave me quite a different perspective than I had had before; this plus the advice given me by other jurors has resulted in some suggestions for those about to enter juried shows and contests. A bit of attention to the details can make a huge difference in how you fare in such situations.

  • Determine if there is a theme. If your work doesn’t fit the theme, or can’t be stretched to fit the theme, save your money.
  • Follow all the rules; it is easy to disqualify a piece.
  • Attempt to discover whether the goal of the juror will be to put together a curated show, or to discover the best pieces in each category. These two goals can result in very different results.
  • Learn the number of jurors. A larger number will work in your favor since there is more chance that they will cancel out each other’s biases.
  • Research the juror(s). Discover if he/she is predisposed to one medium either by preference or by training. Find out if he/she has publicly stated requirements for “good” art. If your work does not “fit” on either of these areas, you might want to reconsider.
  • Discover, if you can, the judging criteria. These very often are not published, or if they are, are incomplete.
  • Be mindful, that—unless you know the juror or your work is identifiable—it’s not personal. But there may be agendas and biases of which you are not aware.
  • Treat juried shows like any other venue. Judge your cost and potential rewards and make your best decision.

And good luck!

 

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

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