Post from July, 2012

Self-Knowledge: An Artistic Necessity

Sunday, 29. July 2012 22:03

In the middle of last week, one of my favorite ex-students came by to visit. An actor, she is currently in a show locally and wanted to give me a comp, which I happily accepted. And, of course, we talked—well, mostly she talked. But she always has really interesting things to say, which are usually about her journey as a theatre artist. She was pleased to report that she had finally found out what she needs from a director. At the same time, she acknowledged that she knows that she won’t always get it; however, simply knowing allows her to ask the right questions. It also allows her to become less frustrated when she doesn’t get what she needs, because she is now aware of the source of the frustration.

Two days later, I sat down to watch, via DVR, the season premiere of Project Runway only to hear Gunnar Deatherage say that the reason he was among those cut in the first episode of the last season was that he didn’t know who he was. He made reference to this idea several times, at one point changing the statement slightly to say that last year he didn’t know who he was as a designer. Another time he said that he knew who he was now. Regardless of what you think of Deatherage, his comments are important.

What is significant in both cases is the recognition of the importance of self-knowledge. We in the creative universe often talk about what we need to know—our media, our equipment, our message, our tribe, our potential clients, our business plans. We often hear ideas that hit close to the need for self-knowledge without actually saying it: “know what you are comfortable with,” “know where you fit into the market,” “know what is required of you,” “find your direction.” Very seldom do we hear this most basic and necessary of advice: know yourself. What better advice could there be for anyone in the arts?

Many people have no idea who they are. Some have never considered the question, while some have gone to great expense and trouble to “find themselves.” I am one who does not necessarily believe in finding yourself, but I am a great believer in learning yourself, finding out who you are. If you have no idea who you are, what you are about, how can you possibly hope to produce a coherent body of creative work? You are lacking a basis for your art.

But the self is not something that we can come to know once and never have to look at again. The self can be as dynamic or static as our emotions and intellect, but regardless of how fast if might be changing, a fairly stable core develops, and that is the part we need to get to know first and best.

Then we can and must look at the changes. These changes can modify our creative work. And sometimes, our creative work can change us. Once we develop some self-knowledge, we can then begin to sense when we are changing, what those changes are, and how they might impact the work that we do.

That we can only know our conscious mind should not suggest that only our conscious mind is involved in artistic creation. No matter what we do or do not know about ourselves, our work will still come from the same areas of the brain as always— the unconscious/subconscious as well as the conscious parts. However, with more self-knowledge, we may better be able to focus and direct the conscious part of our creative process so that our work better reflects both us and our message. Those who know who they are, at least as artists have, like this season’s Gunnar Deatherage, a point of view. They are no longer working only from the need to create, but from the additional need to say something, to express something, and they know what that something is. With self-knowledge comes direction.

And, armed with that self-knowledge, we, like the actor mentioned earlier, are in a much better position to decide what questions to ask, to determine what input we need to fuel our best output. Like her, we may not always get the answers we want or the input we need, but we will at least now know where to look.

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The Artistic Value of Networking — Yes, There Is One

Monday, 23. July 2012 0:04

One afternoon when I was in graduate school, we had a big deal guest lecturer, as was demonstrated by the suspension of all theatre classes so the entire department could go hear this person. At that time, I was not very knowledgeable about directors, particularly those from England, so his name did not register, and I could not tell you today who the celebrated director was. But I went and observed that this man was enjoying playing the role of British Artiste. And why not? But I listened, and what he said has stayed with me.

His thesis was that the stage director is like a magpie. I did not know that the European magpie is “considered one of the most intelligent of all animals,” and I knew nothing of the folk tale that the bird is a bit of a thief, picking up this shiny thing here and that trinket there and taking them home to decorate his/her nest. The guest speaker went on to explain how the resourceful director would take a bit from something he/she read, something from a play or movie that he/she had seen, something from a conversation with an actor. The director would then use these bits and pieces to modify and decorate, if not fabricate, his/her production.

What this director described was not so much stealing whole ideas or approaches, but rather a gathering of a pinch of something here and at smidgen of something else there and then using it along with original ideas, sometimes unconsciously. Such an approach is a long way from the “theft” I have discussed a couple of times: here and here, or, as some would have it, “homage.” Such blatant activity is attributed to film director Brian De Palma, who, interestingly, is described with the same simile: “Like a magpie, De Palma would take a camera angle from here, a plot idea from there, and weave them together into his own cinematic nest.

It seems to me that most artists do something similar: we take an idea from a conversation with a colleague, a concept from something we have seen, an image or metaphor obtained from someone else we meet at a party. Then, if we are at all original, we add these notions to our own—sometimes subconsciously—and bring forth a new idea, something we might not have conceived otherwise. Then we turn that idea into reality. And sometimes, a single work will suggest a series, and we are really able to capitalize on this new idea.

This happened to me just this week. It was an unusual week in that I went to three openings. These were very different events. One was a one-person show at a community college; one was a group show at of diverse artists in a converted warehouse, and one was a group show of emerging young artists at a storefront gallery in a trendy neighborhood. And the art involved was as different as the locations. But somehow sights and sounds and little bits of conversations at the three locations resonated and coalesced with a possibility that had not resonated before and which was suggested by a colleague some time ago, and there was a brand new idea—not quite the same idea that had been suggested, but literally a connecting of pieces to construct a new possibility, which, before the weekend was over, had turned into, not quite a series, but a diptych.

And the experience of putting the diptych together spawned other ideas, so there may be a real, if vaguely-connected, series that comes out of these experiences.

So it turns out that networking, which many of us have a tendency to avoid, can be about things other than making connections with other people and moving the business side of your art forward (not that that’s a bad thing). It can be about gathering bits and pieces and arranging them in your mind with a touch of imagination and creating something brand new. It is decidedly worth your time.

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Want to Make Your Best Art? Trust the Process

Monday, 16. July 2012 0:20

Last month at a group show, I was discussing the process by which I produce the pieces in my latest project, Grids, with a painter whose work was hanging on an adjacent wall. I was explaining that sometimes the work itself seemed to demand that I modify my plan and the piece changes direction. He said that the same thing happened with him, that he would start painting with a very firm idea of what he wanted the painting to be, and then “the paint has a different idea” and would lead him in a new direction.

This is hardly a unique phenomenon. For example, Francis Bacon has said, “In my case all painting… is an accident. I foresee it and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do.Robert Motherwell says it a little more succinctly: “In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.”

I have written about the accidental in art before—a couple of times (here and here), but this is not quite the same thing. This is more that the work itself takes over and guides the creative process. That sounds very strange when put into words, but it is very much what happens, or what seems to happen. What really happens, I suspect, is that the artist drifts into flow, and the unconscious/subconscious begins to influence the work more and more.

How this works is anybody’s guess. Bacon says that you don’t have to know how you do it; you have to know what you do. This is not to suggest that all you have to do is pick up a brush or a camera or a pen and get yourself into the right frame of mind and art will happen. You do, as Bacon says, have to know something about what you are doing. It happens in fields outside the arts as well; according to Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” And while I don’ think we are really talking about chance at all, I do agree with his sentiment.

And it happens in the written arts well. Best-selling author B. J. Daniels is one of many novelists who talk about the characters taking over the story. Writer Cora Vasseur says, “I just get to sit there and be a medium. I get to discover the story like the reader.” And after that, of course, comes the editing, when the writer reasserts him/herself. The same thing happens in non-narrative writing. For example, I begin every post going very resolutely in a specific direction, but by the time I have put some words together and gathered some quotations, the focus has shifted a bit and is now going somewhere different from the path along which I started.

Sculptor Lynda Benglis probably sums it up best when she says, “Actually it’s really a marriage between the conscious and the unconscious that occupies the creative mind. I find what the materials can do and within that context there is that decision-making… the artist is always dealing with the bounds of the material and the unbounded nature of the universe and of the imagination — and trying to mark the time. Whether you comprehend it or not, you don’t understand it all.”

Understanding is not necessary. Trusting your unconscious and conscious and your knowledge of the medium to come together is. And it can be a process of discovery—discovery of how the colors and textures best work together, of how the shapes relate, of how the words and ideas should be arranged, of how the chords progress and resolve, of how the pieces of what you are doing really should fit together to produce your best work.

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Actors and Salaries and Art, Oh My!

Monday, 9. July 2012 0:11

A headline attributed to Forbes appeared not long ago in my news reader summary: “Kristen Stewart’s Lavish Pay A Sign That Nobody In Hollywood Knows Anything.” It turned out that the headline belongs to an op/ed piece by Kyle Smith, a Forbes contributor. Smith’s position seems to be that Stewart, who topped the current Forbes Highest Paid Actresses List, earning $34.5 million, did not make a significant contribution to the films she was in. Smith cannot find connections between the high incomes of major movie stars and the number or earning power of the films in which they appear. Nor does he see any connection with branding of the films.

Anyone who has studied film should understand that movie-stardom and the quality level of film are not really related. Movie-stardom is about a relationship between a movie person and his/her audience. It has very little to do with acting ability, profitability, or anything other than celebrity. Sometimes, movie makers can cash in on that popularity and utilize it for marketing (Historically, it has been used as an aid to market stability); sometimes not.

Smith also seems to miss at least one point that Forbes staffer, Dorothy Pomerantz, in a business news article, “Kristen Stewart Tops Our List Of The Highest-Paid Actresses,” makes quite convincingly. Stewart is in demand; fans would allow nobody else to play Bella Swan in any of the latter Twilight films. Thus, she (and her co-stars) could command a significant salary and a percentage of the profits. And why would the studios not pay? Hollywood, after all, is (and has always been) about the money, and if the producers want the movie to make more money, they will give the potential customers what they want, and if what the customers want is the actors they are used to seeing, regardless of the level of talent or skill, then they are who appear on the screen. And that same fan base justifies a higher salary for these actors in other movies.

Putting any actor in any role is a gamble into which many factors play. As far as I can determine (without digging too far), at least nine other actresses were considered for Stewart’s role in Snow White and the Huntsman. Replacing any actor playing any character can and does change the nature of the film. The choice of Stewart, and her accompanying higher price tag, was not a chance thing done for no reason.

Another thing that is evident is that the money paid a person working on a film is not automatically related to “crafting a story.” Money in American film is allocated not in a way that will necessarily contribute to artistic improvement, but in a way that will make more money. One reader of Smith’s article points out that Forbes also nominated Stewart as one of the most profitable/bankable stars of 2011 because “she was netting an estimated $56 for every dollar she was paid.” That is a pretty good return on investment according to almost anybody’s way of thinking.

Aside from finances, there are a number of considerations in putting a film together, artistic considerations being only one. Creative projects, as any of us in the arts know, tend to take on a life of their own. Once you are committed to the project, we will do almost anything to bring it to life. In the case of movies, this involves many compromises and much collaboration. And it includes scheduling: is this actor available when we want to shoot? Do we modify the schedule? Do we find another actor? Will these actors working together make the project better or worse? Should we pay more for this person, material, location, or less for that person, material, location?  What is the nature and availability of our funding? What is our window of opportunity? How will modifications impact audience acceptance? How much are we willing to compromise? What about the project is really important? How badly do we want to do it?

In the end, what becomes important is completing the project, realizing our vision. And we do what we have to do to make that happen, whether we are collaborating with others to produce a multi-million dollar movie, a stage play, a concert, an art show, or working individually to produce a photograph, painting or sculpture.


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Arts and Money, Another Perspective

Monday, 2. July 2012 1:26

Several weeks ago Lightsey Darst wrote a three-part essay called “The Poorest Art: Dance and Money,” which details just how poorly supported dance is in the US, and explores some of what that means. Anyone who has worked in the performing arts knows how hard dancers work and how short their professional lives can be—much like a professional athlete without the perks and the money.

Then just recently, I heard that a regional art center near me was closing its doors because they could no longer afford the rent. Shortly after hearing this rumor, I received an email from the curator explaining that the board of directors had “made a decision to move forward with a new vision” and that they were “right-sizing” the organization. While I recognized this as spin, I was very happy to see that they decided continue to bring art to the community, albeit in a very different format.

These events seemed to bring into focus the sad state of arts support in parts of the US. But then the same month, I participated in a group show that set a record for sales. Then I was reminded there were other records being set by arts auction houses in the past year, and, although I have discussed the high-end art/money interconnection before, more pieces are selling than just the works of recognized “masters.” Jocelyn Noveck, an AP writer, has reported that in some places ballet has hit a high point in pop culture and shows are selling out.

So which is it? Are the arts in terrible shape, completely unsupported by the public or are arts seeing a resurgence, with a great deal of financial support? The answer is, of course, both. Sometimes, you can see both phenomena in the same place, like New York professional theatre. AP writer, Mark Kennedy reports that “God is having a tough month on Broadway – ‘Godspell’ is closing, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is on life support and now comes word that ‘Sister Act’ is going to theatrical heaven. [sic]” Yet, at the same time, Book of the Mormon is still selling 102.63% capacity  in the same environment (although I’ve never been quite sure how they do that).

It just depends on where you look. Not having statistics, it is difficult to determine if the overall financial support for the arts is up or down, or just moving around. An article by Lucas Kavner in The Huffington Post reports that the “fourth edition of ‘Arts & Economic Properity’ reveals that the [arts] industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity,” which causes Robert L. Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts, to conclude that “the arts remain ‘open for business.’ People are clearly still going to arts events.”

It seems that at the same time that contemporary society devalues one art or one company or one gallery or one artist, it embraces another. And while I sympathize with the dancers in Darst’s articles, I have the same sympathy for any artist who feels devalued because society is moving in a direction different from where he/she stands, or popular culture is interested in something else at this particular moment in time. No matter what the ideal might be, the fact is that the arts in the US in the twenty-first century exist in a market economy, subject to the same fluctuations and forces as any market economy. We need to remember that it’s not personal; it’s just the way the market is moving at this particular moment in time. We are just caught in whatever trend is occurring this decade or year or month. And in the long run that may be a good thing, not necessarily for the individual, but for art in general. That arts organization near me may thrive in its newly “right-sized” form and have far more impact that it would have done in its earlier incarnation.

Most of us did not get into the arts for money, and while money is certainly desirable, some of us will stay in the arts whether or not we are paid well. We have to.

And artists are, for the most part, supportive of each other, and I certainly would not change that. We must continue that support each other. Like the artist I mentioned two weeks ago, if we cannot sell our own art, then let’s sell somebody’s—let’s just be sure that somebody’s art gets sold.

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