Post from September, 2012

Let Your Art Ideas Ferment

Sunday, 30. September 2012 23:18

Last week I suggested that we might adjust our working procedures in order to get work done to meet a deadline. It seems only fair that I suggest at least one way to do that. My suggestion is to let our creative ideas simmer while we are doing other things, even if the other thing is making a different piece of art.

This idea is certainly not unique to me. Many writers have suggested that the way to deal a difficult problem, creative or not, is to put it in the back of your mind and go wash the dishes, or do anything except dwell on the problem. Then when you sit back down with the problem, miraculously, you have at least one new idea if not a complete solution.

Actually this is not miraculous at all. What happens, of course, or at least what people who study such things think happens, is that our subconscious continues to work on the problem, and does a better job because it is unimpeded by our conscious efforts. Whether this explanation is accurate or not, I have no idea. What I do know is that it works.

The difference here is that I am suggesting that we use this as part of our standard methodology instead of a procedure that we might remember to use when faced with a tough problem.  Some artists are already employing such a procedure. For example, sculptor Kate MccGwire has said:

A tutor once said to me, not specifically to me about my work, that it is all very well to have a good idea but ideas change and develop and ferment whilst you are making. That’s the only way to really explore. For me, certainly, as I am making one piece of work I’m constantly thinking, in a way fermenting the next piece of work that I am making. This meditative process that I go through whilst doing something takes a very long time. Some people might consider it very boring, but it is actually all part of the process for me to make another piece of work.

This is not the same procedure that writers use when they put an interval of time between drafts. That is about approaching the work with fresh eyes, and is necessary for rewriting or editing.  This is about developing a system that will allow a new creative idea to ferment, bake, cook, simmer.

Essentially, the artist starts with an idea or image or musical figure or symbol or whatever. Then he/she intentionally assigns that seed to the subconscious and goes on with other work, allowing the idea or the image or the musical figure to develop out of consciousness. The artist then comes back to the idea and essentially discovers what he/she has made, and is not too surprised to find, as MccGwire has predicted, that the seed has developed and changed over the course of time, resulting perhaps in a shape or focus slightly different from the original.

What this piece of methodology is not is a substitute for necessary work. Artists using this method as part of their procedure will still have to learn the lines; analyze the character; memorize the music; practice the routine; sit long hours at the computer, at the easel, the story board. This is to be added to the procedures used to develop art.

While this idea may not be for everyone, it is worth trying. I have begun to use it in some of my work, and, so far, the results have been quite good. It is difficult to apply because it feels like you are consciously choosing to do nothing for a time, when, in reality, the opposite is true: you are allowing your creativity to ferment, and that can generate some amazing results.

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Dealing with Deadlines

Sunday, 23. September 2012 22:34

We all face deadlines of one type or another. Some artists never seem to have the time to complete their work on schedule without rushing frantically and then putting in extra- long hours to get the job done. Some are so addicted to the adrenaline rush that they get from this last-minute effort that they will procrastinate early in the creative cycle, and then they have to hurry to meet the project deadline. These are the people who are fond of saying “I work better under pressure.”

Having worked with a few of these people, most often in theatre, I can testify that some people do indeed work well under pressure. Whether it is “better” or not I cannot judge, never having seen them do it any other way. And the fact is that some people do not work well under pressure. They manage to get the job done, but they often have to resort to shortcuts and frequently do work that is sloppy and can, at very best, be described as “adequate.” The disclaimer is, of course, “I tried, but I just ran out of time.”

The reality is that they ran out of time because they set the project up that way, or they didn’t use what time they had to their best advantage.

This problem is certainly not exclusive to theatre. Any creative endeavor can be delayed, and then rushed into completion—with results that are usually less than stellar. And even when the results are acceptable, all that emotional and physical turmoil takes its toll. The creative process becomes much more harried and trying that it might be otherwise. Repeated often enough it can become draining.

My experience with trying to do a creative project in a time frame that is short is that the work is not what it could have been with just a little more careful concern, which would have been easily supplied with better planning and/or scheduling. Not only is the quality of the work lower, but it often costs more. Whether you are utilizing the time of an assistant in your own studio, or having contractors perform tasks associated with getting your work to the public, you find that when workers go on overtime, or jobs get labeled “rush,” the price goes up, and since the market price doesn’t change to reflect that increase, you may be cutting your own income.

So, what to do? No, this is not where a list of time management techniques is inserted. There are myriad books and articles and videos on that topic. Those can be found with a quick Google search; the difficult part will be deciding on which sources will be really helpful.

My one suggestion is to change your work procedure. It may not be a time management problem so much as it is a problem of approach. A number of artists, in all media, have discovered that once they really critically examine the way they go about creating, they can discover new ways of working that seem to generate more time to work on the project. They do not, of course, but a new methodology or a new place or a different schedule can make the process so much more comfortable that it seems to have magically created more time. The artist feels better, the work is better, and more of it gets done.

There is pain enough associated with creation; we don’t have to generate more by using methodology that is not designed to get the job done in the best way possible. You may never find the perfect way, but you can look at what you are doing now and imagine ways that will make your process easier, which can, in turn, make you more productive.

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The Downside of Discipline

Monday, 17. September 2012 0:01

We all know that inspiration is fickle; it comes and goes, and appears when you least expect it and deserts you when you most need it. There are a variety of ways that successful artists have developed deal with this situation.

One of the ways to deal with this situation of uncertainty is discipline. Artists as diverse as Elizabeth Gilbert, Khaled Hosseini, Julia Cameron, William Safire, Chuck Close, and Gabriel García Márquez, have all discussed the necessity for discipline as a requisite for success in art. These are not the only ones; web page after web page is devoted to the topic. It’s something I have written about before. Hazel Dooney has said, “It’s when I don’t feel like talking, writing or drawing that I need to most. Waiting for inspiration is actually procrastination.”

So you adopt working in a disciplined manner, and all goes well. Then one day you sit down at the easel, the potter’s wheel, the piano, the computer, the rehearsal table, wherever it is that you work, and nothing comes. You are dry. Ideas, images seem to have deserted you.  And you sit there and sit there and sit there, doing what you are supposed to be doing, and still nothing comes. What do you do then?

One of the things that you cannot do is command fresh ideas and inspiration to appear. This is the downside of discipline; it doesn’t guarantee that you will get what you need. You have allotted the time and the time is not, at the moment, being fruitful. It feels like a waste. It isn’t.

And what you should not do is give in to the temptation to get up and go do something else. That is also procrastination. This is the time to work, and if you choose to do something else, it is certain that you will produce nothing. While exercising discipline cannot guarantee ideas and insight, it can maximize the possibilities. What you produce during this time might not be great—particularly when ideas are not flowing—but it may well lead you somewhere great. Give yourself the time to develop, to experiment, to explore, to create.

And that’s what you can do: use the time that you have set aside for work to work. Perhaps you need to explore in a different direction. Almost all of us have notes on ideas and images that we do not have the time to immediately explore. This is the time for that. Perhaps, you need to try approaching your work in a different way or from a different direction. This is an opportunity to experiment with a directional shift. You might use the time to explore a new medium for your ideas. You might want to use this period for research that will further your work. There are also a number of other ideas to be found in Daniel Grant’s excellent essay called “What Artists Do While Waiting for the Next Inspiration.”

Put those alternatives in the back of your mind and continue to exercise your discipline so next time—and there will be a next time—you will know how to use your work time time to deal with uncertainty of inspiration. Again, to quote Dooney:

The truly creative not only adapt and evolve in response to uncertainty, they relish it. They might be disciplined in their work habits but inspiration is often unruly and unreliable. Attempts to control it, to corral it, make dull art. An ability to collaborate with uncertainty has always been the mark of a great artist.


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Stop Agonizing Over Artistic Choices

Sunday, 9. September 2012 22:49

While many of us worry, belabor, and delay in making choices, Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, encourages us to trust “rapid cognition,” the ability to make judgments about people and situations in two seconds. It is what most of us call instinct or intuition. Gladwell does not care for the word intuition, because he considers intuition an emotional response. Instead, he makes the case that what we are doing when we meet someone for the first time, or respond to an item for sale is taking in information and making rational decisions very, very quickly.

Gladwell may well be right. Many artistic choices are made very rapidly. I constantly tell actors that although they often are given a full minute or more to do an audition, most directors have made up their minds in the first fifteen seconds. Occasionally, an actor will do something later in an audition that will arouse the interest of the auditor, but those occasions are rare. What most directors will have decided in that short amount of time is whether they think they will want to use this person in the current production. They may well make the final decision during callbacks, but the initial cut is made very quickly.

Whether casting a show or selecting a piece of art, once the initial decision or set of decisions is made, most of us waste a good deal of time doing one of three things: (1) pretending that we have not decided anything at all and going through our conscious decision-making processes to arrive at the same conclusion we have already made, (2) trying to justify the decision by finding “acceptable” reasons, or (3) trying to articulate to ourselves why we have made the decision we have made. It only complicates matters when we have to articulate the reasons for our decisions to others.

For example, casting a show is a very complicated business that involves not only how good a particular actor seems to be—considering all the things that cause an actor to be “good,” but how that actor will fit with other actors auditioning for the same show to create the best possible ensemble for the best possible show, given the current circumstances. If the director can trust his/her initial decisions, rather than engaging in any of the three activities mentioned, life is far less difficult.

Because I work in educational theatre, I have to give actors critiques on their auditions. In advising an actor what he/she could have done to have improved his/her chances of getting a role in this production—and, by extension, improve chances for getting a role in the next production, I am sometimes forced to address those things that I considered when making casting decisions.  It is a difficult thing because so much of that decision-making is out of consciousness. I find that I almost have to relive the audition to slow everything down and discover what I was thinking so I can then verbalize it.

Some decisions do not seem to come so quickly: some set designers fret over where to put the chair; some costumers or fashion designers can’t decide whether the outfit needs a belt or not; some painters have difficulty picking the right shade of blue for the piece on the easel.  Just recently, for instance, I was having difficulty in deciding which photographic image to include in an upcoming show. I could see merits in both and was switching back and forth, unable to come to a conclusion. Deciding to discuss it with a friend, I realized, once I started verbalizing the reasons for my thinking, that there were a number considerations involved in the choice and that my initial choice had taken those into account and been the correct one all along. Had I trusted my original choice, I could have saved a great deal of time and angst.

Gladwell says that he wants people to take rapid cognition seriously and that doing so would change our lives. Perhaps it would. Some of us already do this—some of the time. But other times we get lost in self-doubt and second-guessing our processes.   Perhaps we could do better work and even be more productive if we stopped agonizing over every artistic choice and allowed ourselves to trust in our own quick decision-making abilities.

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The Artistic Balancing Act

Sunday, 2. September 2012 22:51

On a recent episode of Project Runway, Michael Kors commented that fashion is always “about balancing art and commerce.” He went on to tell the emotional Elena Silvnyak, “this is your shining moment that you found the balance.”  Nina Garcia followed up with idea that successful design is “not about stifling creativity,” but about “being creative and taking chances” and balancing that with customer appeal. (This last phrase is my wording, not hers.)

Substitute “audience appeal” for “customer appeal” and the same statements could be made about not only about any of the performing arts, but about virtually any art. Certainly film must appeal to an audience if it is to be financially successful. Live theatre too has to fit within the range of audience acceptance, which, as any theatre practitioner will tell you, is contextual. Dance is the same way, as is music.

The same concept applies to visual and plastic arts as well. There are endless stories of paintings, photographs, and sculptures that received critical acclaim and did not please their immediate audiences. The photography of Robert Mapplethorpe jumps to mind, as does the David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly.”

And, of course, much that is written, whether it is words or music, does not find an immediate audience beyond critics and a tiny group aficionados, sometimes for less than artistic reasons—consider the publication history of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Some of the art that was not initially well-received, or was prevented from being received at all by authoritarian intervention, has had to wait for years for general acceptance. Some has never received it, at least in certain localities, particularly if the subject matter is religious or sexual. For example, Nagisa Ôshima’s film, In the Realm of the Senses, released in 1976 and considered by some to be a cinematic masterpiece, still cannot be shown completely uncensored in Japan.

The fact that some art is not immediately accepted by a general audience certainly does not mean that that the work is not good, merely that it has not (yet) found its audience. The question for the artist is not about the quality of the work, but whether he/she has been able to balance creativity and the appeal of the work to a purchasing audience. Being ahead of your time may produce some masterpieces, and certainly some controversy, but often it won’t pay the bills. So the problem for the practicing artist—at least for the majority of his/her work—is to find that balance that Michael Kors mentioned, the equilibrium between artistic vision and audience appeal.

And finding that balance is difficult, regardless of your art. If you move too far in one direction, you find yourself pandering to the audience instead of really creating. You quit making art and start making artless commodities. Your work becomes all about chasing the dollar, or yen, or euro and not about all of those things that you used to think art was really about. For musicians, and maybe for others, it’s often called “selling out.”

If you move too far in the other direction, you lose your audience, and you may run afoul of censors, whether official or unofficial. You make things that may or may not garner critical acclaim, that appeal to a tiny segment of arts-appreciating community, but you move so far beyond the majority of members of that community that you find yourself unrewarded financially.

If you are compelled to say things with your art that will prevent that art from being appreciated by a paying audience—and many artists are—by all means do so, but with a full understanding of what you are doing. If, however, you want to say what you have to say and get paid for it, your dilemma is exactly the same one that Elena Silvnyak and every other artist with a strong point of view or a clear artistic vision faces—how to find that place where everything balances, where one can follow one’s vision and create, yet at the same time incorporate that creation into a form that an audience—and it certainly does not have to be a huge one— can understand, appreciate, and pay for. It may not be easy, or even doable, but it’s worth your time to investigate the possibilities.

Category:Audience, Communication, Creativity, Presentation | Comments (3) | Author: