Post from February, 2013

Creative Shortcuts: There are None

Monday, 25. February 2013 1:11

Occasionally a student who wants to become an actor without putting in the work that is necessary will show up in one of my classes. Contrary to the Hollywood myth machine, acting is not easy. In addition to having to take risks—often in front of hundreds of people, actors are required make their characters complex, interesting, unique, and spontaneous using only themselves. It’s complicated, difficult work, and, as in any art, the artist has to have to have a number of skills, many of which can be gained only through certain experiences. Unfortunately, some fledgling actors decide that having those experiences will take too long, and it will be easier to rely on the shortcuts they have used before.

Those shortcuts include paraphrasing, generating emotions out of air, forcing words at other actors for no particular reason, relying on charm rather than skill, among others. The results, of course, are weak, stiff, and lame at worst and simplistic and shallow at best.  Regrettably, due to the avalanche of compliments from friends and family, many do not understand that their work is substandard.

Having had limited exposure to the world and having had success at lower levels of performance with very little effort, they think that artistry just “comes naturally.” Why then would learning and work be necessary? And so their reliance on shortcuts continues—until they attempt to work at a higher level and encounter rejection. And while this tendency to shortcut has no real relationship to the individual’s level of talent, it often seems the result of having enough raw talent to have had some prior success.

This attempt to shortcut is not exclusive to actors or limited to students. It occurs in almost every area of art and involves all sorts of artists. These are the guys who are in love with the idea of being an artist, not necessarily with making art. So the details of manipulating tools and equipment, the nuances of technique become less important than the style with which one carries it off. This is probably found more in acting and music because of the lure of movie stardom and the concert stage.  But there are visual and plastic artists who have as much fame and money as rock stars. So the appeal is certainly understandable.

For students and non-students alike, the sad news is that there are no shortcuts. Creativity just doesn’t work that way. In fact, if you Google “creative shortcut,” you find—nothing, except links to keyboard shortcuts in programs used for creative work.  Creativity is slow, and sometimes painful. And while it does not rely completely on having certain skills acquired by experiencing certain things, as well as a thorough knowledge of tools and technique in the area of interest, having those things certainly aids the creator in realizing his/her vision, and allows that artist to create work that is complex, interesting, and unique.

Without the tools, techniques, and the skills to use them, artists are only imaginers, without a means of properly expressing their vision. There are tools that allow the artist to speed work more efficiently, to work faster, but these are not really creative shortcuts; they are, rather, improved techniques and more sophisticated technology, both of which allow the artist not to shortcut the work, but to do the same work with less time and effort.

Because of the enormous demands made on our time and energy, we are always looking for ways to streamline our workflow, to make our creation more efficient without making it less effective. Sometimes we are tempted, like those mentioned above, to seek out shortcuts. Unfortunately, anything that qualifies as a real shortcut will undercut the quality of our work, so in attempting to save a little time or effort we will sabotage our own art. It’s just not worth it.

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

“Make It Work” Does Not Mean “Produce Substandard Quality”

Monday, 18. February 2013 0:20

An actor whose name I don’t remember once said on Inside the Actor’s Studio that the phrase he hated most was “That works.” Although he did not elaborate, I think to him the phrase represented something less than excellence, or perhaps a willingness to accept a product that was not planned in advance. In another television show, Tim Gunn has made the phrase “Make it work” a rule to live by, although that phrase also raises questions in some people’s minds about excellence and certainly about meeting deadlines.

I suspect we all, in the best tradition of the reality “skills” shows, have had to “make it work” on some project or another—or maybe every project. In most cases, this has to do with meeting a deadline of some sort, whether it is imposed by a client, a show, a pre-existing schedule or ourselves. Most of us have learned that if we allow ourselves the luxury of not finishing a piece because it presents challenges, we would never get anything done. We would never, in Seth Godin’s words, “ship.” And if we are to be productive, we must ship.

This necessity forces us into a “make it work” mentality. Sometimes, the time constraints that we place upon ourselves cause us to find a solution that works—at least for the moment. Developing this mental attitude, in turn, provides the pressure we need to overcome some the difficulties that we were having in realizing the work.  What “works” is probably what we would have done if we had had more time with the project. Having to make it work in order to meet a deadline just made us find that solution sooner.

That done, we may have a varying set of responses to our own work. We may be quite satisfied, so shipping feels good and right. However, we may have had the very common experience of creating something that works but is still not satisfying. What we then do about that turn of events varies. In some instances, we ship and forget it; after all, we gave it our best effort, and that is all that can be expected of anyone in any situation.

Other times, however, our dissatisfaction nags at us. That shape in the corner just isn’t what we want, or that color is not precisely what it should be, or this paragraph doesn’t quite reflect the feelings we want to convey. It works, but it doesn’t work as well as we would like, or exactly the way we want it to. In that case, it might be well to revisit the work with a little perspective —if we still have access. If it is a work that allows us to “correct” future copies (photography, prints, writing) or it has not shipped, and we have figured out what to do to make it better, we should do it by all means—if for no other reason than to ease our minds about it. This, of course, is the reason there exist multiple versions of many books and poems. Those are easily modifiable—even if thousands of copies have already shipped.

Pieces that are already in the hands of collectors are more problematic. For those, the best solution is to leave them alone; they have a home, and modifications can only disturb an already-satisfied collector.

So, if you find yourself in what you consider a “make it work” situation, make it work. If your work does not reach your quality threshold, set it aside and make something else that does; if it meets all your criteria, ship it. If you need to revisit the subject later, do so. “Making it work” does not mean that your work will be less than it should be. “Make it work,” simply means using everything we have, our experience and skills and insight and creativity (and all the serendipity our individual karmas can gather) to make the best work we can, given the constraints of the situation. In other words, make our art the way we do normally.


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

An Artistic Philosophy–Why it’s Important

Sunday, 10. February 2013 23:30

If you study Henri Cartier-Bresson, you cannot but be struck by the quality and consistency of his work. (If you are not familiar with his photography, you might want to look here or here.) What strikes you immediately is that none of it is posed; it’s all captured. He said himself, “’Manufactured’ or staged photography does not interest me.” His work bears out his words. Even the portraits are captured; you have the feeling that as far as the subject is concerned Cartier-Bresson might as well be a piece of furniture.

This post, is not, however, to celebrate Cartier-Bresson’s work or photography in general, but to consider how one of the great artists of the twentieth century managed to do what he did and discover if his approach has anything to teach us.

He said, “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” Photojournalists, or those photographers who work in that style, spend entire lifetimes trying to master the approach set forth in the first part of the quote, an ability that Cartier-Bresson seems to have had from the outset. Perhaps it is not a learnable skill; perhaps it is one of those abilities that we either possess or do not.

And there are some of us to whom that way of working seems foreign indeed. A number of artists, even photographic artists, plan and experiment and pose models and do all sorts of intricate things, not because they lack Cartier-Bresson’s ability to size up the situation instantly, but because that is that way that works for them. For many of us, the creative act is not instantaneous, as it was for Cartier-Bresson, but rather a process, and sometimes a rather complicated and involved one that takes some time—and in some instances quite a long time.

That Cartier-Bresson’s “precise organization of forms” was instantaneous, certainly does not diminish yours or mine or anyone else’s who works at a different pace. More important—for us anyway—is the latter portion of the quote above, that we put our head, eye, and heart on the same axis. Only by doing this will our work achieve the excellence that most of us are aiming for—it must be the product of all our faculties.

The second quality of Cartier-Bresson’s body of work is the consistency of it, another goal to which many of us aspire. If you study his work and writing, what you find is that the foundation of his style is his philosophy of what photography is and his assumptions about how excellence is achieved. This philosophy informs all his work.  We are not talking about technique or environment. What we are talking about is a personal philosophy, an idea of what constitutes good work which governs his approach, technique, and choice of tools, and which enables him to engage eye, head, and heart to generate a remarkably high quality product consistently.

What Cartier-Bresson has to teach us is that if we develop our own philosophy of what makes an image or a sculpture or a poem or a play, then base our personal aesthetic and methodology that, we are more likely to facilitate full engagement and produce consistent results that are satisfying, both ourselves and our audience. It’s more than developing a style—it’s establishing a way of thinking that serves as the foundation of all our work, regardless of subject matter or medium. Our philosophies and resultant methodologies may differ drastically from that of Cartier-Bresson and from each other, but they are just as valid, and with such underpinnings, our work can improve both in consistency and quality.



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

It’s Always About You

Monday, 4. February 2013 0:41

Acting coaches and directors reassure beginning actors who are concerned about portraying characters who are genuinely evil in some way that it is not themselves they are displaying on stage, but rather a character, and remind the actor that his/her job is to portray the character without judging the character. We then tell the same actors that they must find a point of empathy if they are to portray the character honestly. The actuality is that the actor is portraying a character filtered through him/herself. Not only are the playwright’s fingerprints all over the character, so are the actor’s. It’s called interpretation, and every actor does it differently, because each actor is an individual; consider all the different portrayals of Hamlet you have seen. And because he/she is the filter, the actor cannot but reveal something of him/herself in the portrayal.

The same is true for writers. Milan Kundera has the narrator in The Incredible Lightness of Being ask rhetorically, “Isn’t it true that an author can write only about himself?” This idea is echoed and amplified by Donald Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and teacher, who said “all writing is autobiography.” Even those writers who seem to be leaving themselves out of their narratives manage to reveal personal information as they tell their stories.

Although it may not be quite so obvious without the words, the same applies to the visual arts. Ansel Adams has said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” The artist is always visible; very few have trouble deciding whether Georgia O’Keeffe or Robert Mapplethorpe created a particular flower image. The Auteur theory holds that a film “reflects the director’s personal creative vision.” For example, we can easily distinguish the difference between a John Ford western and one by Sergio Leone.

We expose ourselves with our work; we can’t not do it. Our creative vision demands that we work within our own aesthetic. So we put into our art those things that we think are important, editing out things that, in our view, shouldn’t be there. And it’s all there: not only how we think about artistic elements and how we think about our subject matter, but who we are. Some of what we say about ourselves with our art will certainly be misunderstood, and some will be discernable to only a limited number of viewers; but some will be obvious to everyone.

But then, isn’t that part of why we are doing art in the first place? We have things that need to be said, ideas that need to be shared, emotions that deserve to be expressed. So we put it into our performances, our paintings, our photographs, our paintings, our poems, our sculptures.

The good news is that we are not revealing everything. Anyone who studies the work of any artist and pretends, on that basis, to know everything about the artist, is foolish, if not delusional. There are aspects of any artist that reveal themselves, and there are some things that just don’t come through—even to the most perceptive of viewers. So you can still have some secrets.

The bad news is that we are often so close to our work that it is difficult to determine just what it is revealing about us. Most of us know, one way or another, what we are trying to do with our work, but we seldom stop to think about what our work is saying about us.

And even though it may be initially uncomfortable, exposing some of ourselves through our art is something we need to be aware of and come to terms with. Remember that regardless of what the subject of your art may be, regardless of the medium, or technique, or approach, it’s also always about you.

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