Post from April, 2013

Becoming Your Own Critic

Monday, 29. April 2013 0:54

Last week I quoted Georgia O’Keefe saying, “I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” I then suggested that we all do likewise and free ourselves from depending upon criticism to tell us whether our art was any good or not. But now we have to figure out a way to do that.

Stephen King says that the way to settle it is to have a “trusted reader,” someone who will tell you the truth about your work and upon whose judgment you can depend. Having this feedback then allows you to ignore everyone else; you and your reader know that it’s good, so you can then send the work out into the world. Having a trusted reader is a good idea. Finding such a person is a bit more problematic. King happens to be married to his trusted reader, a solution not necessarily available to everyone.

Since reader implies written art, it might be better to change this person’s title; since this person is offering feedback only to you, the term “personal critic” might be a good choice.

The personal critic has to satisfy a long list of criteria. He/She has to be someone whom you respect, who knows something about art, whose judgment you trust, who is willing to take the time to look at your art and give you an honest, unbiased opinion, and who is able to articulate that opinion. It’s difficult to find a single person who can fulfill all these criteria. And even if you do find such a person, you must then constantly be asking that person to evaluate your art and supply feedback. That’s a lot to ask and can sometimes put a strain on a relationship.

Another choice is to become your own critic. This is more difficult, of course, because you have to essentially become two people: the artist and the critic. You have be able to separate yourself completely from your work so you can evaluate it impartially. That means that you can no longer defend parts of your work that you really like or protect certain things because they are especially meaningful. It means that you look at your work with fresh, objective eyes.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s almost the same procedure that you use for editing that was discussed a while back. The only difference is one of degree. To be a self-critic, you have to be even more removed from the creative process and the ownership of the work. You must be willing to acknowledge weaknesses, to highlight flaws, to target inconsistencies. You have to be able to look at the overall piece and evaluate its worth. You must be willing to declare the whole project a failure if necessary. You must be ruthless.

And you do that exactly the same way you became your own editor. Wait until the work is complete; edit. Put the work away for a while again—the longer the better. Then approach the work as though it were not your own; that may mean pretending someone else did it. As silly as that may sound, it works. You say to yourself, “If someone I don’t know brought this to me and asked for an honest critique, what would I say? Take notes on your answer. Put the notes and the work away again. After a time look again at the work in the light of the notes.

Initially it takes enormous time and energy to do this, but as you practice this procedure, it becomes easier and more automatic. And so long as you are honest with yourself, it should be successful.  And if you are successful, you will no longer be dependent on those who offer your praise or criticism. You, like O’Keefe, will have the matter settled for yourself.

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

Dealing with Criticism

Sunday, 21. April 2013 22:36

All of us have experienced criticism, sometimes positive sometimes negative. (By criticism, I do not necessarily mean only negative comments, but rather a judgment about the quality or value of our work by someone else.) Sometime we have sought out such judgment; other times it has appeared unbidden. Occasionally, we read it in print or on a web site. Then we are faced with a decision: what do we do with that criticism once we hear it?

Artists from almost every discipline have commented on critics and criticism, artists as diverse as Aristotle and Virginia Woolf, Andy Warhol and Stephen King, W. A. Mozart and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Most of the comments are not very complimentary. Some involve the comparison of the act of criticism to the act of creation; criticism does not fare well. Others argue that only by creating work equal to or better than that being evaluated can someone be qualified to criticize. Some have offered advice on how to deal with both critics and criticism. Almost to a person, they tell you to ignore it; some will also tell you to never read or listen to it in the first place. This, of course, is almost impossible to do.

Artists, as most of us know, are riddled with self-doubt (a topic on which I have written previously, here, for example) and crave some sort of approval of our work from outside. This lack of confidence unfortunately forms the framework which underlies our dealing with criticism. Because we are unsure of ourselves, we grasp at positive criticism or any response to our work that reinforces what we ourselves think of it. If, on the other hand, we are dealt negative criticism, it can be devastating. Sometimes we take it personally. Other times we let it feed our insecurity and discourage us, which can then lead to a downward spiral in our self-esteem, which, in turn, can negatively impact our work.

Criticism can be useful, at least in one sense. Thoughtful criticism can be useful to help people decide how to spend their time and their money—and that can range from buying a movie ticket to purchasing a multi-thousand dollar sculpture. That is a far different thing from an artist listening to a critic and moving forward based on that criticism. Yes, performing with respect to criticism is a very practical approach if you are in school and the critic is your instructor. Otherwise, if you listen to criticism, you may find yourself modifying your work to deal with that criticism instead of listening to yourself. This may lead you to make a more marketable piece, but it certainly will make the work less honest, and perhaps less your own.

Georgia O’Keefe had it figured out. She said, “I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” Rather than listening to the voice of others, we have to be our own critics, evaluating our work for ourselves, determining what is good and what could be improved and where to cut and where to enhance. No matter how much we hunger for approval and appreciation, once we have established ourselves as our own judges—settled it for ourselves—the words of others will impact us far less. And in that less-dependent atmosphere, we too can be free—to develop our art.

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

Having a Workable Objective is Not Enough

Monday, 15. April 2013 0:32

Most actors use a tool called “objectives.” This tool can also called “goals” or “intentions” or several other names. Basically they all mean the same thing: what the character wants. The rationale is that if the actor knows what the character wants and actively seeks to attain that goal, he/she will be consistent and believable. Regardless of the school of acting to which the actor adheres, the notion of objectives as motivators is basic. So imagine my surprise when a few nights I saw a new play acted by experienced professionals and the lead seemed to be less than expert in using objectives. The friend who was with me said that the actor had no objective. I was of a different opinion; I thought that the actor had different objectives for each of the two acts and that she did not sufficiently establish the priorities of the character in the first act so the end of the play had far less impact than it might have done.

These are significant problems. Multiple, inconsistent, or missing objectives cause confusion since audience members cannot properly discern motivation and may have to conclude that the character has some sort of personality disorder that, for some reason, is not referenced by the script. Objectives that fail to establish the priorities of the character fail to support the overall movement of the play’s plot and theme, to say nothing of the character arc.

Now the actors among you may be saying that it’s not the actor’s job to establish things, particularly thematic things. The actor’s job is to create a character and, in a realistic play, make that character believable and consistent. If an actor, however, fails to create a unified character or creates a character that is with odds with obvious intention of the script, that actor may want to consider the direction he/she is taking the character.

The problem with objectives is that there is no one “right” objective. Some objectives are more right than others, but there is no single correct one. This is an area of interpretation. The only requirement is that the actor select an objective that can motivate him/her from the beginning to the end of the play, with a number of sub-objectives in between. All valid objectives are, of course, based on the script.

So it is possible for the actor to arrive at an objective that will, in fact, motivate the actions of the character throughout the play, but still not be the best objective possible. The best objective possible is one that will motivate the character, but which will also support the plot and theme and prepare the way for the character-related action as well as take into account the director’s interpretation of the show. Arriving at a proper objective is a complicated business that some actors struggle with and other embrace.

So it would seem that responsibility for developing the best possible objective falls squarely on the actor; it does. However, any director, even one directing seasoned professionals, should notice any problems and correct the actor’s course. The director must insure that all the actors are creating unified characters and are on the same page as the director with regard to the show’s meaning, atmosphere, and action. Without such consideration, we are likely to witness a directionless and fragmented performance.

It is that same with any collaborative, interpretive art. Each member of the team must be sure that he/she is consistent in terms of his/her contribution to the project and that he/she is moving in exactly the same direction as all the other artists involved in the project. Anything less is inappropriate, insufficient, and likely to cause the project to be far less than it might have been.

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

Leave Room for the Audience

Sunday, 7. April 2013 23:29

Early this week, in a discussion about art and creativity, I heard myself say, “I think art should be like holding up a mirror to give the audience something to reflect off of. “ During the remainder of the week I gave that statement a lot of thought—trying to decide if was really true.

In an earlier post I wrote about being a bit surprised about the variety of responses to my photography. Admittedly, my photography is abstract and pretty ambiguous. My photography is not about telling a story; rather, it is about making suggestions. There are two goals: (1) to make the best piece I possibly can, given the tools and materials at my disposal, and (2) to give the audience something that resonates— not necessarily something with which they will be able to identify, but something which in some way “reflects” them, i.e. something that provides a reflective surface that allows them to see something they need to see and feel something they need to feel.

This is not to say that there is no place for work that is literal and concrete. This is, of course, the basis for all photojournalism, where ambiguity is decidedly out of place. And I also do work that is both literal and concrete—theatre work. My feeling is that with dramatic art, the clearer the story is and the more definitive the character delineation is, the more the audience is able to become involved, and with that involvement move past the literal and into the figurative, symbolic, and suggestive, and thus find that which resonates.

Nor is this to say that the artist must suggest rather than make strong statements. Each artist needs to say whatever he/she needs to say and in whatever way will give the idea or feeling best expression. Rather, it is to say that the artist should leave some room for the audience—allowing them a part in their interaction with the work.

The fact is that meaning in art is a collaborative exercise. The artist certainly creates the work, but in the best art, the audience contributes as well. While there is general agreement on the message or meaning of a work, full meaning is finally a highly individual thing. Each audience member brings to the artwork his/her own experiences and feelings and desires and walks away from a piece of art or a performance with a unique feeling of what the work is about.

This notion was reinforced in the Rothko Chapel earlier today. The friend who was with me remarked, “I love to watch people when they visit here because it’s impossible for them not to have a reaction.” And those reactions are amazingly varied. Rothko leaves room for the audience, and he does it over and over again—in all his work. Some love his work; others hate it, but hardly anyone has no reaction, whether about the pieces in the Chapel, or elsewhere. While I have no doubt that Rothko was definitive about what he was putting on the canvas, what we now see is, in part, what he put there and what we bring to it. Good art, I think, works that way.

Some artists are aware that the audience incorporates its experience into its reaction to the artwork and strive to manipulate what that audience thinks and feels with regard to the work; others concentrate on putting themselves into the work and are insulted when the audience doesn’t see their meaning. My feeling is that we, as artists, should be aware of the nature of the audience/artifact interaction and at least consider what the audience might bring to the work, and subsequently take away. We might even try to facilitate that interaction.

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

Forget the Formulas

Monday, 1. April 2013 0:07

There has been very little sales and marketing activity in my world of late. A friend with whom I was discussing this advised, “Don’t worry about it; you’re producing now.” And it’s true—I have not concerned myself with anything other than creating art since the beginning of the year. Well, I did enter a couple of shows, but that hardly qualifies. Now, if I were a savvy marketer—at least according to what I read—I would have in place a system that sold for me all the time: gallery representation, sales web site, membership in one of the internet art store sites, or all of that. I do not.

Obviously, this means that I need to come up with a plan. I need to develop, in Seth Godin’s terminology, a tribe. (I have commented on this idea before).  But exactly how to go about that is still elusive. Like you, I have researched and discovered articles, posts, webinars, workshops, and a mountain of other pathways to financial success in art. And I have read and listened and participated in a number of these. And I have come to several conclusions.

Everyone has different, often conflicting advice, so you have to choose whose advice to follow. Since you don’t know very much about marketing and sales to begin with, exactly how do you make an intelligent choice? Should you listen to the sales pitch? There will be one—every time. Should you pay money to read the book, participate in the webinar, go to the workshop, learn the secrets? Should you believe the success stories? If you knew how to evaluate these approaches to marketing and sales, you might well already know what you need to do.

And, of course, everyone assures you that if you only follow this formula, you too will achieve success in the sale of your art. Never mind that the mentor in question has no knowledge of you or your art—or even which medium you work in. How one can predict success with such a lack of knowledge is a mystery, but they manage somehow. This has worked for this guy and that guy; surely it will work for you. Again, should you believe them? Is this plan relevant to you and your art?

Some of these schemes require that you devote x hours per day to the tasks required. Given the other demands on your time, you may not have that much time available—then what? Some are remarkably difficult to implement. Some seem not just counter-intuitive, but completely foreign.

In all fairness, there are some specializing in marketing art who recognize that art marketing has to meet individual needs and so will have to be an individual undertaking. These advisors will simply say, “Here is a resource; some people have found it useful. You may want to give it a try,” or “here’s an idea that some people have used and found successful.” These advisors have my gratitude; I have found some of the ideas that they presented to be quite useful.

The fact is, of course, that there is no single formula that will work for everyone and everyone’s art. What works for one person may be impossible for someone else. Each artist is as different as the art he/she produces. Likewise, the approach to the problems of marketing and selling has to fit the individual.

As you tackle the problem of developing a tribe of those who appreciate and want to purchase your art, remember that any method that you use to get your art out there has to resonate with you and fit your style and personality. Just as making art is a very individual undertaking, so is the marketing of that art. You will have to develop it yourself.

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