Post from May, 2013

Artistic Success: A Matter of Definition?

Sunday, 26. May 2013 23:47

It is very evident that the student’s comment that he wanted to “live an artistic life” engendered much discussion. The meaning of the phrase was, according to the student, to support himself by doing his art. One person with whom I discussed this suggested that the student’s was likely to produced art of diminished quality. Further discussion revealed that the idea was based on two suppositions. The first was that the student would cling to the notion of supporting himself through art without regard to the quality or level of work produced. And this, of course, is based on the other supposition: that certain types of art are superior to other types.

For many, the question of the superiority of one type of art over another was resolved by the postmodernists, who declared very loudly that there was no high or low art, or if there was, there was no difference between them. Of course, not everyone accepted this idea. We sometimes hear photography instructors criticize a student’s work as “too commercial,” which somehow makes it unworthy, or music instructors who are certain that if a piece is less than 100 years old, it cannot be possibly be considered art.

To be sure, some works of art are of higher quality than others. Some are more difficult, more complex, more sophisticated than others. Some exhibit a higher degree of craftsmanship than do their counterparts. In those ways they may be superior. But to say that one type or form of art is inherently superior to another is nothing but bias and snobbery. Certainly within every category of art are those qualitative differences that exist in almost every area of human endeavor.

The other consideration is whether the student in question is willing to reduce the quality of his work in order to make a living from his art.  Some would say that if the student were to be a soap opera actor rather than performing Shakespeare, he would have become an actor of diminished quality. If he had set out with the goal of becoming a Shakespearean actor, that might be the case; working on a soap opera would certainly represent a failure to achieve his goal. If, however, he had set out to be a professional actor, he would have succeeded admirably.

Likewise, if what you want to do is sing for a living, and you front a cover band, and that pays your bills, you are indeed singing for a living and thus succeeding in making a living from your art. Thomas Kinkade, according to most critics, failed at painting fine art masterpieces; however, Thomas Kinkade succeeded wildly at making a living from his art.  Whether the artist, in his/her attempt to earn a living from artistic work, succeeds or fails depends on how the artist defined his/her artistic goal in the first place.

Will this student be able to support himself doing art? We don’t know yet. Will he have to figure out exactly what success means to him? Of course he will. Will that demean his art? I think not. So far, it seems that he does not aspire to act Shakespeare or sing Wagner; he wants to sculpt and make music and perform; some might consider what he does lower forms of art. He doesn’t; it’s his art and he loves doing it. And, I suspect there is a market for it. He just has to find it.

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

Forget Plan B

Sunday, 19. May 2013 23:52

Because I wanted to know, I went back to the student who wanted to live an artistic life and asked what the phrase “live an artistic life” meant to him.  After a bit of thought, he said that it meant that he wanted to support himself by doing his art.

A colleague to whom I related this brief story said, “That’s a rather romantic view, don’t you think? He should learn to swing a hammer.” She went on to say that the most talented person she knows has difficulty supporting himself with his art (He is an actor.) and has had to pick up a hammer from time to time in order to eat. Her suggestion was that, due to its “romantic” nature, the goal is somehow less achievable. Perhaps it would be better if the student were to have a “practical” backup plan.

This is an idea that I hear often. Parents often want their children in the arts to have a “Plan B,” something to “fall back on.” Of course, with today’s employment situation, training in any discipline carries no guarantee of employment, so the arts are probably as stable as anything else and can be excellent training for a number of fields.

But because the above-mentioned actor, who is very talented, is so intent upon practicing his art, he has picked up hammers, and screw-guns, and pipeline wrenches, and bar towels, and any number of other tools that would allow him to have live-on money when acting opportunity was not available. He will do almost anything in order to continue pursuing his art.

Wanting to live by artistic means may be a romantic goal, but it is, nonetheless, a goal, and often a very powerful one.  The actor mentioned above once said that his life was about acting and for him there could be no Plan B. I have also heard other acting coaches tell students that if they ever considered another occupation after they discovered acting, then they should go do that because it will be kinder to them than acting, and the fact that they considered something else indicates that they do not have the single-mindedness that is required to succeed in the theatre.

So too may the student. In subsequent conversations, he has indicated that while supporting himself with his art is his goal, he is willing to do whatever is necessary to continue to do his art. His art is important to him; it is, I think, what gives his life meaning. For him, just as with the actor, art is not simply a choice; it is a necessity. So it is with many of us to a greater or lesser extent.

If this is who you are, it ceases to be a question of whether you can support yourself by doing art, but rather how you can support yourself in order to do art. You may be one of the ones who is fortunate enough to figure out how to make the kind of art you want to do pay for itself and your food, but whether you will actually do art is never a question.

And if you want to succeed in any phase of art, no matter how you define it or describe it, you don’t want a Plan B; it will only be a distraction. Debbie Millman advises much the same thing in her essay and speech, quoted on “Brain Pickings,” which deals with the idea of choosing between that which is realistic and feasible and that which seems unattainable:  “Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.” Forget Plan B.

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Living an Artistic Life

Monday, 13. May 2013 0:03

In dealing with students, one of my standard questions is, “what do you want to do [in your life]?” This is not a request for a definitive statement, but rather a question designed to cause the student to think about the future, and perhaps begin to think about goals and preparation. In answer to this question last week, one student, who is amazingly creative and very talented in at least three media (and probably several others that he has yet to discover), responded, “I just want to live an artistic life.”

Upon reviewing the conversation, I realized that, although I had heard him and understood the words, I really had no idea what he meant. Did he mean he wanted to live a life devoted to art? Or did he mean he wanted to live a life producing art? Or did he mean that he wanted to surround himself with art? Or did he mean that he wanted to adopt the lifestyle attributed to the romantic notion of “being an artist”? Or did he mean that he wanted to live a life that could be described as “artistic”? Or did he want to live a life patterned after some historical artist? Or did he want to live in “artistic poverty”? Or did he want to live the life of a rock star artist? Or did he want to live a life experiencing and studying art? The list of possibilities could be infinite.

Instead of following the sensible path and asking the student what he meant, I mulled it over for a while. I thought about what that statement would mean if someone else had said it, if I had said it. What does it mean to lead an artistic life? Why would you want to? Or would you want to?

So I asked a variety of people about it. Everyone had a different answer encompassing almost all of the possibilities mentioned above. Some of the responses seemed to be related to age and experience, although that was far from universal. It was a decidedly unscientific sampling.

Since “living an artistic life” seems to mean something different to everyone, I wondered if all of those possibilities had something in common. The only thing that I could find was that in each case, one’s living environment was significantly touched by art in some way. At one extreme is complete immersion; at the other is just having some around. So, at a minimum, “living an artistic life” means having art in your life in some way, even if it’s only a few pieces.

Having art around seems to have been the case for a number of artists. Indeed, in the Surrealism Installation of the Menil Collection is an entire room entitled “Witness to a Surrealist Vision” devoted to artifacts that were collected from the homes and studios of various surrealist artists. These objects “range from ceremonial costumes and masks to bird specimens, surgical tools, astronomical instruments, and fetish figures,” and are reported to have “captivated and inspired these artists.”

This brief exchange has caused me to consider my own environment and whether I should try to make it more “artistic.” While I think that having art in one’s life is a desirable thing—particularly for those of us who work in the arts—I do not think that any of us have to move to a different house, or spend a lot of money modifying our décor. But it does seem to me that there are things that we can do to, even if it’s simply hanging a new print by the place we work. Or we can change a little at a time, perhaps reducing clutter, perhaps rearranging the pieces that we have. Regardless of what we might choose to do, we probably should do something to insure that the environment in which we live and work helps feed our artistic souls.

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Creating Through Collaboration

Sunday, 5. May 2013 23:42

Although there exist legends about dictatorial theatre directors and outrageous choreographers and tyrannical movie stars, most of us who work in theatre know that the best theatre work is consistently produced by collaboration. Ensemble acting is valued above the star system. Ideas come from everywhere. Even though the director is responsible for putting everything together, musical directors, choreographers, actors, designers, cinematographers, assistant directors also contribute. No one denies the vision of the director or the producer, but there are also views that are presented by others that the wise visionary will consider. Only the foolish refuse to listen.

All photographers who shoot people understand that a really good session is the result of the teamwork between subject and photographer, as well as art director if there is one (and sometimes even the client). But the collaboration of subject and photographer is the core and is undeniable. Shooting someone who has modeling or acting training produces results that are far superior to those involving an unschooled model. It is true that some photographers can get excellent results from the untrained, but the odds are against them, and if the stakes are high, most photographers will choose skilled models every time.

Some artists claim to work completely alone, neither giving nor receiving input from others, no matter how casual. Those people, I think, are rare. We all talk to others, and often we talk to other artists. What is said cannot but influence our work. Even in the arts that appear to be the work of the isolated artist, collaboration can play a very important part. Woody Allen’s movie, Midnight in Paris, makes this point clearly, suggesting that the successes of the many artists living in Paris in the 1920s resulted from their close association and sharing (or stealing) ideas and concepts. Indeed, painters, [still-life] photographers, collagists, sculptors, animators, computer artists, and writers often explore ideas with other artists, or get ideas from conversations with other artists either in their own media or in others.

On several occasions, discussions with other artists have caused me to take a new approach to a piece of work, or consider possibilities that I had not done before. Some would say that this is just stealing an idea, but it is actually more than that. Instead of just an idea put forward, the interchange would actually lead to a different way of thinking and then to the new piece; sometimes, in the process of creating the new piece, other conversations would occur, perhaps the seeking of advice or clarification of the idea or perhaps just exploring the subject that was on my mind. There have also been occasions in working with a model when a suggestion or a particular shot or something in the dialog would lead to an idea, which might then lead to further conversation, which would then lead to scheduling another shoot specifically to explore the new idea.

While these examples bear little resemblance to the production meeting that many theatre people experience on a regular basis, they are still very valid forms of collaboration. Unfortunately, many artists deny such experiences, or do not recognize them as what they are: the sharing and embryonic development of creative ideas—creating through collaboration. If, however, we allow ourselves to recognize what is happening, we can then participate more fully in the process, expand our creative potential, and ultimately profit from it.

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