Post from June, 2013

Bukowski v. Beethoven

Sunday, 30. June 2013 23:07

In a recent Brain Pickings post, “So You Want to be a Writer: Bukowski Debunks the ‘Tortured Genius’ Myth of Creativity,” Maria Popova quotes a poem by Charles Bukowski which contains the following lines:

unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

The poem says a great number of things that ring true, particularly about the need to get out what is inside. And I have talked before about how for most artists, it’s not a question of “want to” but rather a situation of “have to.” With all that I have no argument.

However, the implication of these particular words seems to be that writing should just flow out of the author and that thinking hard about it, or considering the work difficult, or having to search for the right words, or rewriting means that you should abandon writing all together. I cannot help but find this a rather narrow and naïve view of writing, and, by extrapolation of making art in general. This seems to say that if you have difficulty getting what is in your head, heart and gut onto the canvas, or paper, or into whatever your materials are, you should do something else.

Admittedly, sometimes the limitation is that the artist is not yet ready. He/she may not know enough yet about any number of things, may not have developed enough expertise to do the subject matter justice, simply may not be mature enough as an artist or a human being to deal with the topic properly.

However, to suggest that the work must flow perfect and unhindered from the artist in a somewhat mystical fashion is to deny the experience of many creative people. Consider Beethoven for example. According to Billy Joel, in an interview with Andrew Goldman in the New York Times, “[When you hear] Beethoven you hear the struggle in it. Look at his manuscripts, and there’s reams of scratched-out music that he hated. He stops and he starts. I love that about Beethoven, his humanity shows in his music.” Joel compares Mozart: “Mozart pisses me off because he’s like a naturally gifted athlete, you listen to Mozart and you go: ‘Of course. It all came easy to him….’ Mozart was almost inhuman, unhuman.” Whether or not we agree with Joel on Mozart, most of us would consider Beethoven a significant artist despite his creative struggles and rewriting.

Even though Bukowski seems to disagree, most believe that art is not easy, and that there are many sources for the difficulties. On the other hand, most of us would agree with Bukowski when he says:

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

Make what you are compelled to make; art will happen.

Category:Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

Stepping Into the Unknown

Monday, 24. June 2013 0:37

A recent Brain Pickings article by Maria Popova quotes a number of writers, including Rainer Maria Rilke, John Keats, Debbie Millman, and Anaïs Nin who encourage their readers to embrace the unknown, with Nin proclaiming “the vital importance of allowing for not-knowing in order to truly know the world in its fullest dimension, of using the unknown as a gateway to deeper presence and greater awareness.”

Whether stepping into the unknown is enriching or not, for many artists it is a necessary part of creativity. It’s an area we don’t much discuss. We often think about artists as working from an idea, from a preconception, of from a plan. And certainly some artists do that, but others don’t. Others just take the materials that they have and start fitting the pieces together, start playing, start improvising, and art happens. This is not to say that these artists are working blindly. Rather they are using their materials according to their training and aesthetic to make pieces that satisfy in some way; then they show them to the world, believing that someone will grasp some part of what is going on.

For example, Juri Koll had an opportunity to watch Herb Alpert (musician, painter, sculptor) work. Writing for Huffington Post Arts & Culture, Koll said “The beauty in watching him do it was the fact of allowing things to play out as the materials, surfaces and motions dictate. Nothing preconceived. ‘When I paint or sculpt,’ he [Alpert] says, ‘I don’t have anything in mind. I don’t have a goal in mind other than form. I’m looking for that form that touches me and when I find it I stop.’”

Alpert summarizes his approach on his web site: “Painting and sculpture is very much like music, in the sense that I’m looking for composition, I’m looking for harmony, I’m looking for transpositions. I want the canvas to swing.” His sculptures swing as well;” The Los Angeles Times says they are “like visual jazz.”

Many artists adopt a methodology similar to Alpert’s, although perhaps not so consciously. For some there is planning, and a preconceived notion. For instance, dancers work out the demands of the choreographer. But the choreographers work from a score—the product of a completely different discipline, which provides almost no guidance. Actors work at the suggestions of the director. And the directors work from a script, the equivalent to the choreographer’s score, but the interpretation of that script is unknown territory.

Even the actor, who we normally think of as doing directed work, has to face the unknown. He/she is given the words to say and perhaps some direction as to how to say them, but the real work of the actor, creating a complete human being in front of a camera or on the stage is really a step into the void. The script and the director provide hints, but the movement from self to character requires moving into uncharted space, into areas that are not only unknown but frightening.

No less frightening is sitting down at a computer to fill a blank page with words or create imagery, or leaning over a canvas, beginning a sculpture. And each shift in materials, subject matter, or methodology represents a step into the new and unfamiliar. But we all have to do it. If we are to be really creative and really make art, we must not “grasp for the security of our comfort zones, the affirmation of our areas of expertise, the assurance of our familiar patterns.” We must take a deep breath and step into the unknown.

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Maintenance Is Required

Monday, 17. June 2013 0:01

The saw blade is dull. The brushes need cleaning. The chisels need sharpening. The acting workshop gets ditched. The sensor hasn’t been cleaned. The word processing files are jumbled and disorganized. Pencils need sharpening. The monitor calibration is out of date. The act one analysis gets superficial treatment. The desk is cluttered. The studio is filthy. The truck needs cleaning out. The practice session gets skipped. The chemicals are old. The update goes unloaded.

It doesn’t matter what your art is, maintenance is required. Although it may take different forms for individual arts, it’s really all the same thing. It’s the battle against entropy. And we all have to fight it.

But we don’t. Rather, most of us could do a much better job fighting it than we do. Otherwise, we would never say any of those things in the first paragraph, or anything like them. This is just not the case. I know very few artists whose tools, desks, workstations, studios, shops, equipment, minds are all free of clutter and in 100% working condition. There is always that thing that we are going to take care of next week, and then everything will be in top-notch order. Well, except for that one other thing. And so it goes, and next week turns into next month, and sometimes turns into next year.

And then we end up like a photographer friend whose studio background cloth ripped apart in his hands just yesterday. He had known for a while that it was old and fragile and already had a couple of inconsequential rips, but had postponed purchasing a new one, not because he couldn’t afford it, but because it had not presented a significant problem, and because he just didn’t get around to it. And it wasn’t for lack of time; it took him all of 20 minutes to research sites for the best price and make the purchase on the internet.

This is often the case. We know that we have something that needs maintenance, but instead of doing that maintenance—which will require minimal time—we instead develop workarounds. Never mind that the workaround requires three times as much time and/or effort as fixing the problem would take, and that we will work around a problem repeatedly—we still decline to take the time needed to really do the maintenance which would make the workarounds unnecessary.

And why? As far as I can tell, we seem to avoid maintenance for one or more of three reasons: (1) it’s boring; (2) it seems like work; (3) it seems unproductive. All of those things are probably true. Maintenance is not very interesting, and it does seem like work because it’s often not very creative and it is often repetitive, which are the same reasons it feels unproductive. Nothing is being made. It’s just repairing, replacing, refurbishing, and almost unconnected in our minds from doing our art. My friend was lucky in that he had no shoots pending that required the backdrop; otherwise, he would have had to figure out a way of quickly repairing the damaged piece, paying overnight fees to get one flown in on time, or postponing the shoot.

Thus it is with all maintenance. We spend extra time accomplishing a task that would be far less time-consuming if we only had everything in proper working order, all the while telling ourselves that we will get to it—soon.  If only we were to go ahead and maintain our tools and environment, we could save enormous time and effort in the long run and, in the meantime, be far more productive.


Category:Productivity | Comment (0) | Author:

Yet Another Skill Artists Need

Sunday, 9. June 2013 22:43

When it comes time to put those pictures or that sculpture that you have so carefully produced on the wall or on a display stand, the question arises of what to show where and what to hold back for that other show. It’s a question that, without significant experience, is almost impossible to answer. It’s nearly as difficult as the question of what pushes a collectors over the purchasing threshold, and what holds them back regardless of how much they like the piece.

Unlike performing arts audiences, if the visual and plastic arts audience doesn’t like what you hang on the wall or put on the stand, they don’t tell you; they just pass on by. So the artist is often left with questions about what appeals and what doesn’t, or to whom it appeals and to whom it doesn’t.

What it takes is curatorial ability. Brienne Walsh, in her article “Social Butterflies” in the June issue of Rangefinder, calls it an intuition, the ability “to decide what would appeal to other people.” And perhaps it is. It certainly seems that determining what will appeal to others is an instinct that some have and some don’t.

During my brief flirtation with DeviantART, I attempted to figure out posts would appeal to viewers, and I found that I was not particularly good at it. No pattern emerged, at least none that I was able to discern. Perhaps had I stayed with it longer I would have developed the skill, but given where I was at the time, I wasn’t willing to devote the time it would have taken. And I wasn’t sure that I would ever see a pattern.

Of course, one way to get around the problem is to publish everything at once. Then there is no question of what to show here or there or when or any of that. For some, particularly the prolific, this seems to work. If you follow any artists on Facebook or Tumblr or Pinterest, you have seen what I mean, but even that is curated, at least according to Walsh.

The answer, I think, if there is one, is to find out who your audience really is. For example, the initial audience in a juried show is comprised of the jurors. Sometimes I have successfully curated pieces in order to secure a place in such shows. Since most jurors’ names and information are not only published, but advertised, it is rather easy to research them and discover who they are and what they’re about, which leads one to make a more intelligent decision about what to present. Jurors like work that is in some way akin to their own, or, perhaps more importantly, reflects something of their philosophies. So knowing the taste of the jurors can guide you in what pieces to submit or, in some cases, tell you to save the entry fee because your work has little chance of being appreciated.

We should be able to apply the same principles to our individual potential audiences. Admittedly, the application will be far more difficult. Potential collectors are not likely to give us their backgrounds, interests, or philosophies. But if we start looking at what, beyond the superficial, our collectors have in common, we may begin to get a picture of exactly who, in a more abstract sense, our collectors might be. Once we know that, it is only a few steps to finding more people like that. And once that happens, we are well on our way to developing a tribe of collectors.

Category:Audience, Marketing, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

Artist Statements Revisited

Sunday, 2. June 2013 23:55

A friend of mine teaches an art course called “Professional Practices.” One of the topics covered in the course is how to write a good artist statement. Now I have not been friendly toward such statements in the past, finding them an occasion for pretension and grandiosity, often devolving into meaningless “art-speak.” Additionally, they can be superfluous—if the art is doing its job properly. But a recent conversation with this man has caused me to reevaluate my thinking. He suggested that there exist practical reasons for an artist statement.

One thing he pointed out was that artist statements are useful in preparing to talk about your art. The week before, he had himself, while serving on a committee interviewing people for the chairmanship of his department, been asked about his art (which was not present). Had he not previously developed an artist statement, he might well have been thought inept by his future boss.

Interestingly, at a party that same night, I was asked the same question. It was a simple question from one artist to another (again our work was not present), but my lack of preparation caused me to be less articulate than I might have been.

Still, there are many really awful statements out there. How to avoid creating one of those? Here is my friend’s advice:

  • Explain what your art is about, or, alternatively, what you are about as an artist.
  • Make it short, but not terse. A single page is a good goal.
  • Be direct.
  • Be honest.
  • Be yourself.
  • Avoid art-speak.
  • Tailor your statement to the situation. Is it for a show, for a web page, for your own use, or to prepare you to talk about what you do either in a formal or informal situation? Each use demands a slightly different approach and focus.
  • Remember, this is a dynamic document. It should change when your work does. It is simply a statement of where you are artistically at a single moment in time, not a manifesto.

The artist statement, carefully thought out, can not only be used to explain you and your art to others, but can be used to explain you and your art to yourself. And many of us can benefit from such an exercise. This, to me seems to be the real value of such a statement. The act of writing forces you to verbalize what you are about as an artist. That, in turn, forces you to think about your art in ways that must be expressed in words. Many of us have not done this, or have not done it honestly, simply because it is difficult and unnecessary—or so we thought. As I—among others—have been fond of saying, if words could express it, there would be no need for the art; one could simply write an essay.

Remember that an artist statement may not necessarily apply to all art you do.  For example, the goals and approaches for my photography are far different from the aims and methodology for my theatre work. So if you do several kinds of art, you may discover that they may not be aligned and so will require a separate statement for each.

If you approach the artist statement using the guidelines above, it is not a simple task. It requires thought and self-examination. To my surprise, I am finding the process very useful. The necessity of putting my artistic intentions into words has served to concentrate my focus and clarify my creative goals in a way that I have never before experienced. I have no idea whether anyone except me will ever see the statement. That is not important; what is important is that the process of writing has honed my objectives as an artist and served to focus my creativity. I find myself thinking about my work differently—for the better. You may too.

Category:Creativity, Education | Comments (3) | Author: