Post from July, 2013

Don’t Let Perfection Get in the Way

Sunday, 28. July 2013 23:32

“I’m a perfectionist; I can’t help it. My work isn’t finished until it’s perfect.” How many times have you heard an artist say that? It doesn’t matter what his/her art is, the result is the same: it will never be finished—because it will never be perfect.

Many of us have learned to seek perfection. Whether we have been taught this, or just happened to confuse working to a very high qualitative standard with trying to achieve perfection is an open question. Many of us were pushed to do better and achieve more as we were growing up; others of us figured out that that was the way to succeed in our culture.  Reasoning as children will do, we decided that if excellence was a goal, perfection must be a higher goal, so we became obsessed with making things perfect.

So now when we try to make art, we set an impossibly high standard for ourselves: perfection.  Never mind that it’s unachievable, we still try to get there. This is one of the excuses for much of the bad behavior for which artists are notorious. We even romanticize it; the striving for perfection becomes part of the mythology of what it means to be a real Artiste.

What really happens is that perfection itself becomes the goal rather than creating excellent, meaningful art. So those of us who are still aiming for that perfect performance, or painting, or photograph, or film or whatever have our eye on the wrong thing. We should be concerned for our work, not for some abstract concept that we mistakenly learned to seek as youngsters.

But many artists, as well as non-artists, have this affliction. And it is an affliction. Brené Brown, sociologist, psychologist, and educator, has said, “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”

But what about the famous perfectionists, the ones who, because they are always striving toward that abstract goal, generate huge successes? What about Steve Jobs? Actually, some writers credit Apple’s success not to Steve Jobs’ legendary perfectionism, but to his learning to loosen his rigid stance.

How then are we to proceed—those of us who believe in excellence? We must supplant the concept of “perfection” with the notion of “good enough.” Now, before you raise the cry of mediocrity, let me say that “good enough” means just that—good enough to satisfy you and to exceed your standard of excellence. You can set the “good enough” bar just as high as you would like—just short of perfection.

According to Seth Godin, “Good enough, for those that seek perfection, is what we call it when it’s sufficient to surpass the standards we’ve set.Godin goes on to say, “Anything beyond good enough is called stalling and a waste of time.” So the time that we spend trying to move past the excellence of our highest standards to perfect amounts to running in place.

Voltaire was another who was not a fan of perfection, and Voltaire was a man who knew something about making art and getting it out the door, having written over 20,000 letters and more than 2,000 books and pamphlets. He said it very plainly: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Maybe it’s time we quit worrying about making perfect art and instead make good art.

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

Professionals Practice

Sunday, 21. July 2013 22:09

Being a professional anything requires having reached a certain level of proficiency and having the ability to maintain that proficiency. In order to do that, professionals in all areas have to keep their skills honed. All professionals understand that to stay at the top of their game, to grow, requires constant information-gathering and continuous practice. It is no different for arts professionals.

First, I must clarify what I mean by “professional.” (It’s a topic that has come up before.) Some define a professional artist as one who makes most of his/her income as an artist. I am rather inclined to think that professionalism is about involvement, attitude, approach, and standards. One of the marks of the professional, at least in my mind, is that he/she works at his/her art every day. This is most often expressed as “practicing your craft” or sometimes “practicing your art.” It doesn’t matter where your income comes from; it doesn’t matter that you have a day job; it matters that you make art and that you work at it every day—not play at it, not piddle with it—work at it.

Actors talk about practicing their craft, as do singers—and they do it daily. In fact, every practicing professional performer I know practices daily. World class trumpeter Louis Armstrong said, “Even If I have two three days off, you still have to blow that horn. You have to keep up those chops… I have to warm up every day for at least an hour.” Many, even though they may teach classes themselves, take lessons—it’s another form of practice. And what holds true for performers holds true for other artists as well.

But there is some latitude in what constitutes “practicing your art.” I do not necessarily believe that if you are a photographer, for example, you must take a picture every day. But you must work at seeing every day, and on those days that you do not actually pick up a camera, you can work at a computer, or at tray in the darkroom, or mat an image, or frame a picture.

Some might argue that these last two activities don’t constitute “practicing your art.” Having matted and framed a good number of images, I have found that you can learn something almost every time you go through the process. Those tasks provide a unique opportunity to look at your work in a context very different from the norm. This allows you to see things that you might not ordinarily see, and thus learn and improve your art—which is, after all, one of the goals of practice. Some arts involve many different tasks and processes, and performing those can certainly qualify as “practicing your art” and can contribute to artistic proficiency and growth.

Some will claim not to have enough subject matter or materials to keep them working every day. These artists might consider classes, or exercises. There are painting-a-day challenges; there are photograph-a-day challenges. Both of these keep artists in practice, and occasionally produce some very good work. And they are indeed challenging. (Ask anyone who’s attempted one.)

There are other approaches as well. Renowned poet Wallace Stevens had a day job, but he managed to work at his art every day. “Stevens generally preferred to walk to work alone because he wanted the solitude to compose poetry.

We won’t all get to Carnegie Hall, but we all know the way. The problem is many of us are not sure that we want to work that hard or that unceasingly. But that’s what it takes to maintain our skills and to grow. And that’s what it means to be a professional artist.

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

“I Wish I had Made That”

Sunday, 14. July 2013 23:09

“I wish I had taken that picture,” “I wish I had made that,” “How does he do that?” Sometimes those are expressions of appreciation or admiration for the work others. Too often, though, those sorts of statements, along with statements like “Her work is no better than mine, but hers sells,” “I wish I could paint [sculpt, act, dance] like him,” “I want my stuff to look like that,” “Oh, my pictures are way better than hers,” represent something else entirely.

Comparison. We almost can’t help but do it. In the US, it’s part of our culture. According to Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, we are “told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing.” Given that sort of push, it’s almost impossible for us to not compare ourselves with others. We must constantly look around and see where we are in relation to everybody else. How else are we to know when we’ve succeeded unless we are better than, if not someone else, then who we used to be?

The problem for artists is that comparing ourselves to others is contrary to who and what we profess to be. Oh, we may be competitive, or envious, or greedy, or any number of other things, but more often than not the reason we became artists in the first place is because we have something inside that has to come out. And that something and the way that we express it are unique to us; they are, in fact, what makes our art our art. And every time we compare our work or ourselves to another, it is a denial of our individuality. How could we possibly produce art like someone else without having lived his/her life and without having had his/her experiences?

And yet we continue to look at the work of other artists and decide how that work measures up to ours, or vice versa.  It is not a useful way to think, either as an artist or a person. We need to understand that we can’t do that. We are not that artist. And if we were to spend that comparison time doing our own work, we could make it that much better—not in relation to someone else’s but as an improved expression of our own vision.

And we need to remember that just as we cannot produce the art of others, nobody can produce our art but us. Sometimes, each of us needs to be reminded:

Nobody else walks in your shoes.  Nobody else lives your life, has your story, or knows what you know.  Nobody else has your combined talents, history, skills and expertise.  Nobody else has your particular shine.  Don’t be excellent if it means trying to fit yourself into someone else’s definition of the term.

So instead of spending our time comparing ourselves to others (and coming up short much of the time), we need to remind ourselves that we are each one-of-a-kind and that we produce unique work, a projection of our own individual aesthetic and distinct view of the world, made the best that we can make it on that particular day. It’s a better way to live, and a better way to approach our art.

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

Artistic Benchmarks: What Are They Really Good For?

Sunday, 7. July 2013 23:01

Last week, I got into a discussion with the manager of a frame shop about nude photography. It soon became apparent that this man considered nude photography the holy grail of image-making. He may be right. Nude photography is definitely a photographic benchmark. The artistic nude is a difficult assignment, some would say the most difficult type of portrait to pull off. Others, particularly those who work in other photographic specializations, might differ. However, few would argue that while the nude might not be the benchmark, it is certainly one of the big ones.

In the world of theatre, for male actors there are a number of benchmark roles, the title characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories for example. There may be others, but most actors are pretty sure that if they can master the complexity of a Shakespearean tragic hero, they have achieved a recognized level of competence. There may be other roles, but few are as challenging in as many different ways as these very well-known members of royalty.

If both photography and theatre have benchmark activities, I wondered about other arts as well. This week I was out with a couple and asked what they would consider to be the test of ability in their respective disciplines that would be challenging enough to be attempted by only a few and mastered by even fewer. (She is a painter and he is a light tenor; both are professionals.) Without hesitation, she answered, “Nudes,” then went on to say that many artists consider nudes to be “so difficult they won’t even attempt them.” He named a couple of pieces, and explained that for each vocal range and each subdivision within the range (and they are quite numerous) the benchmarks would be different.

A cousin of mine who is equally phenomenal on piano or organ, named several “milestone” pieces for each instrument, some of which were difficult and respected for different reasons.

That’s the thing about benchmarks. There is rarely only one within a discipline. There may be several, one or more for each branch within a discipline. But most artists within that branch would probably agree on the two or three or however many there might be. It’s always material that demands great respect.

Still, artists in all disciplines hunger to perform the difficult pieces, make images of difficult subject matter, attempt the techniques that are the most challenging around. Is it because artists are competitive, even though they may be competing against themselves? Are they driven by the need to join the handful of predecessors who have mastered the nearly-impossible? Why would they waste their time to perform that which is so demanding, rather than that which might bring them income? Why bother?

Luis Galindo, currently performing the title role in Macbeth speaks very eloquently to this issue in a recent article for KCET’s “Artbound.” He talks about the issues that come with preparing for such a role, about his doubts and fears. Ultimately, for him, the work comes to be about artistic growth: “. . . the press will opine, and our fans will cheer or not. Through all of this, one thing is certain: I will have grown in every way as an actor because of this opportunity. An opportunity to mine the caves of darkness for the good stuff.”

In preparing for a benchmark performance, or photograph, or painting, or song, we have to bring our best game, we have to confront our self-doubt, we have to dig deep; more importantly, we have to grow. Otherwise, we will never achieve. And even if we fail, we will have benefited from the exploration and development that preparation for such a project entails.

Once again, it’s all about process.

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

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