Post from October, 2013

Daydreaming and Mindfulness

Monday, 28. October 2013 0:28

For all its faults, what struck me about the book I recently finished was how accurately it depicted the goings-on in the mind of the artist. The main character, a painter, would sometimes completely lose track of what was going on around her because she was so involved in daydreaming. She spent a lot of time planning, foreseeing the paintings that she wanted to create.

We all daydream, and many would argue that it is from daydreams that inspiration comes. It is certainly in daydreams that we imagine our creations or discover an insight or recognize a new idea. Many artists find daydreaming useful, perhaps even necessary to doing their work. How else would the image of the new piece of work come if you could not let your mind drift from the here-and-now to other times and places?

The other side of the coin is what is called mindfulness, staying in the present moment. Everywhere you turn in blogosphere, you run into articles about the value of mindfulness to the artist. It’s a topic I have spent some time on myself here and here, and actually work at myself on a daily basis.

The benefits of mindfulness are well known to actors, who must stay in the present if they are to do even passable work. This approach to the world: living in and attending to the present comes up again and again in creativity theory. We must be in the present to create; once we let our minds wander to the past or the future, we have left the moment in which we are actually doing the work. If we happen to be in flow, mindfulness descends upon us as a condition of the state, and we really have no choice. Additionally, there are the psychological benefits associated with mindfulness: loss of anxiety and worry.

The question is how each of these disparate activities fits into the creative life of not just painters or actors, but any artist.

The answer is, of course, balance. We must be able to allow our imaginations to take flight, to travel to those places where new ideas reside or the seeds of new images germinate. Then we must bring those ideas and images into the present. If we stay “away,” we will become those dreamers who never produce, the composers who never write a note, the writers who never commit words to paper or screen. We become imaginers and planners instead of doers. We must go into the worlds of imagination, seize the ideas that we find there, and bring them back to the present where we can develop them.

On the other hand, if we stay only in the present, we can miss some of the wonders that our imaginations can produce. Mindfulness practice says that when ideas intrude, we should acknowledge them and return our attention to the present. This sometimes means that an idea may be lost. And some of those ideas may well deserve to be followed and entertained, not because we are helpless to prevent it, but because down that path lies the next painting or play or sculpture. The trick is to not get so lost in that world that we don’t make it back to this one, but we do need to be able to let our imaginations wander and invent and discover.

As artists, I think, we would do well to take a middle path, perhaps not that philosophical middle path that avoids the extremes, but rather a practical one that encompasses, reconciles and balances the opposing activities of mindfulness and daydreaming and allows us to use all of our potential to create.

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The Value of Strike

Monday, 21. October 2013 7:12

If you work in theatre you know about a thing called a strike. For the uninitiated, a strike is that time when the set is taken down and removed from the stage. Props are returned to storage. Costumes are readied for cleaning. Color media are removed from lighting instruments. The final act of a strike is the almost-ritual sweeping of the stage. This is a time, often late at night, when everyone knows that the show is finally, irrevocably over.

For some it is a time of some sadness, particularly if the show was a very good one; we always want the good to continue. For others, it is a moment of celebration, a signal that they will be moving on to the next project, knowing that this one, no matter how good or bad, has been completed. For everyone, it is a time of the recognition of finality. The show is over; it will not, cannot have another performance. Only new is available.

Tomorrow there will be new tape lines on the stage. Tomorrow we will begin in earnest on the show that is—for the time being—the most important show of our careers, because the current one always is—if we’re doing it right.

Many of us work on multiple overlapping projects. At times, there seems to be no end to it: start a project, work on two others, complete another. There is little in that routine to serve as any sort of a progress marker. And we need progress markers. Perhaps that’s why it’s so refreshing to participate in a strike. An ending. We won’t be working on that project anymore; now we can put our whole attention on a new project. It is almost a death-rebirth ceremony: the stage has been cleared for whatever is to come.

In my years in theatre, I have been through several hundred strikes. Each one is different. Each one is poignant. Each one carries a sense of new beginnings. And if there is one thing that we need as artists, it’s new beginnings. At a recent art show, an artist who was not exhibiting, commented that she was disappointed that some artists were hanging the same thing that they had put on the walls a year ago. Some theatre artists may do that too—but most do not; they start new on a clean stage.

As I walked out of the theatre after strike last night, I was thinking about the tear-down of the art show in which I had been exhibiting earlier in the day. The two were entirely different, and I thought that if I could wish one thing for not-theatrical artists, it would be that they too could experience strike. There is a recognition of finality and sense of renewal that cannot be equaled, regardless of what position you happen to have held in a show.

And there is value in that recognition; it marks our progress and provides us with new beginnings.  Perhaps those of us who are not now consciously acknowledging endings and beginnings, should.

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The Death of Creativity

Monday, 14. October 2013 0:34

This week my newsreader (Feedly) presented me with two articles heralding the death of creativity. It turns out that both were by the same author, David Byrne, and were really about money and the way money or lack of it could impact young artists.

One article has the sensationalist headline “The internet will suck all creative content out of the world.” This piece is not about “all creative content;” rather it is about how little musicians receive from streaming sources such as Spotify. The argument is simply that if artists are not compensated, they will turn from making music and the world will be the poorer for it.

The second article is “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here.” This article too focuses on finances and talks about how only the super-rich can afford to live anywhere in New York City anymore and how that same group refuses to “fund culture-makers.” Because of these two things, that which has made New York the creative capital of the world will disappear and the city will no longer draw the world’s best creatives. This will cause Byrne to leave.

Although Byrne should be applauded for his concern for future generations of artists, equating the conditions set out by these articles with the death of creativity is just silly.

Byrne links creativity and money, but in different ways in each article. Certainly for anyone to continue to be creative does require funds sufficient to survive and acquire materials. How those funds are secured are as varied as artists themselves. However, people do not start making art to get rich. They make art because they have something to say, because, as a colleague recently put it, “it’s worth doing,” because they can’t not.

The music business is, and has been, notorious for paying artists as little as possible while pocketing huge profits from the sale of recordings. There is no real reason to think that the future will be any different from the past in that regard, but this is not a new thing. The new things are the method of distribution and better global communication that allows artists to be more aware of what is happening. But will this cause them to abandon music? Not if they’re really artists.

Byrne also ties New York’s continued dominance as a center of all arts to money. Does it really matter whether New York continues this dominance or not? Somewhere will. During the reign of the Medicis, it was Italy. In the early 20th century it was Paris. And it has been other places at other times. There will always be a place that draws the best of the creative best because it facilitates what Byrne calls “the possibility of interaction and inspiration. . . .[and] serendipitous encounters.” And regardless of where that place is, artists will find it, and many will go there, and the fame of that place will explode, and then wane, and then the mantle will move to somewhere else.  We could, like Byrne, mourn the potential passing of New York as the center of all things creative, or, like Scott Walters, who is certain that New York is already damaging at least theatre arts in America precisely because it is the creative center through which all artists must pass, be pleased about that prospect.

The factors that Byrnes cites may exert negative forces on creativity, may even stifle it for a time. But creativity will resist being stifled, will resist being suppressed, will even resist lack of nourishment forced upon it in certain cultures at certain times, and will survive. Individuals who are creative will find a way—as they always have—to make their art whether there is proper compensation or not, whether they are able to make a pilgrimage to the artistic Mecca of their generation or not. Creativity will survive because it comes from a source deeper than money.

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Stuck? Adopt a New Model

Monday, 7. October 2013 0:30

Among the many recent articles about John Boehner was one saying that Speaker Boehner’s problem was that he was using an old model that really didn’t work anymore.  This, of course, caused me to think about all those we shake our heads over because they too are using outdated models: the teachers who don’t understand why the techniques they used 10 years ago don’t work anymore, or the business man who is perplexed because his 20-year-old methodology doesn’t attract customers the way they used to.

And this, in turn, got me thinking about artists who are doing exactly the same thing: relying on old models when what we need are new ones—if we really want to succeed. This is not a suggestion to chase the most recent fad, but to evaluate and embrace what is new, fresh, exhibits potential, and will allow us to better speak to our audience.

Artists who depend on ticket sales do this. A friend who is a stage director was just this week lamenting the fact that there are number of good shows that can no longer be successfully produced—except as period pieces—because the plot hinges on a device that is no longer recognizable to the audience or because the subject matter no longer speaks to us. This same idea is also reflected in the gross structure of plays: nobody writes five-act plays anymore because audiences reject them—for a variety of reasons, and those that exist usually have to be modified to appeal to today’s theatre-goer. So theatre people who want to keep producing are forced to let go of the old and find new models.

Some artists don’t want to give up the old, so they attempt to combine it with and the new. For example, contemporary productions of Shakespeare are often set in a time and place different from those suggested in the script. Or they are given a twist to make them more appealing to today’s audience. The same thing happens with the holiday classic, The Nutcracker. And the same is true of visual arts: a photographer may use an obsolete technique to comment on an aspect of modern society, or a painter may use an antiquated methodology as part of his/her statement.

Several artists, Hazel Dooney and Marie Kazala among them, tell us to sidestep the old model for distributing art work; they advocate selling directly using every electronic and social networking means available. Although slow to learn, the music industry and now perhaps, even the movie industry are realizing that the only way to cling to old models is through the courts, and that perhaps a more productive approach would be to adopt new models for the distribution of the art they represent.

And it’s not just about distribution. Sometimes embracing the new leads to better work. A friend who is a painter recently attended a workshop where she learned not only some new techniques, but also learned of a brand new medium—a new kind of paint that allowed her to do things on paper and canvas that she had never been able to do before. Since she embraced the new material and the model that went with it, the quality of her work has soared.

Some, of course, will argue that the old ways are better. Perhaps, but if they cannot help us connect with our audience, no matter what kind of art we make, then we really are making art only for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that unless we want to share our artistic vision with others.

This is hardly a new idea. Each successive artistic movement has been a reaction to what that generation of artists thought was lacking in the previous generation, or was about the development of new ways of presenting what the artist envisioned. Each generation has adopted new models. And now it’s our turn. The world has, in the words of Roland Deschain, “moved on,” and we would do well to move along with it.


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