Post from August, 2016

Going Further

Monday, 22. August 2016 0:43

Some artists make their art and call it done. The painting is finished; the character is complete; the novel is written; the photograph is finalized. The artist, content, then moves on to the next project. Once the work is declared done, the artist never looks back.

Unless he/she is in the class of an art teacher I know. He always, no matter how good the “finished” piece, asks his students, “Have you thought about… [some twist or slight modification to the piece.]”  There are some variations; sometimes it’s a different question entirely, or seems to be. And it’s not even a real suggestion, just a question, asked very gently. I’m not sure he’s really interested in the answer. What he is interested in is getting students to think beyond themselves, to consider possibilities that they haven’t considered, to understand that when it’s done, it may not be done.

Whether the students do anything with those considerations may also be of lesser importance. What is important is that that they think about his question. They may then attempt whatever suggestion was hidden in the question, or modify the piece based on a different idea, or, having evaluated their piece, decide to keep it as it is. Regardless, they have considered going further. And that’s the point.

Most of us reach a point in the creation of a piece of work when we declare it “done.” There may be a number of reasons: a deadline, thinking we’ve spent too much time on this project, anticipation of the next project, just getting tired of working on the project. Or it may be we actually consider the project done.

Many good artists, however—at least the ones I know—are seldom satisfied, no matter when they get to the point when, for one reason or another, they have to release their creations into the world. They may call it done, but they are still thinking about it. They suspect that there is something further that can be done.

This attitude was perhaps best expressed by Picasso, who suggested that the artist is never finished: “To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.

And, like Picasso, we may never finish our pieces. Still, sooner or later, we must let our work be performed or published or shown or sold. But before we do, we need to look to our imaginations to see if we can make a little twist or slight modification that would make the piece better before its required release. This is not to suggest that the new piece will ever be finished either, only that we take it just a little further before we let it go.

Because we can always go further, this could be a never-ending journey. But isn’t the creation of art that already? Perhaps by making that small twist or slight modification we have not yet thought of, we can reduce our dissatisfaction with our own work. Perhaps we can make our work just that much better. And how could that be a bad thing?

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Why that Artist’s Method Won’t Work for You

Wednesday, 10. August 2016 1:03

It seems that almost everyone who is beginning in the arts wants a prepackaged process. This is easily seen in arts classrooms where potential actors, painters, photographers, sculptors, writers eagerly await how-to prescriptions of how to warm up, how to approach the material, how to get results. They are looking for the magic path that will take them from the classroom/studio to producing acclaimed work one project after another.

Acting students have heard, after all, that there is a Method, and if they follow the procedures of The Method, they will certainly produce good work. What they don’t realize is that the method which originated with Stanislavski, has been modified by his innumerable students, so there are now multiple methods, each claiming to be the True Path to great acting. The same is more-or-less true for all the arts. For example, some photographers think that if they follow Ansel’s process, their pictures will rival his; some writers believe that if they use the same methodology as [insert name of famous writer here], their work will be just as good.

And this seeking of the magic process is not limited to novice artists. There is a constant parade of articles, workshops, classes, all telling the seeker what might be wrong with his/her process and why the one that the writer/presenter is offering will make the seeker a better actor, painter, photographer, writer. The fact that the workshops and classes are full and the articles have readers indicates that even practicing artists are still looking for the Holy Grail of artistic process.

The narrator in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance blames this on technology: “Technology presumes there’s just one right way to do things and there never is.” That sentence was published in 1974; it’s an even stronger statement now when technology has pervaded every area of our lives. And his point is well taken; it seems that every piece of technology comes with instructions which imply that there is only one right way to use whatever the tool happens to be. So it becomes ingrained in our thinking. Pirsig’s narrator goes on to say that there are, in fact, an infinite number of ways to do things. He says of a true craftsman or artist: “He isn’t following a set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.”

Stella Adler in The Art of Acting says much the same thing. She says, “Mr. Stanislavsky had his Method.” Continuing, she says that what worked for Stanislavsky will not work for contemporary actors simply because they do not live in Stanislavsky’s culture or have his experiences and influences. The proper goal for the actor, she says, is to be independent of The Method, of any instructor, and to reformulate it the actor’s method in his/her own way.

Just as there is no one warm-up that will serve all dancers or actors, or any other performer, there is no one way of approaching whatever our art is. The best we can do is study various methodologies, try them out, and, adopt those techniques that, when we apply them, are not necessarily the easiest for us, but that yield the best results.

Studying the processes of successful artists is one of the ways to acquire ideas that we can adopt or adapt. But we must remember not follow the processes of others blindly, but to pull out those ideas, methods, and procedures that will lead us to our best results. Thus we develop our own working procedures and our own process. And once we have a base process, what we may find is that we will have more success if we modify it, as Pirsig suggests, to fit the material of a given project.  Then we will be masters of our own unique, flexible process, and our work will be the better for it.

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