Post from April, 2017

A Question of Relevance

Monday, 17. April 2017 2:10

Pippin, in the musical of the same name by Steven Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson learns that the problem with a creative life is that “you’ve got to be dead to find out if you were any good.” What he should have learned was that, no matter your skill level, in order to be any good, you have to be relevant. And if your art is to last, it has to stay relevant, or at least be relevant to periods other than the one in which you lived.

Relevance does not mean “generalized” so all people in all ages can understand it. Rather, it means that the artifact, while being specific to its own era, can also speak to audiences in other times and places. The words of Confucius, of Jesus, of Gautama Buddha are relevant today, not because they are generalizations, but because they are universal and apply to humans no matter what time or place.

If you look at the sayings of Confucius, Jesus, Buddha, you will find that they are very specific, referring to particular people and situations of their respective times. What they have to say, however, is, with certain small exceptions, applicable to people and situations far removed in time and place.

This is also true of works of art. Certain works speak to people of different places and times and others do not. The works of Eugene Scribe and Victorien Sardou, for example, are not well-remembered. Famous in their own time, their plays are not revived outside of France, and even there they are not well received. You never hear of a play by either man being produced. Why? Because they are no longer relevant. What they wrote was relevant to their times only; reports are that they were very well received at the time, but they were too much tied to the times, too closely linked to the people and the place in which they were written.

Other artists are still relevant, or can be made so. Shakespeare is the first to come to mind. But not all audiences are ready for the language and the milieu of his scripts as written. If the producer and director can get the audience past those barriers, Shakespeare has much to say to the modern audience; his insights into the concerns of many of his characters are concerns of people today.

Relevance is not an all-time thing. Because of the current political situation in the US, work which has seemed irrelevant to many in the past suddenly provides understanding and perception. Take the work of Chekhov. Unlike some, film critic David Edelstein thinks that Chekhov is always relevant. However, he says, “But maybe there is something more relevant now….  Change had to come – but at what cost?

It is difficult to believe that Shakespeare or Chekhov or Picasso or Michelangelo or Rodin sat around and worried about whether his work would speak to generations besides his own; the work is far too specific for that. What mattered to each of these artists is that the work spoke to his own audience.

Unless we can do the same, our work will lack significance. As Pippin so clearly pointed out, only time will tell whether we speak to future generations. In the meantime, we must work to make our own work relevant to our tribe and perhaps a larger audience of our own time. Only then can we consider ourselves serious artists.

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

The Necessity of Commitment

Monday, 3. April 2017 0:29

There have been a number of posts here about obsession and the necessity of obsession for an artist (here, here, and here, for example). The problem is that obsession is not enough. Obsession does not necessarily engender action. There are a number of people whose obsession leads to nothing but mental preoccupation with whatever the object of the obsession happens to be. These people can include “artists” who sit around obsessing over the “next piece” but never actually doing anything about it.

What such artists need, in addition to obsession, is commitment to the work, a dedication to practicing their craft. It’s the thing that puts artists in the studio for x number of hours a day, every day. It’s the “going to work” part of making art. (In at least one previous post, I talked about the necessity of working at one’s craft—every day.) Artists have to show up and do the work whether there is inspiration or not, and that takes commitment. Commitment demands action, and action is exactly what artists need to move from the idea to the creation stage of art-making. The artist who is able to couple commitment and obsession is one who is likely to succeed.

A digital artist I know is completely obsessed with creating really intricate pieces; as far as I know, her obsession has never waned. However, not long ago she had a period of self-doubt; she was “down” for several weeks. But during all that time she never missed a day at the computer. She sat down and did her work, which she filed—because she felt that she was in no mental state to evaluate it properly. Fortunately her depression was short-lived, and soon she was back to her usual self. In the meantime she had continued working and had produced what turned out to be, with a little editing, some excellent pieces.

On his double album The Gold Medal Collection, singer and social activist Harry Chapin talks about Pete Seeger’s commitment. Seeger was committed not only to music, but to social activism as well. Chapin says (and it’s difficult to determine whether he’s quoting Seeger or commenting on Seeger):

Who are the people who are your best friends? Who are the people you keep coming back to? Who are the people who make your life worthwhile? Usually the people who are committed to something. So in the final analysis, commitment, in and of itself, irrespective of whether you win or not is something that truly makes your life more worthwhile.

Seeger and Chapin were talking about commitment to a cause bigger than oneself, but the same thinking applies to a person who is committed to his/her art (which is usually larger than oneself). It’s a person who doesn’t just think and talk about creating, but a person who does, a person who creates, a person who produces—and keeps on producing.

And to do that, the artist must be committed. And that commitment demands that the artist show up at the computer or the easel or the keyboard, or the sketchpad or the studio or the theatre or the rehearsal hall regularly and work at his/her art. The artist must follow the lead of Louis Armstrong, who 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.” Artists must be committed.

The digital artist mentioned above said that she thought that sitting down and doing the work every day was responsible for her returning to normal quickly. We would do well, I think, to follow her example.

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

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