“That Works” Is Insufficient

Years ago, if memory serves, Jack Lemmon on Inside the Actors Studio expressed an intense dislike for the phrase, “that works.” He did not explain. At the time, I thought it was a curious comment since it’s a phrase that is heard constantly in artistic endeavors. It is applied to not only acting, but also to painting, composition, sculpture, directing, photography, and many other art genres. What could be wrong with that phrase? It indicates when things “click,” when they mesh, when parts come together and make a whole. Generally, the phrase is used to indicate acceptability or success.

In the last post I discussed John Chamberlain’s 1982 artist statement, wherein he says that his artistic decision-making has to do with “primarily sexual and intuitive thinking.”  Chamberlain initially seems to equate intuitive thinking or intuition with editing ability: “I’ve done pieces, for example, on which were piled as many as 40 to 50 parts, but none was totally interlocked, or welded. That is the sexual fit. Intuition, however, may have made me remove some, or many, of the parts.”

But for Chamberlain intuition is more than just editing; he goes on to say, “Intuition will indicate when something is not acceptable, even though it might work. That it works is not necessarily enough. It can be acceptable, but something more is needed. The fine line is that it is either junk, or art materials, or, it is a piece of work. “

So for Chamberlain, and I expect for Lemmon, “that works” is insufficient. It is that something beyond acceptability which makes a piece into a work of art instead of being just materials, or in some cases junk. The problem is that we have no name for that something. It is certainly not perfection. Hardly anyone who is a serious artist expects perfection. If not perfection, then what?

How about excellence? “That works” does imply success or acceptability. However, excellence goes beyond mere success or acceptability. Excellence means “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” So Chamberlain, and one assumes Lemmon, expected to produce work that was not acceptable, but work that was excellent. That’s a pretty high bar.

And it’s a bar that is being met only part of the time by a portion of artists. If you attend any art show or theatre performance you may see work that is excellent, but you are very likely to see work that is just acceptable. The reasons, I think, are many: a de-emphasis on excellence in artist training, the pressure to put work out in order to be seen and known, the emphasis on showing rather than on working. Chamberlain resisted the impulse to produce work quickly, or at least so he says: “If I were zippy and worked hard all the time, what I’d create would be of little value; I’d make too many mistakes.”

Perhaps we should adopt Chamberlain’s attitude and resist the impulse to “get the work out.” If producing is our goal, we are more likely to create work that is merely acceptable, about which we can say only “that works.” Perhaps instead we should take a little more time and a little more care and refuse to settle for work that is less than excellent.

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Date: Monday, 23. April 2018 0:34
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Creativity, Productivity

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