Post from December, 2018

Advice to the Artist

Sunday, 23. December 2018 22:39

Every once in a while there occurs that happy accident when there is a confluence of ideas that arrive from different sources at the same time. For me, this very thing happened this week. First, I read Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World, a short little book illustrated by Chris Riddell. Then I had a very interesting and informative conversation with a university art teacher who works primarily in sculpture and print-making. Finally, I ran across Jerry Saltz’s “How to Be an Artist: 33 rules to take you from clueless amateur to generational talent (or at least help you live life a little more creatively)” which appeared on the Vulture.com’s web site and which originally appeared in the November 26, 2018 issue of New Yorker Magazine.

Saltz advises would-be artists to tell their own stories and to do so with their own voices and to not worry about being understood; he compares making art to “getting naked in front of someone else for the first time.” He goes on to tell artists to put ideas and emotions into their work, to spend lots of time practicing skills and producing and to be ready for failure. He suggests that real art is done for love, not money. He has a number of very specific suggestions and very interesting exercises.

The conversation with the art teacher was about whether in teaching art one concentrates on the abstract aspects of art, i.e. that art can give meaning to people’s lives, that artists can influence people, that art can, in fact, change the world, or concentrates on the craft aspects of making a print or brush technique or skills in handling a camera or sculpting practice. He said that he tries to combine the two in that the artist has to have the craft in order to put forward the artist’s ideas. He went on to say that one of the most difficult things he had encountered lately was getting students to use their own voices and tell their own unique stories with their art rather than relying on making “safe” work that keeps them snug in their comfort zone.

Gaiman’s book is really a collection of four short pieces about the how and why of making art. Interestingly, he says some of the same things as Saltz and the art teacher. For example, he thinks that art is about putting forward ideas, and that those ideas, whether they are true are not, have the right to exist and can (sometimes) change the world. He discusses the power of imagination. Gaiman notes that the artist should expect to fail, but should keep working; he believes that the best art is not done for money. He also discusses finding one’s own voice and telling one’s own story. He notes that “the moment you may be starting to get it right” is “the moment that you feel, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked…showing too much of yourself.”

From these three encounters, I have derived seven pieces of art advice which seem valid no matter where someone is in his/her art journey:

  1. Try new things.
  2. Be prepared to fail.
  3. Tell your own story with your own voice.
  4. Put ideas and emotions into your work.
  5. Keep producing no matter what anyone says.
  6. Understand that your work exposes you to your audience.
  7. Make art because you want or need to, not because you expect payment.

There are certainly more, but these seven seemed to be the most important. I would encourage you to read these articles and others for yourself and talk with as many art teachers as you can; then develop your own list.

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Professionalism

Monday, 10. December 2018 0:16

This weekend I got to experience two strikes. Strike, for those of you who don’t speak theatre, means to take down the set. It might be to move the set to another location, as in the case of a traveling show, or it might mean simply to tear down the set and clear the stage. The latter I witnessed—twice. The first was the Saturday night strike of a play that closed. The concern was to get the stage clear for a concert on Sunday afternoon. Then I got to watch the strike of the concert (although I’m not sure musicians use the term strike). Both of these events happened in a collegiate setting, and although some of the musicians were union musicians, no unions were involved in either strike.

What was obvious in both strikes was the professional attitude of some participants and the less-than-professional attitude of others. Almost everyone involved had participated in a strike before, so the very few who were complete novices were noted and not considered in this observation. It turned out that those whom I labeled as having a professional attitude, were, in fact professionals, or had, at least worked professionally prior to this weekend. And that fact was evident in their approach to the work at hand.

What marked the professionals was pace and persistence. They worked at a consistent pace, neither too slow nor too fast. They were obviously concerned with safety, but they were more concerned with getting the job done. Unlike others who were less practiced, they did not stop to chat or stand around waiting to be directed or play at the job. They moved very smoothly (and cheerfully) from task to task to task. (Let me reiterate: almost all of the participants were experienced, so the attitude of the professional was available to all. All, however, did not adopt this approach.)

And that attitude, the on-going ability to stay focused and on-task, is, I think, one of the hallmarks of the real professional: the ability to keep working whether there is the possibility for immediate reward or not. It’s an attitude that involves a commitment to doing the work. Strike is part of the gig, so you do it; it may not be the most enjoyable part of the job, but you do it.

It’s the same kind of commitment to doing the work that many, many artists in a variety of arts talk about. It’s the showing up—repeatedly to do the work. It’s the development of a routine that requires that you do so many pages per day or standing in front of the easel on a regular basis or spending so many hours a day working at your art.

And that commitment is, to my mind, one of the marks of a true professional in the arts: one who works at his/her art consistently and repeatedly, one who puts in the time, no matter whether a particular task is enjoyable or not. There are, of course, other characteristics of the true professional, but this is one of the most important. All it takes to be called a professional is to get paid for your art.  Professionalism, on the other hand, is not just a matter of getting paid, not just a matter of talent; it is a matter of attitude and approach.

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