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Take a Moment

Monday, 15. February 2021 0:04

Yesterday, I was half-finished with my blog post, which was about the artful response to the once-in-generation winter weather event that we are about to experience, when I stopped. I had suddenly realized that I had no idea about the circumstances of my readers. While I know that most of the readers of this blog are interested in the arts and creativity, I have no idea what their lives are like, and I had made the mistake of assuming that they were much like mine. So I took a moment to think about it.

A number of creative people are, and have been out of work for almost a year. This likely means that they have had to change their lifestyles, including their living arrangements. They may have had to take other types of jobs to make ends meet. Or they may be trying to survive without making ends meet. Others have seen markets dry up and have had to turn to different venues to sell their work, with differing levels of success. Certainly they are operating differently than they were a year ago.

And there is no reason to think that all who read the blog, or even a majority, are in the same life situation that I am in at the moment, so what I was writing not only might not have resonated, but may have been an affront to them—something I had no intention of doing when I sat down to begin the post.

I had been thinking about this severe weather event as providing a temporary respite from pandemic fatigue, which is plaguing many of us as we approach the first year anniversary of the pandemic. It did not occur to me that it might well do that—but in a negative way. And one of the things we do no need more of at the moment is anything negative.

What we do need is something positive. So if the once-in-a-generation winter weather event can bring us something positive, I am all for it. And it doesn’t have to be something big or life-changing. It could be something as small as a warm bowl of soup, a mug of hot chocolate, a moment when we can sit by the fire and read, a minute to stand by the window and watch the snow fall, or just a short time when we don’t have to think about the pandemic and all that that means.

One of the positive things that it has provided me is an occasion to take a moment to appreciate my own situation. For all the complaining I do, I have been very fortunate. Perhaps more importantly, it has provided me the opportunity to take a moment to say how much I appreciate those who take the time to visit this blog. And it allows me the forum to voice my hope that you are somewhere safe and warm and dry as the temperature drops and the freezing rain and snow begin to fall.

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If You Build It . . .

Sunday, 31. January 2021 23:35

. . . they may or may not come. The fact is that art does not sell itself. No matter how good our art might be, no matter what our art is, there is no guarantee that it will be appreciated or purchased. There are, of course, artists who become famous after their deaths; Vincent van Gogh and Emily Dickenson jump to mind immediately. But what of those artists who may have been equally talented but were not “discovered” after their deaths? What of their art? It’s gone, lost to us—forever.

Many of us did not enter the world of art to become famous; rather, we got into art because we were compelled by something inside. Still, if we do good work, it would be nice to at least have our work acknowledged. But that is something that does not happen naturally. Oh, family and friends might appreciate out work, but most of us would like to have our work known in a bit wider world. “Oh, that’s just ego talking,” some might say. In some cases that might be true, but in others, it’s about the work, about sharing our work with the world.

There are many artists who would like to share their work with the world, but they don’t know how or don’t want to take the time away from the work to figure out what “sharing” really means to them. Does it simply mean getting the work out into the world? Or does it mean getting the work out into the world and being paid for it? This is not a new phenomenon; it took James Joyce literally years to get Ulysses published.

And it’s something that is not taught in most schools. We can take classes in writing, sculpture, painting, photography, dance, directing, or whatever art we might want to, but nowhere in the curriculum is there training in getting published, or collected, or known. That is left up to each individual artist. And it’s something every individual artist must deal with, even those who are reclusive or eschew sales and promotion.

“Well, there’s always the internet,” some would say, and yes that is a way to get our work out. We can snag a YouTube Channel or put our work onto any of the myriad of platforms offered by the internet. The problem is that we are then just one of the thousands of others vying for the attention of the public. For the writers (and maybe photographers and other visual artists) there is always blogging or self-publishing, and there have been successes in that area, but again, we find ourselves competing with hundreds of others.

So, we not only need to get our work out there, but we need to find a way to get people to look out that work. We have to connect with our potential audience. We need to promote—our work, our selves. And even if it takes time away from creating, it is absolutely necessary. And even though it does not represent who we are, it is absolutely necessary. And no matter how much we don’t want to do it, it is absolutely necessary—if we want an audience.

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Make Your Work Known

Sunday, 3. January 2021 23:11

Some artists are notoriously introverted and reclusive. Emily Dickenson, Vivian Maier, and J.D. Salinger immediately come to mind. These were artists who were concerned almost exclusively with creating rather than selling their work. A number of us follow in their footsteps, so many, in fact, that Austin Kleon felt compelled to write a book called Show Your Work, which he says is a “guide to getting discovered.”

The reasons for our reticence to get our work out there are many. Some of us are simply introverted. Many of us are insecure. A number of us don’t want to take the time or learn the skills required to sell our work. Some of us don’t want to take the time away from away from the process of making work to show our work. Another group of us has entered shows and contests, even won awards, developed web sites, and found that those activities did not materially enlarge our audience—at least in a way that we could see, so we pulled back. A few of us simply lack ambition. There are hundreds of other reasons, but these are the ones that seem to predominate.

So we do our work in isolation, subsisting solely on the rewards of creativity, eschewing discovery. Still, many of us harbor a small wish to be, if not famous, at least to be known to a group outside our family and friends. We would like for our work to be recognized.

And perhaps that’s the key; perhaps that’s a way to get past our own introversion and insecurity: to think of it as not promoting ourselves, but promoting the work. Perhaps if we focus on our work instead of ourselves it will be easier to find the time and the wherewithal to put it out into the world. After all, we know that work has value; we spent hours, days, weeks making, refining, and polishing it. What we don’t know is whether the work has value for other people. And the only way we are ever going to find that out is by putting it out into the world.

And yes, that will take some time, and some effort, but it may well be worth it. We may find that there exists a group of people who appreciate what is that we do, a group of people who are interested not only in what we do but how we do it. And once we find that group, we may be able to figure out how to grow it. And we may find that some in that group are interested in not just seeing but owning some of our work.

And although it will take that time and effort, our work will become known. And we can stay personally introverted if we like because it will be about the work and not about ourselves. Except now there is a larger audience for the work. The only questions that remain are when and where to start. When is easy: now. Where is a more difficult question, given that there is a myriad of venues. One place we might start is with one of those advice books, like Show Your Work. We just need to remember that what we read are suggestions, not rules. We can take what is comfortable and useful and leave the rest. After all, it’s our work that we are showing and we should do it our way.

Category:Audience, Presentation | Comment (0) | Author:

Effortless

Sunday, 20. December 2020 21:17

In the 5th edition of American Cinema/American Culture John Belton says that American cinema is essentially a narrative machine that uses “high artifice” to produce work the style and structure of which are “largely invisible.” That invisible machinery delivers narratives “effortlessly and efficiently.” In other words, there is lots and lots of machinery working behind the curtain, but the curtain is never lifted.

Since American film has been remarkably successful from its beginnings to the present, both as popular entertainment and high art, there may be lessons to be learned here. The first is, of course, that to make art good requires high artifice. That is, there needs to be structure, and that structure will contain the expertise and the style of the artist and the time. This suggests that behind the novel there does need to be an outline, at least as a starting point; behind the painting and the photograph there needs to be principles of composition and color; really good music has to be backed by solid music theory. As artists we must know what we are doing and employ the very best practices we can bring to the computer, the easel, the drawing board, the photo session.

The second lesson is that that artifice that we employ should be invisible. The audience should never be aware of the structure of the play or novel, the principles of composition, the theory employed to develop the work of art. We should never allow the audience to be aware of the hours and hours of planning and practicing, of trial and error that went into mixing that particular shade of blue, getting that exact characterization right, finding exactly the right words for the third line of the poem, developing the ending for the essay, the short story, the novel.

Rather, the audience should see a work of art that looks completely effortless, a piece of work that stands alone and communicates its story or meditation or vision in a way that makes the audience completely unaware of the work that went into it. Michelangelo certainly did not want those looking at the Sistine Chapel thinking about him standing on a scaffold to do the painting. While Stephen King sometimes talks about writing, he certainly does not want you thinking about his working methods while reading his latest novel. Anne Brigman did not want her audience to wonder about the darkroom manipulations she used in order to produce the images she made. Martin Scorsese does want the audience to be thinking about the technical aspects of lighting and editing while they are watching his films. All these artists want us to be focused on the content they are presenting, not their methodology.

And this same attitude should be a goal for our own art. No matter how much time, work, and planning we put into the work, what we finally present to our audience should appear completely effortless. We might want to talk about the planning, time, and effort that went into a creation—during the marketing of that work, or perhaps when we are teaching or studying a work. But when showing our work, all of that needs to remain completely invisible to the normal audience member; we need to make it look effortless.

Category:Audience, TV/Film | Comment (0) | Author:

And the Winner Is…

Monday, 17. February 2020 0:56

The Academy Awards marked the end of the awards season for films, but not the end of the discussion and controversy surrounding the awards and the films, actors, and directors who did and did not get nominated or who did and did not win this or that award. Coupled with that are the discussions of who or what film should have won this or that award, and there is discussion of the snubs and the possible reasons for them.

There were two lessons to be taken from this year’s award season. The first is that nominations, wins, and snubs are political as well as aesthetic.

Artists who do not work in film understand that the various awards shows are simply spectacles attached to juried film contests. Unlike standard juried art shows, however, film awards programs are fostered by a series of advertisements not unlike electioneering. The reason is, of course, the potential income that winning such awards can bring. Still, at the bottom, the awards are nothing but grandly publicized juried contests with a great number of jurors.

As such, they are subject to all the vagaries of any juried show. Each juror has not only a personal aesthetic which informs his/her judgement, i.e. what is artistically worthy of an award, but a personal political view as well. That political view may include any number of considerations of what is politically appropriate at the moment with respect to the contestants and the milieu in which they work. Of course some of these considerations will overlap juror-to-juror; some will not. Multiply these concerns by the number of jurors and it is easy to see why some films rise to the top and some do not in any particular year.

Awards are voted and announced and then there is great indignation that someone’s choice did not win. However, if pressed, that person cannot tell you why this film should have won over the one that was chosen. The second lesson to be learned is that many film enthusiasts cannot articulate why they think one film is better than another one; they just think it is.

Perhaps the first problem to acknowledge is that comparing films is like comparing apples and roses and tricycles. Films are one-off creations, much like any handcrafted artifact. Yes, there are series and franchises, but each film is expected to stand on its own just like each painting or sculpture or photograph is expected to stand on its own.

If we are to compare a film about a “members of a poor family who scheme to become employed by a wealthy family” and a film about “a stand-up comedian…whose history of abuse causes him to become a nihilistic criminal” and a film about “two young British soldiers during the First World war who are ordered to deliver a message” we must have some sort of set of standards as to what makes a film good. Most people seem to have that, but are unable to articulate it. When questioned, they simply say, “It was just better.”

So my two take-aways from this year’s film awards seasons are: (1) these awards shows are simply hoopla associated with juried contests for films. There are hundreds of jurors, and they all come with their own aesthetics and political positions which influence their votes. (2) Non-jurors (and perhaps jurors as well) also have their own aesthetics and political positions with regards to the evaluation of film, but they cannot articulate their standards.

We should take these two considerations into account the next time we submit pieces to juried shows; it is likely that responses to our work will incorporate them.

Category:Aesthetics, Audience | Comment (0) | Author:

Art Must Communicate—Immediately

Sunday, 18. August 2019 23:08

We are told repeatedly that it is impossible to please everyone, so we might as well make art to please ourselves. That is not terrible advice, as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. If we make art only to please ourselves, we run the risk of creating masturbatory art. (See “Art or Masturbation?”) Don’t we really want an audience larger than our three fellow artists who “get it”? If so, perhaps we ought to change our approach to the work we create.

This is not to say that our art does not have to satisfy our own aesthetic; certainly, it does. But shouldn’t our art try to communicate our vision to an audience outside ourselves? If we’re not going to do that, why bother to create an artifact in the first place? We create to record or reproduce our vision. This, though, is not enough, at least not for Edgar Degas who said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

Reading that quotation this week caused me to think about how artists approach their work in general. (And thanks to Lori McNee [@lorimcneeartist] for the tweet where I read it.) Many artists are so intent on transferring what they have seen and felt to the page or computer or canvas that they forget they have an audience. They don’t concern themselves with making their art to “make others see.”

When we do concern ourselves with that, it changes how we think about what we do. Communications theory holds that the responsibility for the success of the communication rests squarely on the person doing the communicating. If the other person doesn’t get it, it’s the communicator’s fault. Likewise, the responsibility for whether a piece of art communicates rests on the artist. When we accept that, we concern ourselves with not only recording our thoughts and feeling and insights in our art, but in being sure that the audience “gets” those thoughts and feelings and insights as well. So our focus changes; we become concerned with structuring our art so that it becomes accessible—at least to that group of people that we call our audience.

If we do not adopt this approach, we run the risk of looking and sounding as foolish as a stage director I knew once. I happened to be in the vicinity of the bulletin board where a newspaper review of the recently opened play just been posted. The reviewer said essentially that the direction of the show was muddy and s/he had difficulty determining what the play was really supposed to be about. The director of the show stopped, read the review, and began to rail loudly to anyone who would listen that the reviewer should come back as many times as it took for him/her to understand it. He completely missed the irony of calling for an audience member to repeatedly attend an art form that is designed to be absorbed and understood in a single viewing. And he had no idea how arrogant and foolish he sounded. (By the way, the reviewer was correct—the direction of the show was muddy, and the play went nowhere.)

Most of the art we create, even if it is not theatre, must be created with the idea in mind that our audience is likely to see it only once and must be able to grasp at a single viewing what it is that we are attempting to communicate. Realistically speaking, our work will probably not be hung in a museum or saved in a library for leisurely study by our audience.  Our work can be subtle, but it must communicate immediately. Once we realize this, and adjust our process accordingly, we are likely to see a change in audience reaction—for the better.

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Want to Be Famous? Make Some Friends

Sunday, 3. March 2019 23:03

We’ve all heard the saying “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” It turns out that in the case of artists, it’s not what you know or who you know; it’s how many who’s you know. In a 2018 study of abstract artists’ fame, Paul Ingram and Mitali Banerjee determined that cosmopolitan social networking was a better indicator of fame than either creativity or originality. Essentially, the study found that artists generally labeled “abstract” were famous in direct proportion to the size of their circle of friendship, with more fame attributed to those whose groups of friends were multinational.

A thorough discussion of this study by Casey Lesser can be found at artsy.net. In this article, Lesser posits that not only were diverse networks important as indicators of fame, but that they were also a “source of creativity” and had the additional benefit of providing the artist with a “cosmopolitan identity.”

Much of the data for this study originated with a 2012 exhibition about the birth of abstraction at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. MoMA has provided an interactive diagram of who knew whom that clearly makes the point that the most connected artists—in this case Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky—were the most famous.

And lest we think that this study represents an anomaly, remember that Emily Dickinson did not become famous until relatives who had much wider social networks worked to get her poems published. It is also notable that people who are famous in one art can let it be known that they are involved in another art and instantly be more famous in that second field than many who have worked in the field for a lifetime, but who have had much smaller networks of friends and acquaintances. For example, Jim Carrey and Jonathan Winters are two comedian/actors who have become almost as famous for their paintings as for their performing.

So what does that mean to us?  It means, simply, that all the hype about establishing a diverse social network isn’t hype, it’s the path to recognition. Of course, there is no indication as to whether today’s social networks, e.g. Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, et al constitute networks of “friends” as the term is used in this study, i.e. a group of people who actually know each other. One would guess that the more active one is in any given forum, the more likely s/he is to be able to call it a real group of friends.

Please note also that the more diverse the group of friends, the more likely it is to indicate potential recognition. Also, internationality counts.

In concrete terms, this means that we must “meet new people and network across professional industries in order to open [ourselves] up to career opportunities and advancement….We won’t become famous in a vacuum and should seek to diversify our social circles.” And although we may not want to be movie-star famous, we probably do want to have our work seen and known. That, in itself, is a kind of fame. To achieve that we must not only maintain social networks, but we probably need to curate our followers and followings, so that we come to actually know those with whom we interact.

And we must not forget personal, in-person networking, which is probably the most potent form of networking going. If Ingram and Banerjee’s study is to be believed, in order to have our work known to the world we must enlarge our circle of friends. Today would be a good day to start.

Category:Audience, Creativity, Social Media | Comment (0) | Author:

Oh, I See What You Did There

Monday, 29. October 2018 0:39

Earlier this week, I watched the last episode of the third season of The Man in the High Castle. Immediately I thought of what a good job they did setting up Season 4, which will undoubtedly begin with explanations of some of the questions raised by this episode. A bit later I realized that the writers and showrunners had also set up an ending that could also serve as an ending of the series if that should be the way the winds blew at Amazon Studios. Somehow these artists had managed to wrap up Season 3 with an all-purpose ending, which only speaks to their level of skill and artistry.

Much the same sort of thing could be said about the very last episode of The Americans, which I watched earlier this year. While the episode was decidedly the end of the series and nearly a perfect ending at that, there were enough questions left unanswered that could be developed into at least three spin-offs. Again, the artistry and skill levels were of the highest.

Then I began to wonder how these shows impacted their intended audiences. What I mean is that I, like all artists trained in the US, and unlike the intended audience for these television shows, have spent hours analyzing works of art. It’s something I teach my students to do. We dissect plays to see how they work, how the characters are constructed, how the plot is put together, why the ending works—or doesn’t.

As far as I know, other arts do the same. Visual artists analyze the work of older artists to determine exactly what it is that causes them to be great. Musicians learn much the same thing—how the structure of a musical piece works, how the melody resolves itself to lead to listener satisfaction. Photographers certainly do it, eager to determine the lighting and composition plans, determined to understand why a photograph works on the emotional level that it does. We want to know not only what the artist did but how s/he achieved whatever it was that s/he achieved.

And then it becomes habit. We cannot experience a work of art without analyzing. And this is particularly true if the work is not of the highest quality. Even the smallest interruption to engagement causes those of us who are trained to start wondering why we are disengaged, and from that point on we shift into full analysis mode. The outstanding production values and quality of acting in the two television shows mentioned allowed me to hold my analysis until those episodes were over. Otherwise, I would have begun evaluation while the show was going on, further distancing myself from the work.

The point of this, you ask? The point is the acknowledgement that we will never view art in the same way as our audience, who, for the most part, are not trained to analyze and evaluate art the same way we are. Absent training in appreciation, analysis et al, they are likely to see something far different from what we see. Knowing this, we must be very careful in evaluating our own work and establishing the criteria we use to judge what pieces we put before an audience.

Because we know what we did and how we did it, we must return to the piece again and again with new eyes, delaying analysis so we can see what the audience is likely to see thereby to better judge the audience’s reaction. Then we can use that information to make our work even better.

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Ambiguity in Art, Part 2*

Monday, 15. October 2018 1:12

In his book, Making Sense of Movies, Robert Henry Stanley says that at the end of the silent era, successful American movies followed six rules, one of which was that movies should be comprehensible and unambiguous. But times change. Now we have sound, and color, and more than a handful of ambiguous movie endings. And if you look at any of the lists, you will discover that these are very well-known and respected movies. Things seem to have changed.

And this change is not just a recent phenomenon. Many critics consider the ending of Casablanca to be at least a little ambiguous. Going even farther back, the enigmatic and ambiguous smile in the 515-year–old Mona Lisa still intrigues scholars and critics today. As a matter of fact, the more we look, the more ambiguity we find in art. For example, most of the paintings of Edward Hopper and Jack Vettriano rely on ambiguity, as do the sculptures of John Chamberlain. Sally Mann’s photography can be ambiguous, and so can the work of Edward Albee and Sam Shepherd. The lyrics and poems of Leonard Cohen can be filled with ambiguity.

So while ambiguity exists in much art and has for centuries, it certainly isn’t found in all art, probably not in a majority of art. My guess would be that ambiguity would found in only a small minority of art works. (Look at how few movies endings are marked as “ambiguous.”) One can speculate that there are two reasons for this: (1) the majority of audience members still expect art to follow Robert Henry Stanley’s rule and be “comprehensible and unambiguous.” Things are easier that way: the audience members know exactly what the artist means and often express their appreciation with their pocketbooks.

(2) The other reason that ambiguity is found in a minority of art works is that ambiguity is difficult to do and must be controlled. If the artist is not careful, ambiguity can easily slip into vagueness and confusion, which is not at all appealing. So ambiguity in art must be handled delicately so that just enough comes through to the audience members to make them think and talk about the work, but not so much that the work becomes obscure.

Am I suggesting that we find a way to introduce ambiguity into our art (if it isn’t already there)? I think that depends on the artist’s goals. If the artist is interested in selling as many pieces as possible or making a very strong statement, perhaps not. Americans seem to spend more for art that is unambiguous. Clint Eastwood’s movies are not ambiguous. Banksy is not ambiguous, nor is Neil Simon. These artists are very direct and do very good work. They have been rewarded by their audiences.

If, on the other hand, the artist wants to let the audience member participate a little more, s/he might be less direct, perhaps leave things in the gray rather than black and white by introducing some controlled ambiguity. It may not make the work better, but it will make it start different sorts of conversations and appeal to a different audience, albeit a minority.

So it comes down to how the artist wants his/her work perceived and to which audience s/he want to appeal. And while I am a fan of ambiguity in art, I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t work for all sorts of art or in all situations. So I think the artist must take into consideration the sort of art he is making and the audience for whom s/he is making it.

 

*”Part 1” was entitled “Brain Clutter and Ambiguity in Art” and can be found here.

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Maybe It’s Not All About Process

Monday, 24. September 2018 0:58

“It’s all about the process.” We hear that over and over again when we ask artists about process and product. When artists talk to each other, it’s all about the process. Want to discuss creativity? Plan to talk about process. It’s almost as if the product is forgotten when we talk about art and creativity. I have written about it before (here, here, here, and here, for example). And if we are involved in teaching any of the arts, what we teach is process—how to develop it, how to solidify it, how to refine it. It’s almost as if all art is about is process.

This, however, is not the case. The audience could care less about the process. What the audience is interested in is the product, the artifact. Here I must acknowledge that some art processes do not produce artifacts, but these are limited to live performing arts, and while they do not produce physical artifacts, there is a sort of product in the performance experience—that which the audience will (hopefully) talk about when the production is over.

The audience cares only that the product of whatever our processes might be speaks to them, that the artifact somehow enhances their existence. What they do not care about is what we went through to make the product happen, to produce the artifact they can see and touch and appreciate.

Arts marketers might disagree and say that the story of the process is of great interests to potential buyers and will often help make a sale. That is only partially true. What really makes a sale of an artifact is a story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is about the creative process, or about how the artist came to write, sculpt, paint, photograph the subject and produce the artifact in question. And it doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not. The fact is that some kind of story about the artifact came to be is a very useful sales tool because it provides more insight into the work and somehow connects the artist and the audience member and personalizes the work for the potential collector, thus improving sales potential.

This is certainly not to say that process is unimportant. Rather it is to force us to look at process from a different point of view, that of the audience. If we do that we find that there is far less interest in process and far more interest in artifact. This might lead us to think differently about our approach to the work. From that altered viewpoint, it is clear that process is simply a means to realizing the artifact, and perhaps can be completely invisible to the audience. Looking at the process/product dichotomy in this fashion helps us realize that process is nothing more than the methodology we use to create the product, and, as such, might deserve less emphasis in our minds than the artifact.

My point is that while it seems that “it’s all about the process,” perhaps it shouldn’t be. Certainly the process is enjoyable, absorbing, and even addictive, but it is, after all, just a creative methodology. Without the target of a product, an artifact, process is pointless. Perhaps it’s time that we shifted our emphasis a bit more away from process and a bit more toward product.

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