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Get Back: Persistence and Collaboration

Sunday, 2. January 2022 21:50

By now, almost everyone has heard of The Beatles: Get Back, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary created from Michael Lindsey-Hogg’s nearly 60 hours of film and over 100 hours of audio, which is currently streaming on Disney plus. Some of us have actually seen it—or at least parts of it. Opinions vary widely: some say it was too long, with many slow parts. At least one writer wanted it to be longer. Then there were the wildly varying interpretations of what we were viewing. Some pundits saw Yoko’s presence as intrusive; others said it was anything but. Some saw magic in the song-writing; others saw tedium in a group of musicians on the verge of breaking up.

What I saw was a group of very talented musicians at, or near, the top of their game creating and shaping their work. And in doing this they used two primary techniques, one of which is familiar to all who do any type of art. The other may only be familiar to those in the performing arts. The first is persistence, and the second is collaboration.

All who work in the arts know about the persistence that is required. Even those whom the world calls geniuses are required to be persistent to bring a finished work of art into existence. We try this path, and when that path dead-ends, or doesn’t lead to a solution that works, we try something else. This applies equally to a phrase in a song, the details in a photograph, the structure of a sentence, or the reading of a line in a film. Almost every work of art requires this sort of determined diligence. In Get Back we see over and over again the band work on a song trying to find the right phrase, or musical piece to fit into the puzzle of what they are making, and each time they go through a song, it seems to be with the genuine commitment to get it right. There are very few, if any, half-hearted attempts at the music, no matter how many times they go over the same song. That willingness to put everything into each effort is a mark of successful artistry.

The second technique that was in evidence is collaboration, which is also a mark of successful creating, particularly in the performing arts. No matter how many movies we see about dictatorial directors or choreographers—and there certainly have been demanding real-life examples of both—it still takes contributions by a great number of people to create a performance of any kind. And in this case collaboration was much in evidence. One Beatle provided a phrase, another added a musical feature, and on it went. All made contributions, and all worked together in the creative process. And although some contributed more than others to this or that song, in the end it was the work of all four (and the occasional fifth, and here I’m thinking of Billy Preston on the electric piano or Mal Evans on the anvil) that made the creation successful.

According to leading “Beatleologist,” Mark Lewisohn, there is a great deal to be learned about the Beatles from Get Back. But there is also a great deal to be learned about group creativity. And mostly what we learned was that for the Beatles, the work was everything. As Adam Gopnik writing for The New Yorker, put it: “The Beatles work first, praise modestly or not at all…and move on.” The Beatles’ interactions and approach to creativity in Get Back provide us with an outstanding model of successful group creation, one we would do well to emulate.

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A Time for Reflection

Sunday, 19. December 2021 20:08

The Winter Solstice is the occasion for a large number of holidays, many more than the summer solstice, and many having to do with the ideas of rebirth, of bringing back the light lost during the waning year, and new beginnings. Also scattered among these mid-winter celebrations is the idea of remembering the past, either our own, or of famous historical and mythological figures who sacrificed in some way, gave gifts, aided the poor, or events that are considered miraculous. There is a feeling of wrapping up the old year.

In fact, the second most important holiday in Japan is Omisoka, or New Year’s Eve, a time for concluding the old year by “house cleaning, repaying debts, purification, and bathing,” among other activities designed to prepare for the “crossing over from one year to the next.”

In Western society we find a number of people remembering Christmases or Hanukkahs or other mid-winter celebrations of the past, particularly of their childhoods, or holidays with friends or loved ones who have passed out of their lives. Unfortunately, such remembrances can lead to holiday depression in some. For example, I knew a woman who could never get through Christmas Day without crying; she never explained why, but I’m reasonably sure that it was not happy memories. But not all memories are sad, and they are what many people treasure about holiday time.

Whatever our belief systems or celebration preferences, this is a time of wrapping up the old and preparing for the new. Unless we live in a cave, it’s difficult to get through the season without experiencing some of this. My suggestion is to embrace this transition.

Since so much has been written on new beginnings and renewal and fresh starts and all of that, I would like to talk about the wrapping up part: reflecting on the year past. There is much to be learned from looking back at the past twelve months, particularly for creative people. This is a time when the days are short and the nights are long, and that, in itself, aids reflection on the past: there seems to be time to consider things, to look at our successes and failures and trials and difficulties and evaluate our responses to those situations. Such is not intended to make us dwell on any one aspect of the past year, but to look at the whole—from a slight remove, so that we can evaluate the year objectively—and objectivity is the key to this activity. We can begin to learn what worked, what didn’t work, what changes we might have made to better realize our projects. When we have done this, we will be better informed about our own strengths and weaknesses and better able to move forward into the new year, armed with new knowledge about our creative process.

And that, after all, is the goal of reflection, not to reminisce, not to beat ourselves up over failures or gloat over successes, but to consider, to analyze, so that we can move forward with improved creativity to make new and better work. As I write this, the Winter Solstice is just days away, and the New Year follows shortly; if you haven’t yet taken the time to reflect on your creative work of the past year, I would encourage you to do so. Your creative output will benefit.

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Make a Plan

Sunday, 5. December 2021 21:58

A number of people encourage spontaneity; I am not one of them. I find that whenever I try to operate spontaneously, in any activity from a business conversation to a creative project, I forget something, or leave something out or lose my way for a while, or—in worst case scenarios—end up going in circles. This is the reason that I have come to realize that I will do better if I make a plan.

This is not to say that there is no place for spontaneity. Certainly, I never plan friendly conversations, and often not activities, other than selecting a restaurant. And in creative work, there is always that unplanned time for brain-storming or spontaneously allowing ideas and mental images to connect and merge and play off of each other. That done I find that I am always more successful if I make a plan after this first creative exercise.

The first step in creating a plan is to establish a goal, based on all that free association that preceded it. This gives the project a target, establishing what is to be accomplished. The next step is to prepare a pathway to the target. This is the actual plan, and does not have to be overly complicated or detailed. It should, however, lay out the major steps to be used to attain the goal. Once those two things are done, it’s time to implement the plan.

Some people jump right in at this point; I, on the other hand, like to mull on the plan for a while, turning it over in my mind, trying to determine what needs changing, what might be a better path, what features need to be added, what components are absolutely necessary, what things can be cut, what details need to be addressed. If there is time, I like to let the plan settle into my subconscious for a time.  When I am able to do this, I find that my subconscious will make suggestions at odd moments during the day or evening, causing me to modify the plan to a greater or lesser extent.

And that points out an important consideration in dealing with plans, particularly those related to a creative project. Plans are not carved in stone—or any other unmalleable material. Plans change and reshape themselves, whether in the development or implementation phase. This is to be expected. It is nearly impossible to anticipate all of the issues that may arise between the inception of a plan and its final execution, so flexibility is demanded. In addition to problems, discoveries are possible during the implementation of the plan, and sometimes these discoveries will add to the project or augment it in some way. An open mind is a requisite of plan implementation.

The path to a project’s completion may involve many revisions of the plan, and the occasional detour, and so plans must often be modified on the fly. However, having a plan ensures that there is direction and purpose at every step on the way to a project’s completion.

This approach works for me. Making a plan for each project allows me to resolve issues and get work done and, while at the same time allowing me to be open to new ideas as they arise. Even if I have to change the plan completely, it’s still there to guide the project to completion. Your mileage may vary.

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Yes, Artists Must Be Judgemental

Sunday, 21. November 2021 21:41

In his blog this week, Austin Kleon said, incorporating a quote from Martha Graham, “That’s the thing about new work, it’s not really your job to judge it, you just keep the channel open and let the stuff come…” My initial response, based on my experiences as a photographer and stage director was complete disagreement. My experience has been that artists are constantly making judgements, sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes correct, and sometimes incorrect.

After reexamining the Kleon quote, I finally decided that I had missed a key phrase: “new work,” and realizing that he didn’t really mean not to judge it, but rather not to judge its value while it was new. He was specifically talking about a series of collages that he was working on and had not yet decided what to do with them. But, I would imagine, that in creating those collages, he was making many small judgements about what to add to add and what not include in particular collages, involving decisions on what colors and images to use to make the visual points he was trying to make. If, after dozens of judgements were made, he didn’t quite know what to do with the finished product(s), that’s understandable, given that it was a new form of collage for him.

Of course, whether it’s new work or not, the artist’s job is to judge it—to decide what shape it will take, and ultimately what to do with it. This, of course, does not mean that those decisions should be made immediately. Here I agree with Kleon and Graham: with new work, the artist’s job is to “keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” That being said, the artist must make hundreds of judgements just to create the work.

The ultimate disposition of the work is something that comes later, and that decision too can be correct or incorrect. One is reminded of the young Stephen King trashing the manuscript to his first published novel, Carrie, only to have it rescued by his wife, who then encouraged him to finish it.

The goal of the artist is, of course, to make the work the best it can be made. Along the way are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions, some small and some quite large, that determine the ultimate shape of the work. These are necessary if the work is to be realized. In some arts, directing, for example, it seems that making such judgements constitutes the bulk of the work to be done. They are not always the correct choices, but they have to be made, and made in a timely fashion if the work is to go forward. Sometimes, one is afforded the luxury of revisiting a decision and correcting it, but that is not always the case, so one learns to make the best possible decision in the moment and move the work toward completion.

So while artists, when moving in the uncharted waters of new work, must “keep the channel open and let the stuff come,” they must also exercise their judgement and make judicious decisions as they develop those new ideas. After all, the final product is, in fact, the result of the artist’s judgements.

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I Get By . . .

Sunday, 24. October 2021 20:48

….with a little help from my friends.” –or so sang the Beatles. And it’s true, at least for some of us.

Recently, I was working on a photographic project that I had planned for nearly a year. Evidently the planning was not sufficient because I was getting nowhere. I was doing what I had planned, using the images had shot specifically for the project, and found the results completely unsatisfying. I had hit a wall. Then I mentioned the problem to a friend who has given me the occasional excellent idea, expecting nothing more than being able to talk it out, hoping that discussing it would provide some insight, as sometimes happened. My friend, who is not a photographer but has a keen visual sense, asked me to describe exactly what I was trying to do, which I did.

“Oh,” they said. “I see the problem.” and then proceeded to make a very concrete suggestion, remarkable really, since they had not seen anything of the work. What was more remarkable was that I instantly saw the possibilities in the suggestion. The idea was essentially to shift the focal point of the image, and there were other specific suggestions. So I set to work, attempting to implement the idea, never doubting for a second that it would work. What I discovered was that the details as they had been given could not be directly implemented because the images with which I was working would not cooperate, but the concept was still valid. And, I could get very close to the full implementation of the idea.

The wall that had been blocking me fell away. I examined the images from the shoot with new eyes and immediately discovered seven possibilities. As soon as I brought them into the project, everything changed. I began to see potential everywhere. Well, not quite everywhere; one possibility did not make the cut, but six remained. I worked on those, cropping here, adjusting there. Finally I had six potential images for the project—a great problem to have. I had not followed the suggestion of my friend literally, but instead generalized their idea and then made it my own, which resulted in the six possibilities.

At present, I have cut the six down to three, finding that some were more successful than others. The final cut should be made within the coming week. I am more than satisfied with the way the project is proceeding.

Again I must note that my friend never saw the work in question. Everything was conceptual and verbal. Still, they were able to give me ideas that kick-started my creative impulse by providing a different direction that I was not able to see for myself unaided. I took it from there. I cannot see this as a failure on my part; rather, I consider it the utilization of a resource. Even if the friend had not provided this excellent shift in direction, I would have been able to talk through the block, and perhaps arrive at my own answer. Whatever the case, having a friend or colleague in whom we can confide and talk out creative problems is valuable beyond measure, a relationship to be treasured.

 

Note: I have not discussed the specifics of the project here because (1) this is, or can be, a generic problem in the creative process and because (2) I presume that every reader will supply their own interpretation and example.

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“Make Bad Art” — No!

Sunday, 26. September 2021 22:57

“Make bad art” is the mantra repeated by many who hold themselves out to be creative advisors, and even some artists. Don’t believe me? Just Google it. I got over 10.7 billion—that’s right, billion—hits. (Your mileage may vary, as it often does with individual Google searches). So what’s this all about?

Some of these writers are concerned about what exactly bad art is. Some wonder why some art is bad. Some celebrate the creation of bad art. Some say that we have to make bad art before we can make good art. Some are even concerned about applying the labels “good” and “bad” to art at all. But most of these pundits take the position that we can’t always make good art, so making bad art is preferable to making no art. Some will tackle all of these concerns in the same essay or blog post.

The problem that I see is that a number of these writers are actively advising people to make bad art like it’s a goal to which one should aspire; that I find problematic. Others are using the advice as a tool or learning exercise, which is somewhat more forgivable.

At least one other writer advises the opposite. Neil Gaiman, in his small book Art Matters, has a whole chapter entitled “Make Good Art,” in which he outlines a number of situations that numerous other writers offer as excuses for making bad art. Gaiman instead, in each instance, suggests that the reader make good art. Gaiman has also given a speech on the same topic (a video is also available which is well-worth the 20 minutes that it takes to watch it).

Gaiman, I think is more on track; I can find no really good reason to make bad art. However, like a number of artists I know, I have always had trouble with calling the work that I do “art” although it is clearly in the “world of the arts.” Given a choice, I would substitute “practice your craft” for Gaiman’s “make good art” advice.

There are a number of reasons for this: (1) it is almost as positive as Gaiman’s “make good art,” eliminating the negative notion of “bad” art. (2) It avoids the whole issue of whether what we are doing is art or not. Whether it is or isn’t, it is certainly craft, and that is something that can be practiced. (3) It is neutral and thus can be applied in any situation—whether other things in our lives are good or bad—without reference to the ongoing situation. (4) It is sound advice and keeps us pointed in a creative and productive direction.

So to substitute in Gaiman’s book and in the speech noted above: “Husband runs off with a politician?” Practice your craft. “Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor?” Practice your craft. “IRS on your trail?” Practice your craft. “Cat exploded?” Practice your craft. “Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before?” Practice your craft. “Probably things will work out some how, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what you do best.” Practice your craft. Practice your craft “on good days too.”

It may not be as clever or delightful as Gaiman’s series of statements on “make good art,” but it’s still sound advice. Practice your craft!

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Look Back

Sunday, 29. August 2021 21:40

Last week I had the opportunity to review some old image files that I had not seen for some time, some up to five years old. What immediately struck me was that a number of the images I had originally rejected as second or third level choices had more potential that I originally thought. Some needed to be tweaked or re-cropped, but they could, with just a little work be first-rate images.

If it’s true of images, might it also be true of writing? I asked myself. Like most people who write, I have pages and pages of written material that I have abandoned but did not destroy. A quick review of some of those yielded the same results: there were a number of worthwhile ideas contained in the abandoned writings. Then, of course, there were the idea files that contained just short paragraphs about topics and ideas, many of which had gone unreviewed for a long period. Most of the topic ideas and the unfinished writings need to be filled out, shaped, and polished, but the some interesting possibilities exist.

The reasons for the abandonments of both writing and images are many. Sometime the idea didn’t play out in a satisfying way; sometimes I hit a wall in writing and could not finish the piece. And then there were those that were simply left unfinished for a number of other reasons, often because they were to be perceived to be less than my best work.

This raises the question, of course, of why work that was rejected in the past suddenly appears to have potential. The answer is that I am now looking at it with different eyes. The images and pieces of writing are fixed, but I have changed with the passing of time. Hopefully, I have evolved since the words were written and the images captured. It’s the same reason that it is useful to put work away for a while before editing. The passage of time gives one more objectivity in reviewing the work, so one can see possibilities more clearly.

My suspicion is that all this applies to arts other than photography and writing as well. Almost all artists I know have partially-finished projects stored here and there which might could be reviewed, dusted off, and made into excellent work which could then be shared or published or produced by whatever avenues the artist chooses. Looking back at older work can also spark ideas for future work, mixing the old ideas with new insights to produce new work.

So my suggestion is that we periodically take a look back at our older work, keeping an open mind to see what can be salvaged, what can be reworked, modified, made better. We can see what new visions result from this review and what we find in the old that can be mixed with new concepts to produce new quality work. Such periodic reviews might just result in more and better work.

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Make One Just for Fun

Sunday, 1. August 2021 22:20

In the push for productivity, we often lose sight of our artistic goals and sensibilities. Rather than creators, we become artisans concerned solely with production of artifacts for our audience, often tailoring our output to the tastes of potential purchasers. While this sort of concentration on production often does much for the bottom line, it does little to satisfy our artistic needs.

In the build-up to this point we develop as artists, honing our skills, developing our craft, finding our own voice. Once that is accomplished, we can often go in one of two very different directions: (1) we can basically turn out slightly varying iterations of the same story, poem, photograph, painting—altering each new piece just enough to say that it is different, while at the same time retaining all those characteristics that mark our work as ours. (2) The second choice is to build on our development, creating new work that represents not just repetition, but growth. We create new things which may or may not appeal to our present audience.

For a number of reasons, many artists select the first path. For example, I know an artist who essentially quit making personal work. All her work now is either consignment or for her Etsy store. And, although it is quite good work, it all looks rather alike. Another artist, a painter who works in acrylic, produces excellent images, all of which very much alike; she has quite a large following. Many of us follow this path: singers whose songs all sound alike, photographers whose work is so similar it could have been shot all on the same day, writers whose novels are nearly identical, or at least follow the same formula.

Along the second path lies risk—what we make may not appeal to our current audience, and we are forced to find another, or change what we are doing. Thus it is more difficult to find artists willing to pursue this path. Several come to mind, but not nearly as many as follow the first path.

The first path is certainly more stable financially—and easier to follow, at least after those of us who follow it find our audience. However, one wonders if those who are essentially cranking out the same pieces over and over still retain the joy of creation. One wonders if they took time out from their schedules to make one piece of work just for the joy of doing it—for fun, it would make any difference.

And that is my suggestion: if we find ourselves becoming slaves to production—turning out piece after piece of all-too-similar pieces, that we take some time and make just one piece for fun—to remind ourselves why we got into this world of creation in the first place. If nothing else, we might get a little relief from the grind that almost always accompanies constant production. Even if we immediately go back to assembly-line production, we might do so with a fresh perspective. It might just provide a renewed approach to our productivity.

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The Importance of Structure

Sunday, 6. June 2021 23:10

Another blogger I know was recently having trouble with a post. The problem it seemed was that he could not get the material arranged so that it would make sense to his audience. He told me that he had tried four or five different approaches to the material, and nothing seemed to work. When I asked him how he was structuring his material, he said, “I just write it. I don’t worry about structure.” There, I thought, was his problem.

Often when art does not “work,” the reason is lack of structure. Structure, of course, is “the arrangement and relationship of the parts.” Structure comforts the audience and lets them know that the piece is organized, and they can understand it because the piece has a form which will lead them through the work, regardless of how complex it might be. Without structure our ideas, no matter how good, can be understood only with great difficulty.

Structure does not just happen; it has to be created along with the work of art. How a creator achieves structure depends on the type of work involved. Structure for narrative arts is usually found in the plot and/or character; those are the things that hold the whole together. Plot provides a support to undergird the whole, whether that is a short story or a novel.

In some rare cases what holds a narrative together is simply an idea or theme; works that rely only on theme often have a far more tenuous structure than those relying on plot or character. They may be far more difficult for an audience to follow. Still, any structure is better than no structure.

There are also non-narrative pieces such as essays or non-fiction. These also require some sort of structure. Often we find that the author will approach the material in a narrative form, presenting a story. There are, of course, forms of argument and logic which can be used to structure a non-narrative piece and can provide a very solid structure for the presentation of ideas.

All that can be said about written work can also be said about visual and plastic arts as well. Here, logic and argument do not apply. What does apply varies with the work. There is a theory that every piece of visual art should tell a story. In those cases, the sorts of structure used in narrative come into play, except far more subtly.

But what about those pieces of art that don’t tell a story or those called “meditations”? These non-narrative works, whether written, spoken, or visual offer thoughts on a subject or try to create a mood. Regardless, unless there is some underlying structure, something to hold everything together, then we are left only with disparate disconnected elements.  If the work is visual or plastic, often the structure can come from the principles of composition. These principles are not the only source of support, but they go a long way in providing cohesion.

But what If the meditations are in written form? Perhaps the idea can hold the piece together. But structure can also come from putting the meditation into a formal structure. For example, the author might put the meditation into a sonnet form and thereby provide the work with an external structural foundation. Or the author might frame the written piece using one of the forms of logic or argument so that the audience is guided from part to part and does not have to wander around among disconnected ideas.

No matter how grand or original or new our ideas might be, we must still provide a framework for our audience’s understanding. We must give them the structure to support our ideas, our images, our art. So, upon embarking on a new project, we would do well to first consider the structure that will support the work. If we develop solid underpinnings, our work will benefit.

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Collaboration with the Audience

Sunday, 23. May 2021 22:56

Neil Gaiman, in his book of essays and introductions, The View from the Cheap Seats, says that “no two readers will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author.” In another place, he discusses other aspects of this collaboration, noting that “you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.” He takes the idea further in citing an instance of someone remembering the excitement of a particular scene in a book, only to find, upon returning to the book, that the exciting part had been supplied by the reader. Gaiman goes on to say of the reader in a different circumstance: “then, perhaps, you will come back to it [a book] when you’re older, and you will find the book has changed because you have changed as well, and the book is wiser, or more foolish, because you are wiser or more foolish than you were as a child.”

This is not a new idea; it is one of the fundamental tenets of post-modernism. Gaiman, however, develops the concept further than most, boiling it down to the notion that each reader “builds the book in collaboration with the author,” and is likely to build a different book each time that reader comes to the book, even though the text remains the same.

You may have experienced Gaiman’s ideas yourself, finding that a book or poem or play that you had experienced was not the same as you remembered it. Or you may have had the experience of discussing a painting or performance with someone and wondering if they really had seen the same thing you did, so different were their impressions.

This notion of collaboration gives considerable power to the reader. The trick for the author is, of course, to create a narrative that will engage the imagination of the reader regardless of what the reader brings to the book.

The same is true for other arts as well. Whatever the art, audience members bring their preconceptions, feelings, and imagination to the interaction with the art work and thus build the meaning and impact of the work in collaboration with the artist. And sometimes, like the children Gaiman noted above, imbue the work “with magic that not even the author knew was there.”

If that is the case, how does the artist then create for her audience? She can make some assumptions about what response her work is likely to get, depending on what sorts of responses she has gotten previously. That, however, is no guarantee. She can, of course, manipulate her materials so that she has a fair idea of what reaction the work is likely to get. The fact of the matter is that she has no idea what the audience members are likely to bring to the collaboration.

So what we as artists to do? Exactly what our hypothetical artist above finally does: manipulate the materials so that we have a fair idea of the reaction the work is likely to get, and then put it out into the world without further expectations. The audience will bring what they bring, and while all the collaborations will be unique, there is likely to be enough similarity that we can judge our “success” or lack thereof. And if our audience finds things in our work that we didn’t know were there, so be it.

Perhaps the best that we can do is create work that simply satisfies ourselves, release it into the world, and then see what our audience makes of it.

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