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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.

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Be Reasonable

Monday, 13. June 2016 1:19

Worst. Advice. Ever. At least for an artist. Synonyms for reasonable are sensible, rational, judicious, practical, realistic, sound, evenhanded, equitable. None of those sound like any artist I ever heard of.

We are talking about artist behavior; people who are reasonable or any of those other words do not produce masterpieces. But reasonable can be applied to the work as well as the artist. Reasonable art is safe art, and safe art is boring, unlikely to engage an audience beyond the superficial.

So the task is to produce art that is unreasonable, either in subject matter, form, or treatment. People who create that sort of art, art that speaks to people, art that grabs the attention of the public and critic alike are cannot be reasonable. To produce that kind of work takes obsession that laughs in the face of evenhandedness or well-roundedness. To produce that kind of work takes a selfishness and dedication that borders on fanatical.

And that selfishness and dedication result in behavior that is the stuff of stories. There are many stories about what actors will do to prepare for roles, and there are stories about acting methodologies that are considered unreasonable by others in the business. Interestingly, these actors produce some of the best work out there.

It’s not just actors. Bob Fosse is notorious for bad behavior toward nearly everyone because of his single-minded approach to directing and choreography. Stories abound about writers who hide themselves away to write without being disturbed. Picasso and Dali certainly behaved in ways that many people would consider unreasonable. If you were to ask them why they behaved the way they did, they would answer simply that they were being themselves—and most of their beings was tied up in creating. The real artist’s life is not about balance; it’s about spending every waking minute on art.

So the question arises, does being creative give a person license to behave any way he/she wants? It’s the other way round: the creativity does not give rise to the lack of reasonable behavior, rather to exercise one’s creativity to the fullest—to write the great novel, or play, or poem, to paint a masterpiece, to produce an amazing film, to create a great photograph, to choreograph like no one ever has before, to compose a symphony, to act beyond human limits, to transcend in performance—requires such will, dedication, and single-mindedness that all the rest falls to the wayside. Normalcy is not an option because in order to be Tennessee Williams or Bob Fosse or Georgia O’Keefe or Weegee or Picasso or Beethoven or Baryshnikov or Olivier or requires every ounce of focus that a human being can muster. This leaves little room for traditional sensibility or rationality.

This is not to say that if your behavior is unreasonable or not very realistic you will be a great artist. There is no license. Rather, if you are a great artist, or even a good artist, your behavior will likely not be reasonable.

It’s because of the attention that the work requires. It’s because the personality that can spend four years painting the Sistine Chapel, paying attention to every tiny detail and every color and even the smallest bit of the composition spends so much time on the work that he has nothing left for a “normal” relationship or family or any of the thousands of other things that “normal” people deal with.

We are not Michelangelo. Most of us are not even close. However, if we are to do good work, if we are to create art that is important and that lasts, we may find that our art as well as our behavior—at least from the viewpoint of others—may have to be completely unreasonable.

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Art in Motion, Part 3

Monday, 21. September 2015 0:52

Moving art is not really a new thing. Even moving electronic art is not really a new thing. If you look back into the archives, you will find that there are at least two previous posts about moving art: “Want Art? The Gallery Will Come to You” and “The Medium is Not the Message…But It’s a Big Chunk of the Experience.” These articles discuss installation art, the Cinemagraph, a term which has now been trademarked, s[edition], an on-line gallery of high-profile artists that will “sell” you limited edition moving electronic art, and some others as well.

Most online moving art is in GIF format, although some, notably the pieces on s[edition], are in MP4 format. Within these two formats we find that the moving art world divides into genres, or types, based on visual treatment. The range is amazing; it includes the Cinemagraph, a still photograph with subtle motion in certain specific areas of the images to full animations lasting up to a minute. All of these images are looped so they run continuously and seamlessly.

Among the animated genres, one of the most innovative is the Cinemagraph (described above) but there are many others. There are geometrics that morph into other geometrics; there is animation of Escher images and Escher-like images; there are images that change colors; there are short cartoons. Whether subtle, isolated movement or full motion, there are levels of sophistication. Some are very sophisticated; others are not. And some artists manage to combine simplicity and sophistication and produce works that are elegant (in all of the meanings of that word).

Some moving art tells a story, sometimes “in [only] one second;” other pieces are attempts to convey a feeling or a way of seeing. For example, legally blind artist George Redhawk, whose work has become so influential that there is now a technique of GIF animation called “the Redhawk effect” says that he was, at first, attempting to communicate the confusion he experiences with his vision loss: “not enough data getting sent to the brain, and it tries to fill in the blanks with false information, so you can’t trust what your eyes or brain are telling you.” Some make a statement or provide commentary, such as Michael Green’s “Balloon Dog Deflated” based on Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog.”

In the last couple of years, moving electronic art in all types and formats has seen a huge surge in popularity. There are now numerous web sites devoted exclusively to moving electronic art. Some embrace all sorts of animated art; others specialize in one genre or another. A Google search for “gif art” or “cinemagraph” will result in millions of hits and allow the searcher to discover the range and depth of this blossoming area of digital arts. Not only are there numerous web sides, there are even contests for animated art, such as the recent Motion Photography Prize co-sponsored by Google and Saatchi Gallery.

Also in the last couple of years, new tools have been developed making it easier for artists to create moving art. Some of them specific to types of moving art, for example there is software designed specifically to create Cinemagraphs. Some are improved GIF editors, both in web-based versions and stand-alone programs. Some are MP4 editors. And some designed for other uses have been repurposed. George Redhawk uses software designed to morph one image into another both for morphing and for adding unusual motion to his surreal and fantasy images.

The inevitable next step, attempting to monetize moving art, has already begun.

Why should we be concerned about this new art form? Just for that reason: it’s a new art form, and from what I’ve seen it is definitely worth knowing about. The big reason, of course, is now that we know about it, some of us—particularly those already working digitally—may want to try out some of the newer software and bring our own ideas to this new means of expression.

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Gaming the System, Part 2

Monday, 20. April 2015 1:00

Last year I posted and article called “Gaming the System” which began with the notion that if one studied a given juried show sufficiently, one might be able to develop a recipe for acceptance. So I decided to try it, and found that it might not be as easy to do as to say. In the past I have done somewhat similar things such as picking pieces for juried shows based on knowledge of the juror. This time it didn’t work. However, my lack of success taught me several lessons:

  1. Hubris never goes unpunished. This is something I should have known from reading the Greek tragedies or just from living, but it is a lesson that we often forget, particularly when things are going well, and we have a string of successes. We think we have it all figured out. We don’t. And is well to be reminded of this from time to time.
  2. There are always variables that we do not take into consideration. In this case, one (and maybe two) of the jurors was different from the years prior. This means that the flavor and focus of the show became unpredictable. Not everything can be anticipated.
  3. Likewise, there are always details that we miss or misinterpret; sometimes those little things matter more than we know.
  4. Risking failure is good for us, and if there are no occasional failures, there is no real risk. And this was, at least by my standards, a spectacular failure. There was a significant investment of both time and money, and while, in my estimation, the resultant images were very good, they do not really fit with the rest of my portfolio, so I am not really sure what, if anything, I might do with them. So, yes, this project could definitely be considered a failure.
  5. The biggest lesson that I learned, however, was that even if I know the parameters required, I cannot make art that does not at least try to match my personal aesthetic. It became apparent as early as the planning stage for this project that I am not able to create art to satisfy requirements completely outside myself. Even knowing the recipe, I had to make the pieces my own, had to make the say what I really thought. Probably this is something I should have known about myself before, but I did not, and least consciously. Then I had to reconcile my new learning concerning my aesthetic and the fact that I often direct plays that are aimed at a particular type of audience or prepared for a particular venue. The difference is that once the play is selected for whatever reason, what I do with it during the rehearsal process is to shape it in accordance with my own personal aesthetic. Again, this is something that should have been obvious, but, for some reason, was not.
  6. Evidently, I do not have what it takes to game the system in the way that Dan Colen, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst seem to. This may not be a terrible thing.

So my grand experiment in gaming the system resulted in six valuable lessons. Even though the project was a failure, these lessons make it—to my mind—a worthwhile endeavor, an endeavor worth writing about. As a result of this experience, I will do exactly what I have encouraged other artists to do: continue to risk, sometimes fail, learn from the failure, move on.

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The Self-Taught Artist

Monday, 15. December 2014 0:05

Recently I was considering the term “self-taught artist.” Several things about the use of the term arouse my curiosity: why would anyone other than an academic care who taught an artist? Many academics have a thing about where people went to school, but it seems to me hardly anyone else cares—if the art is any good, that is. And the truth is every teacher and mentor has students who succeed and those who do not, so while knowing the teacher might tell us something, it certainly cannot predict the quality of the art a particular person produces.

Another question I have is whether the term is pejorative or complimentary. Is it better to have gone to art school or is it better to have learned on one’s own? Or does it matter? More importantly, why would an artist want to label him/herself anyway?

Evidently some see the label “self-taught” as a matter of pride. Not long ago a former student, now a scenic painter said, “Everything I know, I taught myself.” It was said proudly rather than complaining. It should have been a complaint; this person has attended two different schools and is currently trying to get into a third, curious behavior for someone who is learning only from himself.

And the statement is untrue. And while there is little doubt that much of what this person can do is the result of experimentation, that experimentation is based on a foundation acquired in educational theatre shops. There he learned the basics of color mixing and the fundamentals of basic painting techniques; along the way, he learned more about the materials and how they work.

In that sense, most of us are “self-taught.” We take what we learn from mentors and teachers and make it our own, modifying, adapting, and experimenting once we have the fundamentals in hand. This is, I’m sure, part of why no two artists who train with the same people in the same place develop the same way. There is influence, to be certain, but our skills develop according to our native talent, how much time and effort we are willing to put in, and our personal aesthetics and artistic vision.

The term “self-taught” applies more accurately to those artists who, for whatever reason, have not trained in a formal school situation. It is a short cut for saying “I did not attend a school to learn what I know.” But, my bet would be that most of them have had instruction of some kind. They may have attended workshops and seminars; they may have read extensively; they may have studied the work of others; they may have done some sort of informal apprenticeship or have been in a casual mentored situation. But it is highly likely that some sort of information and perhaps guidance came from outside themselves.

The difference then between a self-taught artist and any other is simply the formality of the situation in which the artist trained. The term (or indication of an arts degree) says nothing about the nature of the art the person is likely to produce, nor does it say anything about the artist’s skill level or sophistication in handling tools, materials, or ideas.

Regardless of how we obtained our basic skills and artistic approach, it is more than likely that we took that as a starting point and went on to improve those skills and build on what we already knew. Artists are not simply the products of their training; they are visionaries who develop over time and whose work usually gets better the more they mature and the further they move from that source of initial education.

Wonder why we even have the label?


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Seizing Serendipity

Sunday, 5. October 2014 23:52

Photographer/writer Kayla Chobotiuk begins her brief Juxtapozarticle, “’Salt’ by Emma Phillips” with the statement, “Sometimes the best subjects aren’t planned or scouted, but simply happen by chance.” Certainly some of the most fortuitous turns that a creative process can take happen mysteriously, seemingly “by chance.” But I rather think something else is happening.

A number of artists have commented on the idea that at least a part of their art comes from a god, or a muse, or inspiration, or a daemon, or some other supernatural being or higher power. Julia Cameron has said, “Creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control.” It is a theme that comes up repeatedly in her writing: “I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me. I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard.”

Regardless of what you think of Cameron, or of supernatural beings for that matter, there does seem to be, at least in the minds of many artists, a recognition of ideas appearing spontaneously and mysteriously from somewhere outside themselves. Many artists will talk about tapping into the universe when they are working.

The idea then becomes to develop a process that creates conditions that allow for the arrival of those new and sometimes surprising ideas. This arrival event is called serendipity. Defined as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for,”serendipity is sort of a “happy accident,” and is recognized in scientific discovery and business as well as art.

The accidental aspect of this theory troubles me a bit. It is difficult for a rational person to believe that many of the world’s greatest scientific discoveries, business advances, or works of art were the result of happy accidents. But if not some sort of accident or supernatural intervention, then what? My answer is the subconscious, and the ultimate process by which we get there is called flow (discussed previously here, here, here, and here).

Flow theory says that artists who are in flow are not even aware of themselves, resulting in ideas seeming to come from some mysterious otherwhere. Essentially, what happens is that in flow consciousness all but disappears, allowing the subconscious to take control in a way that it usually does not. In flow we can see relationships that elude us in an unaltered state. Possibilities emerge that in a normal, waking state would remain hidden. In other words, flow, or a flow-like state creates a state of mind that enhances creativity, that invites serendipity. The characteristics of flow are much the same as meditation, which also is said to aid in creativity.

Other methods seem to me to be rebranded expressions of flow, or methods of inducing flow. Indeed, Cameron’s exercises are designed to generate the conditions of flow so that creativity will “come.” And there are other ways to invite serendipity into our creative process: James Lawley and Penny Tompkins suggest in “Maximising Serendipity: The art of recognising and fostering unexpected potential – A Systematic Approach to Change” that through preparation one can “invite” serendipity and systematically take advantage of it. Whatever method we choose to prepare, the next steps are always the same, clearly diagrammed and explained by Lawley and Tompkins: recognize the potential of the unexpected and seize it!

What we find is that such events can lead our art to places that we would not have consciously thought to go, and will invariable make it better. It’s a little scary, so some would rather stay on their comfortable, preplanned course. Others, however, would say, “When the universe presents a gift, it would be very bad form not to accept.” I must agree.

Whatever path we take to get there, we must, as Lawley and Tompkins advise, learn to prepare, then to seize those opportunities when they present themselves—if our work is to be the best it can be.

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“I Wish I had Made That”

Sunday, 14. July 2013 23:09

“I wish I had taken that picture,” “I wish I had made that,” “How does he do that?” Sometimes those are expressions of appreciation or admiration for the work others. Too often, though, those sorts of statements, along with statements like “Her work is no better than mine, but hers sells,” “I wish I could paint [sculpt, act, dance] like him,” “I want my stuff to look like that,” “Oh, my pictures are way better than hers,” represent something else entirely.

Comparison. We almost can’t help but do it. In the US, it’s part of our culture. According to Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, we are “told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing.” Given that sort of push, it’s almost impossible for us to not compare ourselves with others. We must constantly look around and see where we are in relation to everybody else. How else are we to know when we’ve succeeded unless we are better than, if not someone else, then who we used to be?

The problem for artists is that comparing ourselves to others is contrary to who and what we profess to be. Oh, we may be competitive, or envious, or greedy, or any number of other things, but more often than not the reason we became artists in the first place is because we have something inside that has to come out. And that something and the way that we express it are unique to us; they are, in fact, what makes our art our art. And every time we compare our work or ourselves to another, it is a denial of our individuality. How could we possibly produce art like someone else without having lived his/her life and without having had his/her experiences?

And yet we continue to look at the work of other artists and decide how that work measures up to ours, or vice versa.  It is not a useful way to think, either as an artist or a person. We need to understand that we can’t do that. We are not that artist. And if we were to spend that comparison time doing our own work, we could make it that much better—not in relation to someone else’s but as an improved expression of our own vision.

And we need to remember that just as we cannot produce the art of others, nobody can produce our art but us. Sometimes, each of us needs to be reminded:

Nobody else walks in your shoes.  Nobody else lives your life, has your story, or knows what you know.  Nobody else has your combined talents, history, skills and expertise.  Nobody else has your particular shine.  Don’t be excellent if it means trying to fit yourself into someone else’s definition of the term.

So instead of spending our time comparing ourselves to others (and coming up short much of the time), we need to remind ourselves that we are each one-of-a-kind and that we produce unique work, a projection of our own individual aesthetic and distinct view of the world, made the best that we can make it on that particular day. It’s a better way to live, and a better way to approach our art.

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An Artistic Philosophy–Why it’s Important

Sunday, 10. February 2013 23:30

If you study Henri Cartier-Bresson, you cannot but be struck by the quality and consistency of his work. (If you are not familiar with his photography, you might want to look here or here.) What strikes you immediately is that none of it is posed; it’s all captured. He said himself, “’Manufactured’ or staged photography does not interest me.” His work bears out his words. Even the portraits are captured; you have the feeling that as far as the subject is concerned Cartier-Bresson might as well be a piece of furniture.

This post, is not, however, to celebrate Cartier-Bresson’s work or photography in general, but to consider how one of the great artists of the twentieth century managed to do what he did and discover if his approach has anything to teach us.

He said, “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously and within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” Photojournalists, or those photographers who work in that style, spend entire lifetimes trying to master the approach set forth in the first part of the quote, an ability that Cartier-Bresson seems to have had from the outset. Perhaps it is not a learnable skill; perhaps it is one of those abilities that we either possess or do not.

And there are some of us to whom that way of working seems foreign indeed. A number of artists, even photographic artists, plan and experiment and pose models and do all sorts of intricate things, not because they lack Cartier-Bresson’s ability to size up the situation instantly, but because that is that way that works for them. For many of us, the creative act is not instantaneous, as it was for Cartier-Bresson, but rather a process, and sometimes a rather complicated and involved one that takes some time—and in some instances quite a long time.

That Cartier-Bresson’s “precise organization of forms” was instantaneous, certainly does not diminish yours or mine or anyone else’s who works at a different pace. More important—for us anyway—is the latter portion of the quote above, that we put our head, eye, and heart on the same axis. Only by doing this will our work achieve the excellence that most of us are aiming for—it must be the product of all our faculties.

The second quality of Cartier-Bresson’s body of work is the consistency of it, another goal to which many of us aspire. If you study his work and writing, what you find is that the foundation of his style is his philosophy of what photography is and his assumptions about how excellence is achieved. This philosophy informs all his work.  We are not talking about technique or environment. What we are talking about is a personal philosophy, an idea of what constitutes good work which governs his approach, technique, and choice of tools, and which enables him to engage eye, head, and heart to generate a remarkably high quality product consistently.

What Cartier-Bresson has to teach us is that if we develop our own philosophy of what makes an image or a sculpture or a poem or a play, then base our personal aesthetic and methodology that, we are more likely to facilitate full engagement and produce consistent results that are satisfying, both ourselves and our audience. It’s more than developing a style—it’s establishing a way of thinking that serves as the foundation of all our work, regardless of subject matter or medium. Our philosophies and resultant methodologies may differ drastically from that of Cartier-Bresson and from each other, but they are just as valid, and with such underpinnings, our work can improve both in consistency and quality.



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It’s Always About You

Monday, 4. February 2013 0:41

Acting coaches and directors reassure beginning actors who are concerned about portraying characters who are genuinely evil in some way that it is not themselves they are displaying on stage, but rather a character, and remind the actor that his/her job is to portray the character without judging the character. We then tell the same actors that they must find a point of empathy if they are to portray the character honestly. The actuality is that the actor is portraying a character filtered through him/herself. Not only are the playwright’s fingerprints all over the character, so are the actor’s. It’s called interpretation, and every actor does it differently, because each actor is an individual; consider all the different portrayals of Hamlet you have seen. And because he/she is the filter, the actor cannot but reveal something of him/herself in the portrayal.

The same is true for writers. Milan Kundera has the narrator in The Incredible Lightness of Being ask rhetorically, “Isn’t it true that an author can write only about himself?” This idea is echoed and amplified by Donald Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and teacher, who said “all writing is autobiography.” Even those writers who seem to be leaving themselves out of their narratives manage to reveal personal information as they tell their stories.

Although it may not be quite so obvious without the words, the same applies to the visual arts. Ansel Adams has said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” The artist is always visible; very few have trouble deciding whether Georgia O’Keeffe or Robert Mapplethorpe created a particular flower image. The Auteur theory holds that a film “reflects the director’s personal creative vision.” For example, we can easily distinguish the difference between a John Ford western and one by Sergio Leone.

We expose ourselves with our work; we can’t not do it. Our creative vision demands that we work within our own aesthetic. So we put into our art those things that we think are important, editing out things that, in our view, shouldn’t be there. And it’s all there: not only how we think about artistic elements and how we think about our subject matter, but who we are. Some of what we say about ourselves with our art will certainly be misunderstood, and some will be discernable to only a limited number of viewers; but some will be obvious to everyone.

But then, isn’t that part of why we are doing art in the first place? We have things that need to be said, ideas that need to be shared, emotions that deserve to be expressed. So we put it into our performances, our paintings, our photographs, our paintings, our poems, our sculptures.

The good news is that we are not revealing everything. Anyone who studies the work of any artist and pretends, on that basis, to know everything about the artist, is foolish, if not delusional. There are aspects of any artist that reveal themselves, and there are some things that just don’t come through—even to the most perceptive of viewers. So you can still have some secrets.

The bad news is that we are often so close to our work that it is difficult to determine just what it is revealing about us. Most of us know, one way or another, what we are trying to do with our work, but we seldom stop to think about what our work is saying about us.

And even though it may be initially uncomfortable, exposing some of ourselves through our art is something we need to be aware of and come to terms with. Remember that regardless of what the subject of your art may be, regardless of the medium, or technique, or approach, it’s also always about you.

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Let the Work Take Over

Sunday, 27. January 2013 23:51

It is very common to hear fiction writers talk about characters taking over the novel, play, or short story. Characters, it seems, sometimes go their own way, taking the plot along with them instead of performing in the way that the author envisioned. The writer becomes almost a spectator. For those who don’t write, this may sound a bit silly. After all, who is the one whose fingers are on the keyboard? What is really happening is that the story is taking on a life of its own. It’s just a convenience to blame it on the characters—since that’s often what starts the story moving in a certain direction—perhaps one unforeseen by the author.

Creations do that—take on a life of their own, and it doesn’t matter what kind of creation it is. The same phenomenon occurs in almost all arts. An actor’s performance can rise above expectations on certain nights, reaching emotions and insights never before (and sometimes never after) touched. Even the actor him/herself has no idea how or why it happened. They just treasure the experience, and, if they try to explain it at all, write it off to “inspiration.”

It involves creating in flow (discussed here and in several other posts), which almost removes consciousness from the creative process. But more than that, it involves letting the work take over. It’s almost as if the painting or the collage or the poem or characters start telling you what to do next and how to do it, guiding the artist in the creation.  In extreme cases, the artist is unconscious of what is going on. He/she becomes a tool by which the creation realizes itself.

This process may not be as mystical as it’s beginning to sound. There are, of course, psychological explanations. If you read flow theory, you find that what I am talking about here is perhaps a subset of that or an enhanced version of that. This state certainly shares many of the characteristics of flow, but the “sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity” is missing. The creator seems not only to not be in control, but seems almost to be missing. And the creator is certainly not directing the work on any kind of conscious level.

Jackson Pollock put it this way:

When I am in a painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of “get acquainted” period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc, because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

Pollock is not the only artist to have to wait to see what he has been about. An acquaintance, an accomplished sculptor and painter, commented about his own just-finished painting the other day, “Perhaps in a day or two I’ll figure out what I was trying to say.”

This is certainly not to say that all we have to do is sit down at the keyboard, or easel, or wherever we work and art will happen. We all know better than that. Of course we have to learn and practice and investigate and imagine and apply experience. But once we begin a project, we can, with sufficient concentration, move into flow, and then, if conditions are right and we are willing to take a risk and release a little control, we can perhaps move one step beyond to that place where the work takes over. And then we can, like Pollock, achieve that pure harmony that lets the life of the work come through.

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