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The Trouble with Taste

Sunday, 17. July 2022 22:35

A friend of mine, a professor of art, did an interesting experiment several years ago.  He had a book called The New Erotic Photography, which is essentially 591 pages of images that the editors, Dian Hanson and Eric Kroll, considered erotic. Looking through the book, he decided that some of the images were truly erotic and some were not. So he asked individual students to go through the book and place a sticky note on the pages with images that the students thought were genuinely erotic. Regardless of questions of propriety or the informal, unscientific nature of the experiment, the results were very interesting. Students marked 53 images. Only 14 pages were marked twice, 8 three times, and 1 four times; none were marked more than four times. Admittedly, there is no way to know the total number of students who participated in the experiment or, because of the limited number of colors of the sticky notes, how many images each particular student tagged.

I have done similar experiments myself: one with a book of paintings and sculptures, and one with photographs. The results were similar to the experiment that the professor ran. Only a few of the images really impacted me, and even fewer were sufficiently compelling that I would have hung them on my walls had they been available.

So what is the point of these stories? Probably something that most of us already knew: the appeal of art is unique and individual. Of course, there is some agreement on what makes a good painting or sculpture or photograph; otherwise any discourse about these arts would be impossible, but beyond that, deciding which art actually “speaks” to us is a very personal thing, conditioned by any number of variables unique to each individual, including, but certainly not limited to our sense of aesthetics, our experiences, our prejudices, and our sense of self.

Is it any wonder then that artists have such a difficult time earning a living from their art? The task of creating work that will appeal to a sufficient number of individuals enough for them to spend money to own that work is daunting at best and nearly impossible at worst—unless, of course, one is doing commissioned work. But in order to do commissioned work, one must become known. And that happens in any number of ways: making work and entering shows or contests or finding retail outlets that will handle work for a percentage of the sales, putting art on social media or any number of websites. Still the odds against making significant sales are quite steep.

Still artists have choices: they can modify their work to appeal to greater number of people, assuming they can figure out what will make their work more generally appealing. Or they can continue to make work that they want/need to make and hope that by targeting where they show it, they can reach an audience with similar taste.

Both paths have positives and negatives, and which path an artist chooses to take is strictly up to that artist. But the likes and dislikes of an audience must be taken into account in some way or the other if the artist is to be successful. And unfortunately, there are few formulas that will work because, as the old saying has it, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

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The Appropriate Response

Sunday, 3. July 2022 17:13

My Instagram feed is normally a quiet place where I can look at pictures and view things related to art—very different from my other social media feeds. This week, however, it blew up. A number of artists who have never published anything remotely political were not only publishing political statements, but very strong ones. The cause, of course, was the egregious series of US Supreme Court rulings that came out at the end of June. Collectively, they were just too much for many of the people I follow on Instagram, so they spoke out.

In talking with people who are normally the most pacific of people, I have found that a number of people have been depressed by the actions of the Court. Others are extremely fearful of the future of individual rights in the United States, particularly for women and people of color. Yet others are ready to take to the streets—with any number of potential outcomes. And some people are talking about emigrating, or at least moving to a different state. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything quite like this before.

All of this led me to wonder what the appropriate response for an artist to such a setback in human rights should be. Of course, no one can tell anyone what a “proper” response should be, but perhaps some responses are more suitable than others.

The first and biggest question is whether we should use our artistic skills and imagination to produce political pieces that express our outrage, or despair, or fear. While each artist will have to answer that question for themselves, I do not think that such a move is absolutely necessary. A number of artists depend on their work for income, and to suddenly shift to political content would require the cultivation of a completely different audience, and that would, of course, take time and energy which may be better used elsewhere. This is not to say that we should not make political art. For some that might be the most direct and forceful response, and I certainly wouldn’t rule that out. But, for some, the downside would be too big.

What to do then? The first thing is what a number of artists have already done: speak out and continue speaking out—using whatever platform is available. Thus the numerous statements that came across my Instagram feed. Some have, or will want to demonstrate. The important thing, I think, is to be sure that those in power hear our voices. Some politicians have already heard the voices and have responded in a positive fashion. Speaking out—at least in this instance—may bring us negative feedback, but it may also bring us allies, which will make our voices all the stronger.

The other thing that we can do, while it still matters, is vote and encourage others to vote. There are a number of elections that were decided by a very small number of votes. And in these times, every election at every level of government is important. So we need educate ourselves about those who are running for office—and I cannot emphasize this enough—even the “smallest” office. They are all important. Once educated, we need to educate others, and get them to the polls. Our rights and freedoms depend on it.

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Is the First Idea the Best?

Sunday, 5. June 2022 22:28

Last week I was discussing an issue with a set piece with the scene designer of a show I am directing. Actually, it was more of him thinking out loud. Finally he said, “The first idea is always the best, isn’t it?” I agreed, knowing that this was not necessarily the case. In this particular instance, he had considered many alternatives; then we brainstormed some more. He returned to his first idea as the best choice; it was more a matter of picking the best rather than returning to the first.

Many teachers and students say that in taking a test, your first answer is usually your best.

Regardless of this anecdotal evidence, an even larger number of writers say that the idea of your first idea being your best is not true, Helly Douglas, among others, has written an article on “Why Your First Idea is Never Your Best: Developing Amazing Writing Ideas.” Another explanation is provided in “The scientific reason why your first idea is rarely your best one.” The notion that the first test response is the best is refuted in “Myth: It’s Better to Stick to Your First Impulse Than Go Back and Change Multiple Choice Test Answers,” which appears on the Association for Psychological Science web site.

However, the notion that our first ideas are our best ones persists. Roger Waters for example, in Pink Floyd: the making of The Dark Side of the Moon, says that the first take is usually the best take. It is much the same idea. However, it did not prevent the band from doing multiple takes of pieces that make up their albums. I have often found that in headshot sessions, the first shot of a particular pose is often better than those that follow; still I shoot more than one.

Given these contradictions, how should we proceed in our day-to-day artistic pursuits? Much the way the scene designer in the first paragraph actually proceeded: take the first idea, then consider alternatives, perhaps develop one or two of these concepts and see where it leads. We may find that our first idea was, in fact, the best alternative; however, we may find that something radically different is a better choice. At first glance, this looks like a long drawn-out process. It isn’t really. Our minds work very rapidly, and once we hit on an idea, most of us find that it blossoms almost automatically, sometimes reforming itself almost instantaneously. If we take a moment—or even longer—to examine each iteration of the idea as it evolves, we will discover which will work the best.

This is not to suggest that this is merely a passive activity. Each of us has their own process and methodology. Ideas sometimes pop into mind, but they must be evaluated and perhaps massaged and developed before they can become a full-blown project. And that preliminary process may or may not better the original idea, but it certainly can facilitate moving only our best ideas forward.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the idea that turns into a project was the first idea or the fifteenth. What matters is that we have a way to advance our best ideas and let the lesser ones either support those best ones or fall by the wayside.

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When Arts Intersects Politics

Sunday, 30. January 2022 21:29

Art and politics sometimes intersect, but usually those intersections are not highly publicized. The opposite was true this week with a great deal of publicity going to not one, but two incidents of intersecting art and politics. These instances are different, but both deserve examination.

One instance involves singer/songwriter Neil Young and the media platform Spotify. Young became aware of COVID-19 misinformation being spread by “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, also carried on Spotify. Young essentially gave Spotify an ultimatum to remove Rogan’s podcast or lose Young’s music. Spotify chose to keep Rogan and began to remove Young’s music.

It was then that things began to happen: Joni Mitchell said that in solidarity with Young she would remove her music from Spotify. Mitchell was joined by rock musician Nils Lofgren while others voiced support. Not only are artists pulling their music from Spotify, but subscribers are cancelling subscriptions to the streaming service, even some who are using the free version, and, perhaps more significantly, Spotify stocks fell 12% during the week. At this writing, things are not looking great for Spotify.

The other incident involved Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. On January 10, the McMinn County, Tennessee, Board of Education removed Maus from an eighth-grade English language arts curriculum, citing concerns about “’rough, objectionable language’ and a drawing of a nude woman.” Spiegelman called the decision “myopic,” noting that he could believe that the word “damn” “would get the book jettisoned out of the school on its own. Regarding the nudity, he said the image in question was “tiny.” He went on to say, ”you have to really , like, want to get your sexual kicks by projecting on it.”

There was, of course, and immediate backlash, and not only in the local area, where a book giveaway is in progress, a church plans discussion on the book’s themes, and a professor plans to offer free classes. A comic-book store in Knoxville is giving away copies of the book to interested students. The story of the ban and the backlash went international.

Naturally, interest in Maus has shot up around the world. Many outlets sold out. Before this week neither Maus nor The Complete Maus, which includes a second volume was in the top 1,000 books on Amazon. By Friday Maus was No. 12 on Amazon and shipping in mid-February. By Sunday, it was a “#1 Bestseller” and shipping in late February to early March. So by “protecting” eighth-graders, the McMinn County Board of Education has almost guaranteed those students would read one of the free copies which suddenly became available, and has rekindled world-wide interest in a classic book about the Holocaust, which, in turn, will raise Holocaust awareness.

The final outcome in both of these instances is yet to be determined. Indeed, there may be no “final outcome.” But both incidents have already raised awareness that has both political and artistic implications. (I know that I have a sudden yen to revisit both Neil Young’s music and my copy of Maus.) Artists in both incidents have publically stated their opinions and have garnered significant public support. And that is enough to give one hope.

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Art Can Provide Respite

Monday, 17. January 2022 23:58

Sometime it gets to be too much: the world, the increasingly disturbing political landscape, the equally disturbing growth of social injustice, and so on. It weighs on us; it unsettles us; it depresses us. And perhapsthose are appropriate responses. Even if we’ve already done all that we can do and contributed all that our budget will allow, it still becomes a lot to handle and continue our day-to-day existence, particularly if we are empathetic people who believe in rights and democracy. But what should we do?

One choice is to ignore the politics and the current social climate all together. Don’t listen to the news, don’t subscribe to political/social feeds. Cover our heads and let the world go by. That is indeed a solution for the individual, but it has the downside of political and social ignorance. Admittedly, what we don’t know can’t bother us—until it does, until laws change, and the behavior of those around us changes so that it finally impacts us. Unfortunately, if we didn’t see it coming, we will have done little to protect ourselves or others. Ignorance may be bliss, but only for a short time.

Another way of avoiding the world is to occupy our minds with non-news activity so there is no time left to pay attention to ugly side of things. We spend our time scrolling TikTok, Instagram, Twitter feeds that are carefully curated to present us with nothing more challenging than cute cat pictures. And our minds relax. Again, until something actually impacts us; then we feel blindsided, because, well, we have been.

Some take refuge in art, either making it or enjoying it—or both. Those who completely lose themselves in either activity are no better off than those hiding their heads, but this approach seems more rewarding than mindless scrolling.

Perhaps a more balanced approach is called for. Stay aware of the current state of affairs, but when it becomes too much, turn up our interest/participation in art. We can immerse ourselves in art, either in making our own or appreciating another’s for a time to restore our sanity.

One caution: we might do well to avoid that art which serves social justice. As Joseph Horowitz, writing for American Purpose, says in his article “The Arts and Social Justice: Bedfellows?”:

Does art serve social justice? Does social justice serve art? My own impression is that much of what today passes for politically aroused art fails to transcend journalistic agitation. It does not linger in the mind and heart. It does not furnish the ballast associated with great literature and music, paintings and sculpture. That equation is traditional. It may also be indispensable.

If we take some time to indulge in either making or enjoying art that is not relevant in any sort of political or social sense, but rather “lingers in the mind and heart” if only for a brief period of time, we might find respite from the grim insanity of the world today. And we could all use the rest.

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Politics and the Artist

Sunday, 12. September 2021 21:11

To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes,” according to celebrated filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. If this is the case, how are artists to respond to the politics of suppression and public health recklessness practiced by the legislature and executive leadership of the State of Texas and some other states as well?

Should artists bend their style and practice to respond to such or should they stay their artistic course and protest some other way? Probably it depends on the artists and their art. For example, a painters of floral still lifes would be hard put to modify their art to incorporate a political statement, while news or editorial photographers would not. The inclination of the artist is also a factor. Some are so concerned about their style or brand that they do not wish modify what they are doing, regardless of their feelings about current politics.

Historically, some artists, particularly playwrights and filmmakers have responded by creating work that indirectly commented on the problem; Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible are excellent examples of this kind of work, as well as the number of subversive films made in reaction to  HUAC activities in the 1950s. Interestingly, this type of work was well-received, although it unclear whether audience members fully understood the connection between the work and the political situation.

Other work that is well received is by artists who respond to current events and find themselves becoming known for political commentary. Instead of shying away from the label, they embrace it. Both Shepard Fairey and Banksey come to mind.

Other artists may maintain their standard brand, but initiate a side-brand, perhaps of T-shirts or coffee mugs that are political in nature; sometimes these artists will even produce the political work under a different name in order to keep their primary brand “pure.” They might also use a storefront name on one of numerous online marketplace sites.

If the artists do not want to change their styles or subject matter, how might they respond to current situation? At least six creative people I know think that the problems are not just state, but national and are actively researching leaving the country; they plan to practice their arts either in a different location or via international media. Certainly that is a valid choice, even though some may consider it a bit drastic. Others are politically active in avenues outside their art: Several, including writers, directors, actors, and some photographers maintain an active political life on social media, commenting on the current situation and encouraging others to make their voices heard as well. One photographer/blogger I know produces a semi-weekly newsletter highlighting current events and decisions for his readership.

Some choose to ignore politics completely, but I am finding that these individuals are becoming rarer and rarer as US politics and pandemic reach out to touch nearly everyone. Paying no attention to these issues can be attractive and comfortable, so long as one doesn’t mind living with their head in the sand and with the understanding that the issues won’t disappear.

How any particular artist responds to political and national health issues is certainly an individual decision.  Artists need to decide whether to deal with the problems head-on or in a more private way. The one choice we as artists don’t have, at least according to Kurosawa, is to look away.

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How Do You Measure Success?

Sunday, 25. April 2021 23:58

Sometimes when I tell people that I teach theatre, they will ask, “Have you taught anybody famous?” as though that were the ultimate measure of success for a theatre professor. I suppose the same gauge could be used for any field, but I suspect that it is used more for the arts, specifically the performing arts. Given that criterion for success, I would imagine that there are a number of quite successful arts instructors out there who would suddenly be labeled “unsuccessful.” Success in teaching in the arts is not measured by famous ex-students; that’s a marketing technique used by for-profit arts schools.

But that question raises other questions, the chief one of which is: how do we measure success in the arts?

If you are a producer is it a whole run of full houses? A run of three-quarter full houses? Breaking even financially? Making a profit? Winning an award? Making the audience laugh or cry? Bringing attention to a political or humanitarian situation? If you are a director, do you measure your success the same way a producer does or is there another way? And if you are an actor, is it the same measure? Or is it the response of an audience?

If you are a painter or a photographer, is success getting into this or that show? Is it winning an award? Is it having x number of collectors? Is it having individual pieces of your work featured on the cover of magazines? Is it having your work accessioned by this or that museum? Is it bringing in y number of dollars with your work? Is it making work that moves people? Is it making work that records world events or that comments on them?

If you are a writer, does success come with publishing your first book? Does it come with publishing your 50th book? Does it come with writing a “best-seller?”  Does it come with being published in this or that journal? Does it come with begin reviewed by the New York Times? Does it come with winning an award? Does it come with acquiring a specific number of readers? Does it come with being able to support yourself with your writing?

If you are a musician, is success measured by being able to play or sing a certain piece of music? Is it making and distributing recordings of your work? Is it making money from your work? Is it public recognition of your work? Is it performing before huge audiences? Is it getting a gold or platinum record? Is it being able to play multiple instruments? Is it winning an award for your work?

Other artists have similar problems in determining what makes for success. The quick and easy answer is that if we can make a living doing our art, we are successful. The difficulty is that we all know artists who do that who do not consider themselves successful because they have not created their masterpiece or accomplished this or that goal. At the same time we all know artists who do consider themselves quite successful even though they have to have a day job to survive financially. Then there are the artists who don’t trouble themselves with the question of success at all; they just keep making art. The obvious conclusion is that—at least in the arts—we all measure success differently. It turns out that it is a very personal thing that is tied to our artistic goals. And it’s likely to be different for each individual.

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Relax Your Face

Monday, 9. November 2020 0:11

It’s been a very tough, very tense week—at least around here. Of course, you may be asking, “What week isn’t these days?” And, of course you would be right. Almost every week is tough and tense. It’s difficult to get things done, much less be creative. There are just too many things we can’t control that impact our lives. So the tension builds, and we have very few ways to dispel it.

Some try exercise, thinking that a good workout will relieve not only physical tension but mental tension as well. There is something to be said for that. If a person is both physically and mentally committed to a particular exercise regimen, engaging in that exercise will certainly relax the mind if not the body. Some people practice yoga, which also purports to engage the body and the mind and the spirit, and to some extent it does. Like any other exercise, while a person is doing it, the mind is engaged in the poses and not in the day-to-day worries that plague it. Some people meditate, that is, they focus their concentration on something other than the problems that assault us daily. Meditation is said to relax the body as well as the mind, and so is just as useful for relieving stress as any exercise program, although not perhaps as useful for toning the body.

Those activities, along with a number of others, are really useful for maintaining for general stress control, but they involve time and commitment and may or may not impact the momentary frustrations and pressures that get in the way of our creative work on an hourly basis. We all know that we should just let those things go, but doing that is far more difficult than saying it. Should we rant and vent our frustrations or should we somehow attempt to not let difficulties get to us? Is there some other thing we might try to deal with stress and tension? It turns out that there is: relax your face.

Yes, I know that sounds silly, but it’s not. The first person who ever told me to relax my face was a yoga instructor who was not talking to me specifically, but the whole class. I thought it was silly too—until I tried it. Then I noticed that as I relaxed my face, other tension left my body. I have since heard it from other yoga instructors, who sometimes say, “Soften your face.” It means the same thing: to consciously relax the muscles of the face.

Evidently, we hold tension in our faces, and when we consciously relax those muscles, other muscles in our body respond as well. Personally, relaxing my face also tends to relax my neck and upper shoulders. And it doesn’t take very long at all.

Does it generate as much relaxation as a yoga session or thirty minutes of meditation? No. But it does work, and it is nearly instantaneous. Give it a try. When you are struggling a problem that is causing you stress or tension. Stop. Take a moment and relax your face. It can make a huge difference. Just that little relaxation can make your work a bit easier and sometimes can facilitate creativity by removing that temporary stress block.

Let me know how it works for you.

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You Can Make It

Monday, 25. May 2020 0:08

The past several weeks have presented many of us the opportunity for rumination. One of the topics that I have given some thought to recently is artistic success. So when I ran across Florida Congresswoman Val Demings’ quote in the Washington Post, it gave me pause. Representative Deming is quoted by Jonathan Capehart as saying that her mother told her, “You can make it. If you work hard and play by the rules, you can be anything you wanna be and do anything you wanna do.”  That quote led me to think about a number of people in the arts who are pretty sure they followed the rules and worked hard, but feel that they are not yet anywhere close to their dreams. That seemed to warrant examination.

Perhaps they never really defined what they wanted to do or be. To want to be a Broadway actor is a very different thing from just wanting to be a working actor who makes his/her living on the stage, which is a very different thing from wanting to be a working film actor, which is a very different thing from wanting to be an internationally-known movie star. It’s not that it’s better to be one or another of these categories of actor; it’s just that they are different and the paths to getting there are different and have different sets of rules that must be followed. So it may be that a person dreamed of being one of these, but followed the path for another, and thus ended up in a place different from where s/he wanted to be. Something similar happened to Jerry Saltz. In his book, How to Be an Artist, he discusses all the paths he tried before deciding that writing about art was what he really wanted to do.

As long as we’re talking about rules, there’s that whole “playing by the rules” thing. Again, if someone is playing by the wrong set of rules, s/he may not be headed where s/he thinks she is going, but another place entirely. It is up to each individual artist to determine what the rules are for the path s/he has chosen. The rules for becoming an outstanding teaching artist in painting are very different from the rules for becoming an artist whose work is collected by museums and auctioned at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Before someone can “play by the rules,” s/he must first know what the rules are for where s/he is headed.

As for working hard, that too means different things according to the track one is following. Most serious photographers work hard at learning the craft aspects of their field, and many work hard at developing a high level of artistry in their images. If all a person is interested in is making excellent images, the hard work can be constrained to those areas; however, if one wants to do fashion photography, there are a number of other areas that will require hard work of several kinds in order to position oneself successfully in that particular area of photographic art. Similarly, other kinds of hard work are required by other areas of specialization.

One thing that is not referenced in the Representative Demings’ quotation is a time frame. Some artists do not find success until they have lived a while. And we are talking about a fair number of artists.  Jerry Saltz, in the book mentioned above, for example, talks about the difficulties he had in arriving at his goal of being an art critic finally at the age of 41.

So maybe those who are feeling they are not close to their dreams just aren’t there—yet. Or perhaps they don’t want to work so hard at ancillary things, or don’t want to follow a particular set of rules or find that the dream they started with is not the one they now want. They just need to remember that dreams, like everything else, can always be adjusted.

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Finding the Rhythm

Sunday, 19. January 2020 23:02

Sometimes we have difficulty beginning a new project, even if it’s a project very similar to one we have done before. The reason for this difficulty can be any one of many. The trouble begins when we just jump into the project, not taking into account any differences from projects we have worked on before. Sometimes all goes well; other times there is a significant mismatch between our approach and the project. Things do not go well at all—at least until we figure out that the problem is that every project has its own rhythm, and we, the artists, must match that rhythm in order to make any headway.

This was brought home to me this week. There were five projects on my plate: one older one and four new ones. One was completed successfully; two were begun successfully; two were begun less successfully.

Project number one was beginning a course that I teach every semester. (Yes, teaching a course is a creative project—at least from my point of view.) From the first minute, I fell into old patterns, making such adjustments as necessary for the new group of students, and the semester began quite comfortably—for that course at least.

The second project was beginning a course that I hadn’t taught in four years. The material was the same as it had been; even the text was the same. The first day of class, however, seemed to be very much a muddle. Ideas did not flow. Nothing seemed to connect. Everything was so disjointed that I cut the class time short and used it to prepare for the second class meeting. When that class came around, I moved into the material and very quickly found the rhythm that would work for the material with this particular group of students. So, after a stumble, the course seems to be beginning successfully.

Project number three was casting and beginning the rehearsal process for a musical. The first night of auditions was more than a little weird—everything seemed off. The musical director and I decided we could make a show, but things did not feel quite right. The second night of auditions was a little better. Then came callbacks where we really began to see what we had to work with. So we cast and had the read-sing-through. It was very unsettling. We have not yet found the rhythm for the rehearsal period. However, having identified some of the issues, I have hope.

Project number four was a photo editing project, the kind of project that I have done thousands of times. The editing of this session had been problematic from the beginning. My usual workflow was not as smooth as it normally is for some reason I could not determine. About half-way through, I modified the workflow and things ran more smoothly, but not as smoothly as I would have liked. Finally, as I neared the end of the project a pattern of work emerged that caused the editing to really run efficiently. I had finally found the correct rhythm for the project and was able to complete it.

The fifth project is, of course, this post. The beginning was difficult, but once the organization suggested itself, a flow with a steady rhythm quickly developed, and that led to a writing period that was much briefer than I had anticipated.

In reviewing these projects, I have been able to discover the factors that prevented an easy flow from the outset. It was, of course, different for each project, proving that virtually anything can throw off one’s creative rhythm. Whether the causal factor can be discerned or not, we must make every effort to find and follow the rhythm inherent in our artistic projects.

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