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When is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

Sunday, 5. November 2017 23:20

Many years ago at a theatre festival, I heard the technical director of the host school chew out his crew for improperly setting the masking. The guest director had not specified masking requirements and the crew had done the minimum. The technical director told his crew, “it may be good enough for them, but it’s not good enough for us!” And we all have heard—and probably used the phrase “good enough for government work” even if we don’t work for a governmental agency.

A related phrase is “it works” or “that works.” Tony Randall on a talk show a number of years ago was asked what word or phrase he hated; his answer was “That works.” The implication was that “that works” is the equivalent of “that’s good enough” but certainly not of “that’s excellent” or “that’s perfect.”

Do these statements really suggest a standard lower than excellence? In Randall’s view, yes. (We have no way to know whether Randall was seeking some sort of perfection or just a standard higher than “working.”) In the view of others, no.

“That works” generally means that all the pieces fit together when they have not done so before. I find that it’s used a lot in theatre, where it means, “yes, that is a moment that that is good.” It does not preclude other possibilities, for as we all know, in art, the possibilities are endless. “It works” means that we have found one assemblage of parts that is better than all the alternatives we have considered before. It’s not only “good enough;” it’s very good—maybe the best possible answer—if not, certainly a contender.

“Good enough for government work” does imply a reduced standard: according to this view, government work can be accomplished at a level lower than that demanded by the private sector. Whether this is true is not at issue; what is at issue is whether “good enough” is good enough. Is it, for starters, really equivalent to “it works?” In many cases, it is. In normal use it means virtually the same thing, albeit a bit more understated: the best among available alternatives at the moment.

And, in making art, isn’t that what we are looking for—the best among available alternatives at the moment? Of course it is.

Occasionally you may hear, “that works better,” indicating that although the best among available alternatives had been discovered, in another moment, a new, better solution was found. Again, in art the possibilities are endless, and in this case, the artist, although s/he had found a perfectly acceptable solution continued to search until something better was found. It’s the nature of artists to do that.

It all depends on where our bar is; the technical director in the first paragraph had a substantially higher bar than the director, at least as regards masking. If we hold a very high standard for our work, “good enough” or “it works” may be an understatement, but definitely means that it meets that standard. So when is “good enough” good enough? When we are willing to publish it or ship it or make it available with our name on it. If we are willing to own whatever the artistic decision is, then it is absolutely good enough. In fact, it might even rate a “that’ll do pig,” which, as we all know, is the highest praise that can be offered.

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The Key Ingredient

Monday, 23. October 2017 0:29

A friend of mine whose house was ruined in the recent flooding of Houston has been hard pressed to make decisions about redecorating. She knew what palette she wanted but, as anyone who has decorated recently knows, the choices even within a single color group are myriad. So she looked as swatches and remained undecided. Then she made what she thought was an unrelated decision; she decided to replace the front door and picked one out; it came in colors, only one of which was in her palette. It was only then that she realized that the front door color would dictate her color choices, at least in three major rooms, and so she could not go forward with her paint selection until the door arrived and she could actually see what the key color in her newly-painted home would be.

Another person in the same situation had exactly the same problem. The choices were too many to consider all at once; the result was a very frustrating indecision. With the help of her daughters, however, she managed to solve the problem by deciding to use a theme throughout the house. That decision allowed her to paint and decorate each room individually, with the whole being tied together thematically. Other choices immediately fell into place.

A writer I know had all the pieces of his book except the beginning; he couldn’t figure out what the beginning should be—at least not until he looked around in the small-town all-night diner where he was having a cup of coffee. That place and its patrons immediately became the beginning of his novel.

The same phenomenon applies to visual work. Some of my abstract photographic work takes the form of grids. The assembly of a grid is complex process which on most days is fairly difficult. However, I have found that somewhere within this process is a single image that will bring everything together, or at least provide a direction for the remainder of the grid.

And it applies to performing arts. Often when actors are developing their characters, the results will be incomplete until the actor “accidentally” discovers that one thing that, like the key image in my grid example, will bring the whole thing together, tying research to imagination and allowing the full creation of the character.

What we are talking about is the key ingredient, and it seems that every creative process requires one. Sometimes it’s a major thing, but more often it is one tiny detail that causes all the other pieces to fall into place, triggering the project’s final shape. It’s the image that enables the director to move forward with the film, stage play, or musical. It’s the chord change or musical phrase that pushes the musical composition. It’s the juxtaposition of words that propels the poem toward completion.

The problem with key ingredients is that they are almost always “discovered,” arrived at seemingly by accident. Sometimes artists are slow to recognize that every project needs one. Others recognize that every project needs a key ingredient, but have no idea how to find one.

I wish I could say that I have a sure-fire way to locate the key ingredient every time. But, alas, I cannot. The best I can do is to suggest that we, as artists, need to recognize that such things exist and can aid the creative process tremendously. Beyond that, I can only suggest that we stay open to all possibilities and allow serendipity do its work.

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“I Never Thought About It Like That Before”

Monday, 9. October 2017 1:13

Over the last few weeks I’ve heard that phrase or some variation three or four times. In each case it was a genuine acknowledgement of a new and interesting viewpoint on an old topic. It’s not a saying that we hear all that frequently, so it surprised me to hear it so often in such a relatively short time span. And there’s a reason that it’s not all that common; it’s because we are seldom presented with the opportunity to say it. Rarely are we presented with a new and interesting viewpoint on an old topic.

And that’s sad, because it seems to me that that is exactly what artists should be doing: looking at topics (Old topics are just fine—are there really any new topics?) with new eyes and thinking about them in new ways and then showing that new, unique, and interesting viewpoint to their audience. Isn’t that what all the great artists have done—forced their audiences to look at a subject from a different perspective—one they never thought of before? And suddenly their world changes. Because of the new point of view, they see the matter in a completely new light, and if their mind is open only the smallest bit, they are forced to acknowledge how different the topic is when viewed from this new direction.

If the artist is in the business of making artifacts to sell and has found a comfortable market niche, s/he may not be interested in doing anything differently; the old point of view may be working very well. However, if the artist is about creating new things, developing a new viewpoint may be exactly what is needed. It will provide the artist with a different approach to his/her work which can only result in work that is new and different, work that is more thought-provoking and interesting than previous work.

Still, it’s difficult to look at thing differently than we have in the past. Artists, like almost everyone else, have comfortable habits, both physical and mental. We do things the way we’ve done them in the past, and we think about think about things the way we always have. And it becomes really easy to convince ourselves that we can create within our comfort zones. And we can, but our work of tomorrow is likely to look like our work of today which looks like our work of yesterday. Our work is of high quality and has a consistent point of view. What could be better?

Work that is of high quality and is new and fresh and unexpected might be better. That is what we could anticipate if we can manage to come out of our comfort zone and look at our subject matter and take a fresh look at our subject matter. With that fresh look will come fresh insights, and those fresh insights will cause our work to be new and fresh as well. And because our work is new and fresh and interesting, we have more to give our audience.

The net result is that we will be better artists. It is likely that we will not reach our full artistic potential until we are willing to come out of that comfort zone and look at the world or at least the artistic part of our world in new and different ways. Only by doing that will we grow as artists.

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I Can’t Get No. . .

Sunday, 24. September 2017 23:46

As I was mulling over my dissatisfaction with my latest photo shoot, I realized that dissatisfaction is something I experience with every photo shoot—and every play I direct, and everything I design, and every image I make. Then I realized that dissatisfaction is nearly a constant state with me; insofar as it applies to art, I’m never satisfied.

It’s not about perfection. I gave up on that a long time ago. I came to believe, as Seth Godin preaches, that the search for perfection is a fool’s errand that prevents the artist from getting anything out the door. It’s the reason that paintings (and all other artifacts) are never finished.

Those of us who have given up on perfection, however, still have standards, and often those standards are expressed as satisfaction. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about being as good as it can be. I realize that that is a very fine distinction, but still the distinctions exists. Satisfaction means being happy—or at least content—with all aspects of the final project; it denotes a relationship between artist and artifact. Perfection, on the other, indicates that there is absolutely no way to improve the final project; this is a quality of the artifact only. And this, of course is virtually impossible; any artist who attempts perfection is not likely to have a significant output.

Even though satisfaction seems to represent a lesser standard—as compared to perfection—it’s still difficult. Most artists set the bar very high. And therein lies the problem. When the bar is high, the artist sometimes fails to reach it. There is always something that could have been done better, something that could be clearer, or cleaner, or more imbued with meaning.

There are three ways to deal with this situation: (1) set the bar lower; (2) improve the quality of your work; (3) learn to accept dissatisfaction.

Some artists opt for setting the bar lower or redefining the bar. The result is that their work, which was never “good enough,” now is. Dissatisfaction dissolves. If the bar was sufficiently high to begin with, this is just a matter of labeling. The artist’s output will remain the same, both in terms of quality and quantity, and the artist will feel better. This should be the choice particularly of those artists whose standard is unrealistically high, like those who are really looking for perfection.

Improvement would be the choice, I think, of most artists. The problem becomes one of deciding what to improve. General improvement might not get to the source of the dissatisfaction. So a bit of analysis is required. The artist must answer questions like: does the dissatisfaction arise from the same issue in each project? What aspect of the project causes the dissatisfaction? Is the level of dissatisfaction consistent with each project or does it vary project to project? Of course with the answers to these questions there will be follow-up questions. Once answered, the artist can see where and what s/he needs to improve.

Dealing with dissatisfaction can mean just getting used to it, or it could mean undergoing psychoanalysis, or it could mean anything in between. This approach acknowledges the persistent existence of dissatisfaction and attempts to find ways for the artist to come to terms with it without modifying the work.

Most artists I know experience dissatisfaction with their work to some extent, and most of those artists have chosen some combination of these three methods to deal with it, with greater and lesser success. How do you deal with your artistic dissatisfaction?

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What We Really Want to do is Make Poetry

Monday, 14. August 2017 1:14

In reviewing the photographic work of Ren Hang, the Chinese photographer and poet, who ended his life earlier this year, I realized that each of his photographs is a visual poem—much in the same way that the late poet/songwriter/composer/performer Leonard Cohen’s songs were poetry. Note that here I am using the secondary definition of poetry: “a quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems.” And those characteristics are specifically, “a concentrated awareness of experience” created with elements “arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.”

One often hears about the poetry of a Tennessee Williams play, or the poetry of a particular ballerina, or the visual poetry of any number of painters and photographers. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the iconographic work in every genre of art, indeed in every sub-genre, is poetic in nature, i.e. they have some sort of concentrated awareness, the elements of which are arranged to work intricately with each other to generate a specific emotional or intellectual response.

A simplistic explanation would be that the “poetic” artist is simply following the Principles of Design. Although sources provide many different lists of these principles, the Getty list is a solid one and lists nine principles of design: balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity. And yes, these principles do contribute to poetic possibilities of a work of art.

But that’s not enough. Many artists work to use all nine elements in their work, and that work (including poetry itself) may qualify as “good” or even “very good,” but it never quite rises to the level of poetry that I am talking about. We have all seen plays, movies, dance productions, paintings, photographs, sculptures, and have heard songs, concerts, readings that, upon analysis, did use all of the principles of design, but only a few reach that iconic level that I am calling poetry.

The question is why. If all the pieces are there, what prevents the work from reaching its absolute potential? The answer, I think, is all of those elements must not only be there, but must be interconnected and work together—along with form and content—like the wheels and cogs in an intricate mechanical device. Indeed these elements must be melded together integrally so that it is almost impossible for the viewer to isolate any one individual part. This fusion of all the components of the piece creates a beauty that is larger than the sum of the parts.

And that is what we who claim to be artists are trying to do—make work that transcends the components that we manipulate to create the work. And even though the Ren Hangs and Tennessee Williamses and Leonard Cohens make it look easy, it isn’t. (And if you dig, you‘ll discover it wasn’t easy for them either.) But, like them, we want our work to be the best it can be, and that requires constant effort and self-evaluation. But with effort, we too can make work that may not be perfect, but is certainly poetry.

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Followup: What’s Next?

Monday, 31. July 2017 0:37

The last post was about that depression that seems to happen regularly to artists when they finish a project. Originally, I suggested that the best cure seemed to be jumping into another, even frivolous, project to pull oneself out of the doldrums. But then it occurred that if one is depressed, the last thing s/he might be able to do is to come up with a new project, no matter how lightweight it might be.

As I was pondering this I ran across a blog post by Austin Kleon entitled “Want to be an artist? Watch Groundhog Day” (If you are not receiving Kleon’s newsletter or reading his blog posts on your news feed, you should be.)  In the post, Kleon argues that the creative journey is much like that of Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) in Groundhog Day.

His point is one that has been made here before: “The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil, with more work to do.” And Kleon makes his point quite forcefully.

Along the way, he includes a quote from Ian Svenonius’ book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group: “[Art], however, is different. You will never know exactly what you must do, it will never be enough… no matter what change you achieve, you will most likely see no dividend from it. And even after you have achieved greatness, the [tiny number of people] who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’”

This is the question that we always find ourselves asking after the end of a project, and in the depression we’re feeling, the answers are hard to see. New projects do not usually just jump up and introduce themselves at our bidding. So what to do?

My suggestion is absurdly simple, but for some reason, the idea has eluded me until very recently: make a list of potential projects—not just a list of projects you could do or might be interested in doing, but projects that you really want to do, given the time and opportunity.

If your experience is like mine, you might find that the ideas for new projects come when you are the busiest on a another project. Make notes on them for future reference. And when I say notes, I mean just that—not just a list of project ideas, but some sort of document about each idea with enough detail to allow you to remember what you were thinking in full. So now, instead of just scribbling the idea on a post-it note, which subsequently became illegible or lost, I now make a Word document for each idea and keep those documents in their own folder on Dropbox. Some files contain only a single sentence or phrase; others have multi-page outlines of projects—whatever time and the level of development permit.

This folder provides a place that I can go whenever I am between projects to insure that I keep working, when I have additional developmental ideas, when I need to do the “something small every day” that Kleon advocates. I can open a project, refine it, edit it, add to it, develop it—a little at a time. Some of these potentials grow into projects; some get abandoned when I realize they are unworkable. Still others morph into a project different from the one I had originally envisioned.

It may not be a perfect system, but it works for me. You may want to give it a try.

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Conceptual Art or Intellectual Exercise?

Sunday, 2. July 2017 23:58

On June 21, the New York Times reported that Jeff Koonswould donate a monumental sculpture, a hand holding a bouquet of balloon tulips, to the City of Paris to honor victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks.” It turns out, however, that “Mr. Koons donated the concept, not the construction,” and that the city needed to raise $3.9 million to make and install the 30-ton work.

The whole notion of conceptual art is controversial and has been since its inception. An internet slide show about it defines conceptual art as “art that is intended to convey an idea or concept to the perceiver and need not involve the creation of appreciation of a traditional art object such as a painting of sculpture. (Dictionary)”

Some say that all art is conceptual, at least all good art. Such work has something to say and says it with greater or lesser measures of success. “Conceptual art,” as a movement, simply values “the ideas over the formal or visual components of art works.

Implicit in any definition or discussion of conceptual art is the idea that there must be a physical manifestation of the concept. Even some of the more extreme examples, such as the text work of Lawrence Weiner has physical manifestation, albeit lettering on a wall (here, for example).

While no one is challenging the value of a great idea, whether artistic or technical, the question becomes whether it is legitimate to call such an idea art. A concept is no more than a theory or idea. It must be realized to become art. Anyone who works as an artist knows that there are many ideas or concepts that die in the attempted realization. This fact has driven a number of artists to adopt new media to their service—because the need to realize the idea was so strong.

Even with that, some concepts seemingly defy adequate expression: an idea just doesn’t work as a stage or screen play once you try to express it in dialogue. The thought cannot be realized fully in two-dimensional space. The concept cannot find proper expression in any plastic medium.

Whatever the reason, an unrealized concept is just that—unrealized. It’s an idea, a vision, and nothing more. And attempting to pass off an unrealized idea as art turns that art into an intellectual exercise, or, at worst, an art-world in-joke which is really about cleverness and ego rather than anything that could reasonable be called art.

What Koons attempted to “donate” was the idea of a sculpture, not the sculpture itself. He wanted to give Paris an idea. This is not completely unprecedented; Sol LeWittsold wall drawings that buyers then executed on their own.

Although opinion is divided about the Koon’s “gift,” the majority seem to fall into the negative column. These responses may be best summed up by Isabel Pasquier, an art critic at one of France’s leading radio stations: “Whether you appreciate his art or not, Jeff Koons is a businessman, and we quickly understood that he was offering Paris to himself as a present.”

Good art must, I think, communicate with the perceiver. Conceptual artists would argue that what is communicated is an idea, a concept. While that view is certainly valid, it is also valid that art might communicate an emotion, a feeling and be just as successful. The one thing that is certain—at least in my mind—is that whatever art communicates, that art must be realized in the physical world, no matter how ephemeral that realization might be. Otherwise it’s not art; it’s a dream.

Category:Aesthetics, Communication, Presentation | Comment (0) | Autor:

You Keep Using That Word…

Sunday, 21. May 2017 23:49

“Acting is my passion” are words that I often hear from my students, sometimes repeatedly. Usually it’s not true, at least if one is to judge by their behavior. Passion is one of those things that you usually don’t have to be told about; you can see it in the behavior of the person. I keep wanting to say, in the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” But I don’t. I think they think that passion for something means they enjoy it, which does fit one of the dictionary definitions.

In my experience, however, Passion and enjoyment do not mean the same thing. Some artists have a passion that they don’t necessarily enjoy; rather, their passion is what drives them. And while many artists revel in their passions, others do not enjoy being as driven as they are.

And passions, it turns out, do not necessarily respect one’s desires. A musician I was talking with the other night mentioned his daughter, a senior in high school. Unknowingly, I asked if she played. He launched into a short tirade about how she played in marching band, but did not enjoy the music part; she liked the marching, and the patterns, and the being outdoors. According to him, she had no passion. He went further to say that his kids’ only passion was the smart phone, which they “played” with great expertise. The situation, I think, was not that his daughter had no passion, but rather that she had no passion for music (which evidently disappointed him). Her fondness for the outdoors, or intricate marching patterns could, conceivably, develop into passions, and she might have other passions as well.

Or she might not. I don’t necessarily believe that everyone has a passion, or even the capability for being passionate. I rather suspect that real passion is somewhat rare. Many people go through their whole lives without it, and don’t really seem to miss it. In fact, I think people without what I would call passion are in the majority.

The minority—and I believe it is a very small minority—who are passionate about something don’t have to tell you. What they do tells you. What they talk about tells you. What they think about tells you. How they spend their time tells you. The way they live tells you.

Take for example Nolan Ryan (and forgive me if I have told this story before). I know a person who went to high school with Ryan and who says that all he ever cared about was throwing a baseball. He did it for hours a day, every day. He was obsessed; he was passionate about throwing a baseball. And that passion was responsible for a remarkable career and more than a few records.

Passion is one of those words like Art that I have always been hesitant to claim for fear of sounding pretentious. It seemed a word that was more appropriate in a romantic (or Romantic) novel. You will seldom hear people who are genuinely passionate about anything talk about that passion; they are too busy dealing with it to discuss it.

While some people are disconcerted by those who are passionate, I appreciate and admire them. They are the ones who set records, who make break-through discoveries, who invent new technologies, who create great art.

So if you are one who has passion, my advice—worth exactly what you are paying for it—is to rejoice in it, celebrate it, let it lead you, live it.

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Take Time to Recreate

Sunday, 7. May 2017 23:13

Like you, I have very little down time; I jump from project to project to project. In my leisure time, I do those personal projects that bring me little income but a lot of joy. So, like you, I’m really always working. And I’m a list-maker, so when I’m “relaxing” in the back yard, I’m making notes on what maintenance items need attending.  My experience with “vacations” has not been rewarding; they have typically consisted of a lot of time getting places and thinking about what I needed to do when I get back.

And even though I have read articles such as philosophy and psychology writer Olivia Goldhill’s “The Psychological Importance of Wasting Time,” which cites various authorities on the value of taking time away from work and recreating, I was never quite able to find the time to take time off.

Last month, I was invited to spend the afternoon and evening at a waterfront house that some friends had for the weekend. Even though this was not something I would normally do, I accepted. Arriving just after a cold front, I spent the afternoon and evening on a deck chair under a blanket. I watched the dark water and let my mind wander. Instead of making lists or worrying about a project, I began to think of nothing in particular. I think it may have been the longest time of being in the present without making lists or contemplating projects or evaluating my life that I have ever experienced—perhaps because the temperature and the wind demanded that I concentrate on the present to remain comfortable.

The result was an astounding (to me) sense of tranquility. My mind was still, my outlook positive. I felt more rested that I usually do upon waking after a full night’s sleep. It was like the work I had been doing with mindfulness for years finally flowered. The day following was just as calm; I was able to evaluate potential projects that had been causing me issues calmly and unemotionally creativity juices began to flow. And the best part was there was none of that “I’ve taken time away, so now I have to catch up.” I simply felt refreshed.

Last next week I found myself on a bench looking at Puget Sound, doing essentially the same thing. The weather was warmer and the bench was in a public park and it was early afternoon, but the experience was essentially the same. And this experience only reinforced the first. In neither case was the outcome expected; I don’t know that I had any real expectations, but what I got will facilitate my creativity and ongoing project work immeasurably.

I had accidentally recreated. Dictionary.com says that recreate means: “to refresh by means of relaxation and enjoyment, as restore physically or mentally.” It is not necessarily something that I advocated before. But now that I have experienced the real thing, I cannot advocate enough.

I’m not suggesting that you go rent a house by the bay. What I am suggesting is that you find whatever it is for you that will allow you to “just be,” to spend some time thinking of nothing. Perhaps, like me, you will happen upon it accidentally. Perhaps it will be an activity that you were never able to fully embrace before. However you get there, you will find that Goldhill’s conclusion is correct: it is time well spent that will ultimately make you better at what you do.

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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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