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Art or Masturbation?

Monday, 22. September 2014 0:54

If one is to believe Susie Hodge and Jackie Higgins, authors of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained and Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained, respectively, a significant portion of “modern” art is little more than artistic masturbation. These writers certainly do not say that; what they do say on page after page is that much recent art has been produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artists and those few who are knowledgeable enough to get the joke. Additionally, that art which is not meant to be an inside joke, does little more than make an obscure comment on the contemporary art world, or the medium, or the audience. Such comments are just another form self-referencing self-pleasure.

And the comments can be mean-spirited. One artist is said to create work “to satirize…the inflated esteem for traditional materials…to mock viewers for their acceptance without questioning…to ridicule artistic conventions and snobbery.” Now all of that may need doing, but when one reads it over and over and over again, it’s not just a single artist attacking the current state of art, it’s a trend. And on top of that, many times the artist’s intent is so inwardly-directed that it has to be explained.

The artistic inside joke, and art produced for the entertainment and pleasure of the artist and a close circle of like-minded friends is not new. Remember Marcel Duchamp? However, Jed Perl in his review of Jeff Koons: A Retrospective makes the point that Duchamp, the “inventor” of the readymade, meant Fountain as personal and private joke—a comment on the art world certainly, but probably not intended for exhibition. That is a very different sort of thing from the gaggle of artists producing and showing work simply to be able to pleasure themselves with a sly giggle.

And what gives them pleasure is the self-reflexive, the inside-inside joke or comment: “photography that is about photography;” paintings and sculptures which are comments on the art world wherein they exist and nothing else; plays about doing plays; movies about making movies; books about writing books.

There is certainly nothing wrong with writing or painting or photographing material that is self-reflexive. There is, however, at least in my mind, a problem when the work of art does not reflect or comment on its world in a way that a potential audience of non-insiders might understand, when it serves merely to entertain the maker and those three people who “get it.”

Certainly there are artists who are commenting on things outside the art business, but sometimes it seems that the ones who are making the money are the ones who are participating in the inside jokes. Perhaps because those who support the arts with their dollars want to be in on the joke, so whether they get it or not, they buy a couple of tickets, or a painting, or a piece of sculpture, thereby proving that they’re “in the know.”

Wanting to be in on the joke is a very different thing from actually appreciating or understanding a piece of art. As Perl points out, those who hail Koons as “the high-gloss reincarnation of anti-art” likely do not “know what anti-art is all about.”

It seems to me that while inside-joke art is interesting, and even apropos of the current situation of the arts, it’s cheap. It’s masturbation. It enables the maker and his/her inner circle to be privately funny and sly and ironic at the expense of everyone else. And more often than not, it is the obvious joke, the easy joke that allows the artist to avoid dealing with a broader world, doing real work, using real imagination, making real art.

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Buddha Got It Wrong

Sunday, 24. August 2014 23:18

Well, he got it wrong with regard to creating art, at least in my estimation. Two of the basic tenants of Buddhism are non-attachment and the middle way. Non-attachment is normally presented as essentially “holding the world at arms length slightly and looking askance at it.” This applies to pleasures as well as pain. The middle way is “a balanced approach to life and the regulation of one’s impulses and behavior” between “self-denial and self-indulgence.”

The last post suggested that passion is a requisite for making art. If that is true, then the artist could not be detached or distant. Rather, the artist must be invested in the act of creation or the results, even though technically perfect, are likely to be mediocre or worse.

For example, not long ago at notes for a play rehearsal in a production utilizing very young actors, I heard myself tell one of those young actors that he needed to “own” the cross that he took in a particular scene (We had already had the motivated/unmotivated cross discussion). His mental and emotional detachment from his movement made his work unbelievable. Actors must own, or at least appear to own, not only their movement, but their words and gestures as well.

And “own it” is what other artists must do too. No matter what our medium, we must invest ourselves in our art. We must connect with it and nurture it and love it and hate it and expend our passion on it. Otherwise, it is likely to be bland or mechanical and certainly less than it could be

So while the notion of non-attachment may be an excellent principle to live by and while it is very, very useful for an artist when the creative process is over—in the critique, showing, and selling stages, during the process of creation, it is a distinct liability. It keeps us from engaging with, investing in, and owning our work.

The middle way, avoiding extremes, is also a very useful way to approach life. And it is also useful after the creative process has come to an end. The middle way coupled with non-attachment can be a great help to us in withstanding criticism and rejection, which, unfortunately, seem to come with life as an artist.

However, while the artist embraces creativity and the artistic process, he/she may be lead into behaviors that are anything but balanced. Obsession or creative frenzy is necessary—at least for some artists. Many have commented on it. George Sand said, “The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession.” Barbara Streisand said, “I’ve been called many names like perfectionist, difficult and obsessive. I think it takes obsession for any artist to be good.” Obsession is the opposite of the middle way; rather it is an extreme single-minded self-immersion in the process of creation. Hazel Dooney has summarized, “Art can never be part of a balanced life. It only works if it’s a complete obsession.

So Buddha got it wrong? Certainly not with regard to life, but it does seem to be so with regard to creating art. Perhaps I do not fully understand the concepts of the middle way and non-attachment, or maybe I don’t fully understand creating art. But the more I think about it, the more difficulty I have in reconciling these notions with the intense attachment and extreme focus that it takes to make good art. Your thoughts?

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An Artist’s Passion

Monday, 11. August 2014 0:15

Not long ago someone told me that she admired my passion. Passionate is not a word that I would normally use to describe myself. It seems a bit pretentious; I was pretty sure that passion was something that belonged to other people—probably those who spell art with a capital “A” or who view themselves as Romantic with a capital “R.” Now it’s true that I feel things deeply and believe things strongly, but I also believe in logic and reason and have a very practical nature as well—hardly passionate. But as we talked, I learned that what she meant was that I go all out when I’m interested in something. True. If that’s passion, then I guess I have it.

But if people have passion, what do they do with it? We read “follow your passion” in lots of places. It’s advice given by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Jim Carrey and any number of other artists. At the same time there are many who give contrary advice. Interestingly much of the contrary advice is given by people who have record of successfully following their own passions, but who then urge others to take a path they consider more practical. Additionally, it seems that they believe that if people follows their passions, they will fail to develop skills because they will simply rely on the passion alone, or they might burn out.

These arguments might be valid if that is what happened, but often it isn’t. What really happens is that when people are really passionate, they not only want to spend time on whatever it is that interests them, they work to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to further their development in that area. So they go to school, apprentice themselves to someone, take internships; in short, they do all they can to make themselves more proficient in the area of interest. And if the passion continues to live, they continue to develop and work—at increasingly higher levels.

The question of money also comes up in the writings of these naysayers. There is no question that money is necessary to survive, but to make art to get money is, according to almost every successful artist, exactly the wrong reason to do it. Artists who agree acknowledge that they are not willing do some of the things required to maximize income from their art. This may cause them to make fewer dollars than might otherwise. For example, Terry Border just announced publication of his new book in a blog post, and in that same post explained why he would not provide a link to the book, even though his not doing so cost him money. But making a little less does not necessarily mean that following one’s passion will lead straight to the poorhouse.

One way some finance their passion is by taking a day job (This has been discussed here before). There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach and much to recommend it. It will, however, will give a person less time to spend with that which interests them. For some, this price is not too high: they have sufficient income to live and sufficient time to devote to their real interests. Some are even lucky enough to find a related job, or at least one that is tolerable, which makes life that much better.

It’s difficult to see how any artist could survive without passion. As noted in the last post, “the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist.” An artist without passion is at best an artisan and at worst a fraud. So I’m with those who say, “Follow your passion.” My advice for those with passion is to let it loose, follow it, and develop skills and knowledge that help realize that passion. Fail occasionally; learn from that and succeed. Learn even more, and make the art that passion demands.

 

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Chop Wood Carry Water

Sunday, 27. July 2014 22:45

There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” And, as with any Zen saying, there are multiple interpretations. I have always interpreted it to mean, “You must do the daily work, regardless of any attainments.” Sell your most expensive and most complicated piece, do the daily work; reach another level in overall sales, do daily the work; win a nationally-recognized award, do the daily work; have a piece accessioned into a major permanent collection, do the daily work. Artists do the daily work.

This was reinforced recently by two posts that appeared on Brain Pickings, one about the creative ideas of Ray Bradbury, and one about the creative ideas of Leonard Cohen. These are two radically different artists, but no one can deny that they are/were complex, prolific, and worthy of respect both for their work and for their influence on other artists. In these posts, they both discuss failure; neither man seems to regard failure as a negative thing.

But what—to me—is more interesting is what they have to say about work. In discussing his training in the Montreal School of Poetry Cohen says, “There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself.” Chopping wood and carrying water is its own reward.

Much has been written on the Buddhist notion of work, but it seems to come down to losing oneself in the work and working with “a spirit of joy and magnanimity.” It is considered a significant part of life, so regardless of age or station or the level of enlightenment, attainment, or fame, the real engagement is in the process of work, which is, in the case of the artist, the creative process. Cohen talks about the difficulty of this work; Bradbury talks about the differences between “made work…to keep from being bored,” working for money, and meaningful work, which he calls “true creativity.” He even suggests that we redefine the word work—meaningful work—as love.

Without that love of creative process, very few artists could continue; the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist. Cohen says, “We would read each other[‘s] poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…” And that involvement has continued. Even though he talks about “hard labor,” Cohen continues with that labor. “So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.”

If you really love the work you’re doing and you are capable of doing it and that work is meaningful, why would you even consider retiring? Most artists are far more interested in the current project or planning the next one than in taking it easy, no matter what age they might be. Remember Stephen King’s retirement? Even the rumor was short-lived.

And so, artists, real artists, do the work. They may garner applause, money, awards, fame, but they do the work and they continue to do the work until they are no longer mentally or physically capable. There is, after all, meaningfulness and renewal in the process of chopping wood and carrying water.

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Give It Away

Monday, 5. May 2014 0:31

Almost all artists come to the point in their artistic development when they feel that they should no longer work for free. Yes, it’s all about the process, but we begin to want a tangible return on our investment of time and materials. But then we have another issue: how to find a paying audience for our work. Since artists seldom have neither the training nor the inclination to be good salespersons, it becomes a problem.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, Austin Kleon in his new book Show Your Work, suggests that solution to getting our work out and ultimately selling it is not only to share it, but to do so freely and tell whoever will listen how we made it. His rationale is that if we can engage potential collectors through the story of how we create what we create and provide examples, there is a higher likelihood of selling it.

Hazel Dooney has said much the same thing. She publishes much of her work on the internet to generate conversation and, instead of copyrighting it, releasing it with a Creative Commons license. She too has written about the idea of giving work away. She will even go so far as to release high-res images of her work and agree to sign them if collectors will print them and send them to her (paying postage both ways, of course).

At the other end of the spectrum is an artist I know who will not even store his images on a cloud drive for fear that someone will steal them. He would not dream of establishing a web site showing his work. Because he has no media presence, very few people have ever heard of him, and, although his work is quite good, he sells very little—no one knows that he exists.

If we are concerned about the image itself or the idea, perhaps we don’t want to give it away. If, however, what we sell are original pieces, then sharing a copy may not be such a bad idea, particularly a low-res version. How else will potential collectors decide whether they want this or that piece? It’s not like anyone will be able to take that low-res internet image, blow it up to display size, and print it at a level of quality that could compete with our originals. And there are other advantages to sharing our work. We can create a tribe, a following, a group of people who like what we do an who are anxious to buy our next book, painting, original signed photograph, sculpture, those who will want to see our next movie or play or listen to our latest piece of music. That can’t happen unless they have a way to know about it in the first place.

And then there is this thing about sharing working procedures. Even the most secretive of us can have our work reverse-engineered. Once an idea escapes into the universe, anyone can give it a try. If we withhold process and procedure, it won’t stop those who want to copy; it will just slow them down a little. Why not explain what we’ve done and encourage others to try it out as well? Even using the same methodology, no one will be able to reproduce our work—simply because it’s our work and sprang from our brains. Even using our techniques, others will have to create what springs from their own brains. And knowing our secrets does not necessarily make the implementation easy. Some techniques, as we know, require years of practice before they can be mastered.

Perhaps the most difficult thing about sharing our work is overcoming our fear that our work will be “out there” and out of our control. There are ways that we can protect ourselves, but that is a topic for another time. The potential upside far outweighs the downside. Sure, someone might turn our art into a screensaver, but whoever then sees it may want an original for the living room or to give to a friend, and he/she would never have known about our art unless we had given a little of it away.

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Artist or Entertainer?

Sunday, 20. April 2014 23:56

In 1956 Studs Terkel wrote of Billie Holiday:

When she went into ‘Willow, Weep for Me,’ you wept. You looked about and saw that the few other customers were also crying in their beer and shot glasses. Nor were they that drunk. Something was still there, that something that distinguishes an artist from a performer: the revealing of the self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own.

Whether the difference between being an artist and being an entertainer is the willingness to reveal one’s self is open to discussion, but there certainly is an easily observable difference between the two.

In acting classes and workshops that I lead, it has become a topic of discussion. Seldom do you hear a young actor say “I want to create art.” More often, you hear, “I want to be a star,” or “I want to entertain people,” or sometimes, “I just want to do good work.” Whether the goal is to be an entertainer or an artist is not just an academic question. It is an important question that informs the choices that that actor makes during his career path.

While the basic skill set for the person who wants to create dramatic art and the person who is concerned with dramatic entertainment are much the same, the measurements of success and the rewards of the two goals are very, very different. Artists, taken as a group, probably can expect to make less money and will certainly make very different choices, and travel a path different from those who consider themselves primarily entertainers.

A recent Chicago Tribune article profiled Chicago actor Will Kiley who works in a storefront theatre for no pay for artistic reasons; he said, “I did some industrial voice-over stuff, and for two hours of work I got paid a couple thousand dollars…but that work felt artistically shallow and super-easy.” So in order to pursue his artistic needs, he works two day jobs to support himself, and at night he says he will “work my tail off on a storefront show, which is what I want to be doing, and get paid in, you know, beer.”

It’s the difference between Daniel Day Lewis and John Wayne or Gary Oldman and Sylvester Stallone or Bob Dylan and Gene Simmons. It’s not about audience appeal or fame; it’s a matter of the direction a performer wants to take.

And this choice of direction exists in arts beyond acting and music. This decision is one that every person in the arts must make at one time or the other. There are analogous paths in each of the arts. For writers there are choices besides novels and poems, and for visual artists there are numerous choices. Sometimes the choices intertwine and overlap; many times they do not.

One choice is not necessarily better than another, and certainly either choice or some combination is valid. And these choices are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, it seems to me that, realistically speaking, it is a choice that must be made because wherever an individual wants to go, it’s much easier to get there if the individual knows what direction he/she is going early on in the journey.

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The Problem with Comfort Zones

Monday, 7. April 2014 0:11

We all have all have our comfort zones. Such zones can be physical, referring to space, time, environmental condition. They can be psychological, religious, philosophical, or even artistic. Many will debate the pros and cons of remaining a comfort zone in almost all of these areas—except artistic. If we are in an artistic comfort zone, we may soon find ourselves in artistic trouble.

Many of us have gone through several stages of development before finding ourselves in an artistic comfort zone. But once we’re there, we are inclined to stay put. Comfort zones are, by definition, nice places to be. We are without tension, stress, and particularly fear, all things that are said to hinder creativity.

And the absence of tension, stress, and fear is not the total benefit of such a place. In a comfort zone, we are not only lacking those negative things, we feel a positive contentment. What we do is “good enough” and may actually be good. Probably it is not great; probably it is not what it could be if we were to push a little. What it is is comfortable. The art we make there is satisfying in some—or perhaps many ways. It may even be fresh and new. It may be selling. It may not seem to be lacking in any way.

But it is. If we are producing good work and are comfortable with it, what’s wrong with that? Nothing—if that’s what we want to do. The problem is that when we are comfortable, we have a tendency to preserve the status quo because it feels so good. And that feeling good can lead to complacency, and complacency is a danger to any artist who wants to move forward, to say something, to impact his/her audience.

Complacency almost demands that we produce things that are not challenging to us. And if we do nothing challenging, we neither develop nor mature. As an unattributed quote that that I ran across last week says, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” And therein lies the potential trouble.

If we want to grow as artists, if we want to produce work that is better than good, work that is outstanding and amazing and ground-breaking, we will have to move out of that comfort zone.

The question then becomes how to break free of this comfortable prison and produce more meaningful work. The answer is that we force ourselves, and the easiest way to do that is to take on a project that involves risk.

Risk is, of course, the antithesis of comfort. When we risk, we must acknowledge the possibility that we may not succeed. People who are content with being comfortable do not risk, because of the potential of producing something that our audience may not like, and thus the possibility of failure.

Risk is required for growth, and the problem with a comfort zone is that it does not allow that. If we want to make better art, we would do better to invite the possibility of failure which comes with the potential of amazing success than to die the slow sure death of complacency in the comfort zone.

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“It Doesn’t Get Any Easier”

Sunday, 23. March 2014 23:03

That’s a statement that my yoga instructor is fond of making—not during yoga class—but other times when we’re talking about yoga. Having been in the class for about three years, I am forced to agree with him. My experience (and I think that of others) is that every day is a new day and what was easy yesterday might not be today and vice versa.

The same is true for art, I think. Oh, we may learn to use our tools better so that the manipulation of the medium comes more easily. We master brush techniques, learn more about the potential of Photoshop, make a breakthrough in our voice lessons, refine our approach to characterization, Develop new strategies for storytelling. We hone our work habits in order to maximize creativity and output. So in that sense it does get easier.

And, some of the things that we do every time we make art are like things that yoga practitioners do every time they participate in a class. Sometimes they are not only similar, they are exactly the same: staying in the moment, maintaining concentration, focusing on the task at hand. And then come the things that are perhaps not exactly the same, but are very similar: the recognition that today will be different from yesterday and tomorrow, the knowledge that on some days we may not do as well as others, or we may do better. The understanding that today, we might peak in an entirely different place than we have done before. We recognize that our routine, though solidly made and tested over time, may not feel the same today or function exactly the way that it did yesterday.

Additionally, as artists we hopefully keep growing and developing, which means that there is always something new, something untried, something risky. In that sense, what we are doing today is just as hard or harder than it was yesterday, or last week, or last year. Once again we find ourselves going through the pain and insecurity of creating artistic “children” and pushing them out the door and into the world. Once again we try to be sure that the ideas we have are communicated in all of their complexity and nuance, shaping the artifact to be say exactly what we need to say and not just approximating our artistic vision.

The other thing that does not get easier is putting ourselves, our souls, on display in yet another work, exposing our obsessions for the universe to see and being unsure of how they might be received. That was never easy and still isn’t.

And, as in yoga, we are obligated to remind ourselves that we are not really competing—at least during the creative phase of our work, and that it is, in fact, about the journey rather than any specific destination.

What we must recognize is that it that art is hard and really doesn’t get any easier, no many how many times we assume the role of maker. It is a humbling realization. And then we realize that we have chosen or have been chosen to go on this journey and that we must approach today as a unique opportunity to once again test ourselves, our focus, our concentration, our creativity, much the same as if we had entered a yoga studio and unrolled our mats. There’s a reason that it’s called practice.

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Phoning It In

Sunday, 26. January 2014 23:52

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another: a teacher, a student, an actor, a photographer, an artist, a writer—phoning it in. The results are usually not terrible; they’re just not as good as they could be. So phoning it in is something to be avoided, at least in my estimation.

There are a hundred reasons for it, and none of them really matter. What matters is the reduction in quality. When we phone it in, our work may be passable, sometimes even good by certain standards. But it’s not our best.

Because of all the activities in which I am currently engaged (and cannot eliminate), I feel that I am getting very close to phoning in this blog; and that is something I do not want. To avoid that a change is necessary. Rather than just taking some time off as some have advised, this blog will be moving to a bi-weekly publication schedule. How long this will last I am not sure. That will probably depend on how this new schedule fits and functions.

This move is not due to lack of material, rather for lack of time to deal with the material that I have, material that continues to grow on a weekly basis. What is lacking is the time to think it over and allow myself to see connections and patterns and decide what is really worth talking about.

As those of you who have read this blog for a while know, I am a firm believer in artistic discipline, so moving to a longer time frame will still keep my publishing regular but will provide a little more time for thinking and development. I don’t know that the quality will improve, but hopefully it will not diminish.

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Rejection: Part of the Gig

Monday, 20. January 2014 0:19

Acting students learn early on that they must deal with rejection. It’s the result of the way things are done in the world of theatre: eight roles in a play, twenty-four actors auditioning, sixteen actors rejected. It happens every time there is an audition. Actors also learn that the reasons for rejection are manifold and often have very little to do with them personally. The tough ones keep auditioning; the others find another way to live.

Rejection comes to other artists as well, but those other artists, even in theatre, usually have not been taught the way actors have and so have to develop ways to deal with rejection on their own. The alternative is to take a path that leads away from a world filled with rejection.

We all want to be wanted and accepted. Sometimes it seems that we aren’t, or at least our work isn’t. Only the artist him/herself can decide when it’s no longer worth trying. But before you decide that continuing to pursue your artistic dreams isn’t worth the continued rejection, consider this:

As evidenced by these examples, those who connect the artist to the audience are sometimes lacking in foresight, but we still have to deal with their rejection. We may, like Shaw, who became first a critic, then a playwright, change our course slightly. Or, if the work is important to us, we will keep making it and putting it out there, submitting it to the next agent, publisher, producer, juried show, gallery, and the next and the next.

The bottom line is if we want to be artists, we will experience rejection. Therefore, we need to grow thick skins and maintain enough confidence to keep going. Rejection is, after all, part of the gig.

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