Tag archive for » creative process «

Maybe It’s Not All About Process

Monday, 24. September 2018 0:58

“It’s all about the process.” We hear that over and over again when we ask artists about process and product. When artists talk to each other, it’s all about the process. Want to discuss creativity? Plan to talk about process. It’s almost as if the product is forgotten when we talk about art and creativity. I have written about it before (here, here, here, and here, for example). And if we are involved in teaching any of the arts, what we teach is process—how to develop it, how to solidify it, how to refine it. It’s almost as if all art is about is process.

This, however, is not the case. The audience could care less about the process. What the audience is interested in is the product, the artifact. Here I must acknowledge that some art processes do not produce artifacts, but these are limited to live performing arts, and while they do not produce physical artifacts, there is a sort of product in the performance experience—that which the audience will (hopefully) talk about when the production is over.

The audience cares only that the product of whatever our processes might be speaks to them, that the artifact somehow enhances their existence. What they do not care about is what we went through to make the product happen, to produce the artifact they can see and touch and appreciate.

Arts marketers might disagree and say that the story of the process is of great interests to potential buyers and will often help make a sale. That is only partially true. What really makes a sale of an artifact is a story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is about the creative process, or about how the artist came to write, sculpt, paint, photograph the subject and produce the artifact in question. And it doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not. The fact is that some kind of story about the artifact came to be is a very useful sales tool because it provides more insight into the work and somehow connects the artist and the audience member and personalizes the work for the potential collector, thus improving sales potential.

This is certainly not to say that process is unimportant. Rather it is to force us to look at process from a different point of view, that of the audience. If we do that we find that there is far less interest in process and far more interest in artifact. This might lead us to think differently about our approach to the work. From that altered viewpoint, it is clear that process is simply a means to realizing the artifact, and perhaps can be completely invisible to the audience. Looking at the process/product dichotomy in this fashion helps us realize that process is nothing more than the methodology we use to create the product, and, as such, might deserve less emphasis in our minds than the artifact.

My point is that while it seems that “it’s all about the process,” perhaps it shouldn’t be. Certainly the process is enjoyable, absorbing, and even addictive, but it is, after all, just a creative methodology. Without the target of a product, an artifact, process is pointless. Perhaps it’s time that we shifted our emphasis a bit more away from process and a bit more toward product.

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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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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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Where Are You Going?

Monday, 30. December 2013 0:14

Last week’s post included the sentence, “Few of us end where we were aiming when we set out, and we may find that we’re really glad that we learned to sing somewhere along the way.” Since writing that, I’ve thought about it and decided that maybe it deserves some more discussion.

The fact is that most of us do not end where we were aiming when we set out. This is an idea that can be taken at least two different ways, both of which are, I think, valid. In one sense we do not end at the target we set when we set out on our life or professional journey. In another sense, the work that we create often does not end where we planned for it to go.

In both cases, many of us end up at a place that is far superior to our original target.

The process of making art requires that we leave room for discovery and serendipity as we follow where the process takes us. For example, writer Austin Kleon started making the trailer for his new book with all sorts of plans; however, he soon discovered that there was much to be eliminated and even more to be modified. He says, “I like the idea to change as I’m working.Even if you have to throw half your work out, it’ll lead you to something better.….Let your “mistakes” during the process actually feed back into the idea. Absorb the mistakes into the piece.” The work that results from such an approach has a tendency to be more organic than work that is totally and completely preplanned.

An approach such as Kleon’s, however, does not mean that planning should be dismissed. Many artists, Kleon included, begin with a very firm plan in mind. The trick is to be adaptable and to allow ourselves to be open to new ideas and pathways as they arise.

This is true of our careers as well. The blog Brain Pickings quotes Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbs: “The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

Again, planning is not to be dismissed. My constant advice to students is for them to decide where they are going. Of course, like almost everyone else, the vast majority will end up somewhere different, but the selection of a target and the movement toward it is hugely important. Otherwise, they have a tendency to go nowhere, in almost every sense of the phrase. Once a goal is targeted, movement starts, and those detours that Watterson mentions happen along the way. Like the accidents in making art, they often lead to more and better opportunities for satisfying work.

Some people do end up where they started to go, and good for them—so long as the work is satisfying. Most of us, however, end in a very different place than the one we imagined when we first started out. Again, the test is not whether we got to our original target, but whether where we got to is fulfilling.

Likewise, if the art that we make is exactly what we imagined when we started, good for us. If, however, we incorporate mistakes and let he idea change as we proceed, then good for us as well. What matters, after all, whether in our professional journey or in making art, is not the initial impetus or whether we stayed on track, but what the journey taught us. It’s called process, and it takes us where it will. We can only benefit.

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Artistic Benchmarks: What Are They Really Good For?

Sunday, 7. July 2013 23:01

Last week, I got into a discussion with the manager of a frame shop about nude photography. It soon became apparent that this man considered nude photography the holy grail of image-making. He may be right. Nude photography is definitely a photographic benchmark. The artistic nude is a difficult assignment, some would say the most difficult type of portrait to pull off. Others, particularly those who work in other photographic specializations, might differ. However, few would argue that while the nude might not be the benchmark, it is certainly one of the big ones.

In the world of theatre, for male actors there are a number of benchmark roles, the title characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories for example. There may be others, but most actors are pretty sure that if they can master the complexity of a Shakespearean tragic hero, they have achieved a recognized level of competence. There may be other roles, but few are as challenging in as many different ways as these very well-known members of royalty.

If both photography and theatre have benchmark activities, I wondered about other arts as well. This week I was out with a couple and asked what they would consider to be the test of ability in their respective disciplines that would be challenging enough to be attempted by only a few and mastered by even fewer. (She is a painter and he is a light tenor; both are professionals.) Without hesitation, she answered, “Nudes,” then went on to say that many artists consider nudes to be “so difficult they won’t even attempt them.” He named a couple of pieces, and explained that for each vocal range and each subdivision within the range (and they are quite numerous) the benchmarks would be different.

A cousin of mine who is equally phenomenal on piano or organ, named several “milestone” pieces for each instrument, some of which were difficult and respected for different reasons.

That’s the thing about benchmarks. There is rarely only one within a discipline. There may be several, one or more for each branch within a discipline. But most artists within that branch would probably agree on the two or three or however many there might be. It’s always material that demands great respect.

Still, artists in all disciplines hunger to perform the difficult pieces, make images of difficult subject matter, attempt the techniques that are the most challenging around. Is it because artists are competitive, even though they may be competing against themselves? Are they driven by the need to join the handful of predecessors who have mastered the nearly-impossible? Why would they waste their time to perform that which is so demanding, rather than that which might bring them income? Why bother?

Luis Galindo, currently performing the title role in Macbeth speaks very eloquently to this issue in a recent article for KCET’s “Artbound.” He talks about the issues that come with preparing for such a role, about his doubts and fears. Ultimately, for him, the work comes to be about artistic growth: “. . . the press will opine, and our fans will cheer or not. Through all of this, one thing is certain: I will have grown in every way as an actor because of this opportunity. An opportunity to mine the caves of darkness for the good stuff.”

In preparing for a benchmark performance, or photograph, or painting, or song, we have to bring our best game, we have to confront our self-doubt, we have to dig deep; more importantly, we have to grow. Otherwise, we will never achieve. And even if we fail, we will have benefited from the exploration and development that preparation for such a project entails.

Once again, it’s all about process.

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The Creative Process of Others – Can It Be Useful?

Sunday, 25. September 2011 23:51

The other day I had lunch with an actress who had just come from an audition with an internationally renowned playwright. It had gone well and she was, needless to say, excited. We talked about the meeting, what it meant to her, what it might mean to her future. She, at one point said, “I’d like to ask him how he gets from idea to paper; I’d like to know what his process is.” The first thing I thought, but did not say, was “what would be the point of that? Your procedure and his can have nothing in common, since he is a playwright and you an actor. Knowing his process might be interesting but it has no real application, and besides, he probably doesn’t know how he does it.” But then I gave the matter some more thought.

My original response was grounded in the notion that every artist, no matter what medium, has a very unique individual process. Additionally, the process which works for one type of project will not work for another. I know that my process in directing a play is far different from my process for writing, which is, in turn, far different from the process used in creating a photographic image. Actually, the process used in photography, for me at least, varies with the type of photography and image that is being created; likewise the playmaking process morphs depending upon the work being staged and the actors with whom I’m working.

And the process is so internalized as to be nearly impossible to tease out. Most of us work on what is really a subconscious level when we are creating, but there are still conscious elements that influence the paths we choose in creativity. If you talk with an artist about his/her process, the response is often something like, “I paint from 9 til noon, have a little lunch, and then paint another two hours,” or “I get up at four and write for three hours before I go to work.” You get descriptions of the structure or pattern that surrounds the actual process. Even these patterns seem to be highly individual; what works for one person won’t work at all for another.

And still, we are talking only about approach and organization: what do we do first, second, so forth. The real processes by which we create are mysterious not only to others, but to ourselves as well. We may know that if we write for so long every day, we are more productive than if we don’t. We may know that if we “trust our instincts and don’t overthink,” the photograph will be better. We may know that if we let the canvas sit and do nothing with it for a while we will have fresh eyes with which to edit it. We may know what we need to do to get ourselves into flow. Beyond that, we know very little.

Since the essence of art is to see possibilities and connections and to express them, we might, by studying others’ procedures, learn something that will allow us clearer expression or that opens a new area of thought, which in turn allows our work to develop in a different direction. I am not at all suggesting that we copy others’ procedures, but we may find something in them that triggers an idea or leads to new understanding either in terms of technique or content.

So perhaps knowing an award-winning playwright’s processes would be useful. Perhaps such knowledge might cause us to recognize potential that had, heretofore, remained untapped. Whether useful or not, it would not hurt us, and, if nothing else, could be quite interesting.

While I have thought and written about the creative artistic process before, I don’t think that I have ever, until this discussion, thought of others’ artistic processes as anything other than intellectual curiosities. Now I am beginning to think that a consideration of the way others accomplish their artistic goals may be quite useful to the working artist.

 

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