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What Artists Should Really Be Asking

Monday, 25. July 2016 0:16

In the Afterword to the audiobook version of his novel, NOS4A2, Joe Hill, who describes himself as “a guy who prizes the imagination above all other personality traits,” says that he thinks that:

Everybody actually lives in two worlds. There’s the world of stuff, of coffee in the morning and bad jobs and bad hair and work and physics and chemistry. And that’s what we think of as life. That’s the world you live in. But I actually think that people spend as much time spends as much time in the world of thought. And in the world of thought emotions are as powerful and as real as gravity. And imagination is as powerful as physical law. And that world also really and truly exists. You could even make a philosophical argument that that world exists for us more than the real world.

Hill goes on to discuss how “a good reader can make a good book that much better.” He singles out Kate Mulgrew and Wolfram Kandinsky, of whom Hill says, “That was a voice that spoke to the deepest parts of my imagination.”

We in the arts are used to concerning ourselves with imagination, but usually only from the creation sided of things. We use our imaginations to create worlds that do not exist in physical reality. We use our imaginations to fantasize over what might be. We use our imaginations to foresee what shapes our artifacts might take.

What we don’t do is concern ourselves so much with our audience’s imaginations. Note the last quote from Hill. What made certain audio books come alive for him was that the voice that read them “spoke to the deepest parts of his imagination.” Suddenly, we have two imaginations working on the same piece, in this case an audiobook. We have, if you will, one imagination (that of the author) engaging the imagination of (in this case) the listener through the medium of the reader.

As a long-time listener to audiobooks, I can confirm Hill’s assertion that “a good reader can make a good book that much better.” Until I heard Hill’s comments, it did not occur to me to question why some readers make the book really come to life and others just get through it, why anything Frank Mueller read was golden. And now I know. Mueller and the other readers that I really appreciate are the ones who have spoken to my imagination, not just my ears.

And then it occurred to me that that is exactly what we, as artists, should be doing: speaking not just to our audience members’ ears and eyes, but rather speaking to our audience members’ imaginations, engaging those imaginations. Too often we use our own imaginations to create art that does not engage the imagination of the viewers. We create and throw it out there, and the audience acknowledges it, but doesn’t take it home. There are a number of reasons for this, but one certainly is that we failed to engage the audience member’s imagination.

It is only by engaging our audience’s imaginations that we can actually communicate with them, create something that has real meaning for them, make something that really impacts their lives. Otherwise, what we create may appear to them pretty or interesting or even intellectually stimulating. But it will not impact them in the emotional, visceral way that many of us want our art to communicate. So the question we should be asking ourselves is not “how can I communicate my vision to my audience?” but rather “how can I make my vision engage my audience’s imagination?” The answer can only lead to making our art more than it is.

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Daydreaming and Mindfulness

Monday, 28. October 2013 0:28

For all its faults, what struck me about the book I recently finished was how accurately it depicted the goings-on in the mind of the artist. The main character, a painter, would sometimes completely lose track of what was going on around her because she was so involved in daydreaming. She spent a lot of time planning, foreseeing the paintings that she wanted to create.

We all daydream, and many would argue that it is from daydreams that inspiration comes. It is certainly in daydreams that we imagine our creations or discover an insight or recognize a new idea. Many artists find daydreaming useful, perhaps even necessary to doing their work. How else would the image of the new piece of work come if you could not let your mind drift from the here-and-now to other times and places?

The other side of the coin is what is called mindfulness, staying in the present moment. Everywhere you turn in blogosphere, you run into articles about the value of mindfulness to the artist. It’s a topic I have spent some time on myself here and here, and actually work at myself on a daily basis.

The benefits of mindfulness are well known to actors, who must stay in the present if they are to do even passable work. This approach to the world: living in and attending to the present comes up again and again in creativity theory. We must be in the present to create; once we let our minds wander to the past or the future, we have left the moment in which we are actually doing the work. If we happen to be in flow, mindfulness descends upon us as a condition of the state, and we really have no choice. Additionally, there are the psychological benefits associated with mindfulness: loss of anxiety and worry.

The question is how each of these disparate activities fits into the creative life of not just painters or actors, but any artist.

The answer is, of course, balance. We must be able to allow our imaginations to take flight, to travel to those places where new ideas reside or the seeds of new images germinate. Then we must bring those ideas and images into the present. If we stay “away,” we will become those dreamers who never produce, the composers who never write a note, the writers who never commit words to paper or screen. We become imaginers and planners instead of doers. We must go into the worlds of imagination, seize the ideas that we find there, and bring them back to the present where we can develop them.

On the other hand, if we stay only in the present, we can miss some of the wonders that our imaginations can produce. Mindfulness practice says that when ideas intrude, we should acknowledge them and return our attention to the present. This sometimes means that an idea may be lost. And some of those ideas may well deserve to be followed and entertained, not because we are helpless to prevent it, but because down that path lies the next painting or play or sculpture. The trick is to not get so lost in that world that we don’t make it back to this one, but we do need to be able to let our imaginations wander and invent and discover.

As artists, I think, we would do well to take a middle path, perhaps not that philosophical middle path that avoids the extremes, but rather a practical one that encompasses, reconciles and balances the opposing activities of mindfulness and daydreaming and allows us to use all of our potential to create.

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The Necessity of Fundamentals

Monday, 25. March 2013 1:31

While not a photographer himself, the chairman of the art department where I teach is adamant that the first courses in photography be done with analog cameras, black and white film and chemical darkroom processes. When I questioned him about this, he informed me that the departmental approach to photography would stay the same so long as he was chairman. This is an interesting position, given that a number of major universities have phased out their chemical darkrooms, and along with them, basic courses in analog photography.

And even though, for a number of reasons, I am not sure that I agree with his position, I understand the rationale. This is not a man who would insist that courses be taught this way because “it has always been that way.” Rather, it is because he believes that those analog/chemical courses teach skills that are necessary to a full understanding of the art and craft of photography. His department is in the business of teaching fundamentals.

This is exactly the same business that the drama department is in. It is our firm belief that solid fundamentals are necessary to success in theatre; the art chairman believes the same thing of visual and plastic arts. It is true of all arts. I don’t know a single choreographer, for example, who does not stress fundamentals; the same is true of musicians. The list is comprehensive.

We should build on solid basics in any art, and those basics should be broad. It is, in my opinion, impossible to be a good artist without some knowledge outside of our immediate specialties. Our department demands, for example, that drama students take courses not only in the areas that are of immediate interest to them, but in other areas as well. So technicians attend acting classes, and actors sit, sometimes uncomfortably, in technical theatre classes. Everybody builds and paints and sews and works on productions. Such broad exposure builds respect for those who work in other areas—an essential in a collaborative art, and very often the knowledge is put to good use. Occasionally, someone will discover an area with which he/she was formerly unfamiliar and decide that that is where they really ought to concentrate. Without exposure to the basics in all areas, these students would have no basis for such a decision.

Sadly, many artists do not see strong fundamentals as a necessity. They are not quite sure what an f-stop is. They only know one style of acting. They can’t remember all of the principles of design. Part of color theory is a little hazy. Getting exposure exactly right becomes a thing of chance.  They are convinced that there is no real need to learn stage directions. They can’t pick out a tune on a keyboard. The precise names of things elude them. Mastery of certain tools and techniques is beyond them. They are unconcerned with the very thing that holds them back: incomplete knowledge of basics. Unfortunately, without solid fundamentals, artists find it difficult to do really excellent work consistently, broaden their repertoires, or even communicate with other artists.

Strong fundamentals, like any solid base, give the artist a foundation to support his/her imaginative work without having to worry about the underpinnings. This then allows the artist the freedom to create and develop. Without strong basics, the artist is restricted and is likely to produce a very narrow range of work.

The same applies to any art. The more media types and styles and approaches we know, the better able we are to make the decisions necessary to create our art. The stronger our foundation, the higher the structure we can build on it. The more we know about the theory and history of our arts, the better able we are to put our own work in perspective. And such knowledge allows us to avoid wasting time doing work that has already been done, and allows us rather to build upon the work of those who have gone before. And such knowledge can give us freedom to move forward on our own. As a friend of mine said recently, “you can’t consciously break the rules unless you know what the rules are.

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Respect Your Audience

Sunday, 17. March 2013 23:25

A reader commenting on last week’s post cited the negative side of making the work match the movie in the artist’s head, and, in at least one case, re-working a published project once the technology became available. What is key here is the idea of re-working, re-doing, or modifying. When I wrote the original post, I was not thinking of work that had already been made public, but rather a work that existed nowhere except in the artist’s imagination. When the artifact already exists in the world, and the artist capitalizes on new technology or decides to modify that artifact for whatever reason, we have a completely different situation.

George Lucas decided that not only was he would use new technology to modify the original Star Wars trilogy in 1997, he would do so with a great deal of publicity and major re-release. If Lucas had done what other director/producers have done, he would have issued a “director’s cut” or “ultimate edition” on DVD when he found the technology, such as he did in 2004. This would have caused much less backlash. This is also the traditional way to make such changes in the cutting or modification of a movie.

Stephen King used a quieter approach when he rewrote parts of The Gunslinger, the first novel in The Dark Tower series. He modified the work, and the new edition was published—fairly quietly and with a full explanation from the author. Those who chose could pick up a copy of the rewritten work; those who were not interested could reread the copies they already had in their possession.

Lucas’ error, at least in my opinion, was concentrating on how he, the artist, felt about what had been and should have been created and ignoring the relationship between the audience and the artifact. Such a relationship develops, sometimes quite rapidly, and exists quite apart from any relationship the artist has with the artifact.

This is a lesson I learned not long ago. A collector of my work is also a person that I have to see fairly frequently in connection with my day job. One of my images hangs in his office, so I see it every time I visit. And every time I see it, I wince because I matted it “incorrectly.” Yes, it’s a detail; but to me, an important detail—something that was a “make it work” decision that doesn’t quite work anymore— for me. Finally I told him that I was thinking about re-matting it for him. He quickly informed me that I might see things that he didn’t, but that not only was he satisfied with the presentation, he actively liked it and would not appreciate my tampering with it. This made me re-think the whole idea. I can certainly modify matting for future prints of this particular piece, but I will probably leave his alone. It is, after all, his. He paid for it. He sees it every day and has feelings about it. I, on the other hand, see it only once in a while and in a completely different mental/emotional context.

If the piece in question is still in our imaginations, we can delay or modify or anything we want. If, however, the piece in question is in someone else’s possession or has been widely disseminated, we might want to be careful about modifying it. Just as the makers have a special relationship to the art they are making, so do the audience and collectors of those same pieces. The audience/collector relationship is very different, however. Someone sees something in our work that resonates, and decides that he/she has to own the piece in order to have that experience on a daily basis. Then that relationship further develops over time, and sometimes becomes just as passionate as that of the artist. And we, as artists need to be respectful of that relationship: it’s the very reason that we have an audience.

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It Sucks, But Not as Bad as I Thought

Sunday, 20. January 2013 22:35

The last post discussed the life of a project. This post focuses on the last step in that process: the end, when “it sucks, but not as bad as I thought.”  The question is why does it suck? Why didn’t we make our art to match our vision? This is, for many artists, an ongoing problem. And for many it’s a secret. They show their work, offer it for sale, but often when they look at it, they only see the flaws. This is true of performing arts as well; many directors and choreographers sit in the back of the theatre occasionally enjoying a moment of brilliance on the stage, but mostly seeing the parts that don’t measure up.  Some potential answers:

1.  Our work doesn’t match our level of taste. Ira Glass says, “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.” He goes on to say that some people never get past this phase and quit, but that by generating volume you can eventually create work “as good as your ambition.” I cannot fully agree; I know many people who have long experience in making art of various kinds and who (to their minds) fail to realize the ambition of almost every piece, much as the two very experienced artists referenced in the previous post did.

2.  Our vision isn’t a concrete guide. Artistic vision is seldom a roadmap. It more often is an impression of a finished piece of work without direction of how to get there. This is where experience comes in. Experience hopefully teaches us how to get from vision to artifact in the least painful way.

3. Our vision doesn’t take into account the limitations of the medium or the technology available. Sometimes when we envision a project, it’s all about line and texture and form and color, none of which takes into account how that is going to all come about in reality. Sometimes the things we imagine are not technically possible, either because the material with which we are working won’t do what we have envisioned, or there is some other consideration that we did not take into account.

This may sound like inexperience with materials, and perhaps that is part of the problem, at least in the earlier stages of our development, but later we find that we can envision things that in reality cannot be, at least in the medium in which we work. Sometimes we must master another medium to realize our vision.

For those whose final work is completed by others (directors, choreographers, designers, cinematographers), there is the problem of having a vision that reaches beyond the abilities of those executing the project. Often we do not have full control of the choice of performers, and those with whom we work are sometimes not able to reach the levels that are required to realize our work completely.

4.  We haven’t yet figured out how to overcome mediocrity. Again Ira Glass weighs in on the topic: “It’s hard to make something that’s interesting. It’s really, really hard. It’s like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics, that anything that’s written or anything that’s created wants to be mediocre. The natural state of all writing is mediocrity… So what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will...”

These are just four possible reasons our work doesn’t match our vision; there are surely others. But, regardless of the reasons, it is a situation that we have to live with, so perhaps it would be better to concentrate on that. And there is at least one other factor: how we feel about a project may evolve over time. As a friend of mine said the other day upon examining some work that he had put away for a while, “I don’t hate it anymore.” Perhaps that’s enough to ask.

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The Downside of Discipline

Monday, 17. September 2012 0:01

We all know that inspiration is fickle; it comes and goes, and appears when you least expect it and deserts you when you most need it. There are a variety of ways that successful artists have developed deal with this situation.

One of the ways to deal with this situation of uncertainty is discipline. Artists as diverse as Elizabeth Gilbert, Khaled Hosseini, Julia Cameron, William Safire, Chuck Close, and Gabriel García Márquez, have all discussed the necessity for discipline as a requisite for success in art. These are not the only ones; web page after web page is devoted to the topic. It’s something I have written about before. Hazel Dooney has said, “It’s when I don’t feel like talking, writing or drawing that I need to most. Waiting for inspiration is actually procrastination.”

So you adopt working in a disciplined manner, and all goes well. Then one day you sit down at the easel, the potter’s wheel, the piano, the computer, the rehearsal table, wherever it is that you work, and nothing comes. You are dry. Ideas, images seem to have deserted you.  And you sit there and sit there and sit there, doing what you are supposed to be doing, and still nothing comes. What do you do then?

One of the things that you cannot do is command fresh ideas and inspiration to appear. This is the downside of discipline; it doesn’t guarantee that you will get what you need. You have allotted the time and the time is not, at the moment, being fruitful. It feels like a waste. It isn’t.

And what you should not do is give in to the temptation to get up and go do something else. That is also procrastination. This is the time to work, and if you choose to do something else, it is certain that you will produce nothing. While exercising discipline cannot guarantee ideas and insight, it can maximize the possibilities. What you produce during this time might not be great—particularly when ideas are not flowing—but it may well lead you somewhere great. Give yourself the time to develop, to experiment, to explore, to create.

And that’s what you can do: use the time that you have set aside for work to work. Perhaps you need to explore in a different direction. Almost all of us have notes on ideas and images that we do not have the time to immediately explore. This is the time for that. Perhaps, you need to try approaching your work in a different way or from a different direction. This is an opportunity to experiment with a directional shift. You might use the time to explore a new medium for your ideas. You might want to use this period for research that will further your work. There are also a number of other ideas to be found in Daniel Grant’s excellent essay called “What Artists Do While Waiting for the Next Inspiration.”

Put those alternatives in the back of your mind and continue to exercise your discipline so next time—and there will be a next time—you will know how to use your work time time to deal with uncertainty of inspiration. Again, to quote Dooney:

The truly creative not only adapt and evolve in response to uncertainty, they relish it. They might be disciplined in their work habits but inspiration is often unruly and unreliable. Attempts to control it, to corral it, make dull art. An ability to collaborate with uncertainty has always been the mark of a great artist.


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Great Art Requires Great Craft

Monday, 26. March 2012 0:04

It should be self-evident, but somehow it isn’t. If you want to be great artist, or even a good one, you must master the use of your tools. You must develop the humble craft side of your art as well as lofty artistic side. It’s the part that no one wants to do. Hardly anyone wants to spend hours drawing body parts, or painting still lifes, or learning the intricacies of photo processing software, or doing acting or dance exercises, or singing scales. But it’s necessary.

Often beginning actors want to perform significant plays before they learn to analyze character, visual artists want to paint collectable images before they learn to draw, dancers want to dance Giselle before they can successfully execute a pirouette, photographers want to win a national photography award before they master all the controls on their digital cameras. The fact is that doing all those exercises that build craft is simply unappealing—it’s work, and sometimes unpleasant work.

But regardless of the appeal or lack of it, mastering craft is necessary; it is the base upon which art is built. When you examine the work of acknowledged masters, regardless of the medium in which they excel, one of the things that literally jumps at you is the obvious mastery of the medium. This has nothing to do with the ideas or emotions they manage to incorporate into their work, and everything to do with having put in the time and effort to learn what the medium can and cannot do, and how best to manipulate it in order to say what they need to say.

The impetus for the rush to bypass craft seems to be the desire for instant celebrity. Because there are some very young, relatively inexperienced people who are successful in some arts, less-experienced artists have come to believe that there are shortcuts that will make them famous faster.

It does seem, however, that this instant fame occurs less frequently in arts that require significant investment on the part of their audiences, e.g. reading a novel or contemplating serious visual and plastic art or watching live theatre. I want to read novels by writers who not only have something to say, but know how to tell a story and how to make a metaphor. If I am going to pay $120 for a theatre seat, I want someone with the acting chops of a Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Willie Loman, not someone who has been catapulted to pop fame because of an outstanding profile and someone else’s skilled direction and editing.

And to obtain those chops in acting or any other the art, you have to build up a set of skills. You have to know how to handle your medium. And, unfortunately, development of skill requires time—time to make mistakes, time to let your voice and body mature, time to experiment with various aspects and various approaches, time to practice. That’s the way artists learn. Because it’s not just what’s in the imagination, it’s what you do with that imagination and how you present it to the world that matters.

Yes, mastering a craft can be tedious. It can seem endless, and it can seem difficult, but it is necessary. If you are to make the art of which you are capable, if you are to make something of worth, you must not only be creative, but you must have a means for presenting those ideas and feelings to the world. To try to do so with a skill level less than mastery is to do a disservice to yourself and your art.



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Want to Do Better Art? Develop Discipline

Sunday, 18. March 2012 22:52

No matter how much imagination and creativity and talent you have, it’s of little use unless it is applied. And often the application requires something that many in the arts tend to avoid: discipline. From experience I know that discipline is a trait lacking in many theatre arts students, and I can think of no reason that students of any other art would be different. These students, like most of us, get into the arts because it satisfies a felt need, or we have talent, or we find it really appealing. Then to succeed, we have to figure out how to take it to the next level, and the level after that, and the level after that.

And that takes imagination. It also takes discipline. This is an idea that comes up again and again when artists talk about what it takes to make art. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner says:

There is a romantic notion to writing a novel, especially when you are starting it. You are embarking on this incredibly exciting journey, and you’re going to write your first novel, you’re going to write a book. Until you’re about 50 pages into it, and that romance wears off, and then you’re left with a very stark reality of having to write the rest of this thing. […] A lot of 50-page unfinished novels are sitting in a lot of drawers across this country. Well, what it takes at that point is discipline … You have to be more stubborn than the manuscript, and you have to punch in and punch out every day, regardless of whether it’s going well, regardless of whether it’s going badly. […] It’s largely an act of perseverance […] The story really wants to defeat you, and you just have to be more mulish than the story.

A number of artists have commented on the relationship between discipline and inspiration. Douglas Eby in a post on “The Creative Mind” quotes Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love in a TED talk, “Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it. If your job is to dance, then do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius [muse] assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment for your efforts, then Ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow. Ole to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

Notice that Gilbert is not just talking about writing, but about any art. Painter and photographer Chuck Close advises:

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.

To paraphrase Seth Godin, the first rule of doing work that matters, no matter what it is, is to “go to work on a regular basis.” To be brilliant, we must not only go to extremes with our imaginations, we must do so on a regular basis. Discipline is also a requirement.

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To Create Brilliant Art, Push Your Imagination to Extremes

Sunday, 11. March 2012 23:51

A friend of mine recently went to see a show in which there was an actor with only five lines. But, she said, his performance was so intense and interesting that she bought another ticket and came back to another performance just to watch him. She described his work as “brilliant.” Some who heard her description of the actor’s performance thought that he had gone to extremes. The same week, I attended a performance which was essentially an exercise in missed opportunities, both in terms of acting and directing. No one connected with the production had gone to extremes.

What compelled my friend’s interest and was lacking in the performance I attended was not just the interpretation of the characters, but the originality and imagination that the actors brought to the roles they were playing. It’s the difference between being competent and being amazing.

This is not so much about a lack of creativity, but rather about an unwillingness or inability on the part of artists to allow themselves to venture into the risky areas of imagination. And this is not just an issue in theatre. In all the arts we find a sort of “this is enough” mentality with regard to creativity. The art reaches an “acceptable” level of imagination and inventiveness and we call it finished.  The result is that much art looks and sounds alike, whether it is acting, directing, painting, photography, or writing.

We have a tendency to work in our creative comfort zone, producing art that will please, and maybe even delight, our respective audiences. Within our comfortable framework we generate work that is clever and innovative. Photographer David LaChapelle says, however, “There’s always clever art being made and there’s always something novel being made and I don’t think that’s enough anymore.

If we are, in fact, artists and not merely artifact production units, we must agree with LaChapelle. Competency, cleverness, and novelty are not enough. We must always be reaching for the metaphor, the image, the idea, the detail, the technique that will move our work from good to outstanding. We must not be satisfied with just producing work that our audience will like and perhaps appreciate; we need to think about taking those extra steps, those risks, that will allow us to create art that is, like the actor’s work mentioned in the first paragraph, so intense and interesting and compelling that our audience wants to experience it again and again.

We must create art that is not just attractive or poignant or meaningful but is strikingly so. Those of us who work in the arts cannot allow ourselves to become complacent, doing what we know works. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, we must be willing to stretch our imaginations to discover new possibilities.  Those of us who teach in the arts must challenge our students to reach for more, to explore their imaginations to the fullest and apply that exploration to their creations.

To be brilliant, we must dare to go to extremes with our imaginations. This striving to expand the limits of our imaginations is not just something that we aspire to, it is a requirement.

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Avoiding Cliché the Art School Way

Sunday, 5. June 2011 23:27

A photographer friend of mine says that art school drilled “no flower pictures” into her head as well as “no railroad track pictures.” I suppose that in the eyes of the professors, those two subjects had been shot to death, and there was no way that a student photographer could produce an image that was not a cliché.

One wonders about the reasons for these prohibitions. Did the instructors really believe that their students were incapable of creating non- clichéd images?  (And that raises the question of whether the teachers’ opinions of their students’ creative abilities were justified.) Or were they just tired of seeing images of these subjects? Or did they believe that those subjects were completely exhausted in terms of artistic potential?

One also wonders what other taboos such a school might establish. And aren’t we glad that Robert Mapplethorpe and numerous other artists never heard such admonitions? Admittedly, some areas of photography seem to be more filled with cliché than others, but is that any reason to forbid them entirely?

Extending this idea beyond avoiding railroad track and flower images, would we also prohibit nudes, and landscapes, and architecture, and decaying infrastructure, and street photography? We have all seen clichés in these areas. My guess is, however, that we have also seen non-clichéd images in each of those categories as well. In fact, I cannot think of any area of photography, or any other art for that matter, that does not have its share of clichés, and, along with them, its share of original work.

A better way to approach this problem, rather than proscribing an entire category of subject matter, is to learn how to avoid the clichés. This, of course is more work, both for the student and for the instructor. You have to be familiar with enough of the work in any given category or subcategory to know what the clichés are and thus what to avoid. And that takes some time and some effort—perhaps more than the average student (or faculty member) is willing to invest. Then there is the requisite effort and imagination that goes into creating something new in those areas.

But the results are worth the effort. We are all familiar with photographers (and other artists) who work in areas that are rife with clichés, yet somehow manage create art that is refreshing, original, and often stunning.

And if those photographers can do it, why can’t those students who are improving their craft in art schools? Well, of course, they can. There may be no Mapplethorpes in the class, but there are likely some talented and original individuals who deserve the opportunity to test their skills and imaginations, no matter what area they decide to tackle.

And what is true for the students is also true for the rest of us. We might avoid a certain area of photography (or whatever our particular art is) because it’s not something that interests us or because we have nothing to say in that area, but to avoid it because we might step into cliché seems to be nothing but artistic cowardice.

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