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“That Works” Is Insufficient

Monday, 23. April 2018 0:34

Years ago, if memory serves, Jack Lemmon on Inside the Actors Studio expressed an intense dislike for the phrase, “that works.” He did not explain. At the time, I thought it was a curious comment since it’s a phrase that is heard constantly in artistic endeavors. It is applied to not only acting, but also to painting, composition, sculpture, directing, photography, and many other art genres. What could be wrong with that phrase? It indicates when things “click,” when they mesh, when parts come together and make a whole. Generally, the phrase is used to indicate acceptability or success.

In the last post I discussed John Chamberlain’s 1982 artist statement, wherein he says that his artistic decision-making has to do with “primarily sexual and intuitive thinking.”  Chamberlain initially seems to equate intuitive thinking or intuition with editing ability: “I’ve done pieces, for example, on which were piled as many as 40 to 50 parts, but none was totally interlocked, or welded. That is the sexual fit. Intuition, however, may have made me remove some, or many, of the parts.”

But for Chamberlain intuition is more than just editing; he goes on to say, “Intuition will indicate when something is not acceptable, even though it might work. That it works is not necessarily enough. It can be acceptable, but something more is needed. The fine line is that it is either junk, or art materials, or, it is a piece of work. “

So for Chamberlain, and I expect for Lemmon, “that works” is insufficient. It is that something beyond acceptability which makes a piece into a work of art instead of being just materials, or in some cases junk. The problem is that we have no name for that something. It is certainly not perfection. Hardly anyone who is a serious artist expects perfection. If not perfection, then what?

How about excellence? “That works” does imply success or acceptability. However, excellence goes beyond mere success or acceptability. Excellence means “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” So Chamberlain, and one assumes Lemmon, expected to produce work that was not acceptable, but work that was excellent. That’s a pretty high bar.

And it’s a bar that is being met only part of the time by a portion of artists. If you attend any art show or theatre performance you may see work that is excellent, but you are very likely to see work that is just acceptable. The reasons, I think, are many: a de-emphasis on excellence in artist training, the pressure to put work out in order to be seen and known, the emphasis on showing rather than on working. Chamberlain resisted the impulse to produce work quickly, or at least so he says: “If I were zippy and worked hard all the time, what I’d create would be of little value; I’d make too many mistakes.”

Perhaps we should adopt Chamberlain’s attitude and resist the impulse to “get the work out.” If producing is our goal, we are more likely to create work that is merely acceptable, about which we can say only “that works.” Perhaps instead we should take a little more time and a little more care and refuse to settle for work that is less than excellent.

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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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