Stop Agonizing Over Artistic Choices

While many of us worry, belabor, and delay in making choices, Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, encourages us to trust “rapid cognition,” the ability to make judgments about people and situations in two seconds. It is what most of us call instinct or intuition. Gladwell does not care for the word intuition, because he considers intuition an emotional response. Instead, he makes the case that what we are doing when we meet someone for the first time, or respond to an item for sale is taking in information and making rational decisions very, very quickly.

Gladwell may well be right. Many artistic choices are made very rapidly. I constantly tell actors that although they often are given a full minute or more to do an audition, most directors have made up their minds in the first fifteen seconds. Occasionally, an actor will do something later in an audition that will arouse the interest of the auditor, but those occasions are rare. What most directors will have decided in that short amount of time is whether they think they will want to use this person in the current production. They may well make the final decision during callbacks, but the initial cut is made very quickly.

Whether casting a show or selecting a piece of art, once the initial decision or set of decisions is made, most of us waste a good deal of time doing one of three things: (1) pretending that we have not decided anything at all and going through our conscious decision-making processes to arrive at the same conclusion we have already made, (2) trying to justify the decision by finding “acceptable” reasons, or (3) trying to articulate to ourselves why we have made the decision we have made. It only complicates matters when we have to articulate the reasons for our decisions to others.

For example, casting a show is a very complicated business that involves not only how good a particular actor seems to be—considering all the things that cause an actor to be “good,” but how that actor will fit with other actors auditioning for the same show to create the best possible ensemble for the best possible show, given the current circumstances. If the director can trust his/her initial decisions, rather than engaging in any of the three activities mentioned, life is far less difficult.

Because I work in educational theatre, I have to give actors critiques on their auditions. In advising an actor what he/she could have done to have improved his/her chances of getting a role in this production—and, by extension, improve chances for getting a role in the next production, I am sometimes forced to address those things that I considered when making casting decisions.  It is a difficult thing because so much of that decision-making is out of consciousness. I find that I almost have to relive the audition to slow everything down and discover what I was thinking so I can then verbalize it.

Some decisions do not seem to come so quickly: some set designers fret over where to put the chair; some costumers or fashion designers can’t decide whether the outfit needs a belt or not; some painters have difficulty picking the right shade of blue for the piece on the easel.  Just recently, for instance, I was having difficulty in deciding which photographic image to include in an upcoming show. I could see merits in both and was switching back and forth, unable to come to a conclusion. Deciding to discuss it with a friend, I realized, once I started verbalizing the reasons for my thinking, that there were a number considerations involved in the choice and that my initial choice had taken those into account and been the correct one all along. Had I trusted my original choice, I could have saved a great deal of time and angst.

Gladwell says that he wants people to take rapid cognition seriously and that doing so would change our lives. Perhaps it would. Some of us already do this—some of the time. But other times we get lost in self-doubt and second-guessing our processes.   Perhaps we could do better work and even be more productive if we stopped agonizing over every artistic choice and allowed ourselves to trust in our own quick decision-making abilities.

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Date: Sunday, 9. September 2012 22:49
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