Post from March, 2013

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.

Category:Creativity, Education | Comment (0) | Author:

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.

Category:Audience, Creativity | Comment (0) | Author:

The Chasm Between

Sunday, 10. March 2013 23:24

Dark Night of the Soul” was about the life cycle of a creative project and the doubt and conviction that accompany any creative expression. Today the focus is on the end of that process, when there is finally an artifact or performance—the “It’s done and it sucks, but not as bad as I thought” phase of the project. More often than not, the final product does not match that vision that we had when we began the project. This little thing is not right; that nuance is not realized. It’s not quite what we had dreamed. Our product falls short of our original idea.

Many artists experience this feeling. Nobel laureate author Isaac Bashevis Singer has said, “Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper.” Another artist, Constantine Stanislavski, world-renowned actor and developer of method acting is reported to have performed the same role twice but ten years apart. When questioned about the experience, he said, “If I had another ten years, I think I could get it right.”

But why are we not able to match our expression to our inner vision? There are several answers, but they usually fall into one or more of five categories: technology, materials, skill, knowledge, experience.

Technological deficiency may hinder expression and can come in two different varieties. We may not have the proper tools or techniques available to us to express our vision properly, or the technology does not (yet) exist to allow us to create what we imagine. There are a number of creative projects that require significant engineering work before the actual artistic work can proceed. Certain images could not exist without certain advances in photographic technology; certain sculptures could not exist without properly-engineered support. If we do not want to shelve the project, we can acquire the needed technology, wait for new technology to be developed, or subcontract the actual fabrication of the artifact.

Another related area that may be problematic is materials. Occasionally, we find that the materials do not exist that will allow the idea that we have to be expressed properly.  In this case, there are a limited number of choices: wait for the materials to be developed by others, develop them ourselves, modify the project, abandon the idea. Which of these we select will depend on who we are, the importance of the project, and the materials in question.

Sometimes we do not have the skill to develop our ideas to their fullest. This may be a lack of training or a lack of mastery. We simply do not (yet) have the ability to realize our vision. Some artists will learn a completely new skill set just to bring an idea to life. We can certainly practice, take classes, or seek out mentors.

It may be that we just do not know enough, either about our tools, materials, technique, or subject. It is often the case that we have an idea of what we want to express, but cannot find the words or images or actions that will accurately convey what we are imagining. As Singer says, “we have much more to say than appears” in the end product.

Related to insufficient knowledge is lack of experience. Many actors recount how when doing roles as mature adults that they had done when very young they realize what they had missed the first time through. Not only do they now have more skill, but they have more knowledge and experience to draw from. Although it is not automatic, knowledge and experience can often provide a foundation for superior work.

There are, of course, reasons beyond these five; sometimes the pieces just don’t fit. But regardless of the reason, it is likely that we will never produce art that completely matches our vision. And that may not be a bad thing. Although frustrating, it certainly serves to keep us humble.

Category:Creativity | Comments (2) | Author:

Busy Does Not Mean Productive

Sunday, 3. March 2013 23:08

At lunch this past week, the musical director of the current show asked if I had things that I did daily, like meditation. I started with a list of daily activities that I did—until a few weeks ago, ending with the statement that since I started this show “I’ve been really busy.” It was only then that I realized that for the last several weeks, I had been very, very busy, spending a little time on this project and a little time on that project, with very little time to do anything else, and certainly no time to think, plan, evaluate, or reflect.

While there are a number of positives that flow from being busy, there are many negatives as well. One of the most insidious is “What’s Next Syndrome.” This happens when we are in the midst of one task, but considering the next task. In this case, we never fully concentrate on the task at hand because we are already thinking about the next one. And so we hurl ourselves from task to task and project to project just trying to keep up.

Many of us like to be busy; we find it far superior to being bored, so we overdo. What we get out of overdoing is an excuse that explains why our output is not what it should be. “I couldn’t get to the details—no time.” “I was just so busy that I overlooked that.” “I’m just trying to do too much I guess.” We are, in fact, too busy to succeed.

Where we are running, I am not exactly sure. If you really question those who are rushing madly about from task to task, you get all sorts of responses. Some are trying to fast-track their careers; some feel that increased volume is what they need to succeed. Some do it out of habit. Some think that’s the way things are done. Some are not aware they’re doing it. Some are not aware there is another choice.

We forget that there is a middle ground. We do not have to run ourselves from task to task, nor do we have to be completely without occupation. This inability to find the middle way is in part cultural, at least here in the US. We are a culture of busyness. It seems to be some sort of sociological virtue. Never mind that what we might be doing is not interesting, important, or even productive. We must be busy. It’s in our language: “The boss is coming; look busy.” “Keep busy.”

When we are busy, we get things done, or so it seems. We at least get to check things off of our lists. Unfortunately, when we operate according to What’s Next Syndrome, we only sort of get things done. Yes, we get to mark them off, but are we really being productive?

Productivity, at least in an artistic sense, does not simply mean getting stuff out the door; it means getting high-quality, creative stuff out the door. Busyness can be the antithesis of productivity. Busyness is about constant doing, while real productivity is about making, which requires some time to stop and consider, time to contemplate and create. Then we can pour all of that consideration, contemplation, and creativity into our work before it goes out the door.

When we find ourselves saying, “I’ve been really busy lately,” it may be an indicator that we should take breather to reconsider and adjust our schedules to allow for true productivity. There may be no real way to make that happen in the short run, but certainly, if we think about it, we can come up with ways that will allow us to reduce our busyness level in the long run and maintain (or improve) our creativity and productivity.

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