Post from May, 2016

The Hardest Thing About Failure

Sunday, 29. May 2016 23:20

We all know that failure is a necessary part of the creative process. Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier when it happens. It doesn’t matter whether the project is a play or poem or short story or novel that we are writing, a photograph or oil painting or watercolor or digital image or sculpture or musical composition or directing some sort of stage performance. Whatever the project, if we, as artists, take genuine risks, it is likely that we will fail at some time or the other. And then we have to deal with it.

I use the term genuine risk advisedly. There are artists I know who take pretend risks, i.e. they do something just a little edgier than their norm; these artists hardly ever fail, but then they hardly ever grow either. Safe is a comfortable place to be, but if there is no possibility of real failure, then there is no real risk, and no potential for real growth.

That real risk sometimes results in a real failure. And we are not talking about the oh-this-is-hard-I’m-going-to-stop-and-throw-up-my-hands sort of failure; we are talking about I-have-beaten-my-head-on-a rock-for-the-last-three-years-trying-to-make-this-project-work-and-it’s-just-not-happening-and-now-it’s-crashing-and-burning failure. When it happens, and it will, we have to deal with it, and that is a hard thing.

The hardest thing in dealing with failure is admitting it. It feels terrible; we take it personally. So often we refuse to admit it, and we continue to try things and spend time and resources beating our heads on that same rock that we have become so familiar with. But at some point we have to actually admit that we have actually failed, and there is no point in trying to dress it up with euphemisms. We didn’t just “not succeed;” we freakin’ failed. And the sooner we recognize it and address it, the better.

Once we have overcome everything in us that struggles against failure and admitted our situation, we can get on with the wrap-up and then move on to a new, hopefully more successful project. That wrap-up includes two important components: salvaging what we can and learning what we can.

Even though the project may be a failure, there may well be pieces that are salvageable, pieces that can form the basis for new projects or simply be stored and used at some other time as a portion on some other project. Just because the main project is a failure doesn’t mean that all of the effort was wasted. We must examine what we have and what might be of use at another time. (There was an earlier post about this method of recovery.)

The second thing we can do is learn from the failure. If mistakes were made, we should try to discover them so we won’t repeat them. But there are many other things we can learn from failure. It would be well to take a little time to analyze why the project did not succeed to better insure success the next time. It would not be well to take this as an opportunity to impugn our self-worth (For an excellent discussion of this problem, see the May 23, 2016 edition of Brain Pickings.)

To be sure, if we continue to create and grow, we will have other failures. The key is what we do with them. If we admit them when they occur, salvage what we can, and learn from them, the ultimate result will be success.

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Get Out of Your Head

Monday, 16. May 2016 2:59

Actors and directors are taught to analyze characters and plays, then to analyze how the character fits into the play. Photographers are taught to analyze the shooting situation in order to come up with the right combination of lens, shutter speed, aperture, and composition then to master the complexities of post-production whether that be the technicalities of mixing chemicals and using them at the right temperatures or understanding the myriad of controls in Photoshop. Other arts require similar combinations analytical and technical. No wonder artists have a tendency to spend so much time in their heads.

This is all well and good, some would say, because when a person is in his/her head, he/she is in the moment which is right where the artist is supposed to be. Except that’s not quite true. When an actor is analyzing a script or consciously constructing a character, he/she may be now but certainly not here; he/she is in the world of the play, which may well be a universe away. The photographer may be in even worse shape with regard to the here and now: he/she may be analyzing light conditions for tomorrow or even next week in some other location, so he/she is neither here nor now.

The problem can be compounded in that once an artist gets into his/her head, he/she may not voluntarily come out. The analysis function may take over. The results are likely to be processes that are technically correct and not very inspired. And there are other dangers.

The first danger is over-thinking whatever is being created—the analysis never stops and so performance/artifact becomes over-intellectualized and not very interesting. In the worst cases, overthinking can lead the artist not only to a cerebral process, but to confusion as well. It is far too easy to become lost in the labyrinth of conscious metaphors, thought-out connections, intellectual allusions and meaning.

The second phase of overthinking is second-guessing. Was path A the right choice, or should we have taken path B? We have no way to know, and we begin to worry about it. And then we begin to wonder about other choices we have made, and that leads to worry which leads directly to second-guessing every decision we have made during the entire creative process. Doubt reigns; creative progress is stopped.

And a third danger is that in the head of an artist is where the Monitor lives. You know, that voice that keeps telling us that we are not good enough, that our work is somehow lacking, not up to the mark, and certainly not excellent. This is the voice that keeps suggesting that we just might be frauds and because of that will be caught out and called out which will then lead to public or at least semi-public humiliation and why don’t we just quit now and save ourselves all the embarrassment. When we spend too much time in our heads, the voice speaks louder and louder; after all, we are living in his/her domain.

The fact is that art does not depend solely on logical choices. Rather it depends on instinctive, intuitive choices. These are choices that we make with our whole being, not just the rational mind. Not only do such choices have to seem correct intellectually, but they must feel right as well.

So, yes, we must do the analysis and the calculation and make the proper technical choices. But then we need to trust that those choices are the correct ones, set our logic aside, and allow ourselves to operate in flow. We need to stop thinking about our art and just do it. We need to get out of our own heads.

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Creative Entrepreneurship: the Implications

Monday, 2. May 2016 0:12

In his article The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur” in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz details what he sees as the implications of the latest art marketing paradigm. Some of these are direct interaction between artist and collector, artist diversification and versatility, and others that do not seem onerous. However, he decries a number of potential implications for arts and artists, including the following:

  • Works of art will become commodities, consumer goods.
  • There will no longer be an audience, but rather a customer base.
  • Art will become more like entertainment, less like art: familiar, formulaic, user-friendly.
  • It will be “the age of the customer, who is always right.”
  • Work that is “safer will be favored.”
  • “The measure of merit will be the best seller list.”
  • The artist will be “only as good as his/her last sales quarter.”
  • Artists will “spend more time trying to figure out what customers wants rather than what they want to say.”
  • Aesthetic judgment will be reconfigured because ratings and reviews render everyone’s opinion equal. Taste will be democratized; there will be no more gatekeepers. This will mean that no one can tell an artist his/her work is bad.
  • Breadth will displace depth.
  • As “winds of market forces blow the artist here or there,” artistic interests and directions will shift; there will “no climactic masterwork of deep maturity.”
  • Art itself may disappear, replaced by craft; artisans will replace artists.
  • “A vessel for our inner life” will be lost.

While some of these implications of the new art marketing paradigm don’t sound so bad—at least to me (the resurgence of craft and the artisan, for example), on the whole it sounds pretty awful. Art as we know it will disappear. Except it won’t. What Deresiewicz fails to recognize is that we have been living with this paradigm for some time now with not too many ill effects.

This “new” paradigm is nothing more or less than the Hollywood paradigm applied to other arts. This has been the working paradigm for the production and marketing of American film (and to some extent American theatre) for a hundred years. The results have not been devastating; American cinematic art still exists.

Yes, the majority of films are strictly commercial. After all, from its inception, the movie industry in this country has been about making money. This has led to some copy-cat work, an endless number of uninspired sequels, and formulaic movies that are only a little more imaginative than a daily work schedule. And all but a few are made with consummate craftsmanship by true artisans.

But then there are those artisans who aspire to do better, who are willing to take a risk on a film that is out of the mainstream, a film that is indeed “a vessel for inner life.” There is, it seems, in every generation of filmmakers, two or three directors who are not motivated by money. Oh, to be sure they have to be sufficiently entrepreneurial to raise enough capital to actually make the movie, and there is an expectation that the resulting film will not be a financial loss, even if it doesn’t generate $100 million and action-figure sales. Still, these directors, these artists, produce exceptional work within this paradigm.

And a paradigm that can give us the work of Chaplin, Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Eastwood, Kubrick cannot be all that bad. It’s not that it’s a dreadful paradigm; it’s that it’s a paradigm different than the one we’d planned on.  Perhaps we, as artists, should stop wringing our hands over the terrible state of art marketing and instead concentrate on the opportunities that a new paradigm brings.

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