Post from 2127, November 2021

Yes, Artists Must Be Judgemental

Sunday, 21. November 2021 21:41

In his blog this week, Austin Kleon said, incorporating a quote from Martha Graham, “That’s the thing about new work, it’s not really your job to judge it, you just keep the channel open and let the stuff come…” My initial response, based on my experiences as a photographer and stage director was complete disagreement. My experience has been that artists are constantly making judgements, sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes correct, and sometimes incorrect.

After reexamining the Kleon quote, I finally decided that I had missed a key phrase: “new work,” and realizing that he didn’t really mean not to judge it, but rather not to judge its value while it was new. He was specifically talking about a series of collages that he was working on and had not yet decided what to do with them. But, I would imagine, that in creating those collages, he was making many small judgements about what to add to add and what not include in particular collages, involving decisions on what colors and images to use to make the visual points he was trying to make. If, after dozens of judgements were made, he didn’t quite know what to do with the finished product(s), that’s understandable, given that it was a new form of collage for him.

Of course, whether it’s new work or not, the artist’s job is to judge it—to decide what shape it will take, and ultimately what to do with it. This, of course, does not mean that those decisions should be made immediately. Here I agree with Kleon and Graham: with new work, the artist’s job is to “keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” That being said, the artist must make hundreds of judgements just to create the work.

The ultimate disposition of the work is something that comes later, and that decision too can be correct or incorrect. One is reminded of the young Stephen King trashing the manuscript to his first published novel, Carrie, only to have it rescued by his wife, who then encouraged him to finish it.

The goal of the artist is, of course, to make the work the best it can be made. Along the way are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions, some small and some quite large, that determine the ultimate shape of the work. These are necessary if the work is to be realized. In some arts, directing, for example, it seems that making such judgements constitutes the bulk of the work to be done. They are not always the correct choices, but they have to be made, and made in a timely fashion if the work is to go forward. Sometimes, one is afforded the luxury of revisiting a decision and correcting it, but that is not always the case, so one learns to make the best possible decision in the moment and move the work toward completion.

So while artists, when moving in the uncharted waters of new work, must “keep the channel open and let the stuff come,” they must also exercise their judgement and make judicious decisions as they develop those new ideas. After all, the final product is, in fact, the result of the artist’s judgements.

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