Post from December, 2023

We Don’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel

Sunday, 31. December 2023 22:45

At this time of year, there is a virtual frenzy of New Year’s resolutions. Evidently, many of us think that we have behaviors that need correcting or improving or modifying, and January 1 presents a very convenient time to begin these new activities. Indeed, some seem to want to completely reinvent themselves. And perhaps new behaviors are a good idea, never mind the fact that 53% of New Year’s resolutions last three months or less. So this seasonal shift in attitudes and behaviors may not be the best way to really change things for the better.

And although New Year’s resolutions might be useful for other areas our lives (Statistically, the vast majority relate to health or finances.), such resolutions with regard to our art practices are not necessarily a good idea. The time of year might catch us in the midst of projects in various stages of completion, and changing approaches and procedures mid-project is never a good idea. Thus it is likely that the work will suffer or that the resolutions will last an even shorter time than three months.

It is, however, an excellent idea to review our working procedures from time to time. We may well find areas of our practice that will benefit from periodic appraisal. But when do we want to do that, if not at the end of one year and the beginning of another? Perhaps when we wrap up a project is a better time for self-evaluation. This approach allows us to consider one project at a time and evaluate the procedures and approaches that we utilized for that particular project, determining what worked well and what was less than satisfactory. Areas that need improvement can then be isolated and improvements considered before we begin a new project. For example, I know a stage director who, after the run of every show, holds a post mortem which involves the whole company. This allows everyone to examine what was done and how it was done, noting what improvements are called for by the next project. It is a procedure that seems to work very well for his situation.

By timing our evaluations and “resolutions” to the interval between projects, we are more likely to actually implement new ideas and changes in processes. If, of course, we find that these ideas are not productive, we can always revert to our former practices to get the job done. Or we can stop and try to find even newer ways to approach the creative problem.

Additionally, we might find that our new ideas for creative projects are not sweeping changes that will completely alter the way we approach the creative process the way some more general resolutions are designed to change our approach to health in a thorough and far-reaching fashion. Rather they are small changes, perhaps in the order in which we do the work, or what tools we select to perform certain tasks, or how much time we allow ourselves to do the work. But small changes can be very important in the long run and should not be ignored.

All of this presumes that we have a fairly solid process for creating; many of us have worked on our process for years and are mostly comfortable with it. That does not mean that no changes are called for, but it does mean that it does not need a complete overhaul—certainly not once a year and not in the way that more general New Year’s resolutions are designed to literally change a person’s life.

In other words, as regards our artistic process, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel once a year.

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When Inspiration Strkes

Sunday, 17. December 2023 19:56

The problem with inspiration is that it’s unpredictable. That’s why most working artists don’t depend on it. Rather, they show up at the easel or computer or studio at a predetermined time and do the work. Ideas lead to other ideas and the artifact gets produced. Then the artist moves on to the next project. It’s not as romantic as it is in the movies, but it’s more reliable—if the goal is to produce art.

But occasionally inspiration does strike. Most of us are so wrapped up in our daily routines that we often don’t know what to do with that. And one never knows what shape the inspiration will take or how long it will last. It may be an image or a plot line or a a melody line or a character description or a situation/resolution or just a situation with no resolution. It may not be about the content at all; rather, it might be about the shape of the finished artifact. And inspiration is often fleeting, having arrived in a dream or when the artist is in an altered state or in the middle of a conversation, and it is likely to disappear just as quickly and dramatically as it arrived. So what are we to do?

Do make notes immediately. Since the idea or vision or whatever it is is likely to evaporate instantaneously, it is a good idea to stop and make notes as soon as possible. These notes need to be as thorough as possible in the time allotted, even if it means stopping a conversation to write something down. And they need to be legible; often notes made in such a rush are illegible once they become cold, so care should be taken to be sure they are readable. Again, they should be as complete as possible, given the situation—just a single word or a phrase is not likely to give memory the kick it will need later to remember exactly what the inspiration was.

Don’t interrupt your current creative routine. Such a move can result in losing both the current flow and thus the current project as well as the new idea presented by the sudden inspiration. It’s better to continue on with the current project until completion, then turn to the new idea, which is why complete notes are so important.

Do revisit notes of the inspiration as soon as practical so that additional notes and embellishments can be added. This is an important step in that the idea may appear differently once the conversation or sleep or whatever is over and the idea has cooled a bit. It is also a necessary step in that the cooling of the initial idea will require that details be added and gaps be filled so that the idea can be developed.

Don’t let the idea languish too long. It was important enough to break into your consciousness unbidden, so it is important enough to develop. Work it into your creative routine as soon as you can without displacing other ideas and projects.

Do develop the idea. It may turn out to be some of your best work—or some of your least good—but it deserves to be realized.

And finally, don’t think that because of this idea, particularly if it successful, you can depend on inspiration for the bulk of your art-making.  The best you can do is to develop a creative work routine so that you invite inspiration to strike. It may or may not, but your production of art can continue.

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Arete as an Artistic Philosophy

Sunday, 3. December 2023 22:37

Some artists are perfectionists—or try to be. Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable, and attempting to reach it will cause the artist to be non-productive. Additionally, attempting perfection in art just makes the artist more frustrated in a business that is filled with frustration to begin with.

From a productivity point of view it would be far better to take a “good enough” attitude toward making art. To produce art that is “good enough,” the artist must know the audience really well to know what they will and will not accept. “Good enough” is a practical goal when productivity is key to the artist’s success. Does this approach prevent artists from doing their best work? Not necessarily, but  it does ensure artists’ success in that their audience is always satisfied with the work presented, and will keep coming back for more.

There is, however, a third alternative, and that is to approach one’s work with a sense of arete. Arete is a Greek philosophy and is referred to by Plato, Homer, and Aristotle. Essentially, it means the pursuit of excellence or living up to one’s full potential. A person practicing arete uses “all of their faculties” to reach their highest effectiveness. This philosophy has a good deal to offer the artist. It avoids the frustration that results from attempting perfection, and it circumvents the mediocrity that can be associated with the “good enough” approach. It assures that the artist’s work is as good as it can be at any given time with the resources available at that time.

Does this mean that an artist’s work will all be of the same level? Probably not. As an artist moves through time they gain experience, this adds to the artist’s capabilities and will likely result in better work as time goes by. The artist may gain additional resources as time goes by and they acquire new skills and additional knowledge. Again, the artist’s work may benefit and become better as the artist matures.

Does this mean that the artist’s early work is without merit? Far from it. The youthful artist is likely to bring a sense of newness and discovery to the work that the more mature artist lacks. The early work will be different, but neither better nor worse, merely different.

No matter what the age of the artist or where they are on their artistic journey, they will have something new and different to offer the work. And they will always know that whatever they have produced, they will have done their best possible work. It’s just that the meaning of “best possible” varies over time. However, there will never be the sense that they “phoned it in” because in practicing arete, they will know that they produced the best work they possibly could, given where they were in their artistic journey, and that can be a great satisfaction, even if the work fails to gain an audience.

The downside to arete is that in practice—making every piece the very best it can be— it can be intense. This is particularly true for the ultra-talented among us, who are used to being able to dash off a piece with no discernable effort. It seems to me, however, that the intensity is worth it, because “good enough” is not good enough—unless it’s the very best we can possibly do. Those of us who have not, might want to consider the arete approach; it will make a difference in our art.

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