Artists are Magpies

One of my most vivid memories from the first year of graduate school was when the department brought in a hot-shot British director to address the majors and graduate students. There are several things that I remember about that talk, although the director’s name is not one of them. The most important thing that I recall was when he was trying to describe what it is that a professional stage director actually does. He likened the stage director to the magpie. Evidently, magpies, which are remarkably intelligent creatures, are said to be fond of gathering things to decorate their nests. He went into a long, involved description about how a magpie might gather a shiny button from here, and a bit of colored cloth from there, and on and on until the nest was decorated to its satisfaction. He went on to say that the stage directors were similar in that they gathered an idea here, and a concept there and the brought them all back and put them together in making a stage play.

In remembering this talk, three things occurred to me: (1) all artists are magpies. We gather an idea from here, a concept from there, a musical figure from another place, an image from yet another place, a color combination from somewhere else and so forth. Then we combine some of these elements into our projects, whether they be stage plays, musical compositions, poems, novels, films, sculptures, or photographs. (2) Another thing that seems obvious to me is that we cannot use all that we gather on a single project. We need only those ideas and images that support the work we are currently doing. (3) The third thing that seems self-evident is that we must edit the bits that we retrieve; while many items are initially attractive, they may not be useful for our current project, or even out next project, so we must decide what to keep and use immediately, and what to store for later work. Some items we may never use at all, but I hesitate to advise anyone to throw anything out—at least any ideas or images. They may turn out to be very useful a year from now or in the project that we begin in six months.

Many artists are known to read a lot, to absorb images, both visual and literary, by the hundreds; they are known to see films, to listen to music, to listen to podcasts. There is no shortage of input; in fact, one could say that artists are assaulted with input almost all the time. So if we are to gather bits of this and that to use in our work, we must take the last point above first, i.e. we must learn to edit input, dividing it into bits that are likely to be useless and those that speak to us in some way. We must let the former go and discover a way to retain the latter for when they will be useful to us.

This brings up the second point: we cannot use everything that attracts us immediately, so we must find some way to store and/or catalogue the ideas and images that we collect. Each artist will have their own method. Some will make notes, some will rely on their memories. Others will make sketches or note bits of music or dance steps. But we all need some way to keep those useful items we discover in the work of others.

And lastly, the first point: we must acknowledge that we are indeed magpies; we gather ideas from everywhere and put them together. This is not to imply that we are merely recycling ideas and images or producing only derivative work. What makes our work unique is the way we use all that we collect. Even though we take bits from all over, we add original thought or an original juxtaposition or a completely new way of looking at the material and generate something entirely new, something that we can call our own. It’s how we make art.

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Date: Sunday, 5. May 2024 21:58
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