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A(I)rt?

Sunday, 26. February 2023 21:56

It’s difficult to go a day without seeing an article about artificial intelligence. AI has suddenly taken the world by storm. For writing there are ChatGPT, Copymatic, Wordtune, and Anyword. For art, the programs most in demand are Midjourney, DALL-E-2, Dream, and Craiyon. For the music world, there are platforms specifically for music generation, music production, music videos, and music composition.

The specific topics of AI articles are all over the place: many are concerned with students at the high school and collegiate level using AI to do their assignments. A number are detailing specific AI platforms to use to achieve specific results or strategies for using particular AI platforms. A number of articles consider AI just another tool to be used for all sorts of work and embrace its use. Others take the opposite view and deplore the use of AI for creative work, saying that AI products are derivative, an argument that devolves into a copyright debate. Speaking of which, the US Copyright Office has already ruled that AI-generated art cannot be copyrighted.

But few articles have touched on the use of AI for the serious artist, and even fewer on the philosophical argument that such moves by artists would engender. The whole AI argument focuses on product—whether it’s a section of computer code or a freshman term paper or a novel, or a piece of visual or aural art and does not speak to the process of creation. And that, I think, is a sticking point for a number of artists.

Most artists get into art because they want to make things. Some of the things that artists want to make are, of course, not things at all, but experiences: theatre, dance, ephemera of all sorts. It may be that AI is, or will become capable of generating such experiences, but that does not yet seem to be the case, so let’s concentrate on artifact-producing and what AI-produced work does to the creator.

AI changes the role of the artist. In the case of a writer, for example, the writer no longer produces word order that is the product of their brain synapses and the way the writer’s mind associates ideas. Even if the AI is instructed to write in the style of the writer, the role of the writer is changed from creator to instruction-giver/editor and the resulting artifact would be completely different. So long as the writer is okay with that, it could be a successful use of AI and might produce work of a reasonable quality, but most artists I know really are not looking for a change of role or an easier way to do what they do. They would much prefer to be hands-on creators because of what they get out of the process.

For technical writing or production art, AI could be an immense time-saver. However, for creative work, it is difficult to imagine artists being willing to hand over the creative process to a machine, no matter how much time it saved. Many artists are story-tellers, and story-telling is a very different activity from giving instructions about telling a story. As noted, the creative process is just too important to them.

Of course, the ongoing existence and improvement of AI might produce a different kind of artist than we now have—one who wants to be an instruction-giver/editor instead of one who enjoys and appreciates the process of creating every detail. That sounds like science fiction, but so did AI not long ago. Regardless of the change that AI brings, we will continue to have people who want to create, who want to explore the creative process. What that will mean to the future of art, we cannot say, but we can be assured that art will continue and that the audience for art will continue to exist.

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Art is Like Soup

Sunday, 12. February 2023 22:59

There is a great push for artists, no matter the media in which they work, to get work out into the world. There are numerous articles about this, and even books. The reason, of course, is that artists are sometimes hesitant to release their work; this is perhaps due to being a perfectionist or just not wanting to release the work until it “feels done.” Perfectionism is not a desirable characteristic for a working artist, and holding on to our work for excessive periods is certainly not a way to improve our reputations or income. On the other hand, we shouldn’t rush our work out the door.

And the reason is that we have to give the disparate pieces of our work time to, as my grandmother used to say, “marry.” It’s the reason that soup tastes better the second day: the ingredients have had the time to interact and influence one another. There are a number of theories why this happens with soup, many of them scientific, but essentially it breaks down to “flavor compounds flow…in and out of components,…balancing and integrating the overall flavor.” In other words, soup is better the next day because all the different flavors are transformed “into one harmonious soup.”

Much the same thing holds true for a work of art, particularly collaborative works. For example, it takes some time and adjustment for actors and directors to get to know each other and understand the others’ working methods and processes. Only when that is done can the collaborators really begin working together to build a fully integrated play or film. In the case of a play, this development continues into performance. The elements have to “marry.”

The same is thing applies for solo works of art a well. As each new element is introduced, it must work with what is already there. Then it takes some time for all the pieces to mesh and work with and off of each other; some preexisting areas may need modification. The pieces have to “marry.” Then the work begins to take shape, although it may take some time for its final form to be realized. Art critic Jerry Saltz says “most artists have to work on something for a long time before they know what they’re working on.”

Just as when we make soup, we can certainly put all of the elements of a work together in a brief time, but we will invariably get a better product if we not only allow this mixture to simmer but allow the piece to sit for a time until we can get over creation fatigue and go back to the piece to better tie the parts together in the editing process, increasing the harmony and uniformity of the work. We might even let it sit for a time after that before doing a second edit, integrating the parts of the work even more tightly. The parts have to “marry.” Then, and only then, can we think about releasing the work.

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Don’t Overthink Your Work

Sunday, 29. January 2023 22:21

There’s a lot to think about when we begin a new project. What is the nature and scope of the work? Is it unique and original? Can it be accomplished in the allotted time frame? What is the allotted time frame? Do we have the proper materials to complete the work? How will this project be shaped? Can we fund it? Who will be the audience for this project? What is it about? What are we trying to say? What impact do we want to have on our audience? Is this a project that we should do? Is this a project that we should do now? Why do we want to do this project in the first place?

Having answered these initial questions, we begin work, only to find that there are still other questions: Does this part of the work go here or somewhere else. If we place that part here, how does it change the meaning and impact of the whole work? Would it better be left out? Should this element be expanded? If so, how much? What does that mean to the overall work?  Are we spending too much time on this part or that part? Are we still saying the same thing that we set out to say or has the message changed? Are we making progress at an appropriate rate? And so we begin to second-guess our choices and decisions.

As we question and second-guess, we may find that we are thinking so much that we are forgetting the feeling, emotional side of our project. We might even get so tied up in considering where this piece goes or whether that image is appropriate that we forget to allow ourselves to dream and create based on feeling and imagination. And whether we recognize the danger or not, once we begin to forget these things, we are overthinking, and risking being stuck.

If we get stuck in overthinking, there are two possible results: (1) the work we produce is stiff and overly self-conscious, overly intellectualized. It appears artificial and inauthentic. It’s more of a treatise than a work of art, not what we had intended at all. (2) The other possibility is that the work gets stalled. We overthink and second-guess to the point that we are immobilized. In our continued thinking, we have lost the art of the piece and are only concerned with technique and message.

This is not to say that no planning or thinking is necessary. We certainly need to know whether we are writing a short story, novella, of full-length novel. However, perhaps we would do better if at the beginning we answered basic questions, thought about the shape of the project, and then just jumped in and did—without thinking too much along the way. Many of the questions we ask ourselves as we create can be answered intuitively as we work. We might go further if we let our initial thinking set the path, then turned off the thinking and trusted our instincts, letting our imaginations out to play.

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When Your Muse Goes on Vacation

Sunday, 15. January 2023 22:12

Regardless of what the creativity pundits say, most artists rely on inspiration for their impetus to work. That inspiration may come in the form of the traditional lightning bolt of creativity or simply a niggling idea. Whatever the form, artists rely on them to move them to create. And we all know that one idea can generate others, so that ideas can stack up, and we are forced to jot them down so we can keep working on the current project. But sometimes that doesn’t occur; sometimes inspiration doesn’t strike; ideas don’t happen.

There has been a lot of conjecture on the causes for lack of inspiration or “writer’s block” as it is sometimes called, and some psychologists have provided methods for overcoming it. We can look those up and try them out and they may or may not work, but when inspiration has left the building, we are at a total loss.

How long inspiration stays gone is also a mystery. It could take a brief overnight trip, or it could be gone a week, or a month, or even longer. No matter how long it’s gone, it will seem like forever, and we often do nothing—except bemoan the absence of inspiration. We seem to be helpless without our inspiration.

So when our muse goes on vacation what should we do? Well, we could go on vacation as well. Of course this works only for those of us who are independently wealthy. If we are working artists, we must keep producing, inspiration or not.

Exactly how do we do that? There are number of books dealing with artistic blockage. Some try to identify the sources of the problem or the places we are likely to “hit the wall.” Some are overly general and some overly specific. Many are aimed exclusively at writers, albeit of various genres. And while some have some interesting exercises, most come down to the same advice.

And that advice is that we go regularly to the theatre, studio, office—our place of work, and we pick up the brush or pen or pencil or chisel or keyboard or notebook or camera and we do the work—we essentially pretend that we are inspired, that our muse has not temporarily left us and we do the work. Yes, it may be uninspired, but unless we give into depression at the short-term loss, hardly anyone will know. They may realize that our work is not up to our usual standards, but then everyone has ups and downs. And the next day we do that again, and the day after, and the day after that if need be.

Essentially, we are performing a variant of “fake it ‘til you make it.” We crank out our work, knowing that it may not be our best, and the work moves forward, and we keep doing that until one day—and it may or may not be long in coming—a new idea appears, then another, then another. And finally our muse is back; our inspiration is again at work, and now we can really move forward with far less effort and do our best work yet. It’s just a matter of continuing to work while our muse is on vacation.

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Art Productivity with a Post-Pandemic Shortened Attention Span

Sunday, 18. December 2022 22:39

We are just now beginning to understand the impact of the pandemic on our psychology and physiology. And things are not looking wonderful. For example, Many experts argue that the pandemic has “accelerated a shift in attention spans.” Some say it is the pandemic coupled with the increasing amount of time we spend online that have shortened attention spans. Still others say these factors have not reduced our attention spans, but rather have reduced “our ability to engage with new ideas,” so “it’s harder to get our attention in the first place.

Regardless of the exact nature of the problem, no one denies that it exists. The problem remains that we have difficulty giving our attention to projects for sustained periods of time. While this is a problem for nearly everyone, it is particularly acute for artists. As artists we must engage new ideas at every turn, particularly when working on a new project. Many of us are used to working for long hours at a stretch, and a significant percentage of us are finding that difficult in the post-pandemic world. It makes our work attempts more frustrating. Since the condition that we are experiencing was built up over time, the possible solutions are not likely to be immediate, but we must at least begin looking for them.

While he does not acknowledge the exact nature of the problem, senior art critic for New York Magazine and Pulitzer Prize winner Jerry Saltz, offers one such solution: “Artists maybe looking for a prompt to get them working: Try approaching a day in your studio as a jam session. Not doing things that take a long time. But working out things spontaneously in response to what is being worked out. What’s deeper inside will come out this way too.

This idea can be developed even further and our work can become a reflection of the way we are currently thinking; it can become broken into very short segments that do not require long spans of concentration: we can work on one detail in a painting or sculpture. We can read an act or a few scenes of a play at a sitting instead of the whole thing. We can write a page or few pages—or even a few paragraphs—at a time instead of the dozen pages that we used to target. We can break a photo editing session into segments so that we are fresh and creative for the short time we are committing to each segment. We can even juggle tasks so that we work on them for short times before trading off to the next one.

And those of us in collaborative arts need to remind ourselves that our collaborators are likely experiencing the same problems and frustrations that we are, so the structure of the collaborative process may need alteration to be successful.

We should, of course, be aware that there may be new frustrations in modifying our work routines; however, the reward of actually accomplishing something (and thereby maybe tricking ourselves into longer involvement than we anticipated) makes that frustration worth it.

The key is to use short pieces of time productively instead of becoming frustrated because we cannot maintain concentration for the longer periods of time that we used to use. Doing this we can again become productive rather than wallowing in frustration and accomplishing nothing.

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Lose Yourself in the Work

Sunday, 4. December 2022 19:04

Steven King’s novel Billy Summers is many things, but one of the things it is, is an ode to writing. At one point a character talks about the act of writing and how the world of the author disappears as the author enters the world that they are creating, how the writer is able to see the smallest details that they are describing and how the world they are creating becomes as real, the specifics as clear as any in the real world. Repeatedly King comments on how real time disappears when one is writing, how the writer becomes so absorbed in the imaginative world of the book being written that they almost cease to exist in the world we normally inhabit. This is the ideal condition for creating imaginative realities.

And, of course, this applies to arts other than writing as well. It certainly applies to theatre and film. Whether one is an actor involved in a scene or a director working with actors and designers, one needs to be completely involved in the process. The same holds true for a painter or a sculptor, a dancer or a choreographer, a singer or songwriter, a composer or a musician.

Whatever our art, we must enter the imaginative world completely and fully, paying attention to the smallest of details. If we do this with our whole being we will be completely immersed in the work. Time in the real world will disappear. The entire real world may disappear, and only our work will exist. We may or may not be in flow. When we come back to reality, much time will have passed without our noticing, and we may be tired. But it will be a good tired, and the work we have done will be our best.

But there are obstacles. There are many things for us to think about. There are large issues: inflation, politics, climate, racism, fascism, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, health care. There are more local issues: weather, traffic, education, housing, food costs, neighbors. And there are personal issues: money, health, relationships, mental health. All of these touch us one way or another. It’s a wonder then with so much to occupy our minds that we have any capacity left for our art (and I’m sure I’ve missed some). But we manage the distractions as best we can and press on.

Or at least we try. Those many things to think about prey on our minds when we try to create. In training beginning actors we advise them to leave their problems and worries at the stage door—such get in the way during the rehearsal and performance. Yet we are seldom completely successful at getting all students to do this. And, unfortunately, this is an even greater problem in a post-pandemic-lockdown world—not only for students and actors, but for teachers and directors as well.

Still, we must try. And we may well emulate that practice we teach beginning actors. We might well make a ritual of leaving our worries and concerns at the door of our studio. We might even lock them in a locker or box, which can be either real or virtual. But we would do well to drop our concerns at the entrance to our workspace; they will surely be there when our work session is over—ready to overtake our minds again. But for the time we are in our creative space, our minds can be free to work only on our imaginative reality, on creativity, on making. If we make this a practice, pretty soon it will become habit. And that habit will be reflected in our creativity and productivity. We will experience the joy of time creatively spent as do King’s characters.

 

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Make Something—Anything!

Sunday, 20. November 2022 21:50

Why is it so hard to take advice, particularly when we know the advice to be good? Certainly no one can tell us how to create, but often those who study the creative process have ideas that can help aid creativity, particularly when there’s a difficulty. Thus we have individuals like Julia Cameron, Austin Kleon, and Maria Popova, just to name a few. And consistently these advisors and many others tell us that when there is a problem with creativity or productivity, the answer is to keep making whatever it is that we make—to keep plugging away and the block will dissolve and our creativity will flow. I have even offered this advice myself.

Why then, when we find our flow of creativity blocked, do we not heed that same advice? Maybe it’s because we are all somewhat egotistical when it comes to creativity. Perhaps it’s because we are stubborn. Whatever the reason, we don’t—until we do.

This happened to me recently, and I hope that I have learned from it. My creativity and productivity were practically nil. There was no particular reason for this, so far as I knew. Ideas were just not happening, but rather than worrying about it, I just used the time to rest. But it kept going on. Still it was not a major problem, that is, until I realized that I had a project coming due soon.

Every year I create and send a holiday card out to friends and acquaintances. And it was time for that to happen. The deadline is self-imposed, but it comes a while before the holidays to allow for printing, mailing, and all the logistics that go into such a project. Since I have done this project for a number of years, not doing it was not really a consideration. So I finally decided that it was time to make the project happen. I already had images that I created for the project, but they were far from their final form, and that was the problem.

So I jumped in and began to work only to discover that some of the images did not really work the way I had thought that they would. So, instead of pushing, I went back to some images I had created earlier to see if there were any possibilities there. And there were.

And then an interesting thing happened. As I began to examine possibilities, new ideas formed, new possibilities presented themselves; I found new ways of working with the images I had started with. Before it was over, I had not just one card, but five. So I picked one for this year—not the one I had started with, but one of the others, and will use the others in the coming years. And I’m finding that my mind does not seem to be done with this project even though images have been selected, captioned, sent to the printer, and returned. So I will enjoy the new stream of ideas and probably continue to develop those ideas, even though they support a project that only happens once a year.

The point of this is, of course, to remind ourselves to follow good advice, and when we are creatively blocked to make something—anything—to get the ideas flowing again.

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Endings

Sunday, 14. August 2022 22:55

Having just retired from my long-time day job, endings are very much on my mind: not only the ending of jobs and projects, but the endings that we craft for our creations, and the comparisons between the two.

Even though we all know that all things must come to an end, there are sometimes emotions attached to arriving at the end of a project (or a job), particularly if that project has held some great interest for us or has been especially difficult or especially rewarding or both. We may be happy that it is over, or the opposite, but we are likely to have feelings one way or the other. And these feelings may be complex: we can be both sad and happy at the same time over the same termination. How long these feelings may last is another issue: they may last minutes, hours, days, or weeks even, depending on the project and how attached we were to it.

Crafting endings for our audience is a different thing altogether. Every created work that is experienced through time must have an ending, and unfortunately, there are as many types of endings as there are types of stories, songs, plays, poems, or stories.

And endings are difficult. Obviously, the primary reason for the ending is to bring the project to a satisfying conclusion. If pieces that I read and write are to serve as a guide, this is not as easy as it sounds, particularly with regard to short pieces. In fact, one of the last pieces I read came to an abrupt conclusion with a six-word sentence voicing a semi-philosophical statement; it was as though the author got to the end of what they had to say and simply tagged a short statement on the end so the reader wasn’t just left dangling. Authors are tasked with bringing the narrative to an end in a way that wraps up the piece and is aesthetically pleasing to the audience. Therein lies the problem. In my experience it is one of the more difficult tasks required of an author, particular if the work is not a formal academic paper of some sort.

Additionally, very often endings serve a twofold purpose: there may be loose ends to tie up. There may be a call to action of some kind to be embedded. There may be a sequel to set up. There may be any number of secondary purposes. This compounds the author’s problem in that they have to create an ending that satisfies the requirements of any ending plus insert the elements to accomplish the secondary goals as well, making the process all the more complicated.

And what do endings inside projects and the ending of projects have to do with each other? Simply that they both have to with wrapping things up and finding a stopping point, in one case for the author and in the other case for the audience. However, it should be clear that although they bear the same name, they are two entirely different processes, and have in common only that they come at the end of projects.

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Just Start

Sunday, 22. May 2022 22:20

One of the things that makes creatives creative is the abundance of imagination. We can hardly close our eyes without seeing images, stories, ideas; then we open our ideas and they disappear as quickly as they came. Often they come in the twilight as we are drifting to sleep, in dreams, in daydreams, when we are bored. Those of us who are lucky or who have enough foresight or who have enough discipline will quickly make notes to record these images, ideas, and stories. For others of us, they just disappear.

What do those of us who manage to get these products of the imagination down on paper or into a computer or tablet do with the list once we have it? Often the answer is “very little;” it turns into a list of potential projects, and there it sits. These potential projects often remain potential and are never really realized as projects. Is it just procrastination or some other reason?

For some, it is our working methodology: we hesitate to try to actualize potential projects because we cannot see the end of the project, so we think we don’t know how to begin. That is, we need to know the outcome before we begin the project. Unfortunately, most of our imaginations do not produce project ideas and images fully developed; it is up to us to take the snippets we dream and develop them.

This cannot happen unless we actually pick up the brush or pen or camera, or keyboard or chisel and actually make a start, trusting in ourselves to develop the project wherever the material takes us. That’s the hard part: beginning the journey of creation without knowing either the location of the end or what the end actually is.

But it’s how we have to do it—if we are ever to create anything. It’s the trusting the process that’s difficult. Many of us think that we will only get as far as we do when we put the thoughts into our potential projects list. And maybe that will happen, but what is more likely to happen is that in actually beginning the project, new insights will develop. We will begin to see where the material might go and we will choose which of the branches to follow, and then even more ideas will develop and we will see further down the path of development. And then finally we will be able to see the end. The realization of the project becomes about discovery.

And the good news is that, at any point in this discovery process, we can go back over what we have already done and edit it, making it better, more meaningful, more stimulating, more engaging. Of course, the edits will alter the course of the project, and thus the final outcome.

But what if development stalls? What if the discovery process fails before we reach the end? We do the same things we do when any project stalls: we examine the project to see if it’s really a failure, we salvage what we can, and we deal with it.

We are still in a better position than if we were waiting around to begin—because we have done something. As basketball and hockey fans will quickly tell you, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The quote is most often attributed to Wayne Gretzky, but regardless of who originally said it, it applies. No matter how creative we are, we cannot realize a project unless we actually start on it.

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Narrow Your Focus

Sunday, 24. April 2022 22:26

We in educational theatre teach actors not to generalize. There are no generalized actions, emotions, or situations. Everything must be specific: the given circumstances must be specific, and the actors’ responses to those circumstances must be specific as well; this sometimes gives rise to some very specific emotions which are tied to the situation being acted.

It occurs to me that this need for specificity is required in other arts as well. It would be beyond difficult to compose generalized music, or to create a generalized dance. In other arts the difficulty may not be quite so obvious. For example, many are the authors who begin generalized written works only to find out that such are not only difficult, but generally uninteresting. The same holds true for any work of art. Artists need to know not only what they are trying to say, but must decide very specific aspects of that subject. To say that one is writing a play about business in America is a very nebulous thing; to say that one is writing a play about the machinations that go on in a real estate sales operation is a much more specific and practical thing that is far more likely to result in a significant, compelling dramatic work.

The same is true, of course, of painting or photography or poetry. To be really viable, the work of art, and thus the artist, must be very specific, very focused. It is only through the explicit that we can say the things that actually need to be said—without generating a generalized work that, even if well-reasoned, will fail to hold the audience.

But what if artists want to tackle large subjects? How should they handle that? The answer is to narrow their focus, hone in on specific aspects of the topic they want to broach, and by creating detailed and focused work, reflecting the larger topic. For example, can there be any stronger anti-war statement than an artwork which depicts specifics of human suffering as the result of war? Can there be a stronger indictment of unethical business practices than a work which portrays the human cost of such practices?

Not only can focusing on specifics make the work stronger, it can aid the artist in creating the work. Many times, one of the problems of the artist is having too much material to deal with, particularly when trying to tackle a big subject. Focusing on one specific aspect of the subject can help the artist limit the subject matter so that it is easier to deal with; the artist can focus on a singular part of the overall topic instead of trying to deal with a massive subject area that defies organization.

Concentrating on one aspect of a subject can also keep the artist on track in terms of realizing the project. The artist can check the relevancy of parts of the project as they are assembled, thus preventing digressions and irrelevancies.

So instead of wandering aimlessly around a topic or area of concern, artists who narrow their focus have a much greater likelihood of producing really concentrated, meaningful art than those who do not. It is certainly something to consider as we contemplate our upcoming projects.

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