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“Make Bad Art” — No!

Sunday, 26. September 2021 22:57

“Make bad art” is the mantra repeated by many who hold themselves out to be creative advisors, and even some artists. Don’t believe me? Just Google it. I got over 10.7 billion—that’s right, billion—hits. (Your mileage may vary, as it often does with individual Google searches). So what’s this all about?

Some of these writers are concerned about what exactly bad art is. Some wonder why some art is bad. Some celebrate the creation of bad art. Some say that we have to make bad art before we can make good art. Some are even concerned about applying the labels “good” and “bad” to art at all. But most of these pundits take the position that we can’t always make good art, so making bad art is preferable to making no art. Some will tackle all of these concerns in the same essay or blog post.

The problem that I see is that a number of these writers are actively advising people to make bad art like it’s a goal to which one should aspire; that I find problematic. Others are using the advice as a tool or learning exercise, which is somewhat more forgivable.

At least one other writer advises the opposite. Neil Gaiman, in his small book Art Matters, has a whole chapter entitled “Make Good Art,” in which he outlines a number of situations that numerous other writers offer as excuses for making bad art. Gaiman instead, in each instance, suggests that the reader make good art. Gaiman has also given a speech on the same topic (a video is also available which is well-worth the 20 minutes that it takes to watch it).

Gaiman, I think is more on track; I can find no really good reason to make bad art. However, like a number of artists I know, I have always had trouble with calling the work that I do “art” although it is clearly in the “world of the arts.” Given a choice, I would substitute “practice your craft” for Gaiman’s “make good art” advice.

There are a number of reasons for this: (1) it is almost as positive as Gaiman’s “make good art,” eliminating the negative notion of “bad” art. (2) It avoids the whole issue of whether what we are doing is art or not. Whether it is or isn’t, it is certainly craft, and that is something that can be practiced. (3) It is neutral and thus can be applied in any situation—whether other things in our lives are good or bad—without reference to the ongoing situation. (4) It is sound advice and keeps us pointed in a creative and productive direction.

So to substitute in Gaiman’s book and in the speech noted above: “Husband runs off with a politician?” Practice your craft. “Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor?” Practice your craft. “IRS on your trail?” Practice your craft. “Cat exploded?” Practice your craft. “Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before?” Practice your craft. “Probably things will work out some how, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what you do best.” Practice your craft. Practice your craft “on good days too.”

It may not be as clever or delightful as Gaiman’s series of statements on “make good art,” but it’s still sound advice. Practice your craft!

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Look Back

Sunday, 29. August 2021 21:40

Last week I had the opportunity to review some old image files that I had not seen for some time, some up to five years old. What immediately struck me was that a number of the images I had originally rejected as second or third level choices had more potential that I originally thought. Some needed to be tweaked or re-cropped, but they could, with just a little work be first-rate images.

If it’s true of images, might it also be true of writing? I asked myself. Like most people who write, I have pages and pages of written material that I have abandoned but did not destroy. A quick review of some of those yielded the same results: there were a number of worthwhile ideas contained in the abandoned writings. Then, of course, there were the idea files that contained just short paragraphs about topics and ideas, many of which had gone unreviewed for a long period. Most of the topic ideas and the unfinished writings need to be filled out, shaped, and polished, but the some interesting possibilities exist.

The reasons for the abandonments of both writing and images are many. Sometime the idea didn’t play out in a satisfying way; sometimes I hit a wall in writing and could not finish the piece. And then there were those that were simply left unfinished for a number of other reasons, often because they were to be perceived to be less than my best work.

This raises the question, of course, of why work that was rejected in the past suddenly appears to have potential. The answer is that I am now looking at it with different eyes. The images and pieces of writing are fixed, but I have changed with the passing of time. Hopefully, I have evolved since the words were written and the images captured. It’s the same reason that it is useful to put work away for a while before editing. The passage of time gives one more objectivity in reviewing the work, so one can see possibilities more clearly.

My suspicion is that all this applies to arts other than photography and writing as well. Almost all artists I know have partially-finished projects stored here and there which might could be reviewed, dusted off, and made into excellent work which could then be shared or published or produced by whatever avenues the artist chooses. Looking back at older work can also spark ideas for future work, mixing the old ideas with new insights to produce new work.

So my suggestion is that we periodically take a look back at our older work, keeping an open mind to see what can be salvaged, what can be reworked, modified, made better. We can see what new visions result from this review and what we find in the old that can be mixed with new concepts to produce new quality work. Such periodic reviews might just result in more and better work.

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Make One Just for Fun

Sunday, 1. August 2021 22:20

In the push for productivity, we often lose sight of our artistic goals and sensibilities. Rather than creators, we become artisans concerned solely with production of artifacts for our audience, often tailoring our output to the tastes of potential purchasers. While this sort of concentration on production often does much for the bottom line, it does little to satisfy our artistic needs.

In the build-up to this point we develop as artists, honing our skills, developing our craft, finding our own voice. Once that is accomplished, we can often go in one of two very different directions: (1) we can basically turn out slightly varying iterations of the same story, poem, photograph, painting—altering each new piece just enough to say that it is different, while at the same time retaining all those characteristics that mark our work as ours. (2) The second choice is to build on our development, creating new work that represents not just repetition, but growth. We create new things which may or may not appeal to our present audience.

For a number of reasons, many artists select the first path. For example, I know an artist who essentially quit making personal work. All her work now is either consignment or for her Etsy store. And, although it is quite good work, it all looks rather alike. Another artist, a painter who works in acrylic, produces excellent images, all of which very much alike; she has quite a large following. Many of us follow this path: singers whose songs all sound alike, photographers whose work is so similar it could have been shot all on the same day, writers whose novels are nearly identical, or at least follow the same formula.

Along the second path lies risk—what we make may not appeal to our current audience, and we are forced to find another, or change what we are doing. Thus it is more difficult to find artists willing to pursue this path. Several come to mind, but not nearly as many as follow the first path.

The first path is certainly more stable financially—and easier to follow, at least after those of us who follow it find our audience. However, one wonders if those who are essentially cranking out the same pieces over and over still retain the joy of creation. One wonders if they took time out from their schedules to make one piece of work just for the joy of doing it—for fun, it would make any difference.

And that is my suggestion: if we find ourselves becoming slaves to production—turning out piece after piece of all-too-similar pieces, that we take some time and make just one piece for fun—to remind ourselves why we got into this world of creation in the first place. If nothing else, we might get a little relief from the grind that almost always accompanies constant production. Even if we immediately go back to assembly-line production, we might do so with a fresh perspective. It might just provide a renewed approach to our productivity.

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Make the Leap

Sunday, 11. April 2021 21:16

Sooner or later all of us arrive at a metaphorical cliff in our creative lives. We are effectively blocked from going forward—unless we make a leap. What that means exactly is up for discussion. Google says that “to make a leap means to make a choice decision or commitment without any logical reason to do so. To make a leap can also mean to jump and spring forward with force or energy. To make a leap can also mean to commit to a change in the way that you think or in what you do.” Whether or not such a move has a logical reason, it decidedly involves the idea that forward progress requires a commitment and change in the way we think or act that is somewhat out of the ordinary.

Such a move necessarily involves risk of some sort. Otherwise, it’s just another step forward or a short jump “over an obstacle.” “Making a leap” definitely involves the possibility of failure. It is not like Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff where there is no possibility of getting to the other side. It is more like this image, where there is the possibility of success but the danger of failure as well.

And what does failure mean in this context? It means that, like Wile E. Coyote after the fall, we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and climb back to our place on the heights, perhaps learning something along the way. Although it may feel like it at the time, it is not the worst thing that can happen. We may learn about new tools, new techniques, new approaches as we climb back to, not necessarily where we were, but to hopefully some higher place in terms of creativity.  So while taking the leap and failing can be considered a setback, it can also be considered an opportunity.

But what if we succeed in making the leap? Then we can move on to new levels of creativity. Our work can take different directions and make advances, perhaps that we had not foreseen. The momentum of our leap can carry us forward to creative successes we had not imagined. And we can continue forward until we reach the next metaphorical cliff. But, having made one leap successfully, we will be mentally better equipped to make that leap as well, thus ensuring our continued creative evolution.

Possibly the worst thing we can do is to stop on the cliff and decide not to take the risk of making the leap. Then, not only are we blocked from moving forward, but we are, for all practical considerations, stuck on the edge. We may continue to produce the same sort of art that we have produced before, or we may become depressed and despondent because we feel that we cannot move forward. In that case, it is likely that our work will suffer, that we will produce less creatively or that we will cease to produce at all.

So—if we are interested in moving forward with our art—there is really no choice. We have to acknowledge the risk, then make the leap. It is the only way we will be able to move forward creatively. It’s a risk well worth taking.

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Move at Your Own Speed

Sunday, 28. March 2021 22:29

Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about the difficulty of making changes in one’s life. “The thing is,” she said, “you have to move at your own speed.” So very true, and that same advice applies to art as well. We all get caught up in believing that we have to crank out piece after piece because the Internet expects it. We “need to have” x number of postings to whichever platform(s) we are on every day/week/month to remain relevant. And if the quality suffers, well, that’s just the way things are.

Except that’s not true. If the quality suffers, it’s likely that no matter how many pieces we upload, we will lose viewers. We need to move at our own pace, whatever that pace is. It doesn’t matter if we produce three novels or thirty, so long as we are satisfied that they are the highest quality that we can produce at the time. Each artist has their own rhythm. Each artist has their own workflow. And it is the rhythm and the workflow that determine the frequency of quality output of each artist.

And that frequency may be at odds with the “demands of the Internet.” And if it is, that’s okay. I follow some people who post multiple times per day, some who post daily, some who post weekly, some who post monthly, and some who post whenever they have something to say or show, and I find that I don’t appreciate one more than the other. In fact, I would much rather see the quality work of those who post infrequently than mediocre work of some who post daily.

After all, the “demands of the Internet” are nothing more than marketing ideas. Admittedly, we have to market our art, but we don’t have to follow marketing ideas slavishly. Indeed, there are a number of artists who completely ignore Internet marketing advice who do quite well. The question is: are we trying to develop a large social media following or trying to market our art. Those two are not necessarily the same thing, regardless of what social media marketers say. And we need to remember that being active regularly on social media does not necessarily mean posting our work; it can also mean commenting on the work of others or the political situation or any number of other things that keep our names before our followers.

So, perhaps instead of feeling pressured to produce at a rate determined by outside forces, we might take note of our frequency of quality output and then determine the frequency of our public posting of work based on that.

That way we can indeed work at our own speed, and be far more comfortable in producing work of quality instead of feeling pushed and prodded by an external system. Additionally, we can remind ourselves that our speed does not have to match anyone else’s.  Maybe then we can produce and market our best work, saving less successful pieces for reworking and revising until they too meet our personal standard of quality.

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Take Care of Yourself

Sunday, 27. September 2020 23:34

You can’t make art if you don’t. It’s just that simple. But it’s hard, because those of us who are still hunkering down and being careful are working very hard at avoiding risk. That leads us to stay home, which is normally a good thing these days. But self-care demands that we break our pandemic routines.

  • Make and keep your dental appointments. Making art is difficult enough. Making art with a toothache may be close to impossible. Every dentist I know of has strict COVID protocols, so they are among some of the safest places you can go.
  • Keep your appointment with your optometrist or ophthalmologist. While it’s true that some artists, such as Claude Monet have worked with clouded vision, that is far from an ideal situation. For almost every art, our eyes are important; see a vision professional regularly, even in a pandemic. They too have rigid COVID protocols in place.
  • See a medical doctor when you need to. You may not even have to actually go into a clinic for an office visit; now there are phone, video, and e-consultations that can take care of a number of problems, and you don’t have to leave the safety and comfort of your home. And when office visits are required, most clinics have procedures to not only keep us safe, but the doctors we are seeing as well.
  • Along with seeing a medical doctor, avoid putting off necessary surgery. There are whole areas of hospitals that COVID has not penetrated. Operating rooms are among them. Conditions requiring surgery do not usually get better by themselves. We need to do what is necessary to restore our health.
  • Take care of your mental health. Most of us have pandemic fatigue at the very least, with any number of anxieties added on. We have to take time to restore our mental health so we can let our creativity work. In an earlier post, I suggested several things that might improve our mental health. Here they are again:
    • Rest. The stress of our current situation is unrelenting. Sleep in. Take a nap. Disengage. Allow your mind to settle. It will improve both your creativity and your productivity.
    • Take some time for yourself. Along with resting, take some time to do some of the things you haven’t had time to do. That time may involve doing nothing. It may also involve any number of things that you consider enjoyable that you haven’t taken the time for.
    • Watch a movie. Streaming services up and running and will show you virtually anything that you want to see 24/7.
    • Stop and listen to some music. Not background music. Actually stop and listen and enjoy some music Well, now you have the time. It will enrich you in ways you can’t even think about until you do it.
    • Go outside. Let the sun shine on you. Enjoy the grass and flowers and birds. It’s refreshing both physically and mentally, and something we don’t do often enough.

These are just a few things we can do to take care of ourselves, and in doing that we cannot but improve our creativity and our productivity—which, after all, is one of our goals as artists.

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Is It Worth the Trouble?

Monday, 14. September 2020 0:08

A friend of mine is a cold brew fanatic. For every pot he grinds the beans, measures the amount of ground coffee on a scale, and precisely measures the filtered water. And then he waits. Exactly 13 hours later, he drains the coffee concentrate and bottles it for the coming week. Recently we were discussing coffee and the subject of a certain coffee that he likes came up. “I don’t drink that anymore,” he said. When I asked why, he said that it was just “not worth the trouble.” It seems that that particular coffee causes problems for the grinder, which has to be stopped and started and unclogged repeatedly just to get enough coffee to make a pot.

Some of us are feeling that way about our art these days. In the last post, I mentioned some of the difficulties that photographers and theatre artists encounter when they try to pivot to a different way of doing things. Sometimes that new way of doing things comes with a very steep learning curve in addition to the unexpected difficulties. And then, the results are never quite what we had hoped for. The whole experience can be full of anxiety and frustration, and that leads some of us to ask whether what we are doing is actually worth the trouble.

Of course, some of us will answer loudly and immediately, “Yes!” Those are the ones who feel that because it’s art, it’s worth any amount of trouble. All that matters is producing, and circumstances be damned. Others of us might take a more measured approach. There have been, and probably always will be, projects that won’t be under-taken regardless of the external conditions. Those are the projects that are too big for the budget or that are too difficult because of their conceptual requirements. It may be that a project is completely beyond our capabilities. In the past when those cases came up, we would move on to other projects that were—because of their lesser cost or complication or requirements—doable. And we didn’t think less of ourselves for that.

So perhaps when it seems impossible for us to embrace an entirely new methodology and/or a completely new medium, we might want to cut ourselves some slack. Change is often difficult and always stressful, and a forced changed without a modification in schedule can be unmanageably problematic. So we might want to consider altering the schedule or the scope or the range of our work. We might want to find ways to make the situation into a workable one, or we may decide it’s just not worth the trouble.

Making art under the best of conditions is hard, but making art under extraordinary conditions we are experiencing in the US today is doubly difficult. Sometimes it does become a choice between bearing up under crushing stress or, as noted above, figuring out a way to make the situation more workable and thus more tolerable. And, of course, there’s always the third choice: declaring that it’s not worth the trouble and walking away. And we may find that we have different responses to different projects. Ultimately, however, which of these three paths we take will, as always, depend on each individual project and each individual artist.

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Pivot

Tuesday, 1. September 2020 0:04

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us thus far, it’s that things are not going to go right. And it’s not just the things that we expect to go wrong; it’s things we didn’t even see coming. No matter what art we are engaged in, we have to be ready to pivot. Some would say that this is just a variation on Bobby Shaftoe’s advice to “display adaptability,” but it’s more than that, or at least it seems that way. Things change and plans fail at a dizzying speed these days. Not only do we have to plan for normal contingencies, but we must plan for the extra-ordinary, and we must be able to do it quickly.

And sometimes that requires a whole new way of thinking, primarily because many of us are now working in uncharted territory. Even artists who are used to working alone are denied their normal in-person social network, or if they still enjoy that luxury, it is changed by the necessity for masks and social distancing. Things are even more difficult for collaborative artists. In addition to normal preparation, photo shoots, for example, now require immense preparation for health and safety reasons. This may include considerations that impact the work, such as lens choice, allowing the model their safe space and still getting the work done—so the pandemic influences the art, perhaps in subtle ways, but the influence is there nonetheless. Other choices for shoots are little better, risking the safety and health of photographers, models, and assistants, or postponing the shoot until who-knows when.

Theatre, perhaps the most collaborative of the arts, brings in a whole new set of issues that can overwhelm the savviest of producing organization. First is the choice of whether to attempt some sort of live performance with not only socially-distanced performers, but a socially-distanced audience as well. Most of us realized that this is not a practical solution. Then we pivot to some sort of virtual performance. And that brings with it a whole host of new considerations and problems. It begins with securing virtual performance rights. Since the agents who control the rights to live performances were, before April of this year, not in the business of granting streaming rights, they have had to pivot to incorporate that into their businesses. Because the process is new and because it requires decisions to be made out-of-house, it can sometimes delay a decision on rights acquisition for weeks.

Then there are the technical considerations: what platform or what combinations of platforms are the best for presenting theatrical fare like we have never done before? For many of us who have worked long in live theatre, there is much to learn—just in order to know what to try and what to reject. Sometimes, the most desirable approaches must be rejected because there is no way to employ them without exposing the performers and technicians to danger. And even after those choices are made, there are difficulties that come up for which we are not prepared: there seems to be no end to connectivity issues and timing problems and scheduling difficulties—because everyone involved in the production is dealing with all of those issues in their own lives, issues that are extra-ordinary, even after months of self-quarantining and coming to terms with the new facts of life.

So we have to be ready for nearly any eventuality—all the time—which means that we must be twice as prepared as we normally are, and prepared for brand new twists and turns. And yes, it can be immensely stressful. But art is what we do, so we, like any good basketball player, must be ready to pivot—sometimes with no notice at all.

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Stop Waiting

Sunday, 2. August 2020 23:11

A lot of us are sitting around waiting for normality to return. Then, we say, we will get back to work; things will be just like they were, and life will go on. And some of us think that will be really soon now. Not to be a doomsayer, but I don’t think that’s going to happen—at least not any time soon. The optimists who are saying that we will be back to normal in a few weeks have not looked at history. The most similar pandemic to the current one was the 1918 flu pandemic. That pandemic had lasted two years, had four waves, infected 500 million people, and killed between 17 and 50 million. If COVID-19 is remotely similar, we are looking at a long time of staying home, social distancing, and mask-wearing.

And we might as well face it: normal is not coming back—at least not normal as we knew it. Even when a vaccine is developed, things will not be the same as they were. The economy will have been altered. Society will be different. We have to remember that we in the US are not only dealing with COVID-19, we are also dealing with an extreme political situation and with a movement calling out racial inequality and police brutality. The world will not be the same on the other side of this; we will not be the same.  And the primary reason for that is that when this is ever over—assuming that it ever is over—we not only will be living in a different world, but we ourselves will have been changed by what we have been through.

You may already feel the difference. Many of us are not the same people that we were five months ago. We have endured stresses that we never expected to encounter. We have had to learn new skills in order to survive. We have changed our lifestyles. Some of us have changed the way we think, particularly about political and social issues.

And the future is fuzzy at best. For example, even when we feel comfortable putting a new play on the stage, the audience may not feel comfortable sitting shoulder-to-shoulder to see it. That may take a while longer. It certainly may take a while before actors are comfortable being intimate either on the stage or in front of a camera. Art galleries where we used to display our painting, sculpture, and photography may no longer exist, their owners having had to find other means of making a living. So we don’t know what the world will be like.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, we are waiting for something that likely is not coming. So perhaps waiting is not the best choice. Perhaps doing is the best choice. There is nothing to keep us from making art: writing, drawing, painting. Just thinking and planning constitute artistic doing, as does adapting our work to the world as it is today (which may be one of the most valuable things we can do).

But what if we spend our time doing all that and it comes to nothing? That is certainly a possibility, but, having exercised our creativity, we are in a much better place, both mentally and artistically, than if we had just sat and waited. Stop waiting; start doing.

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Comfortably Numb

Sunday, 19. July 2020 23:34

It’s almost too much. We in the US are dealing with far too many negatives in our lives at the moment to fully concentrate on creating. First we are trying to stay healthy and safe, which is easier for some than for others. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work at our day jobs from home, the risk is somewhat diminished; however, that sheltering in place keeps us isolated. And that isolation can be detrimental to our mental health unless we are prepared to deal with it. Working from home presents its own set of challenges even after this length of time. We don’t quite ever have the tools we used to have, so every day is a learning experience as we discover new means and methods to accomplish our tasks.

Added to that, we hear news every day that more and more cases of COVID-19 are occurring and that the death toll continues to rise. Things are not getting better. And that weighs on us because it means that we must look at more weeks and months of isolation—if we are to stay safe and healthy. In addition to that, we also hear every day about police violence and brutality, about systemic racism and its impact on people’s lives, about political campaigns built on fear and lies.

And so we fret and worry and try with everything in us to make some kind of sense out of it all, to come to terms with our own situation and the state of the country. And it’s almost too much.

And then, the one-too-many headline comes and we don’t even bother to read the attendant article. The line has been crossed; it’s finally too much. Tears are not a choice; we are already dry and have been for months. The other choice is to close down, to go numb. Numb is when nothing gets to us; nothing touches us; nothing matters; the world moves on without us, because we are in an unfeeling existence.

Make no mistake, numbness is comfortable. We don’t hurt anymore; we don’t worry anymore; we’re not concerned any more. And it’s easy because we are used to hunkering down alone. There is, however, a down side: since we no longer feel, we don’t create; we don’t produce. We spend our time scrolling through Twitter or Instagram or YouTube or staring off into space and doing mostly nothing. But it’s okay because it doesn’t hurt any more. It can last for days or weeks or months or forever. We are comfortably numb.

The problem is that all the things we were concerned about before are still there, and, if we are to be honest, still need our attention. Even in our isolation there are things we can do. There are posts we can write. There are comments we can make. There are people that we can influence. There is creative work we can do. There are ideas and artifacts we can produce.

So when that one-too-many headline hits, instead of closing down, we might instead take a day off. Turn off The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Twitter and Instagram feeds. Rest. Breathe. Gather ourselves. Remember who we are and what we’re about. Then—do something creative. Perhaps even produce some art. The world will roll on and we can rejoin it when we are able, but in the meantime we must not allow ourselves to become comfortably numb.

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