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Art Can Provide Respite

Monday, 17. January 2022 23:58

Sometime it gets to be too much: the world, the increasingly disturbing political landscape, the equally disturbing growth of social injustice, and so on. It weighs on us; it unsettles us; it depresses us. And perhapsthose are appropriate responses. Even if we’ve already done all that we can do and contributed all that our budget will allow, it still becomes a lot to handle and continue our day-to-day existence, particularly if we are empathetic people who believe in rights and democracy. But what should we do?

One choice is to ignore the politics and the current social climate all together. Don’t listen to the news, don’t subscribe to political/social feeds. Cover our heads and let the world go by. That is indeed a solution for the individual, but it has the downside of political and social ignorance. Admittedly, what we don’t know can’t bother us—until it does, until laws change, and the behavior of those around us changes so that it finally impacts us. Unfortunately, if we didn’t see it coming, we will have done little to protect ourselves or others. Ignorance may be bliss, but only for a short time.

Another way of avoiding the world is to occupy our minds with non-news activity so there is no time left to pay attention to ugly side of things. We spend our time scrolling TikTok, Instagram, Twitter feeds that are carefully curated to present us with nothing more challenging than cute cat pictures. And our minds relax. Again, until something actually impacts us; then we feel blindsided, because, well, we have been.

Some take refuge in art, either making it or enjoying it—or both. Those who completely lose themselves in either activity are no better off than those hiding their heads, but this approach seems more rewarding than mindless scrolling.

Perhaps a more balanced approach is called for. Stay aware of the current state of affairs, but when it becomes too much, turn up our interest/participation in art. We can immerse ourselves in art, either in making our own or appreciating another’s for a time to restore our sanity.

One caution: we might do well to avoid that art which serves social justice. As Joseph Horowitz, writing for American Purpose, says in his article “The Arts and Social Justice: Bedfellows?”:

Does art serve social justice? Does social justice serve art? My own impression is that much of what today passes for politically aroused art fails to transcend journalistic agitation. It does not linger in the mind and heart. It does not furnish the ballast associated with great literature and music, paintings and sculpture. That equation is traditional. It may also be indispensable.

If we take some time to indulge in either making or enjoying art that is not relevant in any sort of political or social sense, but rather “lingers in the mind and heart” if only for a brief period of time, we might find respite from the grim insanity of the world today. And we could all use the rest.

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Make a Plan

Sunday, 5. December 2021 21:58

A number of people encourage spontaneity; I am not one of them. I find that whenever I try to operate spontaneously, in any activity from a business conversation to a creative project, I forget something, or leave something out or lose my way for a while, or—in worst case scenarios—end up going in circles. This is the reason that I have come to realize that I will do better if I make a plan.

This is not to say that there is no place for spontaneity. Certainly, I never plan friendly conversations, and often not activities, other than selecting a restaurant. And in creative work, there is always that unplanned time for brain-storming or spontaneously allowing ideas and mental images to connect and merge and play off of each other. That done I find that I am always more successful if I make a plan after this first creative exercise.

The first step in creating a plan is to establish a goal, based on all that free association that preceded it. This gives the project a target, establishing what is to be accomplished. The next step is to prepare a pathway to the target. This is the actual plan, and does not have to be overly complicated or detailed. It should, however, lay out the major steps to be used to attain the goal. Once those two things are done, it’s time to implement the plan.

Some people jump right in at this point; I, on the other hand, like to mull on the plan for a while, turning it over in my mind, trying to determine what needs changing, what might be a better path, what features need to be added, what components are absolutely necessary, what things can be cut, what details need to be addressed. If there is time, I like to let the plan settle into my subconscious for a time.  When I am able to do this, I find that my subconscious will make suggestions at odd moments during the day or evening, causing me to modify the plan to a greater or lesser extent.

And that points out an important consideration in dealing with plans, particularly those related to a creative project. Plans are not carved in stone—or any other unmalleable material. Plans change and reshape themselves, whether in the development or implementation phase. This is to be expected. It is nearly impossible to anticipate all of the issues that may arise between the inception of a plan and its final execution, so flexibility is demanded. In addition to problems, discoveries are possible during the implementation of the plan, and sometimes these discoveries will add to the project or augment it in some way. An open mind is a requisite of plan implementation.

The path to a project’s completion may involve many revisions of the plan, and the occasional detour, and so plans must often be modified on the fly. However, having a plan ensures that there is direction and purpose at every step on the way to a project’s completion.

This approach works for me. Making a plan for each project allows me to resolve issues and get work done and, while at the same time allowing me to be open to new ideas as they arise. Even if I have to change the plan completely, it’s still there to guide the project to completion. Your mileage may vary.

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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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The Great Texas Anti-Pornography Crusade

Monday, 8. November 2021 0:10

We seem to have a pornography problem in the public schools of Texas. Or, that is at least what the governor and several state legislators say.  This past Monday, the Governor wrote the executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, stating that “a growing number of parents are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries that are extremely inappropriate in the public education system.” He goes on to say that “the most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance that have no place in the Texas public education system.” Of course, he provides no specific examples of this content. A spokesperson for the Texas Association of School Boards said that the group was confused about why the letter was sent to them, because it “has no regulatory authority over school districts and does not set standards for instructional materials, including library books.”

And last week state representative Jeff Cason asked the Texas Attorney General to investigate “sexually explicit material in public schools.” He went on to ask the Attorney General to “launch a statewide investigation into that [Gender Queer] and other books that may ‘violate the Penal Code in relation to pornography, child pornography and decency laws, as well as the legal ramifications to school districts that approved these types of books.’”

One suspects that the Governor and Rep Cason were climbing on board the culture war bandwagon that seems to have been set in motion by state representative Matt Krause, who chairs the Texas House’s General Investigating Committee, and is a candidate for state attorney general. In October, Krause sent a letter to the Deputy Commissioner of school programs at the Texas Education Agency and several school district superintendents demanding that school districts across the state report whether any of the books on the list of 850 titles are in their classrooms or libraries He also directed that the districts identify any other books that could cause students “guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The Texas State Teachers Association was quick to respond: “This is an obvious attack on diversity and an attempt to score political points at the expense of our children’s education. What will Rep. Krause propose next? Burning books he and a handful of parents find objectionable?”

And about that list of titles—Danika Ellis of bookriot.com did an analysis of the list and discovered several interesting things: there are no reasons given for books being on the list, even the ones that are listed twice. Ellis broke down the presumed reasons for books being on the list as follows: LGBTQ 62.4%; Race and Racism 8.3%; Sex Education 14.1%; Miscellaneous (including pregnancy, abortion—not Sex Education, and Unknown 15.2%. 58.89% of the books are fiction; 41.1% are nonfiction. Ellis also notes that there were several notable titles on the list, including one Pulitzer Prize winner and several other award-winning books. She also cites what she calls the “most disturbing trend” on the list as the challenge to books about human and student rights.

There is, of course, no indication—at least that I can find—of where the list came from. At least one article suggests that it was cut and pasted together from a variety of sources, and probably never properly vetted.

Perhaps some of you are wondering why I have taken the time, energy, and space to report on what can be gleaned from a few internet sources. The answer is simple: when books begin to be removed from the shelves, it’s not only the potential readers who are hurt. Certainly, readers probably suffer most, particularly if they are seeking information that has become banned. But writers suffer as well, and by extension, all artists. We all are diminished when our works are forbidden their potential audiences. So in case you missed this, I wanted you all to know about it. Book banning represents an existential threat to artists, and we need to be aware.

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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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Politics and the Artist

Sunday, 12. September 2021 21:11

To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes,” according to celebrated filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. If this is the case, how are artists to respond to the politics of suppression and public health recklessness practiced by the legislature and executive leadership of the State of Texas and some other states as well?

Should artists bend their style and practice to respond to such or should they stay their artistic course and protest some other way? Probably it depends on the artists and their art. For example, a painters of floral still lifes would be hard put to modify their art to incorporate a political statement, while news or editorial photographers would not. The inclination of the artist is also a factor. Some are so concerned about their style or brand that they do not wish modify what they are doing, regardless of their feelings about current politics.

Historically, some artists, particularly playwrights and filmmakers have responded by creating work that indirectly commented on the problem; Jean Anouilh’s Antigone and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible are excellent examples of this kind of work, as well as the number of subversive films made in reaction to  HUAC activities in the 1950s. Interestingly, this type of work was well-received, although it unclear whether audience members fully understood the connection between the work and the political situation.

Other work that is well received is by artists who respond to current events and find themselves becoming known for political commentary. Instead of shying away from the label, they embrace it. Both Shepard Fairey and Banksey come to mind.

Other artists may maintain their standard brand, but initiate a side-brand, perhaps of T-shirts or coffee mugs that are political in nature; sometimes these artists will even produce the political work under a different name in order to keep their primary brand “pure.” They might also use a storefront name on one of numerous online marketplace sites.

If the artists do not want to change their styles or subject matter, how might they respond to current situation? At least six creative people I know think that the problems are not just state, but national and are actively researching leaving the country; they plan to practice their arts either in a different location or via international media. Certainly that is a valid choice, even though some may consider it a bit drastic. Others are politically active in avenues outside their art: Several, including writers, directors, actors, and some photographers maintain an active political life on social media, commenting on the current situation and encouraging others to make their voices heard as well. One photographer/blogger I know produces a semi-weekly newsletter highlighting current events and decisions for his readership.

Some choose to ignore politics completely, but I am finding that these individuals are becoming rarer and rarer as US politics and pandemic reach out to touch nearly everyone. Paying no attention to these issues can be attractive and comfortable, so long as one doesn’t mind living with their head in the sand and with the understanding that the issues won’t disappear.

How any particular artist responds to political and national health issues is certainly an individual decision.  Artists need to decide whether to deal with the problems head-on or in a more private way. The one choice we as artists don’t have, at least according to Kurosawa, is to look away.

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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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Be Prepared to Pivot—Again—and Again

Sunday, 15. August 2021 22:00

Counting from March, 2019, we are now half way through the second year of the COVID pandemic, which unfortunately, in the US, is becoming increasingly politicized. At one end of the spectrum, some theatres in Washington, DC, and various concert artists are requiring proof of vaccination, masks, or a negative COVID test for audience members. At the other, venues in Texas are forbidden by the state government from requiring any sort of proof of vaccination to the point that restaurants have been threatened with revocation of their liquor licenses if they require patrons to provide proof of vaccination.

What does this mean for live theatre, for the arts in general? Nobody knows. In states where mask or vaccination requirements are forbidden, will audiences be comfortable sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a theatre? Will audience response be what the production needs in theatres where the audience is socially distanced? Will patrons feel comfortable mingling in art shows, with or without masks? Is there really any way to know who is really vaccinated and who is not? How will all this impact the world of art, in all of its aspects?

The answer, of course, is that no one knows. And beyond that, the question becomes what is the correct response for the art world. No one knows the answer to that question either. Some theatres are trying to come back with live theatre; others are honing their online production skills. Some are trying to do both. It’s all a balancing act (and it’s going on in arts other than theatre). Those who are going live are trying to figure out how the audience will respond to whatever restrictions. Those who are online are discovering that the best way to do online production is to turn theatre into cinema.

And what of departments and schools of theatre? Does anyone want to train in a field, the future of which is so uncertain? Again, nobody knows.

What we do know is that theatres, art galleries, arts schools and departments must be ready to reevaluate their practices if they are to survive. They must have alternative plans in place and be ready to pivot to any of those plans on a moment’s notice.

In the words of Shakespeare, “The readiness is all”—because there is no “normal” any more—not even a “new normal.” Every day is new territory. We are now in a time when what we have learned in the past is of little value, because today’s present is so very different, and the old rules and ideas simply do not apply.

So what do we in the arts world do? We become agile. We become prepared to pivot—on a moment’s notice, in any of a number of directions—because we cannot be guided by the past. And not only that, what is true today may not be true tomorrow. There is no research to support our decisions. All we can do is make our best guess. Some organizations and individuals have already guessed wrong. That’s okay, because if they are nimble and can pivot, they can correct their courses, and make better decisions going forward.

The world is different than it ever has been, particularly for live performance. If we are to survive, we must be ready and willing to pivot.

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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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“But the Book was Better”

Sunday, 18. July 2021 23:04

How many times have we heard that, and what does it really mean? Does it really mean “the movie was different from the book, and I liked the book version better”? Does it mean, “The film didn’t make me feel the same way the book did”?  Does it mean, “I am superior because I read the book and most people who saw the movie didn’t”? Or does it mean, “The movie wasn’t what I expected, (and I expected the book)”? Or is it some combination of these things?

Not long ago I found myself saying exactly those words in connection with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I had just listened to the Audible audio book of Dracula (narrated by Alan Cuming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance and others). Then I followed it up by re-watching Francis’s Ford Coppola’s 1992 film version by the same name, which I had remembered as being quite good—and I remembered correctly.

The first question that should come up when making a statement such as the one in the title is: “better” according to what standard? If the answer is any of the ones presented in the first paragraph, it’s time to move on to another discussion because none of those, while they may be honest, are legitimate answers to the question of standards. In the case of Dracula, the book was better because of the level of detail and nuance available to the reader/listener in the book that was not available in the film.

There should be no question that the two versions would be different. They are presented in different media; therefore, they communicate in different ways. Description of locale, for instance, can take pages in a novel; the same information can be presented visually in a film instantly, thus allowing the film to be more compact than the novel. But again there is that issue of nuance; sometimes, directing the audience’s view to some tiny particular detail may be more difficult to manage in a film without being clumsy than it is when describing the scene in words. And if we were to consider a stage play version of the same material, it would be different yet, emphasizing certain things, diminishing others.

And the book does have the advantage of being able to be longer, not being meant to be taken in at a single sitting. For example, the audio version that I listened to is 15 hours and 28 minutes long; Coppola’s movie is 2 hours and 8 minutes. Just the idea of compressing hundreds of pages into such a short time frame is staggering. What is interesting about the film and novel in question is how closely the film follows the events in the novel, but is really telling a different story—no more or less interesting, just different.

And difference, I think, is the point. The book is not always better, but it is always different from the film, which is different from the stage play, which is different from the miniseries. What really matters is how well the medium fits the story being told. And each medium has its own impact, its own advantages and its own disadvantages, and we need to recognize that—particularly before selecting the medium for our next project.

As creators, we must select the correct medium to be the vehicle of our creation. Even though we could force the idea into a hostile medium, the best choice is to exploit the medium that the idea requires, even though that may not be our forte. The material selects the proper medium, and we must serve the material if we are to reach our full creative potential.

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