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Make Bold Choices

Sunday, 19. June 2022 21:56

In actor training we stress making choices, encouraging actors to make bold choices.  While it would seem that making choices is basic to creating anything, but this does not seem to be the case. Evidently making conscious choices during the creative process is not intuitive to everyone who takes up an art. To many beginning actors, this seems to be a foreign process; they make no choices at all, particularly not strong ones. This has led me to wonder whether the same is true for other arts and artists as well.

Most of us come to art because of a natural aptitude. It’s something we don’t think about very much; we just do it. We draw; we paint; we photograph; we act—all because it’s an easy thing for us to do. Then we get to the point where we are no longer progressing and we make a decision to continue as we are or to get some training to help us get better. Training comes in lots of formats: it may be formal classes, or it may be a self-directed course of study, or it may simply be a disorganized study of the work of masters. Still we may not be making conscious choices in our work, and, of course, making no choices is really making choices, probably weak ones.

But what about flow, some may be asking. Surely, in flow, we are working almost subconsciously. That is true, and I am, as most of you know, a great proponent of flow and a great believer in the contributions of the subconscious to the creative process. However, I have also observed the differences between actors who make decisively bold choices and those who do not—or even between work done by the same actor before and after making conscious choices. The difference is remarkable, and the work is always better after strong choices are made. This phenomenon is also observable in other arts, for example, making strong choices almost always means the difference between a good photograph and a mere snapshot. Drawings made with a conscious choice are invariably better than off-hand sketches.

It is as if the conscious choices that the artist makes serve as a foundation for the subconscious work and mixed-conscious work that follows during the process of creation.

But what about those projects that just seem to evolve? The idea appears out of the air and is then turned into preliminary notes which then develop into a full-blown project. How does this idea of conscious choices come into play with them? My suggestion would be that at some point in the process, if we want to make the project all it can be, that we stop and look at what we’ve done so far and make some conscious choices about where the project should be going. These will provide a strong foundation for the project, ensuring a strong finished project.

It may be that that making bold choices is already a part of our process that we don’t fully acknowledge, or perhaps we call that part of the process by another name. Regardless, it would be well to examine our process and verify that this happens early on in the creative journey. As in the case of the young actors noted above, our work will only benefit,

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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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The Art is Not the Artist

Sunday, 10. April 2022 23:32

Serendipitously, in the middle of a conversation about “terrible people” making good art, I received a text telling me that playwright director David Mamet was/is a supporter of Donald Trump. Evidently, Mamet had done an interview with Bill Maher, and his political leanings, of which I had known for some time, came as a surprise to many people. Clearly, one of these was the person texting me, who is an outspoken liberal, and who was using this discovery to put Mamet into the category of “terrible people,” or at the very least, “terribly misguided people.”

Of course, the judgement that anyone is a terrible anything is subjective. It depends first on the judge’s point of view. To some, a person’s political leanings make them terrible. For others, it’s their behavior. Equally subjective is the definition of what constitutes terrible beliefs or actions. Third is the assumption that the judge has the “correct” view of what is right and wrong, what is desirable and what is not. And fourth, of course, is another assumption: that the judge has all the information on the subject at hand.

Once we’ve gotten past the subjective areas of such judgement, the question of the proper response comes up. We all know that one of the most frequent responses is the knee-jerk response to “cancel” the individual in question. For example, in the case of Mamet, a number of commenters to the Tweet said that they could no longer watch his films or plays because of this new knowledge. Some even said that this knowledge changed the meaning of his work which was created long before his political views shifted to the right.

We incorporated this “new” information into our conversation and continued. We discussed instances where really excellent art was produced by people that most would consider “terrible.” The facts of the artist’s life did not really impact the art work itself. In fact, in most instances, the personal proclivities were not apparent in the work at all. The conclusion was that it is probably better to try to separate the art and the artist, and that while neither of us would condone nor excuse bad behavior, once the art was created, it was no longer part of the artist. Therefore, it should be evaluated on its own merits rather than as an appendage to the “terrible person” who created it.

Separating the art and the artist is, of course, easier to do with artists who produce physical artifacts: plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, film. In the case of actors and performers, the separation is much more difficult, since the artifact and the artist are inseparable. Additionally, there seems to be a difference between artists who integrate their bad behavior with the work process, and those whose objectionable conduct happens away from the creative process.

It also seems that society is much more likely to forgive transgressions if the artist involved is dead. Also it seems that the further removed in time society is from the artist and the transgression, the easier it is to overlook terrible behavior. It turns out that a number of revered past artists were terrible by many standards, and society, which is quick to cancel contemporary artists who exhibit bad behavior, simply looks the other way in hindsight.

This is not a simple issue. It must take into account the art, the artist, current society, as well as the observer/judge’s own beliefs and biases. There may be no right answer. I am convinced, however, that the art and the artist are not the same and that to judge one in terms of the other is to do both a great disservice. And even after we separate the art and the artist, we must respond to both; how we do that is up to each individual and depends on who we are and how we relate to both the artist and what they create.

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When Artistic Growth Stops

Sunday, 27. March 2022 22:55

One of the things that seldom comes up in discussions of art and creativity is the growth of the artist. And that’s a bit surprising given that growth is absolutely necessary for an artist, and a lack of growth may well end an art career.

There are a number of reasons that artists fail to grow. One may be that they simply run out of new ideas. Another is that they may find themselves repeating work they have already done. Yet another is that the conditions under which they work suppress growth. A fourth is that some event in the artist’s private life impacts the artistic side of their life in a negative manner. Certainly burnout is a cause of lack of growth. And, of course, there are other reasons, and combinations of reasons.

Then there is the problem of what actually constitutes “artistic growth.” A number of Internet articles discuss artistic growth, but what they are really discussing is the development of artistic skill in children, which is not useful in this context. And then there is the issue of different artists and theorists defining “artistic growth” in different ways. Bryan Mark Taylor says that growth comes from practicing rather than performing. Willa Cather says that artistic growth is a “refining of the sense of truthfulness.” I have often said that I never did a project from which I didn’t learn something, and thought for a long time that that was an indicator of artistic growth; I have since come to think of it as more than that, but I am convinced that learning is a component.

Lack of artistic growth can be very frustrating to artists. Some say it feels like writer’s block except that it continues over multiple projects. This frustration can be compounded by a growing lack of interest in the work as well as a growing lack of confidence. And that leads to a downward spiral for artists. So then the question becomes how to maintain artistic growth. One suggestion that I give to my students—for other reasons—is to find something in each project that piques your interest: some emotion to explore, some technique to resolve, some springboard for research. This often works for individual projects, but what about a larger problem that spans different projects?

Caleb Vaughn-Jones, writing for the blog, The Future Muse offers some suggestions in two posts: “Artistic Growth: The Journey to Artistic Fulfillment” and “3 Tips for Creating Original Music.”  There are other suggestions as well: Look for inspiration outside normal channels. Get involved in a workshop either physically or virtually. Talk with colleagues about what they are doing and what they are getting out of it; again, this can be physical or virtual. Read a book that you’ve put off reading. (I have not found creativity self-help books very useful, but you may.) Take a sabbatical. Pick a radically different kind of project. Try a project in a different venue. Do a project in a different medium. If you are working for a company or a school, consider another place of employment. And there are certainly other approaches. Some of these are extreme, but extreme measures may be called for, depending on how important the creation of art is to the particular artist; the alternative is to stagnate artistically.

The main thing is to break whatever patternw are causing the lack of growth. Since lack of artistic growth bridges multiple projects, there will be patterns, although it may take a bit of time to suss them out. Then if becomes a matter of picking the solution, or combination of solutions, that works best for the particular artist involved. Lack of artistic growth is not a simple problem and may not only take some time to acknowledge it, but require a variety of approaches for a solution.

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When You Don’t Like the Art You Make

Sunday, 13. March 2022 22:46

It happens. Sometimes we make art that we don’t really like. This happens for a number of reasons. The work was a consignment piece; we made the work because it was on the schedule; the work didn’t turn out the way we expected; the reasons go on and on. But it feels strange to have made something and realize that you really don’t like it.

So then what do you do? There are a number of choices: you can destroy the piece, if it’s physical. You can rework the piece if there is sufficient time. You can put the piece into the world, but take your name off of it. You can call it a failure (even if it’s not really) and learn from the experience. Or you can recognize that you cannot love everything you make, let it go, and move on to the next project.

This happened to me recently. I directed a show, a musical, and it turned out to be not one of my favorites. There were a couple of reasons: one was the structure of the play; it was more a concert with narrative inserts than a real play, and it was not a show that I would have voluntarily gone to see had someone else staged it—not to my taste. But it was on the schedule and so I directed it. And it was successful. The intended audience showed up and—judging from their reaction—thoroughly enjoyed the show. And through it all, I nodded, and smiled, and said “thank you” when people told me how good it was.

And it was a good show. We worked the script to capitalize on its strengths and minimize its shortcomings. The musical direction was excellent, as was the band. Choreography, though minimal, was exactly what was necessary. The performers were precisely what the script needed to bring it to life. It was simply not to my taste. A valuable lesson I learned long ago from a visiting professor of English literature was to be able to distinguish between art that was good and art that I simply didn’t like. I learned that my liking or not liking a piece of art had no bearing on whether the art was good. That is determined by standards outside of individual likes and dislikes. So despite it being not to my taste, I did the best job directing that I could do, and even came to like certain parts of the show.

Like all artists, I would like to love everything I produce; however, it doesn’t seem possible, particularly when there are so many considerations in determining what projects one works on. So I think that if we are artisans as well as artists, we do pretty much what I did, or tried to do: make the project the best we possibly can. Put it out into the world. Accept whatever the reaction happens to be. Move on to the next project. Maybe it will be one that we can love.

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The Sensitivity Police

Sunday, 27. February 2022 21:53

A while back I sent out a non-fiction book I was working on to readers to gather some feedback. Most of the feedback was extremely useful and supportive. One reader questioned some of my work on the grounds that if I were to publish the book as written, some of it would offend the target audience. Since the reviewer was a high school teacher of grades 11 and 12, I listened: the target audience was college freshmen and sophomores or at least people of that age. While some of her comments rankled, after some conversations I saw her point. She was “in the trenches” with the precise students who would become my audience, so her insights into their ways of thinking and responding were quite useful. I modified a number of sentences in the book based on her input. Some I left alone; to change them would have been to completely change who I am. Those parts that I changed certainly modified who I “am,” but did not significantly alter the content; more extreme changes would have completely altered the content and the voice of the author.

I did not mind making the alterations; the edits had purpose, and that purpose served to broaden the prospective readership; they were, to my mind, practical.

This is not necessarily the case with other authors’ experiences with readers, particularly “sensitivity readers.” For example, Kate Clanchy detailed her experience with sensitivity readers for her memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me in her essay “How sensitivity readers corrupt literature;” it was not a happy one:

They [sensitivity readers] have of course special areas of expertise — Islam, blackness, disability — but these emerge through inference, not announcement. Their scopes vary, too. One Reader fusspots around single words: I should not use “disfigure” of a landscape (infraction level 3, as presumably comparing bings — spoil heaps — to boils might be harmful to acne sufferers). Nor should I use “handicap” in its ordinary sense of “impede” (infraction level 2, serious); and I should prefer the acronym “SEN” to its origin phrase, special educational needs, because it is more inclusive (infraction level 2). Others have grander ambitions: paragraphs, sub-sections and even entire chapters should be revised. Still others focus on issues around the presentation of the book. One suggests the authors of endorsements containing the words “love” and “humanity” might want to “rethink their stance”. To add to the cacophony, the Readers contradict each other freely, even praising and disparaging the same passages.

Clanchy is not the only writer to have trouble with sensitivity readers. Consider the experience of Ryan Holiday or the findings of Zoe Dubno. While many writers consider sensitivity readers acceptable, perhaps even desirable, for children’s or young adult works, they find these same readers anathema for adult work.  Clanchy, for example, says that since her book was meant for an adult audience, “Adults are able to put books down if they upset them, so their books may safely contain difficult ideas. I don’t, for example, agree with my Readers that the references to looks, attraction and sexuality in my book should be removed in case readers are hurt by a metaphor as a child might plausibly be.”

This does not stop publishers from employing them. There is a great concern with “online outrage,” which can, if fact, affect the bottom line. And, from a publishing viewpoint, that’s what it’s all about. From an artistic viewpoint, it’s another thing entirely. Art, some say, is supposed to challenge and disturb. This applies not only to written art, but to painting, photography, sculpture, dance, and any other art you can name. Making art acceptable to everyone, will certainly broaden your audience, and should, theoretically, help your sales. But does it make your work better? Are those really sales that you want, or would you rather retain some vestige of your artistic integrity and identity?

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When Arts Intersects Politics

Sunday, 30. January 2022 21:29

Art and politics sometimes intersect, but usually those intersections are not highly publicized. The opposite was true this week with a great deal of publicity going to not one, but two incidents of intersecting art and politics. These instances are different, but both deserve examination.

One instance involves singer/songwriter Neil Young and the media platform Spotify. Young became aware of COVID-19 misinformation being spread by “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast, also carried on Spotify. Young essentially gave Spotify an ultimatum to remove Rogan’s podcast or lose Young’s music. Spotify chose to keep Rogan and began to remove Young’s music.

It was then that things began to happen: Joni Mitchell said that in solidarity with Young she would remove her music from Spotify. Mitchell was joined by rock musician Nils Lofgren while others voiced support. Not only are artists pulling their music from Spotify, but subscribers are cancelling subscriptions to the streaming service, even some who are using the free version, and, perhaps more significantly, Spotify stocks fell 12% during the week. At this writing, things are not looking great for Spotify.

The other incident involved Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer prize-winning Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. On January 10, the McMinn County, Tennessee, Board of Education removed Maus from an eighth-grade English language arts curriculum, citing concerns about “’rough, objectionable language’ and a drawing of a nude woman.” Spiegelman called the decision “myopic,” noting that he could believe that the word “damn” “would get the book jettisoned out of the school on its own. Regarding the nudity, he said the image in question was “tiny.” He went on to say, ”you have to really , like, want to get your sexual kicks by projecting on it.”

There was, of course, and immediate backlash, and not only in the local area, where a book giveaway is in progress, a church plans discussion on the book’s themes, and a professor plans to offer free classes. A comic-book store in Knoxville is giving away copies of the book to interested students. The story of the ban and the backlash went international.

Naturally, interest in Maus has shot up around the world. Many outlets sold out. Before this week neither Maus nor The Complete Maus, which includes a second volume was in the top 1,000 books on Amazon. By Friday Maus was No. 12 on Amazon and shipping in mid-February. By Sunday, it was a “#1 Bestseller” and shipping in late February to early March. So by “protecting” eighth-graders, the McMinn County Board of Education has almost guaranteed those students would read one of the free copies which suddenly became available, and has rekindled world-wide interest in a classic book about the Holocaust, which, in turn, will raise Holocaust awareness.

The final outcome in both of these instances is yet to be determined. Indeed, there may be no “final outcome.” But both incidents have already raised awareness that has both political and artistic implications. (I know that I have a sudden yen to revisit both Neil Young’s music and my copy of Maus.) Artists in both incidents have publically stated their opinions and have garnered significant public support. And that is enough to give one hope.

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A Time for Reflection

Sunday, 19. December 2021 20:08

The Winter Solstice is the occasion for a large number of holidays, many more than the summer solstice, and many having to do with the ideas of rebirth, of bringing back the light lost during the waning year, and new beginnings. Also scattered among these mid-winter celebrations is the idea of remembering the past, either our own, or of famous historical and mythological figures who sacrificed in some way, gave gifts, aided the poor, or events that are considered miraculous. There is a feeling of wrapping up the old year.

In fact, the second most important holiday in Japan is Omisoka, or New Year’s Eve, a time for concluding the old year by “house cleaning, repaying debts, purification, and bathing,” among other activities designed to prepare for the “crossing over from one year to the next.”

In Western society we find a number of people remembering Christmases or Hanukkahs or other mid-winter celebrations of the past, particularly of their childhoods, or holidays with friends or loved ones who have passed out of their lives. Unfortunately, such remembrances can lead to holiday depression in some. For example, I knew a woman who could never get through Christmas Day without crying; she never explained why, but I’m reasonably sure that it was not happy memories. But not all memories are sad, and they are what many people treasure about holiday time.

Whatever our belief systems or celebration preferences, this is a time of wrapping up the old and preparing for the new. Unless we live in a cave, it’s difficult to get through the season without experiencing some of this. My suggestion is to embrace this transition.

Since so much has been written on new beginnings and renewal and fresh starts and all of that, I would like to talk about the wrapping up part: reflecting on the year past. There is much to be learned from looking back at the past twelve months, particularly for creative people. This is a time when the days are short and the nights are long, and that, in itself, aids reflection on the past: there seems to be time to consider things, to look at our successes and failures and trials and difficulties and evaluate our responses to those situations. Such is not intended to make us dwell on any one aspect of the past year, but to look at the whole—from a slight remove, so that we can evaluate the year objectively—and objectivity is the key to this activity. We can begin to learn what worked, what didn’t work, what changes we might have made to better realize our projects. When we have done this, we will be better informed about our own strengths and weaknesses and better able to move forward into the new year, armed with new knowledge about our creative process.

And that, after all, is the goal of reflection, not to reminisce, not to beat ourselves up over failures or gloat over successes, but to consider, to analyze, so that we can move forward with improved creativity to make new and better work. As I write this, the Winter Solstice is just days away, and the New Year follows shortly; if you haven’t yet taken the time to reflect on your creative work of the past year, I would encourage you to do so. Your creative output will benefit.

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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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