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How Do You Measure Success?

Sunday, 25. April 2021 23:58

Sometimes when I tell people that I teach theatre, they will ask, “Have you taught anybody famous?” as though that were the ultimate measure of success for a theatre professor. I suppose the same gauge could be used for any field, but I suspect that it is used more for the arts, specifically the performing arts. Given that criterion for success, I would imagine that there are a number of quite successful arts instructors out there who would suddenly be labeled “unsuccessful.” Success in teaching in the arts is not measured by famous ex-students; that’s a marketing technique used by for-profit arts schools.

But that question raises other questions, the chief one of which is: how do we measure success in the arts?

If you are a producer is it a whole run of full houses? A run of three-quarter full houses? Breaking even financially? Making a profit? Winning an award? Making the audience laugh or cry? Bringing attention to a political or humanitarian situation? If you are a director, do you measure your success the same way a producer does or is there another way? And if you are an actor, is it the same measure? Or is it the response of an audience?

If you are a painter or a photographer, is success getting into this or that show? Is it winning an award? Is it having x number of collectors? Is it having individual pieces of your work featured on the cover of magazines? Is it having your work accessioned by this or that museum? Is it bringing in y number of dollars with your work? Is it making work that moves people? Is it making work that records world events or that comments on them?

If you are a writer, does success come with publishing your first book? Does it come with publishing your 50th book? Does it come with writing a “best-seller?”  Does it come with being published in this or that journal? Does it come with begin reviewed by the New York Times? Does it come with winning an award? Does it come with acquiring a specific number of readers? Does it come with being able to support yourself with your writing?

If you are a musician, is success measured by being able to play or sing a certain piece of music? Is it making and distributing recordings of your work? Is it making money from your work? Is it public recognition of your work? Is it performing before huge audiences? Is it getting a gold or platinum record? Is it being able to play multiple instruments? Is it winning an award for your work?

Other artists have similar problems in determining what makes for success. The quick and easy answer is that if we can make a living doing our art, we are successful. The difficulty is that we all know artists who do that who do not consider themselves successful because they have not created their masterpiece or accomplished this or that goal. At the same time we all know artists who do consider themselves quite successful even though they have to have a day job to survive financially. Then there are the artists who don’t trouble themselves with the question of success at all; they just keep making art. The obvious conclusion is that—at least in the arts—we all measure success differently. It turns out that it is a very personal thing that is tied to our artistic goals. And it’s likely to be different for each individual.

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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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It’s the Making that Matters

Sunday, 14. March 2021 21:58

In his book Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad, Austin Kleon describes his two-year-old son’s approach to drawing as a model for the artist because it displayed “a kind of lightness and detachment” from results: “he cared not one bit about the actual finished drawing (the noun)—all his energy was focused on drawing (the verb). When he’d made the drawing, I could erase it, toss it in the recycling bin, or hang it on the wall. He really didn’t care.”

A similar approach is exemplified in an episode of the Amazon Prime television series I Love Dick. Dick is an enigmatic icon-cowboy-sculptor who sponsors fellowships for artists and scholars in Marfa, Texas. In this particular episode, an intoxicated Dick discovers that his brick sculpture has been broken into three pieces. Instead of exploding with anger the way Paula the curator did, he instead takes a moment, considers, and arranges the three pieces into a new configuration. Smiling with satisfaction, he looks at his new creation and then changes the date on the label. (Dick does not name his pieces.)

In both cases it’s the making that matters. In the section cited above, Kleon goes on to say that “art and the artist both suffer most when the artist gets too heavy, too focused on results.” He continues with example of Kurt Vonnegut who advocated making art and then destroying it in order to keep the artist’s approach to the work light and detached. Then, of course, there is the story of the art professor who, in every beginning ceramics class, would have students destroy their first finished pieces to drive home the point that it was not the product that mattered.

Both film and stage directors will sometimes spend months shaping and molding performances to create the best work that they can, but then, instead of dwelling on the finished product, they move on to the next project. Indeed, the only time directors revisit already-done work is when they want to better what they’ve already done. One example of this phenomenon is Francis Ford Coppola and his revisions of The Godfather, Part III, Apocalypse Now, and The Cotton Club. Again, it’s the making that matters.

In the most extreme case, some artists want some, if not all, of their work destroyed. This includes Franz Kafka, John Baldessari, Claude Monet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Aubrey Beardsley, and Francis Bacon. In these cases, nothing but the making mattered; the product mattered not at all.

Certainly, I am not suggesting that we take things to the extreme. What I am suggesting is that we move our focus from the product to the making of any project that we might be attempting. By doing so, we can maintain a healthy detachment from the results and concentrate on those things that are necessary to craft that project.

Concentrating on the making rather than the result changes the way that we think about the project. It frees us to really dig in and focus on the details of the project; it allows us to exploit the full extent of our creativity rather than just focusing on the outcome. It allows us to lose ourselves in the project and do our best work. It’s the making that matters.

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Hang on to your Dream

Sunday, 28. February 2021 21:08

We all start out with dreams. Some are grand; others more humble. But we all have them. We want to accomplish; we want to become famous; we want to live a certain lifestyle; we want to do this or that with our lives; we want to discover things; we want to be recognized; we want to publish. Then, as we go through life our dreams change due to circumstances or choices that we make. Sometimes they are worn away completely. Some people call that “growing up.” Others say it’s “just being practical.” Still others say it’s “coming to terms with reality.”

Whatever we call it, it’s not a good place to be. We, as humans need something to look forward to, to aim for. The “First Lady of American Cinema,” Lillian Gish has said that “a happy life is one spent in learning, earning, and yearning.”  We need that yearning for the dream, the goal, in order to keep going. Consider the writers who have received rejection after rejection, only to have those books finally published and become best-sellers.

And our dream really doesn’t have to be “practical.” How practical is it to endure over a hundred rejections of a book and still keep trying? It probably isn’t, but a number of authors have done that. Dreams may not even have to be realistic. But they do need to be. We are pretty well lost without something to aim for, something to hope for. The absence of dreams causes some people to become depressed and despondent, and often they don’t realize that having voluntarily or involuntarily given up their dreams is the cause.

But what if you do realize that that has happened, that your dreams have disappeared. If they have disappeared because you have achieved them, rejoice! If there is some other reason they are no longer guiding you forward, you might want to discover what happened. In either case, you will probably want to think about what else you might want. Even though you might have achieved your initial dream, you may find that life without something to strive for is a bit empty. And it doesn’t have to be something grandiose. It could be something quite simple. What is important is that it is something that you do not have and would like to. On the other hand, dreaming big should not be frowned upon; grand dreams can lead to grand accomplishments.

And what if it’s impractical or unrealistic? So what? It certainly doesn’t’ need to be either of those things to be functional in the sense of giving you direction and meaning and stimulating your creativity. No matter how far out of reach a dream seems to be, it can be motivating and inspiring. And that’s what most of us need to keep going—something to aim for.

So if you’ve lost your dream, look around for something that you might turn into a new one. If you still have your dream, hang on to it!

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If You Build It . . .

Sunday, 31. January 2021 23:35

. . . they may or may not come. The fact is that art does not sell itself. No matter how good our art might be, no matter what our art is, there is no guarantee that it will be appreciated or purchased. There are, of course, artists who become famous after their deaths; Vincent van Gogh and Emily Dickenson jump to mind immediately. But what of those artists who may have been equally talented but were not “discovered” after their deaths? What of their art? It’s gone, lost to us—forever.

Many of us did not enter the world of art to become famous; rather, we got into art because we were compelled by something inside. Still, if we do good work, it would be nice to at least have our work acknowledged. But that is something that does not happen naturally. Oh, family and friends might appreciate out work, but most of us would like to have our work known in a bit wider world. “Oh, that’s just ego talking,” some might say. In some cases that might be true, but in others, it’s about the work, about sharing our work with the world.

There are many artists who would like to share their work with the world, but they don’t know how or don’t want to take the time away from the work to figure out what “sharing” really means to them. Does it simply mean getting the work out into the world? Or does it mean getting the work out into the world and being paid for it? This is not a new phenomenon; it took James Joyce literally years to get Ulysses published.

And it’s something that is not taught in most schools. We can take classes in writing, sculpture, painting, photography, dance, directing, or whatever art we might want to, but nowhere in the curriculum is there training in getting published, or collected, or known. That is left up to each individual artist. And it’s something every individual artist must deal with, even those who are reclusive or eschew sales and promotion.

“Well, there’s always the internet,” some would say, and yes that is a way to get our work out. We can snag a YouTube Channel or put our work onto any of the myriad of platforms offered by the internet. The problem is that we are then just one of the thousands of others vying for the attention of the public. For the writers (and maybe photographers and other visual artists) there is always blogging or self-publishing, and there have been successes in that area, but again, we find ourselves competing with hundreds of others.

So, we not only need to get our work out there, but we need to find a way to get people to look out that work. We have to connect with our potential audience. We need to promote—our work, our selves. And even if it takes time away from creating, it is absolutely necessary. And even though it does not represent who we are, it is absolutely necessary. And no matter how much we don’t want to do it, it is absolutely necessary—if we want an audience.

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New Project, New Beginning

Sunday, 17. January 2021 21:08

Let’s face it, routine can be very comforting, and I have gone on record as being in favor of routines. Many artists praise routines, citing the regularity inherent in a routine as a way to ensure that the work gets done. And I am still of that mind; establishing a daily routine is a sure way to maintain artistic output.

But routine can be more than working at our art at certain times of day. It can also include an approach to the work that we do the same way every time. We develop a way of working and then apply it to all projects as they come along. For example, all of our writing projects might develop along the following pattern: idea, preliminary research, outline, more research, write from beginning to end, edit, proof, publish. And that may work for us—every time. However, it might make all of our writing more or less the same. Some would say that is a good thing, because it leads to stylistic consistency. And that may be true, but it seems to me that once a writer, or photographer or director or actor or composer or choreographer or painter or sculptor has found their voice, that style is going to come through regardless of the artist’s approach to various projects.

A worst case scenario is that by approaching each project the same way, we allow our creativity to take second place to convenience: we know how to do it this way so why consider any other approach? So routine can take us to places that are less than desirable.

How to avoid this problem? First recognize that every new project is just that: a new project which invites at least the consideration of a new methodology. Perhaps if the first step in beginning a new project was looking at the project to determine what approach would work best, we might find what really determined the methodology for each project was the project itself. This would allow us to break out of the “do it the same way” mold and bring the full force of our creativity to the project. The result might be better, more interesting projects.

And that’s one of the wonderful thing about projects: they are all at least a little different, and they all are self-contained, even when they might be related. So taking the time to evaluate the approach for each project might open us to possibilities we would never have imagined if we had stayed in our one-method-fits-all approach.

A couple of artists I know work this way. One is a photographer who says, “Every shoot is the same in that you have to have the equipment ready, but beyond that every shoot is different. The models are different and you’re looking for a different outcome, so you have to approach each shoot differently.” A writer says, “I look at each project differently. Sometimes I write from the beginning to the end; other times I write the core of the piece first, then fill in the rest. The material dictates the approach.”

It’s an approach we might consider adopting: since every project is unique, make the approach to that project unique as well. Every new project can be a new beginning—directed by our creativity.

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Make Your Work Known

Sunday, 3. January 2021 23:11

Some artists are notoriously introverted and reclusive. Emily Dickenson, Vivian Maier, and J.D. Salinger immediately come to mind. These were artists who were concerned almost exclusively with creating rather than selling their work. A number of us follow in their footsteps, so many, in fact, that Austin Kleon felt compelled to write a book called Show Your Work, which he says is a “guide to getting discovered.”

The reasons for our reticence to get our work out there are many. Some of us are simply introverted. Many of us are insecure. A number of us don’t want to take the time or learn the skills required to sell our work. Some of us don’t want to take the time away from away from the process of making work to show our work. Another group of us has entered shows and contests, even won awards, developed web sites, and found that those activities did not materially enlarge our audience—at least in a way that we could see, so we pulled back. A few of us simply lack ambition. There are hundreds of other reasons, but these are the ones that seem to predominate.

So we do our work in isolation, subsisting solely on the rewards of creativity, eschewing discovery. Still, many of us harbor a small wish to be, if not famous, at least to be known to a group outside our family and friends. We would like for our work to be recognized.

And perhaps that’s the key; perhaps that’s a way to get past our own introversion and insecurity: to think of it as not promoting ourselves, but promoting the work. Perhaps if we focus on our work instead of ourselves it will be easier to find the time and the wherewithal to put it out into the world. After all, we know that work has value; we spent hours, days, weeks making, refining, and polishing it. What we don’t know is whether the work has value for other people. And the only way we are ever going to find that out is by putting it out into the world.

And yes, that will take some time, and some effort, but it may well be worth it. We may find that there exists a group of people who appreciate what is that we do, a group of people who are interested not only in what we do but how we do it. And once we find that group, we may be able to figure out how to grow it. And we may find that some in that group are interested in not just seeing but owning some of our work.

And although it will take that time and effort, our work will become known. And we can stay personally introverted if we like because it will be about the work and not about ourselves. Except now there is a larger audience for the work. The only questions that remain are when and where to start. When is easy: now. Where is a more difficult question, given that there is a myriad of venues. One place we might start is with one of those advice books, like Show Your Work. We just need to remember that what we read are suggestions, not rules. We can take what is comfortable and useful and leave the rest. After all, it’s our work that we are showing and we should do it our way.

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Effortless

Sunday, 20. December 2020 21:17

In the 5th edition of American Cinema/American Culture John Belton says that American cinema is essentially a narrative machine that uses “high artifice” to produce work the style and structure of which are “largely invisible.” That invisible machinery delivers narratives “effortlessly and efficiently.” In other words, there is lots and lots of machinery working behind the curtain, but the curtain is never lifted.

Since American film has been remarkably successful from its beginnings to the present, both as popular entertainment and high art, there may be lessons to be learned here. The first is, of course, that to make art good requires high artifice. That is, there needs to be structure, and that structure will contain the expertise and the style of the artist and the time. This suggests that behind the novel there does need to be an outline, at least as a starting point; behind the painting and the photograph there needs to be principles of composition and color; really good music has to be backed by solid music theory. As artists we must know what we are doing and employ the very best practices we can bring to the computer, the easel, the drawing board, the photo session.

The second lesson is that that artifice that we employ should be invisible. The audience should never be aware of the structure of the play or novel, the principles of composition, the theory employed to develop the work of art. We should never allow the audience to be aware of the hours and hours of planning and practicing, of trial and error that went into mixing that particular shade of blue, getting that exact characterization right, finding exactly the right words for the third line of the poem, developing the ending for the essay, the short story, the novel.

Rather, the audience should see a work of art that looks completely effortless, a piece of work that stands alone and communicates its story or meditation or vision in a way that makes the audience completely unaware of the work that went into it. Michelangelo certainly did not want those looking at the Sistine Chapel thinking about him standing on a scaffold to do the painting. While Stephen King sometimes talks about writing, he certainly does not want you thinking about his working methods while reading his latest novel. Anne Brigman did not want her audience to wonder about the darkroom manipulations she used in order to produce the images she made. Martin Scorsese does want the audience to be thinking about the technical aspects of lighting and editing while they are watching his films. All these artists want us to be focused on the content they are presenting, not their methodology.

And this same attitude should be a goal for our own art. No matter how much time, work, and planning we put into the work, what we finally present to our audience should appear completely effortless. We might want to talk about the planning, time, and effort that went into a creation—during the marketing of that work, or perhaps when we are teaching or studying a work. But when showing our work, all of that needs to remain completely invisible to the normal audience member; we need to make it look effortless.

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Recut, Revise, Rearrange

Sunday, 6. December 2020 23:29

In case you missed it, Francis Ford Coppola has recut The GodFather, Part III, renamed it Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, and, after a very limited theatrical run, will release it digitally this week. Coppola said of the revision, “For this version of the finale, I created a new beginning and ending, and rearranged some scenes, shots, and music cues. With these changes and the restored footage and sound, to me, it is a more appropriate conclusion to ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather: Part II’ and I’m thankful to Jim Gianopulos and Paramount for allowing me to revisit it.” Diane Keaton, costar in all three original Godfather films said, “It was one of the best moments of my life to watch it. To me it was a dream come true. I saw the movie in a completely different light. When I saw it way back, it was like ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ It didn’t seem to do that well and the reviews weren’t great. But Francis restructured the beginning and the end and man, I’m telling you it worked.”

This is not the first time Coppola has recut his movies. He has also recut The Cotton Club and made multiple cuts of Apocalypse Now. It’s what happens when an art work is not quite what the artist wants it to be and has the opportunity to revisit their work. As Coppola said of his new cut of The Godfather, Part III, “It was like pulling on the thread of a sweater that annoyed you, and you end up re-knitting the whole sweater.” Coppola is not the only director to recut films; Sir Ridley Scott released five versions on Blade Runner, in addition to the two preview versions which were shown only in 1982.

And these are not the only artists who feel the need to revise. Many artists are dissatisfied with their work, but call it “finished” in order to meet a deadline or fulfill a contract or simply to move on to the next project. There are many reasons for this dissatisfaction, some of which are covered in a post from a few years ago, but there may be few opportunities to revise older work. Coppola seems to think that that has to do with how much clout one has and one’s age. That may well be. One thing that is certain is that as one’s perspective changes, one’s opinion of one’s work also changes.

And that often happens with time: sometimes that can be years; other times it may mean just a week or so.  Time allows the artist to “step away” from the work and look at it with “different eyes.” Successful parts which could be bettered become apparent. Areas which are less successful become obvious. Errors and flaws jump out.

The next step is admitting that, though what one made is good, it could be made better. Then the challenge is having the courage and wherewithal to actually modify the original.  In one respect Coppola is lucky, not only in that he had both, but in that he works in a medium that allows itself to be rearranged and edited, and if one has access to all the negatives, added to. Others, who work in ephemeral arts, such as live theatre or dance do not have this advantage and either have to mount a whole new production or let the notion of revision pass.

The point of all this? We as artists should not be afraid to follow Coppola’s example. We should not be hesitant to revise that which we can revise when we can. It keeps the work alive, at least according to Picasso, who suggests that art works are never done: “To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.” It allows us to make our work better.

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No Small Parts

Monday, 23. November 2020 0:13

Constantine Stanislavski famously said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” And while most directors and acting coaches firmly believe that, most actors, of course, do not. That’s primarily because actors look at the size of the role from an ego perspective; they are counting lines or stage/screen time. Directors, on the other hand, look at the role from a functional point of view, and understand that every role in a well-written show is absolutely necessary, and each contributes to the telling of the story.

Recently I was reminded of this truth when I was watching the second season of the science-fiction series, Counterpoint. One of the lead characters was in a serious predicament and there seemed to be no way out. Suddenly, his secretary, Milla, appeared, provided him with a solution to his problem—that she was the mole everyone was searching for and how he was to handle the situation and then obligingly killed herself with his gun. She, of course, was not the mole, but the problem was solved. Given that this was almost a Deus ex machina, one might question the writing. But the character, played flawlessly by Mirela Burke, was well established; she had appeared in five episodes, often bringing a message or tea or some other secretarial duty. And in the universe of Counterpoint, there is a sleeper agent behind every street sign, just waiting to be activated, so her suddenly becoming an active agent was not all that surprising.

What was significant was that this character, whom most would consider a very minor supporting character, managed in four lines (10 sentences) to turn the plot in a completely different direction and save the character we were worried about. The whole thing took precisely 49 seconds, and she managed to solve the mystery of a missing recording as well. It was amazing. The acting was good. The whole thing worked beautifully.

It served as a reminder of how important the things that most people consider small can be. As in this example, the whole plot pivoted on what most people would consider a “small part.” In most cases, the import of the “small part” does not jump to the fore as it does in this instance, but these roles are important nevertheless. Someone has to serve the wine. Someone must announce the visiting royalty. Someone must give Romeo the poison. Someone has to fall through the ice so George Bailey can save him. The list is endless. Small parts are not just important; they are necessary.

It is the same in many arts. The brush strokes in the clouds on a plein air painting fall into this category; as does the cat in the corner of the photograph; as does that scrap of blue at the right side of the collage; as does the mole on the chin of the witch’s makeup; as does the flourish at the end of the dance routine. How many characters there are in the chorus of a musical matters, as does every detail in the costume of those chorus members. And, just as in the case of the “small part,” small details, those tiny parts of all of the art we create, are not just important; they are essential.

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