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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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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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The Importance of Structure

Sunday, 6. June 2021 23:10

Another blogger I know was recently having trouble with a post. The problem it seemed was that he could not get the material arranged so that it would make sense to his audience. He told me that he had tried four or five different approaches to the material, and nothing seemed to work. When I asked him how he was structuring his material, he said, “I just write it. I don’t worry about structure.” There, I thought, was his problem.

Often when art does not “work,” the reason is lack of structure. Structure, of course, is “the arrangement and relationship of the parts.” Structure comforts the audience and lets them know that the piece is organized, and they can understand it because the piece has a form which will lead them through the work, regardless of how complex it might be. Without structure our ideas, no matter how good, can be understood only with great difficulty.

Structure does not just happen; it has to be created along with the work of art. How a creator achieves structure depends on the type of work involved. Structure for narrative arts is usually found in the plot and/or character; those are the things that hold the whole together. Plot provides a support to undergird the whole, whether that is a short story or a novel.

In some rare cases what holds a narrative together is simply an idea or theme; works that rely only on theme often have a far more tenuous structure than those relying on plot or character. They may be far more difficult for an audience to follow. Still, any structure is better than no structure.

There are also non-narrative pieces such as essays or non-fiction. These also require some sort of structure. Often we find that the author will approach the material in a narrative form, presenting a story. There are, of course, forms of argument and logic which can be used to structure a non-narrative piece and can provide a very solid structure for the presentation of ideas.

All that can be said about written work can also be said about visual and plastic arts as well. Here, logic and argument do not apply. What does apply varies with the work. There is a theory that every piece of visual art should tell a story. In those cases, the sorts of structure used in narrative come into play, except far more subtly.

But what about those pieces of art that don’t tell a story or those called “meditations”? These non-narrative works, whether written, spoken, or visual offer thoughts on a subject or try to create a mood. Regardless, unless there is some underlying structure, something to hold everything together, then we are left only with disparate disconnected elements.  If the work is visual or plastic, often the structure can come from the principles of composition. These principles are not the only source of support, but they go a long way in providing cohesion.

But what If the meditations are in written form? Perhaps the idea can hold the piece together. But structure can also come from putting the meditation into a formal structure. For example, the author might put the meditation into a sonnet form and thereby provide the work with an external structural foundation. Or the author might frame the written piece using one of the forms of logic or argument so that the audience is guided from part to part and does not have to wander around among disconnected ideas.

No matter how grand or original or new our ideas might be, we must still provide a framework for our audience’s understanding. We must give them the structure to support our ideas, our images, our art. So, upon embarking on a new project, we would do well to first consider the structure that will support the work. If we develop solid underpinnings, our work will benefit.

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Collaboration with the Audience

Sunday, 23. May 2021 22:56

Neil Gaiman, in his book of essays and introductions, The View from the Cheap Seats, says that “no two readers will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author.” In another place, he discusses other aspects of this collaboration, noting that “you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.” He takes the idea further in citing an instance of someone remembering the excitement of a particular scene in a book, only to find, upon returning to the book, that the exciting part had been supplied by the reader. Gaiman goes on to say of the reader in a different circumstance: “then, perhaps, you will come back to it [a book] when you’re older, and you will find the book has changed because you have changed as well, and the book is wiser, or more foolish, because you are wiser or more foolish than you were as a child.”

This is not a new idea; it is one of the fundamental tenets of post-modernism. Gaiman, however, develops the concept further than most, boiling it down to the notion that each reader “builds the book in collaboration with the author,” and is likely to build a different book each time that reader comes to the book, even though the text remains the same.

You may have experienced Gaiman’s ideas yourself, finding that a book or poem or play that you had experienced was not the same as you remembered it. Or you may have had the experience of discussing a painting or performance with someone and wondering if they really had seen the same thing you did, so different were their impressions.

This notion of collaboration gives considerable power to the reader. The trick for the author is, of course, to create a narrative that will engage the imagination of the reader regardless of what the reader brings to the book.

The same is true for other arts as well. Whatever the art, audience members bring their preconceptions, feelings, and imagination to the interaction with the art work and thus build the meaning and impact of the work in collaboration with the artist. And sometimes, like the children Gaiman noted above, imbue the work “with magic that not even the author knew was there.”

If that is the case, how does the artist then create for her audience? She can make some assumptions about what response her work is likely to get, depending on what sorts of responses she has gotten previously. That, however, is no guarantee. She can, of course, manipulate her materials so that she has a fair idea of what reaction the work is likely to get. The fact of the matter is that she has no idea what the audience members are likely to bring to the collaboration.

So what we as artists to do? Exactly what our hypothetical artist above finally does: manipulate the materials so that we have a fair idea of the reaction the work is likely to get, and then put it out into the world without further expectations. The audience will bring what they bring, and while all the collaborations will be unique, there is likely to be enough similarity that we can judge our “success” or lack thereof. And if our audience finds things in our work that we didn’t know were there, so be it.

Perhaps the best that we can do is create work that simply satisfies ourselves, release it into the world, and then see what our audience makes of it.

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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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