Robert Indiana died yesterday. His depiction of the word “love,” reproduced up there in sketch form, was both commercial and personal. Its cheesy, but sentimental. It’s a command, and also a concept.
To make something so iconic is a dream most of us have. But this thing, the Indiana Love piece, possessing so many contradictions and overtones and ideas, is just something you stumble upon and get lucky for having tripped.
Robert Indiana did a ton of other work, Google up his name and switch to viewing images for more. His was a great artistic arc.
No idea how I found it, but there was a long debate in The Comics Journal’s letters pages several years ago about what “craft” meant to comics creators and their work.
James Kochalka started with a column called, “Craft is [sic] the Enemy.” He holds to some unpopular opinions about not only what craft is, but why his definition of it is detrimental to creators.
I’m a bit in the middle on this concept. One one hand, I think artists should strive to take care with the materials of their work—whether physical or not—nearly the same way they care about the work. I think care in the presentation of work makes a difference, too, at the least conveying that if we care about that, we care about that, we likely care about the work itself. That’s part of craft.
It isn’t what things you make, that’s just medium or field. It does help you stand out if you care more for craft than others around you who don’t.
And yet, it isn’t the first consideration. If anyone thought there were gatekeepers to the arts worlds, they’re mistaken. Everyone can declare themselves in the game, and if you have something to say, I think you should start.
If you aren’t good enough, the only thing that will make it better is more work made and tenacity. But keeping work from the world until you reach some stage of objective readiness is depriving it and you of valuable feedback and growth.
I think we need to care for craft. But we don’t need to hesitate in starting.
I finished Mandagon yesterday. It’s a short game, supposedly an hour or so, but according to Steam, I played for six. I liked poking around its little universe. I’m not sure it adheres to its stated philosophy, that you “discover what it means to make a true sacrifice,” I mean, you can’t die and are represented by a sort of squared off totem head so the stakes don’t seem high. But it was an affecting world to immerse in for a while.
It occurs to me, I did sacrifice my time, which is—in an existential sense—all I really have. Life can easily be viewed as a series of choices made over how to spend our almost completely unknowable cosmic bank balance of time.
Some artworks are meant to be experienced as such singular universes. Nothing about them existed before, nothing will follow. Series seem to be the norm, currently. So much of the media we consume is either hopeful about getting a sequel or two, followed by a prequel, perhaps, or it’s a TV show and the series is built-in. Music is less like this, but even so, listeners and fans tend to view a band’s work as a continuum, not necessarily as just a set of influences and ideas isolated as a moment in time and alone.
Those works come with their own kind of magic. Worlds are built for one image, one collection of songs, one story, as one object, almost. There’s no resurrection, just one life to live. It’s a special kind of beauty, one easily overlooked in times of furious expansion.
I’m taking another retail gig. I was out of the last one for a couple months, and despite having an abundance of time to work on creative stuff, I didn’t end up doing much more than I was when I had my previous job. There’s something about the routine and structure of an occupation that supports doing your creative work around it.
Unpacking the word “occupation” a bit, its root is the Latin occupare, or “to seize, capture.” A job captures our attention, time, and energy while we do it. It’s funny left at that: your job seizes your life like an invading army captures a town—which is also why “occupy” can refer to military conquest. But there’s a potentially positive effect.
In her wonderful piece in the New York Times last month, Katy Waldman points out that celebrity artists who earn their living from their creative work are mostly a recent phenomenon. Even the superstars of the Renaissance got by largely on a few wealthy patrons’ commissions, not the free-flowing whims of their solitary musings.
[…] even the celebrity painters of the past half-century had to hustle at one point. As David Salle — who was financially insolvent at the time of his first show, held at the loft of a young dealer named Larry Gagosian in 1979 — admitted in a 2005 lecture, “It was common not to expect to be able to live from your art” in 1970s New York.
She further counters that having a day job can even be a boon to creation. Yes, many artists get jobs in related fields, like music production or session work, museum positions, or editing. However . . .
[…] there is another category of artists-with-jobs: people whose two professions play off each other in unexpected ways. For these creators, a trade isn’t just about paying the bills; it’s something that grounds them in reality. In 2017, a day job might perform the same replenishing ministries as sleep or a long run: relieving creative angst, restoring the artist to her body and to the texture of immediate experience. But this break is also fieldwork. For those who want to mine daily life for their art, a second job becomes an umbilical cord fastened to something vast and breathing. The alternate gig that lifts you out of your process also supplies fodder for when that process resumes. Lost time is regained as range and perspective, the artist acquiring yet one more mode of inhabiting the world.
And although it isn’t good to be too bored, if there’s just enough tedium or routine, your imagination creeps into the open cracks and begins to grow.
I just started watching Civilizations on PBS, and it’s already a marvelous wonder. In the very first minutes, the horrifying story of Khaled al-Asaad‘s murder by ISIS members for refusing to divulge the hidden whereabouts of the art he spent much of his life caring for is starkly told. But the big picture is that of how important art is to our humanity.
A lot of us spend our days talking about art—I doubt very much if very many of us are prepared to lay down our life for it. For Khaled al-Asaad, the stones and statues and columns of Palmyra were more than simply an ensemble of antiquity, they were the expression of what the creative imagination could do to make a city home.
— Simon Schama
A bit later, there’s this, about the earliest sparks of artistic impulse—at least, the ones left behind and found, so far—that speak to the definitive nature of art’s place in making us what we are.
Other kinds of animals make tools. Other kinds of animals may have some kind of language. We know that other animals have extremely complex social organizations. But what about art? I think we can see art as being maybe one of the only ways that we can imagine humans to be distinctively different.
Road trip redux! This time it’s to scout neighborhoods for a move to the Pacific Northwest. Plenty of birdsong abounds.
One of the coolest things about being here in Portland is seeing how much they value their public art. It’s full of the same lively whimsy that abounds in the rest of the city, and right now—with spring regularly misting the streets with rain—trees and grass are greening up in contrast to the manufactured environment.
The newest addition to the rail lines brought public poetry to the transit system, which is a rare thing, indeed. It’s a series of one line poems solicited of the citizenry and selected by blind jury.
Right next to the poem above is a sculpture made of rails, bent into shapes reminiscent of a transit map. It’s completely exposed, yet bears no scratches, scuffs, or marks to mar the beautifully textured rust of its surface. Such a thing denotes respect for art, and I’m touched that thousands of people passing by care for their public work in this way.
Public art is ours. Not to do with as we individually wish, but to appreciate, support, and tend for future versions of us. In the best of circumstances, it inspires and uplifts and becomes part of who we are.
I was always a fan of the Friday 5 meme, so here’s a past-blast redux, why not.
1) Austin Kleon gave a wonderful talk at the Bond conference last week, on maintaining your creative momentum and such.
2) Since the beginning of hockey season, I’ve been trying to be less a fan of any particular team and enjoy the game and the players I admire more. Still, there’s beauty in the way fandom wears its collective heart on its sleeve, and if you’re outside it you don’t feel the same impact. And since my former fanning was done in support of the Vancouver Canucks, I couldn’t help but be caught up in the last home game the fabled Sedin twins will ever play. Not only was it touching to see such affection pouring from the fans and other players (on both teams), it was also a thrilling nail-biter of a finish in overtime. It embodied the best of what pro sports can offer.
The most valuable thing about an MFA—master of fine arts, just in case you’re reading this as a non-initiate/academic know-it-all—for most grads isn’t the time spent feverishly creating a cohesive body of work that is the culmination of your knowledge and insight and skill so far. It’s the network of fellow artists and future curators around you while you do it. That may be worth a few tens of thousands if you’re a genius and getting recognized for it. But for the rest of us, feeling like most trips to the canvas, computer, pad, or instrument is a baffling slog where even you don’t understand what it all means and where it’s going, it’s about the connections.
We need each other. But it isn’t just the social imperative, we help each other accomplish things in the world, sometimes without even meaning to. Most of the jobs I’ve fallen into over the years have been through knowing someone who already works there, or is close to someone else who does. Your work gets seen or heard more often because you’ve made connections with someone who has a space to show or who knows you and what you do. It’s important and fruitful to cultivate your friendships and contacts like a garden. (Resisting the urge here to write some piffle about weeding—let’s focus on the affirmative.)
Go for the scholarships, if you’re into the school schema. I certainly am by nature. But it isn’t the only path, and the lessons we can learn from what surrounds the art school paradigm can apply to us whether we get into Yale or not.
Meet enough people and show them what you do and something bigger will happen. It’s like a math postulate. Never mind that sometimes the thing is small. There’s still an element of luck in the universe, no denying. It’s just that it’s a lot easier to roll the dice when you’re at the table with some fellow gamers who’ve brought bags of them.
There’s a longtime meme circulating in the business world, to the effect that one should fail fast, because we grow and learn more from failure than from success. At least, from early failure, or in many cases, testing raw ideas and methods. In creative circles, this has been labeled “fail faster.” It means we shouldn’t try to make things perfect up front, we should try out ideas and concepts to see what will best fit. The quicker we weed through our early failures, the more likely it is we’ll find the best elements of the thing we’re working on and succeed with the final version.
If the idea seems at first counterintuitive, there’s some other research suggesting why. Researchers published a paper last December that links social anxiety with a preoccupation of making mistakes. If further research holds this up, we have insight into the fear. Some of us don’t want to interact with each other because we’re afraid we’ll do or say the wrong thing.
But in art, there isn’t much that’s “the wrong thing.” You need to be better at trying new things, different things, crazy things than you were the day before. It’s openness to experimentation that knocks work into a new realm, a higher level. Make mistakes. Make them faster.
And if you fail, so what? That thing needed failing. It means you’ve got a clearer path to the work that will, well, work.
The common refrain I hear in response to the question, “what kind of music do you listen to?” is “oh, everything.” I think that may be us not wanting to be put in a box. “Mostly stuff I liked when I was in my late teens and early twenties” is more accurate, in my experience, but that’s not to denigrate people who like the things they like.
While I wish everybody lusted for new and more music the way I do, there’s a danger as well. Or, to not be so dramatic, a downside. Especially these days, music is a cornucopia of bands and releases. There’s so much more to listen to than one person could possibly consume, even once, and it’s very easy to get into a habit of racing through playlists and album streams without really paying attention to them, just having stuff on in order to get through the ever-growing lists. It feels like I’m cheapening music, sometimes, indulging my inborn collector lust, the part of humanity’s acquisition drive that gamification and social media feeds trigger and reward so shrewdly.
But deep listening to the same piece has the opposite effect. In a way, it’s a form of singletasking. The tenth or twelfth time through Ethan Gruska’s wonderful Slowmotionary, for example, or the hundredth time through Hounds of Love and lo and behold, I hear something I’ve never heard on the album before. In a way, it’s new again, I’m startled out of my assumptions. It can happen with art, too. Spend several sessions over a few weeks going back to a museum and just looking at one painting. A Rothko, or a Klee, or a Walker, or a Gueorguieva. Things are revealed to you, colors you didn’t notice, symbols overlooked, a compositional element that ties one side to the other, even references to other works.
Deep dives, if we consciously make them, are keys to insight.