Problem: You have no freaking idea what to write, to play, to paint. The canvas or page is an ocean of white nothingness, and it’s frightening, frankly.
So it’s time to change scale. Whatever surface—or time period, to relate it to music—you’ve got, put it aside and get something much smaller. An index card, Post-It Note, a single mono track. Use one tool, one color, one instrument. You can fill that space a lot easier than a big one, and break the starting barrier, the hardest part of creating.
Once you feel yourself starting to drop into the flow/zone/zen, you can generate an idea or three and move back to a larger space when you’re finished. Or before, if the spark is there.
There are limits that we should place on our own nostalgia. Referencing our past can be a powerful element of our current world view, and therefore, work. But indulge that natural desire too much and we lose the connection to the present that makes looking ahead effective.
And there’s nothing explicitly wrong about making one’s work an examination of nostalgia, but I think it’s limited, a narrower box. You need some spark of the future to kick the work above the memory exercise alone.
Returning to our own past tickles some powerful neurons. But I’ve noticed that I crave reliving the original experience, and that isn’t possible. I’m not the same person I was. I have more experience, more understanding. More life.
We need to move with life, not spend so much time in the past or future. Here is all we have.
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.
One thing about finding the passage back to the place I was before: it’s made me very tired.
Traveling is exhilarating, but it usually shreds your creative schedule. On the other hand, you’re feeding your mind, your heart, your soul with an overabundance of newness or—if you’re lucky—strangeness. The flood of sights sounds smells feelings ideas isn’t just intoxicating, it’s positively hangover-inducing. Once drunk on the new stuff, the return to home feels like the morning after.
It is worth it, though. Changing your point of view by completely changing your location has always been a fantastic source of new material, new blood, almost.
You awaken exhausted but renewed, disoriented but with a pack of vibrant memories. It all needs to be sorted through and labeled, but you can feel it: you’re changed, there’s more of you than there was before.
The smallest unit of a body of work in art is the show—a group of paintings often bound by a theme or similar style and execution. For film, it’s, well, a film. For music, it’s long been an album.
We sometimes get caught in the idea of an artist changing direction, thinking it’s the new path for them. And that’s as may be, but it isn’t necessarily a permanent change for someone. Sometimes, it’s just a set of ideas they want to explore for a while.
People like to put you in a box. “This is the bold new direction for artist Z!” But the true box might be a walled-off garden of delights you’ve put together this one time. You’re always free to look back to your past, or completely change again for the next thing you do.
Nothing exemplifies this for me more than Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space. Although hated by many fans and critics, who didn’t think the band who exclaimed “We Will Rock You” had any business incorporating disco and r&b influences into its music.
But Freddie Mercury, particularly, forged ahead, and the band made just that album. It was less important how successful they were than that they tried something different. And it was less important still that they indulged their whims than that they recognized it was a discrete time and body of work they were under no obligation to repeat or take direction from for the next thing.
Freddie said, during a show at Milton Keynes,
“That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock & roll feel, okay? I mean it’s only a bloody record! People get so excited about these things. We just want to try out a few new sounds.”
Follow your heart and mind. It doesn’t matter a damn what comes next. Do the thing you feel now.
Update on yesterday’s post waxing rhapsodic about the respect for public art here in Portland. It’s not a repudiation of that stance, but there are some rectifying observations I should make.
Art isn’t perfect. Writing, music, dance, the same. What we’re told, what we tell others, can and maybe should be subject to a kind of scientific method: if new information comes to light, the thing you said yesterday will be modified in its light.
And looking at the same thing from different perspectives can lead us closer to the truth. Whatever that is.
And so I noticed things aren’t pristine. But public art places itself in the world, exposed. It makes itself vulnerable. It’s open to change, from the elements, if nothing else. I’m left with more questions than answers.
Do the things we make and put into the world belong to us, or to everyone? The people who buy it—is it theirs to do with as they wish, or do they have an obligation as caretaker until whomever they sell it to takes over? If it’s sold as copies, does it belong to anyone at all?
If art is public, is it an object? Or is it a new piece of its environment?
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 reading some things about a sort of contemporary prescriptive thinker, who’s become a guru, in a way, for people who want to see the world as needing more structure and rules of tradition. I won’t link there, no. It’s not for me to say it’s objectively wrong, or bad, either. But it’s not the way I think I want to live, nor the way I want to help shape the world—at least my corner of it. I like the descriptive approach to society, and even to life.
I was thinking myself that making art is better served in a similar way by being always open to new or individual methods of discovery and structure. We need to overturn, question, eschew traditional ways of creation. We need, desperately, to avoid perfection.
In order to make something good, something different and true and compelling, I need to give myself the space to mess up. And then I need to mess up.
I have to flub. I need to blow it. I’ve got to fail, to crash and burn, to slip up, to be wrong, to ruin, to miss the mark,
I need to fuck up.
That’s the way you find not only new ways of making stuff, but totally new types of it, things no one has seen before, strange work that builds on the art of the past but at the same time is new.
Our mistakes lead to change and new paths. Not our perfected customs.
Not only did I have the wonderful surprise of waking up to a gloriously gray, wet, and green Portland morning, but the pictures hanging in the AirBnB we’re staying in make me want to sit down and make things with whoever did them. Are there kids here? Can we have a painting sesh?
You aren’t just creating for its own sake if you show your work. Somewhere. Everywhere would be nice, but I’ll be realistic for now. What I mean is your vision of the world, the universe, your soul, brings something new into being.
We are human in part because we make art, and all art is about being human in some way. I need your art as much as I need to make my own.
The million things that pull at our attention like a three-year-old at our pants leg are bad enough. But life itself can often be just as distracting.
And sometimes that’s necessary. The work we do isn’t always the most important thing, rarely the most urgent thing. Emergencies arise. Which makes it sound as if they begin to slowly appear, like sunrise or flowers. But in truth they’re usually huge and right in front of you like a delivery truck around a blind corner in the wrong lane.
You have to deal with emergencies. But you also have to deal with less harrowing urgencies, too. Deadlines at work, kids’ recitals, mom’s birthday, trips to the airport.