Rather simple, if you want it to be. Want to know how to decide if a thing is art? One metric is the above: is it new in the world?
Crosswalks and dividing lane markers are painted lines, but rarely, if ever, artful. But my selection of a few of them and how and when I frame them can suddenly be.
Exact copies are less art the more exacting they are. Drawings and paintings copying other drawings and paintings are often much more so, in the changes in line and pressure, in the details left out (deliberately or otherwise).
Music is similar. Is hip-hop, when it builds itself out of other music in chunks art? Of course it is. It’s collage. It’s definitely new.
This is a broad definition, but I think we could do with a bit more of that. More generosity is a good thing.
I think it’s safe to say we wouldn’t be making art if we didn’t love it. Maybe there’s some tortured genius out there who’s just ambivalent about art in general, but keeps making it because she’s really good at it. But probably not.
It doesn’t follow that because we’re fascinated and enamored by a few or thousands of artists that we appreciate our own. Artists as their own worst critic is more true than not, in my experience, and that can easily extend to bald hatred of their own work.
I’m here to ask you to go easy on yourself. Making art—creating at all, really—is hard. Our visions of what could be don’t match what comes out in the physical world. But there’s tremendous value in giving of yourself so deeply. Pulling the viscera of your inner being out into daylight is brave and revealing. You deserve gentle adulation just for that.
It’s a perennial trope that working hard is the only way to get ahead, or be successful—whatever that means in a hundred variations. But some people work hard for a little while and not after, yet still maintain a success rate. Some just get lucky. Some keep working hard no matter how successful they get.
If we never get lucky (enough), what then?
I think it’s important—or rather, it’s meaningful to keep working. But how hard you work is relative. I think what matters most is that you do it. You can always adjust the effort to suit. Because how can you adjust nothing, or get cosmic dice rolling on an empty set?
Work some. We can discuss how hard that needs to be.
Let there be light
Let there be moon
Let there be stars and let there be you
Let there be monsters, let there be pain
Let us begin to live again
The video is a bit distracting, but I find the words a thrill, even as some make me laugh. This is a valuable, rare quality in art of any kind, and Devin is better than most at pulling it off.
It’s helpful to have a reserve of these kinds of messages, things to tell yourself that help you keep going. Discouragement is often part of making art, like frustration. There’s excitement and satisfaction, too, but those don’t need encouraging memes to return to work. Sometimes all I need is a simple nudge that it’s meaningful to be doing it.
My first year in college, I signed up as a creative writing major. I thought that was what I wanted to do more than anything. I’m still not sure that’s not true, but I have vacillated, all my life, between wanting to write, to draw & paint, and to play music (it’s interesting that the act of making images and words have their own singular verbs, “draw/paint” and “write,” likewise “dance,” and “photograph,” but music doesn’t, somehow).
One of the best things I found when I was devouring “how to write” books, soon after I left my university, on academic probation and disillusioned, was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. In it, Goldberg lays out a daily ritualistic method for getting going, called writing practice. It’s meant to be a time of non-judgment, where the only goal is to keep your hand moving and words flowing. Content is irrelevant. It’s freeing and helpful for the more specific writing you’d otherwise do, and it doesn’t necessarily stay separate from that. I did it for a long time, before I changed creative course.
It’s been very hard to stick to any path for long, though I’ve made a steady go with visual art the longest. But often, I still have trouble starting, and with keeping a sustained habit. I don’t have an easy answer or advice to fix that. I do that often enough, here. The idea that there’s a secret or trick to making art has too much traction, I think. Sometimes you should just ponder and try things out.
The above video is pretty much a wine commercial, if you remove the voice over. That captured the imaginations of many a fan and potential convert. The latter because so many of us imagined a TV series consisting solely of Patrick Stewart walking through his vineyards, looking thoughtful, tending to the watering drones, and contemplatively bottling and boxing his wares. Maybe once in a while someone shows up for a short conversation or a dinner.
The upcoming Star Trek series probably won’t be as languid as all that, but I think it speaks to the frantic nature of both media and internet communications that such a restful, unadorned concept seems intensely appealing.
I keep thinking there are lessons to be learned in the opposite direction of any trend. Like, what can we do to bring more calmness into the world in the face of so much that seems metaphorically—or actually—on fire?
With some regularity, the song “Changes” by Yes fills the phantom ears in my brain. Just the memory, of course. It’s sad and jarring, as much as I like it and the way they made it. Sort of like an Anselm Kiefer painting.
It reminds me that nothing stays the same for long. We move through time, or the other way ’round, and there’s always a new way to look at our work and the world we interpret through it. It should be humbling, at least enough to get us to keep practicing, trying to see the new stuff.
One of the strangest elements of going to sleep is losing consciousness. The person we are seems to just go away for a while. The person who wakes up isn’t quite the same consciousness. So are we the same person we were the day before?
Whether this holds true as we study the way consciousness works is, to me, irrelevant to the application of it to art and to making. It may be useful to think of ourselves as always renewing, always arising with the potential and promise of a new person—who still holds pretty much the same ways of thinking, goals, and student loan debt.
It’s easy to get caught in the quicksand of self-doubt and worry, of course. The negative “what-ifs” that catalog all the things that can go wrong. The critic telling us we’re not good.
But we also can decide to think of ourselves as new beings, and there are all the things that can go right. Maybe you’re not the same person: you’re someone else stepping into the place of the one who was in your place yesterday. Someone who has the memories, but doesn’t have to take on the baggage of yesterday
Tomorrow, we are different people. We can start our making again, and maybe not beat ourselves up about how good it is because, well, we’re new.
For the vast majority, dreaming is healthy and necessary to maintain good mental and even physical health. And sleep means dreaming at some point.
But the opposite isn’t always true. Dreaming doesn’t always require sleep. We do a different kind of dreaming as artists. And it’s a twofold phenomenon: we dream not only by envisioning new images, sounds, and words, but also as we work on bringing those visions to life. Making art entails a kind of dream state at times, which is so appealing it keeps us coming back to feel it again. That sense of flow during creation is like nothing else.
Along with the work, you need time to dream, and to avoid criticizing yourself when you do it. As long as it’s not taking the place of bringing a dream to reality, a healthy level of dreaming is necessary. For good art health.
There are plenty of places to go to get advice on overcoming procrastination, and that’s nice to have. We do need to get work finished. But I think we sometimes casually accept a rather oppressive standard for making things, or getting stuff done. That’s the metaphorical idea that if you start riding, and you fall off the horse, you need to get back on ASAP and start riding again.
And so there’s a value in that idea, specifically that it tries to get us not to give up easily, and further that it’s easier to start again or keep going on a thing or a task if you immediately try again. That’s probably true. But maybe unnecessarily demanding. We aren’t given much room for having missed targets, or just plain failing.
I’ll propose a preliminary action: give yourself a minute. It’s really easy to beat yourself up for failing, for missing, for not quite getting to the goal you set. It’s okay that you didn’t. You don’t have to feel bad about it, or try to push aside your emotions. Feel your feelings. Pause for a sec.
I think it makes it a bit easier to do the necessary thing and start again.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.