Fixing a Hole, from Sgt. Pepper’s, rang through my head this morning while I was becoming awake, and then shambling through my morning routines.
“It really doesn’t matter,” says Paul, and that’s true when you’re overthinking your work. I tend to do that. But in art, as in few other pursuits, you can be wrong and right at the same time.
You can defy expectations, and you can overturn everything you’ve done before. And you can also start done a path that millions have gone down before. You follow your heart and your hands. Sometimes they need to be free of the rain that gets in.
It’s a rather old story in internet terms, but in 2916, Wired published a long excerpt and many illustrations from Niemann’s monograph, Sunday Sketching. It touches on several aspects of what I talk about here, but offers a glimpse inside the insecurities and doubt that even successful artists harbor.
While working, I must be kind and forgiving with my fragile self. But sometimes I must try to look at my oeuvre with the eyes of an old and jaded misanthropic outsider (or a young and jaded misanthropic insider).
Twice today I had to admonish customers at my work for their antisocial behavior. This was completely unexpected and always makes me a bit anxious and upset. I thought back to when my main job was drawing and I hardly saw another human besides my co-creator—my cousin, working in the same room—for days at a stretch.
I don’t know which situation is weirder. Life is surprising in small ways, if we’re paying attention at all. I think that’s why I’ve spent so long here trying to encourage making art and continuing the work you’ve been doing or attempting. There will always be changes and surprising turns of existence, and you want to have a method of interpreting them.
I don’t think I’ve written about how much I love Budgie, but they formed an essential part of my musical identity as a young person. They were technically still a band when I discovered them, but only the bass player/vocalist remained, and the best stuff—in my opinion, of course—was behind them.
I bought Bandolier, which I consider their finest, on a whim at a Tower Records and it was the best blind music purchase I ever made. The title above comes from the opening track, “Breaking All the House Rules and Learning All the House Rules.” (Later shortened. Budgie were notorious for ridiculously long titles.)
I learned you could be both silly and serious from that band. That you could create with practice and precision but still be a little wild. They brought into sharper focus that the rules were good for structure, but now and then breaking them wasn’t so bad.
I’ve been re-evaluating my habits, including the daily posting here, and why I’m doing it. Considering what I’m working towards and the way I want to get there. This is advice I would give to artists: be disciplined, make your habit a daily practice.
And, also, don’t make me the arbiter of how you create. Break all the house rules now and then.
There’s some bad news from the Yogscast collective, and a couple of its members have deeply disappointed me as a viewer and fan, as well as hurt women involved in those men’s predation of them. Zoey Proasheck has a post on their subreddit that’s well worth a read. It’s a bit like Harlan Ellison’s “You Don’t Know Me, I Don’t Know You,” which is hard to find but also worth digesting.
It’s tough to draw a line between my image of heroes and beloved artists and the unknown reality that they actually are. My image of others is fuzzy at best, ghostly in most cases. It takes time and close contact to understand what someone is like, and even then people can fool you, or just be closed and obscure, a web so thick and knotted it’s very hard to see through.
But as painful as it can be to acknowledge someone disappointing you, sometimes you can’t run, at least not immediately. Someone has to take charge of situations like this and confront the bad actors and abusers of their position. It’s easy to say we should all maintain self-care and take time out when necessary, but there are times it isn’t possible.
In a sense, no one has to do anything. But often we trade on our reputations and ethics. I tend to believe in very few things, but one of them is that we are often stronger than we think. The important thing is that we keep moving ahead.
It’s a cliché that we shouldn’t wait for the world to recognize us for our work. So how do we get the attention? Instead of offering any how-to advice—because, hell, I don’t know, either—let me pose a couple questions you might ask yourself that I find myself returning to.
Why do I want recognition? Answer this and you’ll either spotlight your ego (“I’m a genius, duh!”), or realize you care less than you thought you did, or understand you don’t know why.
The first is shallow, for good or ill, and that might not be a reason to disavow seeking fame for your amazing thing, but you should own it. The second is a pleasant revelation, and you are now free to do whatever you want—but do keep sharing your work. The third is the hardest, and you can either engage a therapist, or think hard about it till you figure it out. Or both. Both would probably be good for you.
Does it matter if I don’t get the thing I want?
This can lead you back to the first question if the answer is yes, or free you to stop making art or forge ahead in sheer abandon, finally not giving a damn what other people think.
This isn’t to diss Bob Ross, because he’s a delight. But like everything in art, there is nuance and alternative meaning. When Bob talked about happy accidents, he was teaching his viewers not to break the flow of their work with thoughts about how they messed up. It’s a way of reframing the unforeseen.
Mistakes will happen. But whether your work is meticulously planned or completely spontaneous, it can be helpful to keep rhythm with them. It’s another Zen or Taoist concept applied to creation: it doesn’t matter if errors crop up, because they become part of the humanity of your work. It’s only more real for small flaws.
And sometimes they can take us in different directions we hadn’t thought of, or would never find in a perfect thing.
Richard Dawkins conceived the word, and his original concept was a nebulous musing, specifically that it was
[…] a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.
And I wonder if our ideas and concepts aren’t mostly a collection of these cultural chunks that swirl in consciousness. When we create, perhaps we are reforming bits of the meme stew into new concoctions.
It’s not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as it is feeding on their substantive meals and making tomorrow’s dinner with combination plates of the leftovers. Tomorrow’s artists will be making their own things with pieces of ours.
It’s a short step from there to wondering if the “I” that thinks about these things is itself a self-replicating, seething mass of cultural chunks. If I’m feeling disturbed, I picture it a bit like Tetsuo’s out of control mutations in Akira. But it’s all inside.
You’re making art. You get sucked in. You forget the universe outside the one you’re making.
It happens, and you don’t have to feel bad about it. Sometimes if you’ve fallen into the work, and there is no time—for a blissful, weird micro-infinite period—its the best moment you could hope for, and a good reason to keep trying to regain a foothold in that pocket universe of your own creation.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.