Just a reminder here—because most of us need reminding, now and again—to keep looking at everything around you. Noticing things others don’t notice is part of being an artist. You have to be able to convey a vision to the world, either an internal or a translated external one (come to think of it, inner visions have to be translated themselves).
In order to fully convey your vision to us, you need to have seen and absorbed what you’re putting down for others. You can’t do that unless you’re really good at seeing stuff.
It’ll seem too simple at first. Then, as you keep noticing and looking deeper and longer, you start to see that it’s almost infinitely complex, and you could get lost in the most mundane slice of your day. But don’t stop. The idea for your next thing comes from what you see and how much and how far you see into it.
Here in the U.S., we’ve been entertaining ourselves by letting lots of outrages from factions we oppose stand in for our various personal grudges and grievances. I would like to say I’m hopeful we can find common ground somewhere, but I’m not sure that will happen soon.
I have my own personal beliefs and desires for helping the greatest number of people the most, but some of my beliefs are concerned with ways to live and those aren’t always objective, superior ways. We need some compromising largesse toward each other.
But we can keep sending more art into the world. More expression, more passion, more remixing and recombining old ideas into new ones. When times are troubled, creative work can act as both refuge and inspiration. It’s the place to channel your energy and focus after they’ve been hijacked by TV ads and yelling heads.
Fighting Nihilism May Be a Neverending Battle With Yourself and the World
Nothing matters, everything is ultimately meaningless, all art is pointless effort.
So says a really powerful voice in my head that shows up with annoying frequency. I’m not going to tell you how to defeat that voice for good. I do not know.
But there’s a way out of any kind of defeatist spiral, and that is to understand that the opposite reaction is strangely as valid. It’s very human to observe and to create. It makes us who we are, in part. If it doesn’t matter whether or not we make art, we might as well keep making it because it speaks to our existential core.
It might be the case that the universe doesn’t care about our work. To be fair and frank, it almost certainly doesn’t, at all. But even if it doesn’t matter in an ultimate sense, it matters in the moment. It matters to us. And since we’re the ones who like it and are inspired by it, art has an arbitrary present value for both its creators and its experiencers.
Your Obsessions, Large and Small, Feed Your Work in Innumerable Ways
Keep to the things you can’t let go of, the obsessions you latch onto. The music, the films, the art—the fragments on any one of those or something else, that live and passion for some aspect of the creative work of others gives you chunks of raw material to mix into your own work.
This is where work comes from. It’s the seeds of inspiration that always wait, whether we feel like working or not, whether we’re ready or not, whether we think we’re good enough or not.
I haven’t finished this post until now because I got so into the Yes song “Starship Trooper” that I had to listen, not just to the whole thing, but specifically the section after “/Disillusion,” really just a cascading series of “aahs” that Anderson, Squire, and whomever decided to haunt me with. I have no idea how it’ll come through, but it will, somewhere.
Don’t resist your artistic obsessions, enjoy them as deeply as you can. They fertilize and feed your own stuff.
In the Future, All the Worrying Will Be Done By Robots
Artists have little to be smug about. There’s nothing inherently so different about art that means it can only ever be done by humans. Maybe by definition that’s the dividing line: artificial creation vs. art, but in time the bots will get better by steps both small and large, and they have nothing but time. Or, at least, in theory they do. For now, we have to keep running and building them, but what’s the point of art at all if no humans can experience it?
From the illustrious kottke.org comes this bit, by Tim Carmody:
How long will it be until Robin’s “California Corpus” is writing novels of its own, when every book is a jazzy cover of a medley of novels we’ve liked before? When writers still get hired, but just to produce enough snippets to keep the synthesizing machines fed? The answer is… probably a very long time. But maybe not long enough.
The thrust of it is that remixing is appealing because it’s giving us things we already like, remixed, and AIs will become good enough eventually to produce art we want to experience, in abundance, instantly.
The thing is, art isn’t far from that now. We’ve always taken the stuff of the past and remixed it in different and new ways. Technology and shared knowledge adds a little to it now and then, but essentially we are all creative DJs. What matters, for as long as it can matter, then, is that we make things with as much humanity as we can muster. Emotional, often irrational, impulsive, desirous, loving humans. The more like ourselves, individually, we can be in our work, the longer it’ll be before bots can match it.
Perhaps We Should Be Less Precious About Our Works
Ai Weiwei posted this video on his Instagram account this past week. It seems to show a man on his cell phone obliviously walking into Weiwei’s installation of porcelain sunflower seeds on a museum floor.
As with most of his posts, there is no comment from Ai about it. Reaction from fans and followers are almost universally horror struck. A few are cynical about it being staged. Is it faked? Maybe. I’m not sure it matters that much.
We spend a lot of time making things. We spend much less time thinking about their ephemerality. That should be part of how we consider the things of the world. Nothing is forever. If we embrace the impermanence of it all, I think we might be able to laugh at the absurdity of things like our bestowing some kind of sacred status on finished work.
This incident with the Weiwei piece, or even actively destructive things elsewhere, are some kind of connection with that existential absurdity. I feel like that’s a bigger statement than we can make on our own. Maybe we’d have more fun and make better things afterward by emphasizing the intangible meaning of this, rather than the perfection of craft or the object.
I moved to Portland without a car. One of the things I wanted to do in this new place was to try to reassess my consumption and use of resources. Giving up driving—at least for a while—seemed like a good means to that end.
And it’s mostly been eye-opening. Not only have I been able to get around on public transit, I’ve been able to spend some time just looking around me as I move.
There’s Feeling Ineffectual, and Then There’s Feeling Useless
The difference is stark. You matter, and so does your voice. I’m struck by a line from Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder:
The world needs your novel!
And, for sure, there’s plenty to unpack surrounding the word, “needs,” because in a strictly survivalist sense, the word doesn’t.
But that statement is a passionate entreaty to start creating. It says your views and thoughts and your own passions matter, and they have something to contribute to humanity at large.
Until and unless you have followers and fans of your work, it’s going to seem a bit lonely, like your voice is mighty small in a very dark and enormous void. You aren’t useless, you’re working, making, creating. You do matter. You’re ineffectual, as far as the outside world is concerned. But that isn’t the important thing. What’s important is that you press on, say what you must say, and give that work to the world.
Because we need it, and we cannot know what effect it will have before it’s out there.
We’re Surrounded by Design, but Art Can Be Hard to Come By
Wherever humans live, there is design: industrial, graphic, fashion. There’s also plenty of craft, the care people take with their work and making. But art is scarce by comparison. We sort of have to work a little to find it.
We’ve become experts at taking music with us wherever we go. We’ve got music players on us and lots of them fill hours of the day with personal soundtracks. Photography, and the cameras on our phones to create it, is an example of a type of visual art that most people in urban—and plenty of rural—centers have with them at all times, too. But both of those mostly exist where they originate: in our pockets.
It’s unusual to see someone carrying painting tools everywhere. Some artists carry pencils and pens and sketchbooks. A few of them work on them in public. But still, it’s rare to see art around, just wherever. Design, by its nature, is in and on buildings, signs, equipment, and vehicles.
Just for fun, imagine how it’d look to have half as much art on view and displayed as there are logos and advertisements. Art is special, but we probably should make more effort to spread it around, and open up new venues to see it. We’d have less rarity, but plenty more expression. Who knows? Maybe our outlook would change to live among it all.
Getting Into the Spirit of It All, But Accepting Reality Just As It Is
I’ve been lamenting the weather here. It’s warm and sunny, and has been mostly so for the past couple of months. One of the reasons I wanted to move to the Pacific Northwest was weather, change of season, a break from constant hot and sunny. Wishing for change won’t make it so.
So it was that, after the third person chided me for being anxious to get into the rainy cold season, I sat for a minute and thought about what I was doing. I was rushing the moment, trying to affect transformation of reality instead of accepting and living in the moment. I know that must sound terribly mushy-headed or what used to be called airy-fairy, vague hand-waving near-mysticism. But there’s a usable, practical, real component to a lot of New Age type ideas: being present helps us live our lives more fully.
I noticed good things about having sunshine on these fall days above the 45th parallel. I can seen the colors of leaves turning gold, orange, and red more clearly. I can look up at the wonderful heights of the city around me without a face full of water to squint through. It’s easy to get around. Leaves are delightfully crunchy as I kick through them on my way to work. I accept what is, just as I’ll accept how the constant rain to come is renewing all this life around me.
And art? Art is the same. I have to be good at accepting how it is in the moment, and try not to spend too much energy and time wishing it were better. Everything in time.