Involved in a tabletop game the other night, I had a chance to hold forth—probably too enthusiastically and vociferously—on John Cage’s iconoclastic piece, “4′ 33″.” There’s plenty of analysis on the work, but what struck me at the time was the following: Claude Debussy is supposed to have said (among other similar composers/musicians), “music is the space between the notes.” Cage simply expanded the space until that’s all there was, metaphorically making a silent composition music, not the lack of music.
It’s always hard to work my routines into such a big anxiety- and stress-inducing event as moving house, but I’ll still be giving it a shot. There’s value and relief in hanging onto whatever steadiness can be had on a metaphorically stormy sea.
One of the reasons for keeping a sketchbook on you at all times (or whatever notebook you’re drawn to—ha! Drawn!—for your medium and your thing) is to be ready to work on creation or making when its time. Not just when inspiration strikes, but to order.
It’s well demonstrated that creativity can be made to order by habitual attempts. Even when your best equipment is all boxed up, a moment to get out of the world and into your vision is good for you.
I spent some time trying to figure out why my Firefox extensions suddenly stopped working. I tried endless permutations of wi-fi, browser/computer restarts, until finally searching and finding I’m not alone. So now I wait for the fix.
Frustration is a common emotion in both internet work (and time-wasting) and art. The thing you’re working on doesn’t quite measure up to your vision. The idea doesn’t work as well in reality as it did in your head.
It is good to recognize that frustration is normal and we all feel it sometimes. It can be motivation to do something else, or work on the problem. But you do have to keep working on the thing, until it’s finally finished. Art bugs get worked out in process. Or not. At that finishing point, maybe the frustration is still there, but you can move on. Getting caught in endless frustration leads to nothing. Let it alone in the bug fix queue and keep moving.
It’s easy to think you’ll be overlooked if you’re no longer young, the stars of the art world mostly fawned and obsessed over in their 20s. But cheer up, most of us will be overlooked! But if you’re thinking you might be past it, Sheila Hicks is 84. She’s a fiber artist making some of the best work of her life. Yes, she started younger. As Mayer Hawthorne said: You’ll never be as young as you are today. It really makes no difference. The sooner you start, the sooner we get your work.
Sheila’s is beautiful, gloriously saturated, and it makes me feel like I should let my eyes take a nap from experiencing so much visual joy.
We aren’t making art to be a star. That might be a nice bonus, and have fun if you get that. But it’s in human DNA to make art, and if you’re alive you’ve got some of that. Do it. Sheila will be.
Joan Jonas has an installation at Ocean Space, a new exhibition venue made to facilitate artists and scientists studying the oceans. It’s fascinating and eclectic. Jonas incorporates performance, sculpture, video, drawing, and painting into the work, which may not be fully finished till the end of its run in September.
She’s paralleling the natural ecology of the sea with a kind of ecology of artistic practice. Everything works together as a whole piece, no one element is meant to stand on its own. They feed and support each other.
A popular trope about writing mysteries is that the author starts with the ending in mind and writing the plot back to the beginning. It’s probably not used universally, at least not any more, but there’s a bit of a corollary to other art practices.
If you have an end in mind, or a grand vision of some kind, it’s easier to start moving toward it. The hard part is when your execution doesn’t match the image in your head.
I find if I start with that kind of overall vision, I can’t stay too wedded to the original concept. It’s easy to become disappointed and discouraged by my abilities, or to realize the original ending wasn’t really that great to begin with.
The thing I’m making may be better off going on another direction, entirely. It’s mostly about creating the map as you simultaneously make the territory.
Now, whether getting a lot of art happening means any of it is stuff you like is another matter, but it does seem to hold true that if you make a lot, you get better and you end up with plenty of good stuff. I do apologize for using such generic language on the site. I’m trying to think of art in multimedia ways—not the 90s sense of web-based video and motion graphics presentations, but the literal multiple media—to include my friends who are musicians and writers, as well as visual artists.
But in reference to the title above, I’ve found starting things is almost always harder than continuing things. It’s much better to have a thing I worked on yesterday and can do a bit more of today than to think about planning, conceptualizing, choosing materials, and facing a blank canvas/screen/page. Like, ugh.
One more trick that has worked in the past, born of being handed projects in art school: starting another iron warming before you have to pull the first one out of the fire may be the low-anxiety method of choice.
Also, following up on yesterday’s post: more people than I’d have thought understand what a minor existential crisis contains. I appreciate those people more than they know.
I often do these posts at the last shred of the day, when I’ve done everything I can for online classes and YouTube subs and there’s nothing to do but go to bed. Finishing the paintings and posts on my phone, though, often puts me in the twilight of consciousness. I’m falling in and out of sleep, sometimes, and it results in some amount of incoherent weirdness.
Harnessed properly, weirdness is a staple of art, and one of its draws. Mike Kelly’s installations come to mind. But on the edge of sleep and consciousness, it’s rarely anything more than half-formed. Things appear and disappear. My fingers type nonsense as I relax and rest them on the virtual keys. They make jagged strokes of color on the screen.
So the dreamlike weirdness that invokes or disturbs is, paradoxically, better created by the fully awake.
Sometimes it’s not easy. I feel tired, cranky, wishing I could get back home to keep working on projects, or more likely, reading a ton of articles and playing Minecraft. But these things are indulgent acts of self-comfort which, while soothing, aren’t very fulfilling.
Does that make sense? Acts that punch my dopamine button are addictive, and the feeling is a habit my monkey mind wants to keep getting. They’re easy, like getting drunk But the stuff that uplifts me more deeply, that gives me an abiding sense of satisfaction and accomplishment are hard. At least, they’re hard to start.
Similarly, withdrawing into my thoughts and flying on the autopilot of well-worn routines at work is easy. Engaging and supporting people around me is hard. But the former just leads to despair and ongoing dislike of my job. The latter can sustain me through a difficult shift and beyond.
It’s just like working on your creative thing: distraction is easy and a quick path to fun, but it doesn’t nourish you. It’s often harder to start working on creative work, but it nourishes you deeply.
Sometimes it’s obvious. If you’ve spent some time building ideas and skills, you understand how deeply enjoyable and satisfying it is to exercise your creative muscles. But the barrier between that and getting started on any project or practice is often high and wide. We aren’t helping shrink it by making and consuming ever more targeted ways of distraction and passive entertainment.
Those things are plenty satisfying and enjoyable too. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be so attracted to them. But they’re a different level of satisfaction and reward. They’re rarely deep, and sometimes frustratingly addictive. Creation, making, crafting are fulfilling and supportive in essential ways, but it can be hard to see that from the other side of the work.
It can help to keep that in mind before we start any specific activity that is inherently distracting. What seems hard in the beginning melts into satisfaction and flow as we do it. The things that are easy indulgences up front quickly become draining and even regrettable, sometimes. Try to remember that just starting a project or your daily practice is often enough to get over the hump, up the metaphorical stairs to a fulfilling place beyond. That’s worth upholding as a critical moment in your day.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.