Looking away to the future isn’t always bad. If we were only ever concerned about the present, we’d never follow a dream of a possible future. Or better, an impossible one.
It’s a matter of balance. One viewpoint throughout your life isn’t enough for making art. It requires changing perspective, shifting ground, opening up to the unknown, the void of ideas.
Be present when it matters. But that can’t be all the time. I’d argue that the act of creating is a prime example of losing oneself and the present. We can’t Be Here Now when we’re deep in the moment of making. It’s only when we look as far as we can that it all falls into place, comes together, melts, thaws, and resolves to a dew.
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.
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.
The end of any journey comes with mixed feelings. Ask Joseph Campbell. It also comes with new knowledge. We’ve learned things about our companions we never knew, maybe good things, maybe not, but more. If we’re lucky, we know ourselves better.
Mentally, we’re abuzz with information and ideas and experience to process. Emotionally and physically, we’re drained. This internal tussle can leave us befuddled and even quiet. We reflect. We look at our familiar things with new eyes.
Apply these things to the artist’s journey, making a new piece. I’m kinda too tired to do it.
There’s a moment in any journey where you wonder if it was a good idea. You try to decide if the fun moments you’ve had outweigh the irritation of the discomfort from enclosed spaces, too much unbroken time spent with particular humans, terrible food choices. Time slows to a dreamlike quagmire, then speeds up to a whirlwind.
In Las Vegas, things blur together. Building interiors, eye-searing video boards, the ubiquitous hum of refrigeration, strip malls with outrageously kerned signage, infinite blacktop. Lights. Purposeless walking. Pink lava rock gravel spilling out of every housing development’s landscaping.
But this is just the center of the excursion. There’s miles to press on to, more things that will occur, more decisions you have to make about what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. And then home, with your own food and habits and bed and cat.
There’s a longtime meme circulating in the business world, to the effect that one should fail fast, because we grow and learn more from failure than from success. At least, from early failure, or in many cases, testing raw ideas and methods. In creative circles, this has been labeled “fail faster.” It means we shouldn’t try to make things perfect up front, we should try out ideas and concepts to see what will best fit. The quicker we weed through our early failures, the more likely it is we’ll find the best elements of the thing we’re working on and succeed with the final version.
If the idea seems at first counterintuitive, there’s some other research suggesting why. Researchers published a paper last December that links social anxiety with a preoccupation of making mistakes. If further research holds this up, we have insight into the fear. Some of us don’t want to interact with each other because we’re afraid we’ll do or say the wrong thing.
But in art, there isn’t much that’s “the wrong thing.” You need to be better at trying new things, different things, crazy things than you were the day before. It’s openness to experimentation that knocks work into a new realm, a higher level. Make mistakes. Make them faster.
And if you fail, so what? That thing needed failing. It means you’ve got a clearer path to the work that will, well, work.
We do get into grooves. Some might say ruts, if they’re feeling grumpy, or cruel. But while the advantage of a groove is feeling the flow or at least extra productive, the downside is feeling removed or shallow.
What might help is a trick that’s helped me in the past: change the tools you use for your creation. Different implements and even methods of making can kick you out of the same well-worn track.
Switch it up. Play guitar left-handed for a day if you’re a righty. Use a pencil and notepad if you usually write on a laptop. If you paint, do what an insightful professor made me do when he saw I was being way too careful and timid applying paint and brushstrokes: paint an entire portrait using only a 2-inch brush.
New ways of physical making can spark new insights and ideas. Stay out of the ruts.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.