It’s tax time, more or less, in the United States. The pressure to navigate the labyrinthine codes of law that drive even seasoned accountants to distraction are a lot to deal with for any citizen. For artists, there’s a metaphor.
There are the things we make. There is the money we make. There are the people who like the things, who may pay us something to keep or copy them. Usually not, and those elements don’t necessarily cross over. This is a regular cycle, and we don’t often understand how it works, just that it needs to happen.
But if I want to grow the number I make for the things I make, I do need to grow the people who like the things. And that’s what this year is about, for me. Getting ways established to do both. Stay tuned, I’m working on them.
That’s an old trope, made prominent by some New Age guru types. “It’s when you feel you aren’t making any progress that you’re growing the most!” It’s a good thing to tell yourself, especially when you’re feeling down about how slowly your work is going, or how terrible it all seems, right now. Conversely, it’s good to stay a bit humble about it when you think it’s brilliant (and I hope you do, sometimes!). An even temperament is the machine that drives a steady flow.
And there’s some truth to the trope, in my experience, but I’d say it’s more true that you don’t know how well your work is progressing in the time you make it. Look back on last year’s work and you can see good stuff and not-so-good.
But we are poor judges of today’s work, yesterday’s work, even last week’s work. It’s not important how you feel about what you just made. Remind yourself that future you gets to evaluate. Present you has one job: keep making it.
What we want is to be different in some essential ways as we move our work along. We’re aiming to be better than we were yesterday, to change and to grow.
Actually, it’s best not to be specific about day-to-day progress or lack of it. There may be long periods where you feel like you’re getting nowhere, or even getting worse. But in the grand scheme, better than before.
But if you only ever do what you know how to do, you risk ruts and stagnation. It’s great to thoroughly explore mediums and idioms, but it’s in trying new things and new ways that we gather a storehouse of future possibility and potential.
Try new tools, new methods—your other hand if you’re not ambidextrous. Keep trying when you’re better, too. No dinosaurs. Art should be just as challenging and open as when you first started on your 100,000th piece.
If you want to get better at a thing—your thing, let’s say—you have to get out of any routine where you’re comfortable. It has to hurt a little, be annoying, a bit hard. The muscle metaphor is spread around a lot regarding this principle, by any number of experts in motivation or self-improvement: no pain, no gain.
But I’m not talking about being so sore you can hardly move. I just mean a small amount of discomfort. See, I don’t think you have to push your limits all the time. Steady progress can be had with the smallest nudge against your present abilities.
What matters is that you notice. That you recognize breaking out of easy routine, or you look ahead to where you’d like to be with your thing, your work. It can be discouraging to hurt a lot, even if you know the gains will come faster. I’m for whatever keeps moving you forward, and outside of the gym, it’s perfectly fine to go slow and get better in very small steps.
We like to think of our progress as a diagonal line moving ever upward. But that not how we experience change and growth. There are plenty of moments we regress, stumble, forget, and falter. Looking back over a long series of projects or experiences, we can see we’ve come a long way from where we started. But if you get into the details of the actual days—even weeks or months!—there are some plateaus, sometimes backslides, and occasionally valleys.
Those times, we feel like our work is stagnating or moving in the wrong direction. The insight or breakthrough happened and then, for a while, it’s like we got worse again. This is normal.
Try not to sweat it. The important thing is to keep going. You can only really see the massive improvements you’ve made when you look back at a big section of what you’ve done and where you’ve gone.
Is it dramatic or overtly pretentious to use song lyrics as titles?
I’ve been pondering seasonal change now that I’m somewhere there actually are seasons. Do they correspond with changes in our work? Not usually, of course.
They’re inspiration, guidelines of timing, reminders. This sort of thing helps in planning and shaping. But the actual doing, I’m certain, isn’t changed by what’s around us. That happens no matter where we are.
And we always have to deal with inner change. It’s not a cycle, it’s a line beginning behind you and pointing ahead. View your work through that lens and be kind to yourself when it’s not what you thought. It will change again.
When you live in New York or any big city, it is easy to fail at growing up. The city is designed to keep you in a state of perpetual adolescence. You never need to learn to drive if you don’t want to. And even if you do drive you can go back to that bar you went to when you were twenty-one, and it will still be there, and it will still be called Molly’s, and the older waitress there will still remember you and let you sit where you want. And feel be years later, when she is no longer there, when there is just a picture of her above the bar on a place of sad honor, and you know what that means and you don’t want to think about it, guess what: you do not have to. Because no one is driving home, and you’re back again, listening to “Fairytale of New York,” which is still on every jukebox, falling into the same conversations you had with the same friends in the ’90s: about how the internet is going to change culture, and what you are going to do when you grow up.
I try to think about how I’m constructing this blog, and the scheme I have for its posts, whenever possible. I wonder if it’s part of a search for something new beyond the massive undertaking going back to school was eight years ago, when I determined to finally finish the biggest thing I’d left undone.
After that push and effort, after all was said and done and I could at last tick off the box [metaphorically] labeled “Bachelors Degree,” I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was Wile E. Coyote in the middle of the air, having run straight off the edge of the cliff. But I wasn’t dropping.
It occurred to me today that an extremely valuable aspect of art school—again, as of school in general—is the forced exposure to things and ideas you’d never have found on your own in such a compact span of time. This might be a thing worth paying for, albeit not necessarily worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and the commensurate stress of the debt burden.
It’s as easy to get stuck in an aesthetic bubble as a political one, staying focused on the narrow band of favorites you’ve treasured over several years of loving and experiencing art of whatever form. But at school, if you have teachers of any worth, you have a myriad of unknowns thrown at you, and you not only have to experience their work, but also to understand it, analyze it, and put it into some kind of context.
This is important to do as an artist for the rest of your days. You’ll gain insight and depth, even if you don’t like some or most of the stuff, if you take it in broadly.
If you do art of any kind, you generally want to get better at it. You grimace at the state of your abilities and look longingly at those of the artists you admire. Even during the punk era, where a concerted effort to tear down the lavishly indulgent studio practices included sneering at the technically proficient and of famous musicians of the 70s, bands still worked to become better players.
Does it just happen? Sometimes, sort of, if you do it every day. You’ll end up with a more refined version of what you do, no doubt. But there are a couple simple things to think about if you’re not in art school. Because I like lists.
Copy the work you love now and then. Copying is like an anatomy class. You learn something about why a piece works when you recreate it. You start to figure out what makes it tick, how it was put together, why it works as a whole. You’re not putting any of this out into the world as your own, of course, but it’s excellent practice.
Change styles. If you’re used to working with abstraction, spend some time working from life. If you’re observational, translate what you see into abstracted forms and colors. If you work solely from imagination, learn a bit of life drawing, music notation, or journalism.
Break molds and keep your hands moving—if only metaphorically. You’ll get better at what you want to do faster.
Marking a significant life event is only natural. It’s uniquely human. Birthdays, anniversaries, achievements. It’s that last one that can seem arbitrary or trivial, sometimes.
But an arbitrary milestone can make you feel inspired or motivated. Picking something small and celebrating it bestows importance. That’s what you want as you make your artistic practice an essential part of your life. It should feel important. Modesty is rarely a bad instinct, in a social sense. If you trivialize your work early on, however, who’s there to counter that disparaging voice? The last thing you need is less impetus to keep working on your stuff.
So here’s a small, arbitrary milestone: this post makes 100 in a row since I missed in late January, just a bit before I was due to hit the first 100 in a row. Yay! Woo! I couldn’t have done it without you, truly.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.