I went to church this morning for the first time in many years. I wanted to hear the Easter music program at a place whose choir has a fabulous reputation.
The night before came. I didn’t want to go.
I was tired, just off work, and knew I wouldn’t have a day off for a while. And it was a big social gathering I’ve grown more reluctant to join the last few years. I thought about just staying in bed. But then I just treated it like I was going to work.
Not steeling myself, not begrudgingly thinking I’d better go. I stopped thinking about it and planned the trip and when I needed to get up. It was a weird trick I hadn’t planned or thought to implement. But treating it like a familiar routine I often use changed my mind about it, from something optional to an appointment.
The music was amazing and beautifully performed, and I was glad to have gone. If I’d left the decision until morning, I probably would have talked myself out of it.
It seems to me there’s no shortage of advice to imbue your work with meaning, and to understand what your work is about. Some say because if you don’t know what it’s about, joe will other people know?
The better advice, I think, comes from those who say you don’t have to know what your work means, and I say, further, you may never know fully what it means.
That’s mostly because we’re only half the equation of art. The audience or public in general are the other half, and everyone brings their own experience and insight to what you make. Art is open to interpretation by its nature. Even if you purposefully craft a particular meaning, there will be different ways to understand it.
It’s fine, even good, to have a subtext. As long as we aren’t to attached to it or dogmatic about it when we send it into the world. Part of the wonder of art is in that relationship with the ones who take in the things we make.
Psych! There is no such secret knowledge. I’m almost inclined to make this about your day job, but I won’t. That’s maybe a little too “wink-wink,” and you don’t need that.
Most of us who make art really have no idea what it means, or what we’re doing. I mean, we have skills, a practice, routines, starting points, and something to say. But if asked, we usually only have some vague things to say that could as easily go on the description on the wall placard.
To risk yet another contradictory headline, it doesn’t matter as much that you understand what you make. Other people will derive their own meaning no matter what you do, but being really specific would only partly prevent that. It’s great if it’s widely, wildly interpretable by many people, but that still misses the larger point.
You make the art for your own reasons, and you don’t always know what they are. And that’s cool.
The only thing you can count on about the internet is the weird superimposition of the robustness and fragility of data. Sometimes your database gets corrupted and you lose posts. Sometimes there are backups to restore. It’s both. That’s weird.
We need time to think. Time to ponder and choose directions. It’s easy to put on earbuds and get lost in sound, or binge a few series in our off time from work.
But you’ll benefit for knowing where you want to go next, both in life and your work. And you can’t hear your own thoughts about that if you don’t just sit with them, alone. I used to do this on drives, my commute was 30–45 minutes. Now that it’s 15 minutes at most, often shorter on the bus, I do it while walking. Doesn’t have to be a big thing, but it’s good to have a direction and finalized decision-making.
If you’re lucky, some of them like to write, and they’ll put that out into the public sphere, too. It’s helpful to have a broader picture of the artists you admire.
Sometimes, they’ll disappoint you. That’s okay, it happens to our family and friends now and then. Once in a while it’ll be so far from your personal beliefs, you lose respect for them and won’t want to support them. That’s also useful to know.
Mainly, though, following along with a few artists you enjoy gives you an inside perspective on art that art history rarely will. We study works in isolation, much of the time. We hop around in time at a dizzying pace. But it’s like waiting for the next album from your favorite band when a painter you love announces a new show or upcoming project.
It’s the view from here, in real time, and it puts our own work on the same scale. We can be motivated and inspired by artists working right now in a way that is immediate and visceral. Uncle Paul (Klee, for any new readers) and Georgia O’Keefe are great and inspiring. But we see all their best work at once, and the scale and temporal connection is gone, just as they’re gone.
We learn a lot from the masters of the past. But the future masters who might arise from the ones we admire today can teach us just as much.
I read this ranging interview with artist Ai Weiwei and smiled a lot. He’s really just concerned with doing his next thing, not how standing in the art world, or celebrity, or much beyond tweaking some foibles and defying expectations. Worth a read, fellow would-be dissidents.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.