When you make art isn’t as important as the fact that you do it. And, if you aren’t doing things, you slip past being an artist. We only exist in the moment, so what we do is—in a metaphorical but existential way—what we are.
Of course, I can’t just make art in the eternal now. I have to feed and wash myself. I have to feed the cat. I have to go to the job. But as cool as it is to have made stuff, it’s the momentum that keeps me going the longest. My title doesn’t mean much if I’m not doing what I call myself.
We’re all stuck with time. Like relatives, it’s just there, and you don’t have a tremendous amount of say in how much you get. You choose your work as you choose your friends, what you do, how much you make.
These abstract labels are good for stepping up, for declaring oneself in the game. You can’t wait for someone to anoint you into the club. But it’s the down and dirty of what you chose to do today, or are doing right now that feeds your craft, your sense of self, and your mental health.
I don’t think I’ve written about how much I love Budgie, but they formed an essential part of my musical identity as a young person. They were technically still a band when I discovered them, but only the bass player/vocalist remained, and the best stuff—in my opinion, of course—was behind them.
I bought Bandolier, which I consider their finest, on a whim at a Tower Records and it was the best blind music purchase I ever made. The title above comes from the opening track, “Breaking All the House Rules and Learning All the House Rules.” (Later shortened. Budgie were notorious for ridiculously long titles.)
I learned you could be both silly and serious from that band. That you could create with practice and precision but still be a little wild. They brought into sharper focus that the rules were good for structure, but now and then breaking them wasn’t so bad.
I’ve been re-evaluating my habits, including the daily posting here, and why I’m doing it. Considering what I’m working towards and the way I want to get there. This is advice I would give to artists: be disciplined, make your habit a daily practice.
And, also, don’t make me the arbiter of how you create. Break all the house rules now and then.
It’s a cliché that we shouldn’t wait for the world to recognize us for our work. So how do we get the attention? Instead of offering any how-to advice—because, hell, I don’t know, either—let me pose a couple questions you might ask yourself that I find myself returning to.
Why do I want recognition? Answer this and you’ll either spotlight your ego (“I’m a genius, duh!”), or realize you care less than you thought you did, or understand you don’t know why.
The first is shallow, for good or ill, and that might not be a reason to disavow seeking fame for your amazing thing, but you should own it. The second is a pleasant revelation, and you are now free to do whatever you want—but do keep sharing your work. The third is the hardest, and you can either engage a therapist, or think hard about it till you figure it out. Or both. Both would probably be good for you.
Does it matter if I don’t get the thing I want?
This can lead you back to the first question if the answer is yes, or free you to stop making art or forge ahead in sheer abandon, finally not giving a damn what other people think.
And our shadows are taller than our souls. Which I’m still not sure means anything, but it sounds damned good.
It’s Pride Sunday, an unofficial holiday that demarcates a lot of admonition and exhortations to be oneself, yourself, our true selves.
This is a day to celebrate differences, and particularly gayness with several allied associated bands of people trying to be their authentic selves. Celebrating as a marginalized group is empowering, and the history of Pride bears that out.
But I was reading an article in Scientific American on ways we either misunderstand or overlook what qualities we call “true,” or “authentic.” And there are multiple ways we fool ourselves into thinking we know what we mean by all of it.
But the article strikes an inspiring note by the end, even as it tears apart our cursory understanding of authenticity.
Healthy authenticity is an ongoing process of discovery, involving self-awareness, self-honesty, integrity with your most consciously chosen values and highest goals, and a commitment to cultivating authentic relationships.
We choose who we want to be as much as we reveal who we are by being honest, internally. We can be proud of that, too, and keep trying to become more of that ideal self, choosing the qualities we most admire.
This is another for the double category of “You Already Know How to Do This,” and “It’s Automatic.” Which I find funny, but isn’t useful to anyone else. Unless…
Unless it’s a way to recognize that people who try to sell you “how-to” instruction don’t always—often?—know how to create a system for doing these things. General advice is fine, but it tends to get bogged down in unique details, mainly the ultra-specific “well, here’s how I did it, this one time, anway.”
But systems have drawbacks, and a big one is the shift to someone else’s concept of how to make art. A little of that can be useful. A lot is a recipe to imitate for longer than it takes to learn a new skill.
When we learn to draw, or write stories and essays, or play instruments, or dance, we usually begin by imitating our heroes, copying the thing we love because we suck at the thing and it’s disheartening. But as we get better, we believe in our abilities, and the more seriously we take it, the more we begin to look inside for our own voices and expressions of unique self.
The more that happens, the easier it is to fashion memorable moments, and meaning, and a new voice. What becomes memorable is the connection we make by deeply engaging with ourselves. And because we are more like each other than different beings, those deep resonances automatically draw viewers and listeners in. We don’t have to follow any system or trick.
Opinion it is, but in my experience there’s no shortcut to memorability.
I’m not one to go quoting rock lyrics—oh, all right, yes I am. Mostly I do to myself, but if some unsuspecting cow-orker or friend accidentally quotes a piece of a song I know or something close to it, I’ll jump in there and finish a line. Usually I’m just the weirdo being weird, and I have to explain what I’m talking about.
I thought a long time ago that it was easily as valid a choice to apply some lyricist’s rhymes to my life as any random philosopher. And I still do, mostly. Snippets of philosophy rarely do justice to the thoughts behind them pulled out of context. We apply phrases and lines to events and situations to graft our own extemporaneous meaning onto those things, anyway. So what does it matter the context of the original?
Art making is sometimes similar. Our influences and favorites sneak into our work all the time. Usually it’s not wholesale, but just a hint of the thing it came from. It’s a method of brushstroke. It’s a melodic quirk. It’s a metaphor stretched in a peculiar, but compelling, way.
Little pieces of out-of-context art from fellow artists, like lyric snippets, have stuck in our souls. When they emerge, it’s because they’ve become part of us, and therefore shape our own work. Embrace that weirdness, because it all makes you, you.
I spend considerable time every Mother’s Day missing mine. It is getting a little easier balancing that with remembering how lucky I was that she was so amazing.
But I couldn’t help sharing this small, profound moment from Keanu Reeves’s appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. It’s just a person who’s aware of our place in the universe and he tells the truth.
“What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?”
“… I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”
I don’t like a lot of my individual things. I do tend to like my work in the aggregate, when I think of it or see it laid out together. But I’m my own worst critic. Sometimes I’m my only critic, because I’m the only one who’s seen the thing I made. This is normal, and you shouldn’t feel like you have to release everything up front.
But art never seen by any non-its-creator is incomplete. Art requires a second participant to be fully realized, to be whole. I think art is—in addition to being essentially human—a group activity when it’s “completed.” That is, once you’re done making a work, someone(s) else must experience it to finish it.
I know this is a bit convoluted. It seems like double talk. But as valuable as it can be to simply create on your own, your work is left unfinished until another person engages their senses with it.
It’s not as if it’s a guarantee of anything, even that you’ll feel creatively fulfilled—or some other vague notion—or emotionally stable.
I used to see the phrase “you do it because you have to,” sprinkled around. This seems designed to weed out the casuals and dilettantes, only serious commitments, please. But obsessive-compulsive behavior can be destructive. And I’ve always thought we need more casuals and dilettantes. Art isn’t for trained professionals, it’s for everyone, it’s part of what makes us human. We should all make it.
We want to feel the deep connection to the universe outside and our deepest selves within. Art is the bridge. It blooms from within by processing everything without. Sure, want to feel it really, really badly, if you’re driven to create.
But if you only want to a little, it’s okay. We still need it out here.
If you aren’t relatively old, you probably don’t recall that phrase readily to mind, but it’s from the Disney animated film, The Aristocats. It echoes a common feeling that cats are cool, they’re independent, they’re self-sufficient.
But we are human and we need other humans around, being human with and at us. Cats are great, but we’ll never be one. We think and feel like a person, and have people needs.
We also have human abilities and potential. It’s better than actually being a cat.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.