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.
What Lies Beneath All the Stuff You Make From Here On Out
It’s only everything. Everything you were and are, all you’ve seen and heard. It’s all in the stew. It’s all past that fuels and lays the foundation for the future, and the act of making funnels it through a venturi tube of consolidation.
I’ve finished Mark Doty’s enthralling Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, underlining and line-marking as I went. A book ostensibly about Dutch still life painting from the 17th Century, it folds in an increasingly deep examination of art and personal experience bit by bit. It’s a lovely book on its own, but it’s also instructive on the ways art encompasses the things of the world and our inner interpretation of it.
Getting Past Your Need for Perfection and Finishing Your Work Is Vital
There’s no shortage of creativity coaches out there. Advice abounds on techniques and tools, finding styles, getting inspired and so on. I don’t think it’s stated enough that you should finish your things. People really do get stuck in attempts to make the best thing they can make.
In art school, you often have no choice about finishing pieces, because there’s a bloody deadline breathing down your neck with a fearsome fiery breath, and you’re going to damn well get your ass in gear. I think this is an advantage to paying money for art school. You get a set of projects and have to complete them.
I tend to believe you should:
Work. Exercise your praxis. Do the thing.
Finish the stuff you begin.
Make another thing.
It’s totally true that a lot of would-be artists/writers/musicians never get anything done because they can’t start. They’re so wrapped up in the vision and their (imagined) inability to match it, fear stops them cold. They’re the Never-Good-Enoughs.
Then there are those who start a boatload of things because, hey, art! But they never finish them because it’s hard to get through the boring middle part where you realize it’s a hell of a lot of work to complete things. These are the Forever-Beginners.
One secret I learned pretty fast is that your finished piece will never match your vision—except in extraordinarily rare circumstances. The artists who get a lot of shit done are very okay with this fact, and by getting a lot of stuff done, ironically, they get ever closer to matching their vision to their work.
it happens gradually, but you need things to compare to, and there’s nothing that shows your progress more than the thing you made three years ago, if you kept making things along the way. This is being simply an artist. You’ll learn how long you should take on a piece the more you make.
The Lesson Learned Isn’t Always the Lesson Expected
It’s a part of most retail jobs that employees have to do certain chores that may be gross or filthy. Cleaning bathrooms and floors, dealing with trash, wiping down fixtures and windows. These can seem demeaning, and I’ve thought so on more than one occasion.
They aren’t, though.
I was thinking about their place in work of all kinds, and it’s not just that you have to do them, I think they contribute, weirdly, to a bigger picture.
They’re small cogs in a larger machine, just like you, if you’re one of those workers. But you have to do the same kind of maintenance at your own house, and there’s no shortage of cleanup in art, either. These tasks relate.
They also interrelate. An attitude of reverence toward your tools and tasks carries over to the important work, the art itself. Working a job is valuable training in maintaining the harmony of everything unseen in the art you make. It supports and frames it. It makes it possible to forget about everything but the art itself.
We don’t do things in whole pieces, most of the time. Our work, like our lives, is done in bits, chunks, sections. It’s the accumulation of the small things that emerge as a recognizable cohesive one. Any one piece is probably unrecognizable or representative. It’s a stroke at a time, one line and then another.
So art, like life, is meta. In order to make something, you have to think of it as a distinct entity or concept. Maybe not at first, if you’re an artist who likes to create from a spontaneous start. But if you never focus or decide on a unifying whole, you’re left with a pile of pieces. Lego blocks scattered around vs. a castle or spaceship or robot or truck.
All it takes for something to come into focus is dedication to small things every day. Real time work isn’t grand, but it’s the only way for grand to gestate and come into being.
One of the peculiar things about making art is the weirdly vast pool of raw stuff we turn into finished things. It isn’t tangible or visible, but all of the substance—that is, everything that isn’t the material components of the work like paper, canvas, pigment, wood, stone, fabric—exists in a big lake inside our heads ready to be, literally, tapped.
I mean, sometimes it feels more like a shallow pond than a lake, but I try to think of it more like our inability to always get the tide coming our way is a problem of weather—like fog or storms—obscuring our view and sense of the scale.
Like any other ocean or body of water, it changes, expands, gets choppy or calm, brackish, sweet, muddy, or, when we’re lucky, crystal clear.
Here’s the weird thing: none of us knows where it comes from. It’s all of our experience and knowledge and feelings. Somehow that becomes something new in the world just by our channeling the waters.
I’m despairing a bit over the U.S. executive administration’s immigration scorching the earth with zero tolerance. The piece above is a reaction. A more physical response will happen at the next march. I didn’t know when I started that it would also serve as an early catharsis to a missing post.
I wrote a fair bit on the new Carters (Jay-Z & Beyoncé) video a couple days ago. I was sure I’d hit the “Publish” button, but somehow it’s mostly gone, except for a brief opening in the Drafts folder. I discovered this as I set up for today’s post.
It’s a given that things you do will occasionally disappear or get lost. This is especially true of digital work. We are all at the mercy of the random electron gods.
Whether benevolent or vengeful, if your thing is condemned to oblivion, there is nothing to do but keep moving. This seems a good point to mention putting your feelings into your work. Musicians have an easier time with this, in my opinion. But whatever your medium, work that connects is work that translates and engenders feelings. You can use this.
The next time you create your stuff, you can channel your anger and frustration. This isn’t just the only revenge against the random electron gods, it’s an easy motivator. But even if you haven’t lost a piece, any moment of trauma or high emotion can be applied and channeled into your work. You can gain some relief in making. And then, beyond that, you have another thing coming into being. Another pseudo-child springs forth to comfort you in loss or despair. You can more easily take action afterward.
Just kidding! It’s a ridiculously complicated question, to which I’ve only ever seen educated guessing and speculation, and those explanations lack satisfying answers. Really, most of the articles claiming to tackle he question just lead to more questions within.
And why not? We don’t really understand why we do it, why it compels is, why so many of us want to defy the long odds of scarce audiences, fans, and followers to make it a centerpiece of life.
Maybe the questioning is the most important. Answers are necessary for science, explanatory power and evidence for claims and phenomena. They aren’t so important for art, essentially because it’s mysterious and strange.
So here’s a mere guess. What we know is that humans are driven to endlessly reinterpret the world outside our minds and present them to others. We keep returning to the mysterious power of it. And entertaining a mystery is not only fun, it’s rewarding.
It’s not that life on its own isn’t enough. It’s that art gives us the creative power we see around us all the time in nature. We’re the animal who questions, and art reaches questions only dreamed of in other fields.
I finished Mandagon yesterday. It’s a short game, supposedly an hour or so, but according to Steam, I played for six. I liked poking around its little universe. I’m not sure it adheres to its stated philosophy, that you “discover what it means to make a true sacrifice,” I mean, you can’t die and are represented by a sort of squared off totem head so the stakes don’t seem high. But it was an affecting world to immerse in for a while.
It occurs to me, I did sacrifice my time, which is—in an existential sense—all I really have. Life can easily be viewed as a series of choices made over how to spend our almost completely unknowable cosmic bank balance of time.
Some artworks are meant to be experienced as such singular universes. Nothing about them existed before, nothing will follow. Series seem to be the norm, currently. So much of the media we consume is either hopeful about getting a sequel or two, followed by a prequel, perhaps, or it’s a TV show and the series is built-in. Music is less like this, but even so, listeners and fans tend to view a band’s work as a continuum, not necessarily as just a set of influences and ideas isolated as a moment in time and alone.
Those works come with their own kind of magic. Worlds are built for one image, one collection of songs, one story, as one object, almost. There’s no resurrection, just one life to live. It’s a special kind of beauty, one easily overlooked in times of furious expansion.