The photo above was taken during a D&D session at a friend’s place. I’d been rolling fair to terrible results, and this combo—a 20 to hit and 6 for damage—meant an automatic kill and success for a fight. I wanted to document it, because it’s the first time I can remember such a gaming success in many years, and it’s unlikely to happen again anytime soon.
But then, it is a success, and was a delight and thrill to experience. Had I not played because I might fail, I wouldn’t have felt it. That’s worth it to me.
Art is a game, in a lot of ways. It’s often described as play, as good fun, and there are any number of possibilities within a given set of rules. Losing isn’t so bad, it’s not the end of the world. You can always play again. But winning is exciting and inspiring, and the chance is always there.
Involved in a tabletop game the other night, I had a chance to hold forth—probably too enthusiastically and vociferously—on John Cage’s iconoclastic piece, “4′ 33″.” There’s plenty of analysis on the work, but what struck me at the time was the following: Claude Debussy is supposed to have said (among other similar composers/musicians), “music is the space between the notes.” Cage simply expanded the space until that’s all there was, metaphorically making a silent composition music, not the lack of music.
Richard Dawkins conceived the word, and his original concept was a nebulous musing, specifically that it was
[…] a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.
And I wonder if our ideas and concepts aren’t mostly a collection of these cultural chunks that swirl in consciousness. When we create, perhaps we are reforming bits of the meme stew into new concoctions.
It’s not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as it is feeding on their substantive meals and making tomorrow’s dinner with combination plates of the leftovers. Tomorrow’s artists will be making their own things with pieces of ours.
It’s a short step from there to wondering if the “I” that thinks about these things is itself a self-replicating, seething mass of cultural chunks. If I’m feeling disturbed, I picture it a bit like Tetsuo’s out of control mutations in Akira. But it’s all inside.
When I was a kid [tangent: I rather liked being called a kid when I was young. Han Solo called Luke “kid” most of the time, and I loved it. I devoured Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures series and longed for a scaly green demon mentor to call me that. We need some kind of old person endearment to match. “Elder” is just gross], I had a few blocks and other building toys, but the prize was always Lego and its knockoffs. Infinite possibility of form was its promise, and like fumbling apprentices, my brother, cousins, and I got pretty good at making the things we tried to make.
Small, simple pieces iterated over made up a big, more-or-less recognizable thing. Sometimes they were just evocative and expressive sculptures. It was art, of course. Art is created from repeated iterations of little things.
The marks of pencil and charcoal, the strokes of paint, the bits of pixels. Alone, they mean nothing. But what keeps us practicing and returning to make stuff again is that magic of transforming it all. I think we lose sight of that easily, in harsh criticism of the thing that’s made, how imperfect and unlike our vision it often turns out to be. But the magic part is borne out of the small things, and in the moment its there to be felt and reveled in, if we let it be.
We don’t make art in a vacuum. And we don’t do it alone, either. Oh sure, we often create the specific work by ourselves, but the process involves others at some point.
And the process involves pecking out little bits of stuff important to us from a field of other things that aren’t. We find these things not in solitude, but through others sharing with us, and telling us where to look, and making things we want to look at.
These bits are the seeds and the fuel that let us grow and forge new things in the world.
Something I’ve noticed I get really irritated by is articles with an intriguing headline that take several paragraphs of build-up to get to the point or the method of the thing. I’ll try to respect your time, gentle/radical reader, as you knew I would, eh?
Because the basics of noticing are pretty much in your grasp. If you’re old enough to read this, you’ve got plenty of experience.
First, what I’m talking about is deeper seeing. Artists begin to formally learn to do this in beginning drawing. But most of them know the feeling already. It’s a sense of connection to what they’re looking at, a sharpness of perception where every line and color is in focus. It happens to us all in life: we look at our parents, our lovers, our children, trees, flowers, a rainstorm—noticing details about stuff we may never have seen before.
All we’re trying to do in drawing class (or insert your beginning art medium of choice) is to apply that focus and perception to the work.
And it will benefit you and your work, alike, if you begin to practice it while you’re waking around outside the studio or workshop. Look—and listen—hard, and consciously, and with purpose. You’ll notice they feeling arise again when you do.
Rather simple, if you want it to be. Want to know how to decide if a thing is art? One metric is the above: is it new in the world?
Crosswalks and dividing lane markers are painted lines, but rarely, if ever, artful. But my selection of a few of them and how and when I frame them can suddenly be.
Exact copies are less art the more exacting they are. Drawings and paintings copying other drawings and paintings are often much more so, in the changes in line and pressure, in the details left out (deliberately or otherwise).
Music is similar. Is hip-hop, when it builds itself out of other music in chunks art? Of course it is. It’s collage. It’s definitely new.
This is a broad definition, but I think we could do with a bit more of that. More generosity is a good thing.
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.
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.
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.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.