But the sentiment of the rest of his monologue (followed by an extended version of “Brazil”) is valuable. Sometimes you have to distract yourself in order to find your own happy moments. If that’s mambo, well, good. If it’s your work, even better. Let your art take over.
If rabbits is the thing that you keep returning to, then let that happen. Lately it seems that’s what I do. And it’s okay. Repeating yourself until you find the next thing or new path can lead to wonderful discoveries.
We don’t always have to be working toward the new thing. Sometimes we need to exhaust the possibilities of a path or subject we’ve been working on. The important part is that we’re continuing to do the work and sincerely exploring ideas.
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.
We do long to have meaning in our lives. We yank it from our stories, the fiction, film, and memoirs we consume. We pluck song lyrics and apply them to our existence like bumper stickers.
It’s not always important to know what you mean with your work. People who read and listen to and look at the things you do will find something that applies to them, more often than not. That’s a good thing, but it’s also what humans are good at.
But, if you, in your struggle to find what to say and how to say it every day, it will help you to have a meaningful framework beneath the thing you’re working on. It connects the deeper parts of you with the physical world. You’ll be putting more of you into your work and thus into the world.
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.
When you’re dead beat, there’s zero motivation to work on a project. It happens a lot after the day job for me. There’s not a lot you can do, but even a little effort can get you to the metaphorical—or actual—drawing board.
And that’s what you want. A page a day gets you a novel in a year. A line a day gets you several paintings, or a series, or a lot further along than you would be waiting for fresh energy, a full work day, or the lightning strike of inspiration.
A piece of something every day is you putting up a lightning rod.
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 thumbnails I usually put at the top of these posts turned into a series of connected works recently. I started giving them titles, and the imagery I saw in them made me think of folk tales or myths. I called them New American Mythology along that line of thinking, imagining each image could be part of a larger set of stories that remake the world in their telling.
It’s pretentious as hell, of course. But I tend to gravitate to such grand scales, and I decided to run with it, for now.
But it’s clear to me that most of them are about conflict, and danger, and skullduggery—to be perfectly pirate about it. These are elements I see prominently in the corridors of power at the moment, in government, business, and in people. And one’s feelings tend to come through in one’s work.
I’m hoping I’ll feel like making more hopeful, generous, and open-feeling work next year. Counterpoints to the negatives we see around us are always useful.
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.