Monday, November 18, 2013

On Creativity: The Secret to Creating Great Art

    My stint as a visiting artist at Hartwick College earlier this year was nothing like I expected yet everything I could have wanted. Being placed somewhat unexpectedly in the role of educator alongside the familiar one of puppet-builder proved both challenging and rewarding in a myriad of ways I could have never anticipated. It is an old axiom that the teacher learns more than the students. I found this to be very true. One of the most surprising aspects of teaching for me was the way it confronts you in a very real and tangible way with what you know.

     Since the end of my residence, I have been slowly trying to compile observations about living the creative life in a series of essays. I am attempting to confront the realities of the creative process in as pragmatic and rational manner as I can. I do this partly to record my own ideas in a coherent form, but mostly out of a sense of gratitude to my former students and colleagues. It is my fervent hope that these writings can help others along their journey. To this end, I will endeavor to speak in the broadest possible terms, using the word "Artist" in it's most general sense.  

    On a personal note to all those I associated with during my Residency: I apologize for those moments when I could be cranky irrational and overly demanding. The only defense I have to offer is that I felt that I could relentlessly demand excellence from you because time and again you proved capable of it.
I am extremely proud of the work we did together!

"Here are my Principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others!"
-Groucho Marx

The Secret of Creating Great Art

There is a moment that every working creative dreads. It is that moment when an enthusiastic and appreciative person asks “How do you do that?” They don't mean how was one specific project accomplished. They want to know how to PAINT, How to WRITE, How to ACT! It as if the artist could, by some magical act of beneficence tell them a simple universal truth that would part the veil and magically welcome the questioner into the sacred order. Any answer that can be given is going to come as a terrible letdown. It will ring false or trite in the ears of the audience. They come to you seeking to unlock Truth and Beauty and are forced to make due with cliches like “Write what you know”.
No artist can tell you what you want to learn in a few short sentences. They can give you a few pointers, certainly they can draw you a map, but you need to embark on your own voyage. The process is always going to be your greatest teacher. I have been fortunate enough to have had the guidance of many wonderful instructors, both in a formal and casual capacity, and have found their insights of inestimable value. At the end of the day, however, I must admit it was the wood that taught me the most about how to carve.

I have discovered that there is,after all, a great and universal truth to the creative process that can be stated simply and succinctly. Here it is-At long last revealed the secret that every successful artist knows! I should warn you, it's terribly disappointing the first time you learn it

The secret to creating great artwork is simply this: Make bad art.

Behind every masterpiece painted lies a graveyard of terrible drawings. Every soaring violin composition reached it's heights on a scaffold of hours worth of scratchy shrieked notes. That beautiful inspiring passage from your favorite writer is only possible because of pages and pages of poisonous prose. Those dancers that float effortlessly across the stage have fallen more times then you can count

This is another one of those stories we tell ourselves as artists: Some people are just “born with it”. They are naturally talented, and so opportunity falls in their laps. They are blessed by the gods with something divine that makes them more that the rest of us.
That's true. It's called a work ethic.

Don't get me wrong, Natural talent is real. There are people who are more musically inclined, more graceful, more visually oriented from birth. I have met these people. This is an excellent start. It opens the door for them but rest assured they have to climb the mountain just like anyone else.

Here's what really happens: A young person shows some aptitude for a task. They are praised by their friends and family, and so they continue to try. With a little more effort and a little more positive reinforcement, they realize that they really enjoy doing this more than anything else. Because they are doing what they love, they embrace it. They work hard and never notice the effort because they enjoy every minute. Obstacles become challenges. The desire for praise turns inward. Instead of wanting the praise of parents, the young artist wants to be the best, to say something original. Parents worry about these new found obsessions and start to encourage their child to do pursue other interests. Peers may even mock the young artist for their strange new obsession, but by now none of this matters as much as the passion. Like any other addiction, it takes hold of the person's being and begins to define them. As the process of learning the craft gets more difficult, the artist becomes less and less capable of extracting themselves until they can barely imagine doing or being anything else. I know this to be so because it is my story, along with thousands of others.

The special trait that artists have that you believe you don't isn't talent. It's passion and determination. Successful creative people are simply those who continued to work. Stop telling yourself that you aren't “Born with it” or whatever other convenient excuse you are hiding behind. Nobody wants to hear how you can't even draw a stick figure. That's a cop-out. If you truly want to draw, pick up a pad of paper and fill it in. Once you've finished that one, move on to the next. Make your mistakes like everyone else, and learn from them. Don't expect to get it right the first time. You won't. Keep trying. Each attempt teaches you something new. Remember, you are honing a skill. It's a lifelong process.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this completely. Hard work trumps "talent" every time. One of the best things I've read about this is in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. He wrote about a 10,000 hour rule; the theory is that if you do something for 10,000 hours you will be proficient in that skill. It comes down to at least three hours a day for ten years. This theory's been contested, but I like to believe it's true.