TWO LETTERS REGARDING THE ARTISTIC PROCESS
Just had a thought about your film. I remember us talking about your working on the film project earlier this year, and you were disappointed with the kid actors, with whomever was not vibing with you on the direction, maybe with other things that I don’t recall now. And clearly you weren’t super thrilled with the original cut because you shelved it for over six months.
Here’s what I realized just now: Maybe at the time you were working on your film it didn’t quite achieve your vision, and because at the time you were so busy seeing your film for what it lacked in comparison to your vision, there was no chance for you to see what the film could be outside the bounds of your vision. And it took these six or so months for you to let your original vision go, and for you to conceptualize a new vision based on what was there, to recut the film, and create this amazing result.
I am seeing a very similar pattern in my own work. I often write something and hate it because I don’t think it’s good, because it doesn’t align with what I set out to do. I am only seeing what I created in this one narrow way, comparing it with a super narrow vision of what the thing should have been. And it, whatever I created, may not fit into that vision neatly, or at all. But at the time I cannot get rid of my vision because my vision is what inspired the piece in the first place! And who wouldn’t be true to their vision while working? That’s basically the point of making any kind of art: expressing one’s vision!
But it doesn’t at all mean that what I created is bad. It’s just different from what I set out to do. And the lamentable part is that I beat myself up, I think I’m a failure, when all I should be doing is setting the thing aside and allowing the time to forget my original vision. Then I can come back to whatever I created in the future, see what is there, and create a new vision around the piece as it is, and not try to continue to look at it as something that it didn’t turn out to be and never can be. Then I can work to edit the piece in light of this new vision, which accepts the piece for what it is, and works with it as something good, and not as a failure.
Writing this immediately reminds me of how parents treat children. Some parents want their kids to turn out a certain way, and when the kid grows up and actually exercises some willpower and becomes their own person, one that is different from the parents’ desires, the parents are crushed and dismayed. What the parents need to do is adjust their expectations. Is the kid a good person? Are they able to take care of themselves? Are they enjoying life? Do they have good friends and relationships? If the answer to most of these is yes, especially if the answer is yes to all of them, then jeez your kid is a winner. And now it’s up to you (parents) to learn how to look at them as such and not keep regretting and pigeonholing your kid into some idea you had about how their life should have turned out.
And relating this back to art: Maybe artists could use more of this attitude, where they look at their works as little individuals who take on a life. You birth these individuals (have an idea), you raise them (working on the piece), and then they have a life of their own which, love it or hate it, is theirs. And maybe it just takes time and a bit of effort on our part to come to love what’s there in these pieces, or at least take what’s there and reedit and work with it to create something that may not match our original vision, but that can be considered good using the standards of a different vision.
And one more thing: I am realizing now this setting pieces aside and knowing that when you come back to them later you will be able to see them for something good, for something that you cannot see now, takes confidence and belief, in yourself and in your work. And this confidence and belief can be based not on something supernatural, but on simple logic: You and I both know that any work we create either informs our new work, or we can rework what is there later to create something we never even imagined, something that our vision at the time of our having it couldn’t encompass, because we were working with images and text that were in our minds and not images and text that are now in reality. And I think this is the key: As an artist, you set out to make a film, you shoot the film, it never goes perfectly because there are so many factors that are outside of your control, you look at what you end up with, and do your best to not judge it based on your original vision because of limits of the world and your particular circumstance (like no budget to reshoot scenes, non-professional actors, etc). And from what you do have you make the best thing that you can, and you trust yourself to do that, even if what you make isn’t quite what you originally imagined. The key is accepting yourself in light of the uncontrollable circumstances of the world. It is a faith in the fact that everything will be okay, everything is okay, that we don’t have too much control in life, and all we do have control over is our ability to adapt to what is given to us.
And with this newfound faith, with this confidence, you are able to get rid of the negative looping on how terrible what you make is and how terrible of an artist you are. Because that looping is a huge waste of energy, and does nothing but foster negativity, which is completely useless. Wouldn’t it make much more sense to try making something, have it not work out (even if it were something you really wanted to work out), lament it for five minutes, then shrug your shoulders, go to sleep, wake up to a new day and try making something new? Imagine how much more great art there would be if people did that instead of giving up, because why, because something didn’t match their “original vision”? That’s crazy! How many times have I beat myself up for days, for weeks, bumming around the world thinking I’m a failure because I wrote something that I didn’t think was so great. So much wasted time and energy I could have been putting back into my work!
But of course having said all this the question begs to be asked: Just how exactly do you get the confidence to do all this? And I think the answer is: By simply being open to things outside of yourself and your original vision. And that takes a letting go of ego, of wanting to be labeled “great” by your heroes, of being famous, or powerful, or rich, etc. It takes the attitude of playfulness with our artwork, of having fun with it, and not worrying so much about the outcome and of what that outcome can bring you. Knowing that whatever you are making is fun and will always be fun gives you the confidence to create more work, because you know that what you’re setting yourself up for is more and more fun the more work you do. And with this attitude it’s not a crime to alter your original vision to match the circumstances of life, because it’s all an exploration, an experimentation, an adventure. It’s all fun.
Remember the article you sent me about Agnes de Mille’s conversation with Martha Graham? One thing I worry about is Agnes de Mille’s focus on excellence, “I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be,“ she says.
My idea is an antithesis to this in a sense. It’s all about working on your own psychology so that there is less of a desire for “excellence”, and more a desire to experiment and explore. Because what does excellence even mean? Is it you yourself considering yourself excellent, or is it applause from others and ticket sales? And the follow up question: Which people are you satisfied to judge you as excellent, the masses or some elite few?
And this is the whole thing, and why it brings me back to childhood: When we were kids we experimented and explored by nature of who we were. We did not have goals to impress or win. Sure we wanted our parents to like our scribbles or mud pie, but we wanted that from them about everything including taking a shit. We didn’t want that from them as artists, we wanted that from them as people. And we spent the bulk of our days playing with whatever, and exploring, and experimenting, and now that we’re older, we want fame and money and we align our life and focus on things that we hope will bring that about, instead of going back to just messing around and not worrying about outcome.
I realize that what I am saying is very anti-making-art-for-profit. Because for art-for-profit, unless your explorations and experiments happen to align with what the world is throwing money at, you won’t make a cent. In order to make any money, you will have to start tailoring your explorations and experimentations to whatever the world does value and throw money at. And this is where the trouble starts, because you stop having fun. All art is work, but my hope is that by keeping it exploratory and experimental it can cease to feel like work. My second hope is that by exploring and experimenting, aka following your gut about what to work on (instead of tailoring your work to what you think people will like), you end up creating better and better art that one day does bring money, by virtue of the fact that it’s so good and unique. But at the same time one has to be okay that those experiments and explorations may lead to absolutely nothing more than the fun you had doing them at the time.
And one last huge thing I’ve been ignoring: You can experiment and explore and not show anyone. It’s not ideal for people who want to see your work, and I’ve always taken it as a given that art made is art shown, but it doesn’t have to be, at least not right away. Showing your art and seeing reactions, receiving criticism, and knowing how to deal with all that emotionally, as well as how to incorporate it into one’s life (and art), is something that is learned, like a skill. It takes time, and while you’re learning, if you’re not confident in your project or process, you may get derailed from making art that you want to make, and instead be influenced to make things that people around you “understand” or approve of. Moreover, maybe there are things (like your journal) that are meant to be private, that would lose some kind of magic if released to the world. And that is totally okay. What I’m trying to say is that if someone feels a compulsion to create, they should do it and focus on the doing, exploring, experimenting, and not worry about showing the work at all if that is how they feel.
By the way, the question that I always ask myself to find out whether or not the work I’m doing is something I’m doing for myself or others is: What if I never show this to anyone, will I still do it? And the answer often surprises me. Less now, but way more before, I found that I was doing things to get praise from others for having done them or for my “skill” rather than because I just wanted to experiment and explore.
take me home!