When Gwarlingo readers give me feedback, I listen. You’ve been telling me that you’d like to see more articles about process and the challenges of being an artist. I’ve appreciated your emails and comments.
Today, I’m excited to launch a new series on Gwarlingo called The Complete Creative, an in-depth series that will examine some of the topics that most concern you and your creative life. During the coming months, I’ll be covering practical topics like money, social media, deadlines, artist retreats, presenting yourself online, and grant writing, as well as a range of deeper, more complex subjects like fear, procrastination, technology, community, time, and limitation. (If you want to read the entire series, be sure to sign up for a free email subscription to Gwarlingo).
Over twenty years of working with artists and arts nonprofits, I’ve noticed an intriguing disconnect. At openings, cocktail parties, and readings, the artist’s life appears glamorous and carefree: fascinating, talented, creative people hobnob with equally “fabulous” collectors, patrons, and members of the public, gawking at bad fashion choices and discussing the weather, real estate, and recent art news. (One of the best gallery conversations was recently overheard at Thomas Beale’s opening at Honey Space when a middle-aged man was spotted walking around completely naked other than his shoes and socks: “Is he part of the art,” a visitor asked, “or just here for the opening?”).
But what do artists talk about once the collectors, patrons, critics, visitors, and naked men have left the building? What do artists discuss when they’re amongst “their own kind?” Sure, they talk about politics, relationships, and literary agents. But they also discuss their struggles to make a living, to overcome self-doubt and creative blocks, to meet deadlines, to keep distractions like email and social media at bay, and to make time for creative projects, in addition to a fulfilling personal life. In other words, real artists discuss real concerns whenever the opportunity presents itself. (This is the beauty of artist retreats or arts and writers groups or simply spending time with like-minded friends — all of that flashy veneer is stripped away and we can dig deeper into subjects that really matter).
It may not be fashionable or hip to publicly own up to weaknesses or self-doubts; it may not be in keeping with the mainstream’s mythology of the inspired, confident artist, but it’s the reality. Why should there be a sense of shame surrounding these struggles when they’re something every artist experiences? Why in heaven’s name aren’t we discussing these topics with sincerity, openness, and intellectual vigor instead of suffering in isolation?
I blame the self-help industry and the touchy-feely, new age gurus who talk about process in terms of “the muse,” “the creative flame,” “the inner goddess” (no offense, but I personally find such a framework exclusive instead of inclusive, while also devoid of practical advice).
Professional artists understand that the best art emerges from good work habits, not from some elusive muse. As the painter Chuck Close once said:
Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.
One of the most popular posts in Gwarlingo’s short history is a letter I posted from the artist Sol LeWitt to his friend Eva Hesse (shown above). Hesse was going through a creative crisis at the time of LeWitt’s letter. Here’s an excerpt:
Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rumbling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO!
…If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant [sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!
Make the work. This is the phrase that the poet Walt Whitman posted above his writing desk. It’s so obvious, and yet it can be misery-making to accomplish. Whether we’re an emerging artist, a student, or an established professional, we all hit roadblocks in our creative work.
One of the central problems of starting, continuing, or finishing a project is that too many of us suffer from what I call “If-Only Syndrome:” If only____________, then I would ____________.
If only I didn’t have to work this terrible job, then I would have time to finish my documentary.
If only I could write like Nabokov, then I would have the guts to attempt a novel.
If only the carpet weren’t covered in cat hair, then I could concentrate on my play.
If only my health were better, then I would have the energy to go to art school.
If only I had more money, then I could afford to buy the new camera I need to start my next project.
If only my family weren’t so judgmental, then I would have the confidence to screw the status quo.
If only I had my own studio, then I would have the peace and quiet to compose.
If only I knew someone famous in the art world, then I would be featured in ArtForum.
You get the idea. (I’ll let you fill in your own blanks.)
One of the biggest problems with If-Only Syndrome is that it robs us of the present moment and all of the present’s potential. We aren’t thinking of the person or task in front of us. Instead, we’re allowing our mind to live in the future or past. Our mind and body are wasting precious time and energy stewing, time and energy that could be used for a better purpose (perhaps even to start the very project we’re talking ourselves out of tackling). Instead of focusing, we’re waiting: waiting for the perfect moment to act.
I have some bad news: there is no such thing as the perfect moment. The ideal conditions we’re waiting for are never going to happen. If we don’t stop worrying and waiting and start doing the thing that is most important to us today, we’ll never fulfill our full potential as artists.
Artistic perfection is an illusion, a myth we impose on the successful artists we envy most. Artists don’t arrive into the world like some visionary Adam and Eve, fully formed and at their creative peak. Do you think Chuck Close began his art career by creating large-scale, highly memorable portraits? Was the first story Jane Austen wrote a masterpiece? God no. (Like many writers, Austen kept a few early unfinished novels “in the desk drawer,” including Lady Susan and The Watsons; Chuck Close’s earliest paintings were still lifes and landscapes).
Many artists destroy their early work out of embarrassment, an act that only perpetuates the notion that they were talented geniuses from the get-go. But this is rarely true. (The Mozarts and Picassos of the world are in short supply.)
When the acclaimed painter Agnes Martin first saw the mountains of Taos during a residency in New Mexico from 1946-1951, she was moved to capture the scene in representational paintings like this one…
“I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought my mountains looked like ant hills,” Martin wrote in “The Untroubled Mind.” Through the process of painting, Martin realized that a representational style couldn’t capture the essence of the New Mexico mountains as she experienced them. Martin was in touch with nature in a way that most people are oblivious to. She realized that what she was trying to convey in her art was not the mountain itself, but the feeling of transcendence she experienced when she saw the mountain. Here is Martin writing about her epiphany in “The Untroubled Mind”:
I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought
the plain had it
just the plane
If you draw a diagonal, that’s loose at both ends
I don’t like circles — too expanding
When I draw horizontals
you see this big plane and you have certain feelings like
you’re expanding over the plane
Anything can be painted without representation
I don’t believe in influence
unless it’s you, yourself following your own track
Eventually, Martin would reject her early representational style for a minimalist approach — a unique and original style that would make her one of the most respected and famous artists in North America. Here is a New Mexico mountain as Agnes Martin imagined it in 1960…
I have great respect for artists who include their earliest works in presentations and catalogs because it tells the whole story about how their art evolved, not a carefully edited version. To see the entire arc of a career is especially important for students. Young artists need to understand that being a professional artist is a process that unfolds over time and that there is no way to get there without going through the painful phase of producing crap. The awful first drafts, the embarrassing early paintings, the horrible first songs are a fact of life. The gap between good taste and skill can only be closed through the process of making more work, painful or embarrassing as it may be.
Do I believe that anyone is capable of becoming the next Mozart, Joyce, or Picasso merely through persistence? No. But I do believe that art is more about hard work than we like to admit. We have a vested interest in perpetuating the false idea that talent and inspiration are more important than labor. It gives us an excuse for not getting down to business.
Perfection is a myth, just as the romantic notion of an inspired muse is a myth. We can create conditions that are ripe for us to do our best work, but to muck about and wait for some divinely inspired lightning bolt of inspiration is ludicrous. We laugh at the idea, but this is what we’re doing each time we allow If-Only Syndrome to keep us in its grip. We’re waiting for a miracle.
Before we can make the transition from worrying and waiting to actually creating, we need to understand what if-only statements are looping around in our heads. These conditional requirements, however false they may be, have power. They can derail a creative project faster than a broken track (and that’s exactly what these if-only statements are — a broken mental track).
In the next installment of The Complete Creative series, I’ll take a closer look at limitations, both real and imagined, and how they can hinder or help the artistic process.
Until then, here’s a short exercise…
What creative project is most important to you right now?
What if-only phrases pop into your mind when you think about starting or completing this creative project?
Write your answers down and take a hard look at them. Are the phrases you’ve recorded really true? Do you really need these perfect conditions in order to make art? What if-only beliefs are keeping you from doing your best work?
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