I’m the Decider

calla2blend

calla 2, photograph

“Creativity is allowing oneself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

– Howard Aiken

One of the most important phases in the process of making art is that of editing. By this I mean the decision what to do with a new work. I’m intentionally skipping past the prior step, which is the often paralyzing one where we have to decide if something is “done”.

Editing is commonplace in the photography world, where often hundreds or thousands of shots must be sifted through to isolate the few keepers. Often there is a hierarchical system used, perhaps a ranking of each image from 1 to 5. Many software programs used by photographers to catalogue their work have this capability built in. But such a simple ranking system doesn’t do justice to the complex analysis we all go through to sort this out.

All artists go through this discussion with themselves. They have to decide which pieces to keep, which to toss, which to put in their next show, which to invest in framing, which to keep as an example of something, which to put aside to come back to, which to paint over, etc., etc., etc. Rarely have I seen an explanation of how one should approach this imposing task, and it’s one we’re confronted with continually.

I suppose we each come up with our own system, though I suspect we all wonder if ours works to our benefit. Perhaps some of you keep everything – that’s one way to avoid making the harsh critical choice about our own efforts. Maybe you are more ruthless, quickly tearing up or painting over anything you know isn’t among your best work. You could let the public give you feedback – I’ve heard of comedians who take their material on the road in small clubs first to see what resonates.

I think knowing what to keep of your work implies a deep understanding of your own goals and standards. It implies a degree of objectivity, but also allows the freedom to be compassionate.

One of the wonderful things about art is that it affords us so many opportunities for self-inquiry beyond the “simple” making of the art itself.

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8 responses to “I’m the Decider

  1. I think knowing what to keep of your work implies a deep understanding of your own goals and standards. It implies a degree of objectivity, but also allows the freedom to be compassionate.

    So well said Bob.

    I can’t address organization – I am a tad lacking in that department. But we have an annual purge around here and I include some hopeless art. And I don’t let anyone else get involved because folks will want to take home one of the ugly duckings. The problem with that is, the ugly art ducklings don’t grow up to become beautiful!

    I came dashing over here because of your title – a ghost from the past!

    • Leslie

      Thanks for the kind words about the image.

      I love your comment that the “ugly art ducklings don’t grow up to become beautiful”! In fact, sometimes I find pieces that I thought were beautiful were, in fact, just such ducklings upon further consideration. I know I certainly tire of most (perhaps all!) of my older work.

  2. I am afraid I am of the ruthless bunch— because I paint acrylic on canvas or wood I can paint over and over them– which I have no qualms to do. Many years ago, my pack rat mother who never throws anything away was visiting and found some of my very bad very old DOGS of watercolor paintings on w/c paper that I had thrown away and she took them out of the trash— took them back to Hawaii and gave them away to family and friends. I found out about 6 mos. later when I was visiting her– OMG I cried and cried over the embarrassment and she would never understand– ever since then I don’t keep anything around unless I like it.

    • Donna

      I know what you mean! I recently needed to create more storage space for newer work and took many beautifully matte photographs that I used to show (and sometimes sell!) and tore them up – at a certain point it’s better to make sure they never see the light of day!

      Although it’s interesting sometimes to look at your older, less successful work and contemplate the journey you’ve taken…

      • Although it’s interesting sometimes to look at your older, less successful work and contemplate the journey you’ve taken…

        Yes, this is that ‘compassion’ you mentioned. I’m always skeptical when someone says that an historical figure ‘was ahead of his/her time’. That’s logically impossible, and always suggests to me that ‘someone’ hasn’t done enough research — or (worse) is unfairly projecting modern attitudes into the past.

        Selected samples of our old work are valuable milestones that help us understand where we were at, what we knew, and what we were capable of at the time. We’re never really ‘ahead’ of ourselves, but exactly where we should be. With compassion, we can accept our former selves, and respect the work for what it was as opposed to what it is. And, sometimes, my old work tells me how I wore blinders, and I can become conscious of the blinders I wear today as a result.

        I’ve been away a long time. It’s always a delight to stop by and be persuaded to reflect carefully. Thanks, Bob — and all your great commenters!

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