The Good, the Bad and the … Useful

fort point 2, photograph

“Audiences and critics care about what is good, artists need to care about what is useful.”

Ted Orland

You know the old adage that we learn more from our failures than our successes. I suppose this is true in artmaking as well.

While we relish the successful pieces and are so disappointed in the failures, when you look back on your body of work over a long period of time, it is the failures that are more useful to us. It’s an important distinction – the difference between what feels good and what is good for us. Of course, we need both at times. Once in a while we need to feel good about our work so that we don’t give up hope. But our progress is fueled by the ones we don’t so good about.

It is our failures (which always constitute the majority of our work) we spend our time and thought on – how did that happen, how can I do it better, what worked and what didn’t? I use the term “failure” figuratively because, in some sense, there is no such thing as a failure when it comes to art. But we all have plenty of pieces that we choose to just keep to ourselves – you know the ones I’m talking about. It’s good to hang onto these and spend some time with them periodically. It would be fascinating if some well known, talented artist had a show of their failures, with a brief description of what lesson each taught them.

The trick to making these pieces useful is to learn how to listen to what they have to tell us. This is not as easy as it sounds. Knowing how to learn from our own work takes patience, a fierce resolve and the understanding that feeling good is not the only goal an artist has.

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A Geography Lesson

fort point 1, photograph

“If, however, teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible. We would be pretending to offer the students, in William Stafford’s phrase, ‘a wilderness with a map’.”

Brooks Jensen

Teaching photography, or art in general, is challenging and many, if not most, good artists are not good teachers (most people are not good teachers). Teaching art is particularly hard because there is this “personal vision” thing at which artists eventually aim their focus. It’s what makes it my art, and separates it from the art I made while still learning my craft. Many of us won’t feel successful until we’ve connected with it.

Personal vision is extremely elusive. Our initial experience with it tends to arise from a growing dissatisfaction with our work, so we are introduced to it by it’s absence. We often look to teachers for help, those who we believe have discovered their own personal vision. Sometimes we “adopt” their vision, sometimes we want to hear the steps they took to get there and sometimes we just want encouragement on our own journey.

There are several problems we face in getting help from teachers to discover our vision. At best, they have discovered their vision, not yours. Your vision is a product of all the unique experiences and qualities that define you and thus cannot be truly understood, much less taught, by another. And I bet you would be surprised how many of these teachers, if pressed, ¬†would admit to not even understanding their own vision. It’s not clear that personal vision is something that, once developed, is retained – I think it evolves as you do, since it is an expression of your thoughts and emotions, which change over time. So there will be periods where you feel in synch with your vision and times when you don’t – it’s a moving target, one which needs to be continually reacquired.

I love the metaphor used by Stafford above – artistic vision is a wilderness and there is no map. It takes courage to wander into it without concrete guidance but there is no other way to embark on the journey.

Teaching art can serve an important purpose. There are definitely skills to learn, techniques and craft to develop. You can save enormous time by learning these things from others. And a good teacher will provide the support and environment that makes your travels through the wilderness less intimidating. They might even accompany you on the journey.

But only you can chart the right path through the wilderness…