The Effort of Craft and Vision

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“Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”

– Gene Fowler

I had to laugh when I read this quote which is the intro to one of my favorite art books that I’m currently re-reading, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It captures so wryly the contrast between the seeming simplicity of artmaking and the difficulty of it’s actual achievement.

But it made me think about the various people I know and their approach to making art. Is it a struggle for everyone? I can think of two distinct ways in which it can be.

First is that of craft – all of us must learn the techniques required by our chosen medium, and inherent in this process is challenge and frustration. Some continue the learning process their whole lives, others reach a stage where they are satisfied with what they know. The second is that of vision – trying to figure out the meaning of what we’re creating and how to express it effectively to others. This issue is of paramount importance to some, of little interest to others, with most of us somewhere in between. How often do you ask yourself about your vision?

People make art for many reasons. Some do it for their own enjoyment, as an escape, while others pursue a more complex purpose. Even those who choose the latter path will find themselves sometimes making art just for fun, or as diversion. These aims are all perfectly legitimate.

But making art is like most other things we do – the wider the scope of our aspirations, the more we extend our reach, the more we will be rewarded. Those drops of blood will eventually fall, filling the page with our words, words which will resonate more for all the effort behind them.

Healthy Competition?

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“When we are in competition with ourselves, and match our todays against our yesterdays, we derive encouragement from past misfortunes and blemishes. Moreover, the competition with ourselves leaves unimpaired our benevolence toward our fellow men.”

Eric Hoffer

There are many opportunities in the art world to become embroiled in competition: juried shows, camera clubs, publication submissions, etc. It’s challenging to heed the excellent advice of Hoffer to compete only with ourselves. I do like the consequence he points out, that of minimizing any ill feelings toward others!

Competition in art seems so arbitrary – how can one compare a photograph (or painting) of a landscape against a figurative piece? Or between two pieces with very different styles? What qualities of the pieces are being compared and contrasted? I don’t envy jurors of these events – it’s a necessary task, but one incredibly hard to do well, I think.

Even competing with oneself is a challenge. How does one measure improvement? Often there are too many variables at play – if we created the same type of work over and over, we might be able to compare results, but I’m constantly changing what and how I create the work. Progress, if even identifiable,  surely occurs on a non-linear trajectory.

This year I’ve decided to engage in more events in which my work will be judged by others. I’ve had some success so far, and some rejections. I am a competitive person by nature, so am working on keeping that tendency in check.

This will be my last posting for a short while – this weekend I am off to Photoalliance, a portfolio review in San Francisco. There I will be confronted with lots of feedback from curators, gallery owners, artists and publishers. I will be looking for direction, networking and inspiration. Hopefully I will keep any competitive urges at bay…

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What’s the Difference?

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“The work was important because it was good, not because it was different.”

– Ted Orland

I just finished reading Ted Orland’s excellent book, The View from the Studio Door, and particularly enjoyed his discussion of artist communities and how challenging it is to create such a thing in today’s world. The quote above is in the context of how the value of artwork long ago was that it represented and supported the community it came from and was, therefore, good. Today art making is much more disconnected from the community we live in and figuring out how good it is requires a whole different set of criteria.

One of the more popular criteria seems to be if it is different. We are inundated with so many images today, exponentially more than people were a hundred years ago, that it had become harder to do something new and different. So I suppose there is some value in being different, if only because it is so much harder to do so now and the artist had to at least put some effort into achieving that. But there is a tendency to rely too heavily on this single quality as the primary criteria for whether work is good.

I see a lot of work that seems to me to come from a place of just wanting to be different, to shock the viewer with its newness. There is an immediate impact upon seeing such work and grabbing one’s attention is not a bad thing in itself. But there needs to be more, there needs to be a reason to return to the work time and again.

While I haven’t really figured out for myself what qualities in my work will make it compelling to myself and others, I know that difference isn’t what I should focus on. I do try to do things that I haven’t done before (so I don’t get bored) but, if someone else has done similar work, so be it. Mine won’t be exactly the same and there’s just too much work out there to avoid some overlap anyway.

So my search for good hasn’t settled on different

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