Sunday, April 16, 2006

Juggling and Judging

I've been immersed in two projects: a memorial urn for a good friend's father; and a jewelry chest for a cancer fundraiser connected with other friends. I deemed the first a success, and the second a near disaster. But self-declared disaster, or not, I delivered the second one, anyway -- to rave reviews. "Guess I don't know my own strength." (Bullwinkle J. Moose)

I remember wandering around the benches at North Bennet Street School, and commenting on all of the beautiful work that I saw in progress. Uniformly, without exception, each craftsperson gravely thanked me and then pointed out the swarm of little flaws that had escaped my notice.

Why do artists and others so frequently dump on their own work? Bob Franke, ( -- a national treasure and greatest songwriter on the planet), references "the existential guilt of the artist" (a phrase I think he attributes to Madeline L'Engel) when talking of this tendency among songwriters. With apologies to Bob, Madeline, and Heidegger, my gloss on the concept is that there is an essential structural limitation to one's authority -- a notion of right or skillful comportment or "being", such that one can never get a clear idea about what right or skillful comportment is. Therefore, one is eternally "wrong". For our artist, this implies that somewhere "out there" exists a grand defining notion of "Art", and the artist is unclear about how well he meets the definition; therefore, he must fall short.

We have an ideal in our heads. We struggle to achieve the ideal, and miss the mark. Therefore, our efforts are a miserable failure.

Heidigger suggests that a sort of salvation can be had if only we take responsibility for our understanding of being -- that which we embody but cannot know. For example, an artist could come to terms with what he believes Art to be, and then act in concert with that belief. In that way, the artist is at least authentic to his own ideals, and recovers some amount of autonomy.

I'll let you in on a little secret. I want to be like this guy, in every thing I do:

So, Heidigger, darling, salvation cannot be achieved in my universe, because I'm all too often trying to measure my efforts against a paradigm that can not be realized.

OK, but on my more productive days, I use a gentler standard. When I declare the first of my projects a success, what I really mean is that the piece I created exactly met my expectations and hopes. The finished piece was delivered on time, met my quality standards, and said exactly what needed saying. I held nothing back. I discovered a few things along the way. The process was healing for my client. The experience enriched my life.

The second project was haunted by expectations. It had no chance of meeting my hopes, because I wanted it to cure cancer. Truly. In my heart of hearts, I felt if I put all the right things into that project, it would somehow heal someone who is probably past healing by any mortal means. Too much for a mere box to achieve. But in the midst of the project, my fingers black with ebony dust, fighting time, and fear, and grief, and artistic angst -- I couldn't see it. When I finally recognized what I was doing, I abandoned the unrealistic hopes instead of the box, and delivered the project anyway. And no one saw that I failed to cure cancer that day. Except me. And now, you.

In "Photographing the World Around You", (a book one should read, if only to appreciate the beautiful writing), Freeman Patterson tells a story about a student who spent all day shooting images in a dead forest, returning "deeply excited, carrying three rolls of exposed film." Patterson describes checking the films in the drying closet, and carefully reviewing the images on a light box -- "ghostly images that powerfully evoked skeletons and a world of the dead -- achieved by means of overexposing the subject matter by two or more shutter speeds". Later, he runs into the student, who claimed that she'd "ruined all the rolls" she shot because she forgot to change the film speed on her camera. When he asked where the films were, she said she'd thrown them in the trash. A horrified Patterson rescued as many slides as he could, then showed them (without comment or attribution) to the rest of the class -- to rave reviews. He finishes by admonishing the reader, thusly:

Don't evaluate the pictures you thought you made; evaluate the ones you actually made.
Evaluation has at least three parts. First, we need to acknowledge the discrepencies, if any, between our intial vision and the finished work. Ok, grieve, grump or celebrate, then move on.

Time to abandon that vision, and look with fresh eyes at what we actually made. To do this, you may need to distance yourself from the work for a while so that you can see it clearly. Put it someplace safe. At this stage, it is best to give a wide berth to fireplaces, trash cans, and sledge hammers. Okay, take a breath and look at it. Can you own it? Does it fit inside what you believe quality work to be? Does it say something [else] to you? Where does it irritate you? Must you tinker with it? (Try not to. ) Where does it surprise you? If someone else made this, what would you think? Aren't you a little bit curious about what someone else might discover when they experience it?

If you can own it, release it. Something happens when we foist our work on the real world -- whether we are satisfied with that work or not. Others view it, interact with it, bring their stories and their symbols in to play with it. Time, light, color, sound will weave themselves into it. And unless you anticipated these variables in the original work (as juggler Chris Bliss must have done for his juggling to be so effective), your intended meaning will be altered, muted or amplified. Some of these alterations will surprise, peeve, vex, or amuse you. Some will resonate, and you'll find yourself thinking, "yes, that was floating around underneath my conscious intent, but it was there". And sometimes you will be right -- the thing is dreadful or, worse, inconsequential. But until you release it, you won't know.

If there is a fourth step, it has to do with time and synchronicity. You may not be there when it happens, but often a finished work of art can evolve.

On one of my installations, a goldleaf flock of fat little birds spirals up a stairwell. On winter mornings, sunlight filters through the chandelier crystals, and splatters rainbows on the walls. It looks as if the birds are hopping over rainbows, or leaving rainbow skid marks everywhere. I'd like to say I knew that that would happen. The truth, though, is that prior to the completion of the installation, I had never seen the sun hit that chandelier, and I was sad that it rarely captured any light. I noticed sunlight dappling the walls directly, and I had thought about playing with these lights and shadows, but it became one of those ideas on the cutting room floor.

Anyway, I first saw the rainbows on a day when I was frazzled and down. And I laughed out loud, ran for my camera, called my husband, and just enjoyed the moment in every way I could.

Ok, so it didn't cure cancer, but it cured what ailed me. Is it art? It meets my definition of art: it moves me from position i to position x everytime I see it. That is all I ask of Art. I want it to take us from where we are, and move us -- even a little bit -- to a new view point.

Struggle to say what you mean to say. Then step back, and learn whether or not you said it. That can't happen if you keep chattering on about how awful the work is. Shut up. Listen. Let the art begin.


  1. I am not an artist, but I am a teacher, and what you wrote really resonates with me. What happens in the classroom is my creation - in collaboration with my students - and it is an attempt to convey meaning to my students in a way that is accessible to them. Together we move from i to x. If art is conveying a vision, then teaching is a kind of art. As a performance, it is created at the same time it is "consumed" by the "end user" - I can't ever take back anything I have done, no matter how much I may want to! I have only limited control over how it is perceived and what its lasting impact is. I think that instead of pointing out our flaws, we tend to blame our students for not getting it. But when we do that I think we are really doing the same thing as the artists who show off their mistakes - there is sometimes such a huge gap between the ideal we hold in our minds and what actually happens that we have to do something to restore the balance, and too often that is to complain about our students ignorance or poor preparation.

    But what really moved me was this: "take a breath and look at it. Can you own it? Does it fit inside what you believe quality work to be? ... If you can own it, release it. Something happens when we foist our work on the real world -- whether we are satisfied with that work or not. Others view it, interact with it, bring their stories and their symbols in to play with it." Thanks.

  2. No doubt in my mind: Good teachers are artists. The best teachers forever change the way we view the world. They inspire in us a life-long love of learning. They foster genuine growth, and promote real change.

    I deeply appreciate your thoughtful remarks.