Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pearls From Swine

I thought it high time I stop talking about interpersonal shit and got back to the art and artist I am supposed to be becoming. I'm not even sure if I'm even halfway down the road to becoming an artist, but this is the best stuff I would keep from all the advice I have recieved over the years. This is the advice that if not producing instantaneous fame and success, sustains me in my work and keeps me producing.

1. People Want You To Succeed

This was something a manager at Honda said to a colleague of mine making what I presume was one of his first presentations. Technically it is an observation rather than advice but I strongly advise you to consciously acknowledge and accept it. Schadenfreude exists in some rare exceptions, but you can be confident that by and large people actually want you to succeed and do well. They don't want to see a shitty comedian choke, they don't want to see your band's lead singer break down and cry. They don't want to be the only person in the gallary looking at your works.
People enjoy being witness to the risks you are taking that they won't or can't take themselves. They are with you not against you. Feed off that.

2. Deserve, Then Desire

Following from that, this is a variation of Ghandi's old 'be the change' chestnut. I have limited sympathy for people who fret over the poor attendence at their party when you can't recall seeing them at any other party than their own. Mass market shows like the Idol franchise, Masterchef etc. encourage the notion that their is a vertical heirarchy in the creative pursuits and one's success is at the expense of another. Wrong! Wrong I say, there is room for all. For me it is easier to imagine there are people who will willingly support the arts with their time and money if I am one myself. I try to support anybody creating anything, not morally but physically and financially and in any way I can. I don't expect reciprocity, even in a karmic indirect sense but it makes it easier to believe. If you are an artist, support the arts. It is furthermore an enjoyable process, I am yet to drag myself to a gig, or exhibition that I didn't end up really enjoying.

3. All Advice is Autobiographical

People offer advice all the time. I stole this piece of advice from 'How to Steal Like an Artist' by Austin Kleon which is worth reading, but it is important. People give you advice in the context of either A) their own ambitions, which Austin covers or B) their ambitions for you.
Parents often just want you to avoid hardship and harm, their job is to protect you, but avoiding failure is not success. The best advice comes from people who can closely empathise with you, or at the very least admit that they can't. Be selective of the advice you recieve, even mine.

4. Do the Work.

I love Bobby Chiu and his Chiustream interviews, the visual arts is a lonely isolated profession and his interactive interview series allows these lonely people to connect. He asks almost every artist for their advice and thankfully and refreshingly they are always unanimous in saying in one form or another 'do the work.' Jason Seiler probably took it one step further and said that 'talent' is just a word used by his unsuccessful artist friends to describe the high correlation between their lack of it, and the hours spent playing play station. Seinfeld also advised that nothing bad can come from working your ass off. The only acception being RSI or carpel tunnel syndrome. But if you want to get better, schedule in the practice and do the work, taking regular breaks.

5. Achievement Comes Before Ambition

Probably the only advice here that nobody told me before I figured it out for myself. Our society overvalues the prodigy, and often disregards the late bloomer. We would all rather succeed sooner than later, but generally aiming way too high just defeats yourself. You walk into sticky and pick up a zine and say 'I could write something way better than this.' but it turns out that often you can't, or you do and nobody buys it, because nobody recognizes your name. A lot about keeping your ambitions in check is being efficient. You have no track record so you are likely to only generate a small following, even if you do manage to pull off something substantial and ambitious you will dissappoint yourself with the lack of witnesses. Always produce quality work, you want those few people who do pick it up to be advocates, but pace yourself and give them plenty of opportunities to become advocates - even evangelists.

6. Mind the Gap

Following from this, and also touched on in 'How to Steal Like an Artist' are the cognitive gaps. We are our own harshest critiques (most of the time, some people are way up their own arse.) Harvard posted this gem of advice just a few days ago on the gap between what we expect of ourselves and what we can actually produce. In summary people get into the creative arts because they have great taste, but lack the ability to meet their own standards. My most reliable and supportive friend John has for example criticized many a guitar solo for sucking, and he has high standards for them, but he cannot actually solo himself. I feel I should be able to draw finished works like Humberto Ramos and Skottie Young, but I can't... yet. It doesn't mean my drawings are bad. Just not as good as I want them to be. So don't give up, just try to better.

7. Publish/Put yourself Out There

Following from the gap between ambition and ability, unless you publish stuff you can easily lose perspective of how good your work really is. Performing or publishing is also not as self-indulgent as you probably worry it is. The whole notion of having an audiance is based on the theory that they will relate to you. I still feel nervous about publishing stuff, largely because I worry that people will find out how borderline psychotic I am, (I feel nobody appreciates how much effort I exert not invading a South American nation and exploiting their mineral resources) but my experience has been that everybody kind of assumed that about me anyway and nobody treats me any differently once I put it out there. People also by and large appreciate your soundcloud link, photos, drawing or video more for breaking up the monotony of those insipid facebook friends' status updates 'Tacos for dinner... yummy yum yum!'

8. Be Gracious Not Humble

My picture is hanging on the wall, a wonderful friend approaches and says 'it's really great!' and I say 'no, it's fucking shit.' this is an expression of that gap, and it's a mistake. The subtext is, 'if you like my work you have no taste.' where as I was always wanting to be honest and demonstrate a requisite humility. The correct (and honest) response is always 'thankyou, that means a lot to me.' This is the only way to respect yourself and the people who love you.

9. Never Criticise Yourself in Public

I'm really bad at this. (I know that sentence is ironic) I almost never follow this advice, it's just too tempting to not let your artwork speak for itself. It's just wasted energy though and counter productive. More broadly speaking though follow Nietzsche's advice 'When his book opens its mouth, the author must shut his.' male personal pronouns aside, everyone can benefit from this. Your art is like a child growing into adolescence you need to let it go. Ursula Le Guin also said along the same lines 'I know that to clinch a point is to close it. To leave the reader free to decide what your work means, that’s the real art; it makes the work inexhaustible.'

10. Just because you aspire to something better doesn't make it necessary or helpful to hate where you are.

I am dubious of the vaguely defined 'success'. I can tell you as an economist that it is empirically known that wealth and fame fail to make people happy, and contribute relatively little. I know though that many artists struggle below the poverty line. But I would advise people to make a concerted effort to appreciate the upside. The people that support you in the early days truly care, and are far more likely to be people you respect. Bruce Campbell has a great line in Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 'Who cares about the love of your family, when you could have the adoration of thousands of strangers!' Just watch an evening with Kevin Smith to appreciate that famous people don't get to pick their fans. But complaining about the hardships you have voluntarily taken on implies a criticism of the people and places around you. And focusing on how much you hate something has never made it easier to endure, whether it is running a cross country race or making coffees for yuppies.

11. Collaborate Whenever Possible

Your friends are your most obvious and immediate audience, this is true of your friends' friends. If you do solo stuff you will attract a smaller audience than if you collaborate with a friend. Collaboration is natural to musicians who tend to form bands or at the very least have to go through some kind of production relationship with a solo act, but if you're a visual artist or writer it isn't so obvious, do a collaborative project. It's much easier to get into the discipline of working to a schedule, but also is good training for the hard work of compromising and coordinating a work. Plus collaboraters are the most likely to give you honest and inspiring feedback on your works and working process.

12. No Effort is Wasted

You are going to fail a lot and often. Nassim Nicholas Taleb had the great aphorysm 'The opposite of success isn't failure, it's name dropping.' And I agree, as a piece of sub-advice avoid name dropping at all costs, it looks REALLY insecure. But the important point is that failure is part and parcel of success, and certainly not its opposite. I am currently faced with the reality that my audio/visual collaboration with John will not get a venue before he moves, but our reharsals were not wasted effort, they helped me develop so much in technique and repertoir and composition. The very process of trying makes me more likely to succeed in future and indeed the attempt to bridge the audio/visual live gap has been a long standing abortive challange. John is the third collaborator I've approached and the closest I've come to succeeding. It will happen one day though, as Samual Beckett wrote 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

13. Sacrifice is Overrated

Creating stuff is hard and time consuming, but masochism is unnecessary. Have a social life, interact with other people and schedule in downtime. Be honest about your procrastination and go to that movie on Saturday, don't refuse because you 'have to work on something' then work yourself into a depressive fit as you achieve nothing at all. Furthermore friendships and relationships and so fourth can actually help you succeed. Very few award winning artists don't thank their partner in their speech, none of them say 'Thanks me, or sacrificing everything in the pursuit of this reward.' Eat, drink, be fun to be around. Friends create opportunities and sustain your energy that you can work. I have never liked my friends less than when they all dissappeared into masochistic self indulgent honors thesis writing. Being acknowledged in a thesis is nice, but not nice enough to remove the (mild) pain of being told we couldn't go out tonight because they had to stare blankly at a screen and experience writers block.

14. Don't waste time on Grammar and Punctuation.

You can pay people to correct this shit, they are called 'Editors'. Focus on actually creating the work.

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