The other day I was listening to some of my own music from 18-20 years ago, and felt that it is important to my present-day self to reflect on the art of my former self. Not to find the youthful bravado as well as its inevitable mistakes and learn from them, although that’s informative. Not to reconnect with some deeply personal intention I might have had at the time, although that’s helpful, too. But the main gift of reflection is to hear or see one’s own work truly afresh, as if with the eyes and ears of an outsider, and learn that way about one’s soul.
In this process of discovery, change and consistency are not mutually exclusive.
Some artists look to complexity as a way of improving their art. In music, more complex rhythms and harmonies are considered a sign of sophistication. In my view sophistication takes the form of increased simplicity at least as often as increased complexity. Moreover, sophistication is rooted in experience, whereas many forms of complexity are little more than an intellectual effort.
I like that the origin of the word “sophistication” is in “sophism”, the use of argument solely to deceive. It reminds me of Zen koans that trick us into going beyond the intellect toward real enlightenment and inspiration.
Sometimes as artists we make crap. I’ve witnessed and experienced two responses to this: either we break down and conclude, “Look what I’ve made. I’m such a crappy artist, there’s no hope for me.” Or we insist that our crap is not crap, rather the result of our unique, idiosyncratic genius. Most of the time these assessments are inappropriate. Actually, they’re not that different, even if they appear so on the surface: an unwillingness to get out of the way.
There’s bound to be a bad fruit sometimes. Focus instead on healthy roots.
When I answer questions about my work, I often get the response: “It’s good you’re keeping busy.” But is it really? Many different projects are vying for attention in my brain, which makes it harder to give my full attention to anything in the moment. Always being on the way somewhere makes me miss opportunities to be fully present and relate meaningfully with family, colleagues, students, shop owners, and the dog in the street. Constant movement deprives me of the stillness I need to notice things.
For an artist it’s not just a personal pleasure to be quiet and notice things, but a responsibility: an artist pays attention on behalf of those who might be too preoccupied. And stillness provides the incubation time needed for genuine creation. Keeping busy, on the other hand, is keeping me from doing the actual work.
One thing that likely sets a real artist apart, more so than exceptional skill or a broad understanding of our field, is care. The ability to care deeply about something is powerful, which also makes it a hazard. Often the things we care about lie hidden in the unconscious, and our creation needs to be unearthed from this darkness with patience and precise intuition. People around us value the fact that we care and engage, but not necessarily that same thing that is precious to us, nor the time it takes to bring it to life. They will persuade us to care, in the same way, for something else more apparent, something they themselves value. This coaxing can become a major distraction for some artists. Others have developed a false air of not caring at all to counter the seducers.
It takes great courage to act according to what we really cherish, and to proudly exclude what we don’t value. And this doesn’t diminish our care at all. In fact, it improves our attention and devotion.
Through my work I meet a lot of thoughtful, successful individuals and I get to visit gorgeous properties in our already beautiful area. To be honest, I’ve often had reservations about ownership and affluence as in my mind it’s closely associated with negative power and control. What I can appreciate is the love and care that these places have been showered with. I’ve realized now that the problem is not one of ownership, but of stewardship.
We’ve become very adept at taming and manipulating everything. Our major political systems are based on and refined around ownership (either as a positive or a negative) – although today none of them seem to totally satisfy. As for stewardship, maybe we haven’t done so well. The earth is burning, what we feed ourselves is making us sick rather than sustaining us, the connections to and between ourselves seem to have loosened.
The attitude of the artist is crucial. She has given up the comfort of worldly possessions and influence, often consciously, in favor of care, a heart connection to things. A real artist might not own many resources, but given the resources he knows how to create beauty. An artist deliberately transcends the power level to enter the heart level.
We all have doubts, too. Don’t ever be fooled that a lack of worldly success is a weakness. Instead, show how to live in the heart, be a steward of the earth, and create beauty regardless of who owns the resources.
A box is shaped around its content; a bowl shapes its content. A box is designed to fit into a space with other boxes; a bowl is awkward and outstanding. The content of a box is padded, sealed; the content of a bowl can breathe. To get to its content a box is irreversibly altered; a bowl is emptied and filled many times over. A box inside a box disappears from view; a bowl inside a bowl is elevated. A box can be flattened without breaking.
You may have something substantial to offer. Are you making bowls, or boxes?