Among other bad habits, I am an avid reader. I spent a good portion of my wastrel youth soaring through the galaxy with the great writers of the science fiction genre, such as Asimov, Heinlein and Herbert. As I grew older, my interests gradually shifted from the E.E. Doc Smith 50's style of Buck Roger adventures (what better name for a grand villain than 'Ming the Merciless' and the brutal Fenachrone!) to the more thoughtful and involved stories of the great Isaac Asimov and writers of a similar intellectual vein. Science fiction became a medium with which to study the human condition, absent the usual direct or implied baggage carried by terrestrial location. Asimov's 'I Robot' series is a model example (the badly butchered Hollywood movie version not-with-standing). More recent years have seen a clear shift in my reading towards non-fiction, primarily relating to the study of the human mind and the nature of consciousness. In retrospect, over the decades there has a been a clear trend towards this direction, the seed planted long ago and fertilized by these excellent authors: the study of the mind, behavior and how each relates to the human condition.
One of the more interesting and fascinating topics along these lines is that of 'creativity'. What is it? How does it happen? Where does it come from? This blog entry does not attempt to answer those questions. I will delve into those dark woods another time. Instead, today I will write about a more immediate facet of creativity: when is one's creative work 'good enough'? This aspect is likely the first question that will quietly and inevitably force its way into the thoughts of anyone attempting to create something new and considering exposing their work, regardless of type or medium, in the public forum. This thought was prompted by a passage I read in my current book of interest, Ray Bradbury's 'Zen in the Art of Writing'. As a side note, this book is an excellent example of why it pays to explore the writings of a favorite author outside of the more well known works. Asimov is another example of a writer known for his science fiction but who has an enormous lexicon of non-fiction writings – but I digress. Mr. Bradbury wrote of receiving an unexpected letter from a person whom he deeply admired, the great art historian Bernard Berenson, but whom he had never met. The letter was written in response to an article Mr. Bradbury had written for the publication 'The Nation' defending his science fiction work (he does not state why he was defending it). The letter read as follows:
“Dear Mr. Bradbury:
In 89 years of life, this is the first fan letter I have written. It is to tell you that I have just read your article in 'The Nation' — "Day After Tomorrow." It is the first time I have encountered the statement by an artist in any field, that to work creatively he must put flesh into it, and enjoy it as a lark, or as a fascinating adventure.
How different from the workers in the heavy industry that professional writing has become!
If you ever touch Florence, come to see me.
Ray Bradbury wrote this vital comment in describing his reaction to this unexpected message:
“We all need someone higher, wiser, older to tell us we're not crazy after all, that what we're doing is right. All right, hell, fine! But it is easy to doubt yourself, because you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation.”
The importance of the message within this response cannot be over-emphasized. Regardless of the source or subject of our individual creative muse, it is our own unique muse. There is no shortage of critics in the world, far from it. Back in the mid-seventies, I had two experiences with critics that effectively killed my nascent art career. I was, admittedly, a rank beginner, untrained and unschooled. I was working primarily in water colors and airbrush. My work was heavily influenced by two artists whom most would never mention in the same sentence, Maxfield Parrish and Roger Dean. I had received much positive support from friends and family, such that I even started selling my work in local art and craft shows. I remember being happily shocked when I sold a good chunk of my entire inventory in an early show. That success lead me to try the next step: the commercial world of art sales. This took two forms: approaching galleries and record companies. By way of explanation of the latter, album covers were a hugely popular medium at the time. This is how I became exposed to Roger Dean's work – his series of album covers for the progressive rock band Yes.
During a successful show in a local town, I was encouraged by an attendee to approach a local gallery to sell my work. After the show, I visited the gallery and introduced myself to the person in charge, explaining my success in the show and the suggestion made by one of his patrons. I had with me a large framed original of one of my favorite paintings for his consideration. The criticism was instant, scathing and delivered in such an aloof and arrogant manner that it served to extinguish any glimmering of pride in my work completely and totally. In my naivete, I had been skewered soundly through the heart and this stuffed shirt bastard couldn't care less. If anything, he seemed rather proud of his use of carefully sharpened words.
My next misadventure occurred shortly thereafter. I had an appointment with the art director at Columbia Records, one of the major music labels at the time. I arrived on time for the appointment with a portfolio of prints. Being realistic about my abilities compared to the professional work I'd seen, and not yet fully recovered from my prior experience, I was expecting a rejection. What I was prepared to happily settle for was some constructive criticism and maybe some friendly suggestions. Little did I know the world I was unexpectedly walking into. Something happened first, however. Upon exiting the elevator in the high rise Manhattan tower, I became immediately lost and instead of entering the receptionist area, I accidentally entered the back offices. I had wandered around for a few moments when I stumbled across an office with a man sitting in an armless, upright chair. Leaning against the man's legs was what was clear to me as artwork for an album cover, about 30 inches square. Surrounding both were about six or eight men in suits. I listened for a just a bit and suddenly recognized the tableau for what it was: an interrogation. Why this subject? Why this color here, and that color there? - delivered in cutting intensity. I cleared out before I was spotted.
I finally found the receptionist and introduced myself. The pretty and pleasant woman made me comfortable and announced my presence. I waited. I waited some more. I waited some more beyond that. After a full hour, the receptionist apologized and explained that something had come up and the art director would not be able to see me after all. I asked if he could at least take a look at my portfolio and she agreed to bring it in. Anticipating this possibility, I had left a note attached to my work asking for constructive comments. In less than five minutes, the portfolio was returned and my note was found torn to bits in the bottom of the folio. My budding career as a freelance artist ended in that office.
We jump thirty five years to the present. With a couple of exceptions as requests from friends, I had not painted another work in all those years. I briefly fiddled with pencil and pad in the early eighties, but quickly gave that up too, in spite of a strong reaction from friends. Over the years, I had very occasionally dabbled in photography, but my nomadic lifestyle did not lend itself very well to the film medium, having to rely on third party developers to see what worked and what didn't. It wasn't until the advent of digital cameras that photography and I really connected. I started taking photographs of our backpacking journeys and almost immediately started getting commentary reminiscent of my old paintings. I slowly realized that my old friend, my creative self was returning. There was a fundamental difference in my approach, however.
All my earlier work had been done with the public in mind. Each painting was done with the intent to impress an audience. This was no longer the case. Every photograph I now took was done for strictly personal reasons – because I wanted to capture a specific image for myself. The audience had ceased to be a participant in the creative process. The image had to speak to me and me alone. I did not realize it at the time, but a vital and important change had taken place. For creative art to work, it must reflect something of yourself, to 'put flesh to it' as Berenson wrote to Bradbury. Whether or not an audience will accept or approve is a deeply secondary matter. It should have absolutely nothing to do with what you create, be it a novel, a painting, a photograph.
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An audience may not approve, but for the artist this should be irrelevant as far as the real art is concerned. Will it sell? Maybe not. The photography I consider my best seems to sell the least. These days I do produce images expressly to sell, but as a general rule these are not what I consider my best artistic images, the ones that speak deep to that place inside. They are good, sound work, 'pretty pictures' as it were, striking a cord somewhere within the purchaser, but it tends to be related more to pleasant memory than something that touches deep within, along with my ability to capture images in a certain way. Make no mistake, there is a place for this and good images still require talent and skill, but it is sometimes a bit like doing a cover song than singing that heartfelt personal ballad, to use the musical analogy. The good news is that art can also result from this process as well, it is just a little less likely.
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The trick, as the old bit goes, is to work with what you know, those subjects which have a deep emotional hold on you. Only in this inner place can you begin to create something that will reflect your heart and emotion. Here lies the home and source of art. Connect with this part of yourself and 'good enough' may well take care of itself. As the years have progressed, I have learned that I can include more and more in this internal creative space as my experience and understanding increase. Now, even when working with a new subject or location, I am more likely to be able to make that vital emotional connection and it shows in my work.
I no longer consider the audience when visiting with my creative muse. It is more akin to two old friends sharing a private moment together, sharing an intimate conversation, our private lark and adventure. When the winds blow favorably, the results will speak to a greater understanding, a place that even the audience may recognize.