Discovering Art – Through a Process
Part 4 of 6
There is a myth, popularized by nonartists and believed by some artists, that creating is easy. They gape at performing musicians and say, “They make it look so easy!” What I think they actually mean is, “Look! It is easy, for them.” I want to squash this myth. Why? For one, it supports the temptation to quit creating when your artistic efforts are not fluid. That is, it discourages the already unconfident artist. Second, it fosters the idea that art is recreation or a free-time hobby. If creating is easy, it must not be legitimate work. But contrary to this myth and its offspring, apparently effortless performance and artwork resulted from a process of toil, struggle and doubt. I think four misunderstandings undergird the art-is-easy myth. I will approach them from a musician’s viewpoint, since music embraces many aspects of difficulty and it is where I have the most experience. We will discover what artists can learn from athletes; and yes, we will talk about Mozart.
When does difficulty strike during the creating process? Let’s say right now. The cursor is blinking; my mind is a frozen river. Creating has come…to an uncomfortable…creaky, stop. A writer hovers over the keyboard and retracts. The illustrator hesitates to put his pen to paper. The knitter holds up her sweater and says, “Let’s burn it.” What causes these dilemmas? And how might we overcome them?
Undeveloped skills can stunt our creating. Art evokes words like freedom, enjoyment and leisure. But what about training, discipline and practice? What do we associate those with? Athletics and the military; the artist’s proverbial psych-ward and prison. Art has no boundaries, no rules. You don’t march through a museum and you don’t salute the symphony. Taking photographs does not cause you to perspire and pant. Creating is delightful and relaxing. When it becomes constrained, unpleasurable work, something must be wrong.
When I first learned to play the piano, my teacher insisted that I practice scales and chord progressions. They can be as boring as they sound. But they are a part of music theory, sort of a skeleton for songs. To read music and compose well, I needed to know how music worked. Repeating those scales and chords also built muscles. If I hoped to play Chopin, Beethoven or Mozart, I needed strong, agile fingers. Consider athletes. To perform well, they must understand their body and exercise. If a runner wants to get faster, does she sit on the couch and tell herself, “I ought to move my legs quicker”? No. She laces her Asics and hits the track. She considers her stride, posture, and arm motions because her whole body affects her speed. She must understand it and practice in order to improve. In the same way, if a pianist hopes to play more advanced pieces he must understand music and acquire strength. Proficiency requires training. Up and down the scales. Back and forth with the chords. Around the track, jumping jacks, one more set. It’s repetition; it’s practice; and it’s usually not free, fun, or leisurely. But why endure? Because the constraints enable freedom. After I suffered the rigor of repetitious exercises, my nimble fingers could rip through scales and I was free to learn songs that required acrobatic feats. Hearken the pianist, and the athlete – creating is not easy.
Another potential plight during the creating process is inspiration. Inspiration is fickle, sort of like a childhood friendship. On Friday, you and your pal are eternal companions, zealous to conquer the neighborhood. On Saturday, “Tommy’s not home”, but he’s giving you odd stares through the window, leaving you to saunter the streets alone. Inspiration is capricious. It deflates over night. But is it totally left to chance? Can we cultivate inspiration? I know of no formula for inspiration, but I do think we can increase its likelihood. Certain activities and circumstances foster inspiration. In other words, if you know inspiration lives on K. Street then stake it out.
How do we determine these activities and circumstances? Well, what provides strength and momentum for your art? It may be a particular essayist, music album, or a book of your favorite photographs. A neighborhood stroll or change of environment. A conversation may stoke your passion. Even the most famous artists had their tricks. Richard Wagner listened to Mozart’s work as fuel for his operas. Felix Mendelssohn fixed his gaze on Lake Geneva and inhaled the beauty of Switzerland. Chopin read and listened widely – Victor Hugo, Balzac, Rossini and Berlioz stimulated him at the keys. Edvard Grieg played and adventured with two close friends, indispensible influencers of his creative career. So when your heart for art has turned to stone. When inspiration has leaked through the floor or run off without warning, remember where it is likely to be found and chase it down.
A third problem can be insufficient planning. This deserves a speech, but I will be brief. Different artists warrant different amounts of structure and vision, but all of us need some. Without a plan, the creating process becomes chaos.
Skills, inspiration and plans may frustrate our creating. To a certain measure, we can control each of these. Even inspiration is not the rogue it appears. But there is a wildcard. What do we do with “the natural”, the born musician, the person who creates a melody with anything that makes noise? Are we thinking of Mozart? I have yet to hear of anyone vilify Mozart’s music and abilities. It seems his greatest struggles stemmed from financial poverty and inevitable relationship squabbles, but even these did not hamper his creative output. He composed smashing symphonies rain or shine. Surely for him creating was easy. To make sense of Mozart we need to understand gifting.
Artists are gifted in different ways, and some more than others. It is undeniable and out of their control. But this endowment is not completely accidental, subject to fortune or divine imputation. The environment in which an artist grows also contributes to their talent. Five-year-old Mozart did not rise from the dinner table one night, sit at the piano and churn out a concerto. His father was a pianist and was teaching his sister. Mozart watched and learned. What if there was no piano in his home? What if his father did not care to teach his children? Or handed them coloring books instead of sheet music? Mozart, “the natural” of naturals, grew up in an environment that nurtured his talents. The creative gene is not only fused in the womb; it actually depends on many variables. Gifting does not mature itself, but requires cultivation.
Most of us lack this gene of artistic invincibility. Instead we have a disease that flares up unannounced. We toss in our sleep. We grip our side and gasp for breath. We dive from fervent brilliance to artistic torpor. When art hurts, consider these four culprits. Why is this difficult? Am I lacking skills? Is inspiration kaput? Do I have a plan? As a last resort, check the wildcard. Is this outside of my control; am I not bred for the task? As for the spectator, gawk at the artist if you want. But hear this: making art is not a vacation. Rarely is it easy.