Friday, 25 July 2014

the arrogance of dissatisfaction

Over the last few months I've come to realise that my visual perception, the foundation of most of my practice, is profoundly unreliable. That the sense that  I use the most to communicate and explore, is, sadly, irrevocably connected to my complicated emotional history, and that this history endlessly winds its tentacles around every impulse, every input.

For a long time I couldn't see this. I just felt dissatisfied with the thing that I had made. I'm using judgements every inch of the way, and when I feel that something is wrong or unsuccessful the temptation is to just go with it, to assume that the judgement is just more of the feedback loop of my working - the same kind of feedback that makes me dip my brush in the purple after the white, or swoop the pastel around to the left in a big arc. But now I see that it is not.

The unconscious decision-making used throughout working is different from the judgement at the end about the value of what I've been working on. And, as most visual artists know, that final judgement is often a trickster. You loathe your piece, you want to scrub it out, or you just feel sad and disappointed. Then two months later you find it again and you see all sorts of potential in it that was obscured at the time. Obscured, I'm thinking today, by the winding tentacles of wounded child, pouting ego, or perhaps one of Maisel's many anxieties.

This morning, slightly tangentially, it occurred to me that being dissatisfied with a piece of work that I have produced - either immediately afterwards, or some time later - is profoundly arrogant. When I decide that I'm not satisfied, or that my idea has failed, I'm acting as if the thing on the paper is mine. That I made it in a willful, controlled kind of way; that I decided exactly how the marks would go down, and therefore that I am responsible for the end result.

And yet many artists will tell you that when their work is going well, they don't feel that they're the driver of what's happening at all. They feel more as if the work is in some sense 'coming through' them, often with the greatest of ease. From this perspective, perhaps what we're doing a lot of the time is actually creating conditions; keeping the soil fertilised and watered, so that if and when some small seed floats down from the sky, it will land on a spot conducive to its flourishing. This is how it feels to me. When things start to connect and move, it isn't because I  have done something, or that I willed it. At that moment I'm not really doing any of it.

Perhaps my job is just to keep on making lines, to keep looking at shapes, to keep trying out colours. At times what results will please me, and at other times it will stab me, bruise my ego and deflate all of my over-inflated dreams. Both of these reactions are a distraction. Both are premised on the assumption that I was responsible for how it turned out, that the work is 'mine'.

When I stop to think about this, it is perfectly clear to me that what comes is not coming from me at all. I'm just a life-form, a collection of cells moving about in a certain way, like a slime mould or a bee swarm. Life is using me, moving through my cells, folding and curling like cigarette smoke against a sunlit window. My consciousness confounds me, obscures what could be a wider, more gentle awareness that, in principle, could just allow it all to move and pass through. And as life moves through me, using my consciousness to fold back in on itself, like a great eye swiveling around to inspect a spot behind its knee, how can I be so rude as to criticise the path that it takes?


Thursday, 17 July 2014

hungry-minded anxiety and other animals

I'm sometimes a little taken aback when I get feedback on these ruminations on creative process that suggest that I seem to have some kind of a problem. It takes me aback, I think, because, while I recognise that these days I'm certainly struggling with a lot of difficulties, my understanding is that these difficulties ARE the creative life. It's from these difficulties that work arises, and somehow, without difficulty, it seems to me that there's unlikely to be work, or at least work that's at all interesting.

I've just started re-reading Eric Maisel. How refreshing it was just now to read the following:

'...If you would like to be creative, you must first come alive.

The greatest block to aliveness is anxiety.... In this book I mean to describe the kinds of anxieties that inevitably attend each stage of the creative process. In large measure these are anxieties that you should experience because, while anxiety is the greatest impediment to aliveness, in order to create you must invite anxieties into your life and live anxiously. You will only earn fine camera angles, lucky brush strokes, and brilliant poetic images by risking anxiety and living with anxiety.

If you are to create, you must invite anxiety in. But then you must manage it. If you can't manage this necessary anxiety, you will block; and we can start right now to call creative blockage the inability to manage the anxiety that attends the creative process, for that is what creative blockage most often is.

Each stage of the creative process is characterised by its own kind of anxiety. The hungry-minded anxiety associated with the original wish to create is different from the chaotic-minded anxiety of working, and both are different from the critical-minded anxiety and attached-minded anxiety that make it so difficult to declare a work of art finished. While there is artifice in naming these anxieties just in this way, there is nothing artificial about pointing the very great role that anxiety plays in the creative process. In its negative aspect it blocks the artist, causes  her to limit her scope or create second-rate work, and more. It its so-to-speak positive aspect is is like the itching that accompanies the healing of a wound: horribly uncomfortable, but proof that creativity is happening.

At the same time, I want to present a basic remedy for the anxiety that presents at each stage.

Stage               Anxiety                    Solution
1. Wishing        hungry mind              appropriate feeding
2. Choosing      confused mind           appropriate clarity
3. Starting       weakened mind          appropriate strength
4. Working       chaotic mind             appropriate order
5. Completing   critical mind              appropriate appraising
6. Showing       attached mind           appropriate detaching

The remedy in each case is not only doing something, but doing it appropriately. When you choose an idea to work on, what is appropriate to know is that you largely do not know what is about to happen. Coming in with too clear an idea at the start of the work is an example of inappropriate knowing.

In order to bind the anxiety that naturally arises when one doesn't know, an artist may determine to know anyway. The landscape before her is not held as  fantastic problem or a great mystery; instead, she knows what to do. She knows that if she lays down a wash like this and twists her brush like that, decent bushes will appear in the foreground. One sure way of binding anxiety is reflected in this knowing.

But the artist who is more interested in creating deeply than in ridding herself of anxiety will refuse to know too soon. She will remain with doubts, worries, questions, and the burning desire to realise herself. She will courageously refuse to bind anxiety by knowing too soon... and will experience, beneath any surface calm, an internal war....

Of course, it would be splendid if the above table accurately reflected the relationship between anxiety and the creative process. But the picture isn't that simple. Anxieties coexist....'

I like this kind of writing, because it offers a way of thinking that helps me to see and understand what's happening, without over-simplifying or prescribing. Here, Maisell breaks it all down into ideas that help me to think differently about what's happening, help me to see something, and then he mixes it all up and says, ah but of course it isn't really so simple...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

a month of no writing

On June 12th I decided to stop writing about my process, both here and on the facebook page. I also decided  to stop posting most of what I produced, which I knew was a strategy to keep me going that I was employing to stop me from feeling that I wasn't doing what I wanted to be doing, or not doing enough, or doing and making rubbish.

I've discovered four things that seem to give me a lot of trouble.

1. Desire/longing to work; to see what will happen next; to work more, to do
2. An unconscious compulsion to make paintings
3. Intolerance/criticism/impatience with regard to what appears
4. Trying to solve problems such as inexperience with paint and canvas; subject matter; meaning; purpose, through analysis and writing

1. Desire/longing to work
This creates a constant feeling of dissatisfaction, given that I actually can't paint all the time. I seem to find it almost impossible to accept that by lunchtime I'm pretty much done with it. That I need to walk and cycle outside, that I need to rest and read and digest and  reflect; to sing and play the piano, to talk to other humans. I would do away with all of these (except the singing) if my body would let me, but it won't.

2. An unconscious compulsion to make paintings
This prevents me from experimenting, from doing things that are slow and not particularly going anywhere at all. This was probably preventing me from exploring paint and canvas, which I been wanting to do, but have kept avoiding. There's just no way I can start to make paintings on canvas until I've put in some apprenticeship/learning time.

3. Intolerance/criticism/impatience
This is always lying in wait to sabotage any new thing that tries to emerge. It has resulted in me scrubbing out or painting over six foot drawings that have taken two weeks to make, and which I realised three weeks afterwards had nothing particularly wrong with them. It has contributed to not being able to work in my studio because there's a chance that someone will come in and see something that I'm in the middle of learning about. It's also one of the reasons that I have to stop working at lunchtime, or break from what I'm doing after a couple of hours. If I don't leave something alone, let it rest, wait and make space, carrying on  is likely to result in destruction.

4. Trying to solve problems through analysis and writing
Well. Writing about process is one strand of my activity. Words are a form of creativity for me. And, I seem to be committed to some kind of sharing of this analysis of process because there doesn't seem to be that much of it around. Some people have got in touch and said that they feel less hopeless in their process, less alone, after reading these meanderings.  So, this is my report on a month of not writing. But I can see now how writing and thinking can start to replace what is actually needed, which is to work with the problems in the doing. An artist, you might argue, does not solve problems by using their mind, but in the working; through the doing, through acting with and upon materials.

I'm working more, and also understanding working differently.

I'm no longer trying to make paintings. This is freeing me up to see where I need to develop technique and skill, and making me a little braver about taking risks and producing ugly or kitsch things.

I'm becoming a little more patient and expecting less. I understand that everything is much, much slower than I would like. Somehow the sense of there being no time for all I want to discover and make has to make way for some kind of acceptance of the limitation of what is actually happening, right now, in all its inadequacy.

When I feel the need to start writing it all out, I wipe my mind clean and either go for a walk or draw something.



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