The original Superman was never viewed as a brilliantly creative or well-drawn superhero. But this didn’t stop the long and immense fan following due to his unique and interesting mythology about why he chooses to be who he is — the protector of humanity.
“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking” ― Albert Einstein
I was watching a film the other night, and it wasn’t great by any standard measures, but by the time the credits rolled at the end of the picture, a couple of thoughts were refreshed in my mind. One, was that a lot of people (hundreds in fact) were required to make a project like this happen. It had the commitment of talented actors, established producers and a whole slew of artistic and technical crew. The second, in spite of its failure to engage on the whole, was that the film still had some very nice moments in it: good camera setups, thoughtful discourse and some excellent performances, all of which helped enliven individual scenes. This reminded me of a most important fact about art; any piece of art, created individually or by a group of individuals, is always worthy of respect. Simply put, making the long and hard effort to get something as difficult as a film (or even a painting or poem) complete is a huge accomplishment. The public always forgets this but shamefully, so do we — even as we battle day in and day out exercising our craft, trying to produce something of value.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 dream-like science-fiction thriller Blade Runner, featuring a riveting performance by Rutger Hauer as the replicant Roy Batty, was very poorly received by critics for its ambiguous characters and seemingly thin human story line. (A voice over narration was even inputted in its theatrical release out of fear that no one would understand it.) Today, those same critics rave about the subtle and imaginative brilliance of the film and respect it for much more than its legendary production design.
Now, that doesn’t mean we should applaud every piece of art out there or pat ourselves on the back for everything that we do, but we shouldn’t be so quick to undervalue creative effort either. I didn’t name the film that I watched because I’ve long believed that our time and energy is better spent in analysis, learning and appreciation of the creations by fellow artists rather than criticizing and judging them — I simply have too much respect for the people involved. We artists are already on a very lonely road and there is enough judgement and cynicism out there and I need not add to that. Constructive criticism — citing inconsistencies or problems based off dutiful analysis — is valuable and necessary, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. There’s a huge difference between cynical criticism and critical thinking.
“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” — Abraham Lincoln
As I have matured as both a man and an artist, my own attitude towards the judgement of things and people have changed significantly. I don’t have much interest it in anymore. I’ve begun to realize more and learn less. And while one can age without gaining any real experience (unfortunately), as we travel further in art (and life) we begin to see with greater clarity, which of course means, that we see both the good and the bad with greater obviousness and distinction. But instead of being overwhelmed by its flaws, I’ve found deeper appreciation and greater discovery. The more we see, the more we accept. We begin to see both the minutiae and the big picture, and how it’s all connected and how it all matters. There’s less room or reason for preconceived attachment to ideals or standards. There’s less desire to hold on to any expectations.
“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.” — Stephen Hawking
Over time, I’ve found that intense emotional and mental focus on mistakes and failure limited in its usefulness — especially when it comes to viewing the works of others. We don’t look for “errors” in the works of Rembrandt or Van Gogh, not because they don’t exist, but rather because it serves no pragmatic purpose. Furthermore, their existence takes nothing away from the excellence of the work itself. Moreover, what we perceive as imperfect may be exactly what makes a piece of art so distinct and brilliant. Contrast is a fundamental component of great artistry.
Alberto Giacometti’s sculptural work is a brilliant display of contrast in shape and proportion. His “imperfect” representation of the real world is a “perfect” display of his creativity.
Again, it’s popular and even fun (in a childish way), to judge and criticize. It seems rational, harmless and natural to do so. And in this day and age where it’s so much simpler to blame others for our own insecurities and failures, being an armchair critic can be a veiled form of protection from ourselves; for the responsibility of not taking action, for not taking the risks associated with following our dreams. Having a cynical and disparaging attitude is also a very easy (and weak) way of demonstrating our so called superiority and knowledge. Unfortunately (or fortunately), what counts is action. We are defined by what we do and how we do it. Even making the most simple piece of art, whether that be a brief piece of music, a drawing or a short performance on stage or in the field, is much more valuable than the criticism lay upon it. It takes the powerful combination of verve and bravery to take this road less traveled.
“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” — Robert Henri
Each day as a creative, I try to do my best just like all the rest of us. We work hard to create something new, we put our backs and hearts into it. No one deliberately makes “bad” art. No performer aims to fail or displease. It takes a kind of courage and nobility to do art because art appears to offer no pragmatic purpose; in the public’s eye, art serves only the artist’s ego. How many times have we heard that the artist is a “selfish” being? Society forgets that it’s the artist’s spirit that brings joy, beauty and realization to this world. Without visual art, music, theatre, writing or even sports —all of which are categorized as mere “entertainment” — the world would be bland beyond belief, with neither an appreciation of the present nor a sense for the future. It’s not surprising that the paying public is primarily obsessed with the established art of the past — it fails to accept and see what’s directly in front of them. It needs to be told what’s good and what’s not. But it is art, in fact, that teaches. It instructs us on how the world works and how to live by showing us how to see. Creativity is the ultimate act of living. Nature demonstrates its creativity each and every second with its continual birth of living things. Us artists are merely trying to do the same.
The late and brilliant Robin Williams stars as the inspiring English teacher John Keating in Peter Weir’s marvelous film, Dead Poets Society.
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ― Sylvia Plath
More often than not, we are our own worst critic, the primogenitor of judgement. Art is so responsive, so reflective, it’s hard to not see every flaw in our work and, more alarmingly, within ourselves. That is its power — we can learn more about who we are from our own work than from most anything else. At the same time however, we must be careful in the presence of such magic and veracity. A young or growing artist is not always ready to maturely handle such powerful truths which can be easily misinterpreted as damning indictments; it is all to easy to get too down on ourselves when witnessing our own inadequacies. To properly deal with our inability to perform requires time and reflection — to stand back and respond with calm and insight. Hence the importance of teachers and mentors who can keep us on that straight and narrow path (of not losing our mind or spirit). And sometimes, artists have to be their own greatest cheerleaders because, since the day we were born, we’re always dealing with loneliness.
“Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely.” — Erma Bombeck
As creatives, we have to battle each day with our mental, emotional and financial insecurity in order to proceed. This is just to get by, to survive. Throughout history, the world has been unkind to artists, lauding them only after official critical and financial success. It’s all much simpler to jump on the bandwagon of a “winner.” But should art be viewed in terms of winning or losing? Is that how we should define the value of our efforts? I think not. Because each creative act is built upon the foundation of many smaller creative acts such as planning, experimentation, practice and physical dedication — and it is physical because making and doing are not mere mental activities. Conception and inspiration may come first, but dreams stay dreams when they are not acted upon in the physical universe. Artists bring things into existence where there once was none.
“Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.” ― Alan Lightman,
Marc Chagall’s paintings have a dreamy magic to them. They are filled with love, playfulness and joy. This painting is now perceived to be the inspiration that gave birth to the theme of “The Fiddler On The Roof” which is now one of most famous and beloved musicals of our time.
Hence, we cannot judge the success of our work or our lives by anyone’s opinion — and especially so if it’s particularly denigrating. An artist’s work is continual. We have to trust that this endless imaginative process has no choice but to reveal itself in the most honest and beautiful fashion. Because it’s all process. And in such a process, there is no room for invasive criticism or judgement. So why spend any of our time engaging in it? Our energy is best saved for making dreams come true.
“(There is) No end, no conclusion, no completion. (Only) Perpetual becoming.” — Henry Miller