November 29, 2009
‘What’ and ‘If’, are possibly the most creative pair of words in any language. The essence of the creative nature is to look for inspiration and ideas in one’s surroundings. A true artist is always ‘on’, with an eye peeled towards what is going on around them. It can be so persistent that it can even become just a bit annoying to those who hang-out with the artist. Ask my wife for any further elaboration of this, please. My most frequent way of doing this is to pull off the roadway in a precipitous fashion, just missing the ditch, but at least with some consideration of any drivers who are behind me.
But, once an artist has identified an idea, found a stimulus and begun to work with it, the creative process has only just begun. The initial concept can take off on a flight to either nowhere, or destinations unknown. As an idea develops it begins to take on its own momentum. Like a fetus in the womb, the artist becomes pregnant with it and needs to feed it as it grows. This can happen in myriad ways, but one of the most common ones is that of ‘brainstorming’, in which the above title question is asked repeatedly, until all evident possibilities are identified. Note: this can easily become a neurotic process too, so it’s important to have some restraint via a good connection to the present moment and place.
In the contemporary art scene’s constant effort to upgrade the ‘wow factor’, you can see what happens when a possibly good concept runs amok. Because artists are under the impression that they have a mandate to come up with something nobody has seen before, they often cave-in to the impulse to add some shock factor, pour on a little enigma, stir in a dollop of obfuscation and come up with something that requires some pseudo-sophisticated line of bulls**t art-speak to justify it. I recently saw a mention of a ‘piece’ that was done in a Manhattan gallery, in which the artist hired a contractor to come in and tear a hole in the floor and dig a pit beneath it. A ladder was installed and the viewer was invited to climb down into the hole and stand there…hopefully lost in a state of wonder and bewilderment. “It’s a HOLE! Oh, my God!” How profound; how ‘deep’! Argh.
This is what can happen when the ‘what if’ train jumps the rails and plows through a mental junkyard. But, assuming the artist is sincere and not playing The Game, this process of querying the possibilities is essential. But, here’s the kicker: it DOES NOT all have to happen before the piece is underway. It can—and actually is more effective—happen as an ongoing willingness to head in a new direction as you are working. This means that the artist needs to be willing to surrender his or her pre-visualized goals, and replace them with a sense of adventure. And, the highest culmination of this is when the artist actually feels LED by the piece. I am not alone in feeling that the artwork itself can show you where it wants to go. I know many other artists who agree that this is when being an artist is the most satisfying and exciting.
I am still not used to it when it happens, and I have been aware of this for at least forty years, first experiencing it in college via my photography. In fact, when it happened back then, I finally knew that I was meant to be an artist--however that might pan out--for the rest of my life. Suddenly, making art became a receptive act as much as a creative one, and that felt magical. I am not exaggerating…that’s how it really felt to me. If I would open myself up, become willing to receive, the Great Creative Well-spring in the depths of my being would respond by showing me possibilities I would never have arrived at by mere force of intellect or will.
By merely asking the silent question: “What if…..?” I learned to create that opening. And, I am absolutely convinced that I am no different than anybody who picks-up tools and materials with a desire to create something that transcends themselves.