Thursday, December 21, 2006

Relying on Process

Before I began the Master of Fine Arts program at the Art Institute of Boston, I had not given much thought to the difference between conceptual art work and process-oriented work. To be perfectly honest, I had not given much thought to my artistic approach at all. I had been working as a freelance designer with the same handful of clients for several years and my work had become routine. My frustration with the mind numbing routine was one of the factors that lead to my decision to pursue an MFA.
Shortly before I attended my first residency in Boston, I read a book called The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes. This book introduced me to several of the concepts that are the main focus of the “process” books I read during my first semester in graduate school. The following quote caught my attention:
“Every book,” said Iris Murdoch, “is the wreck of a perfect idea.” Once this is clear, it’s easy to panic, get blocked, or give up writing altogether as an impossible dream. One thing that separates would-be writers [substitute ‘artists’] from working writers is that the latter know their work will never match their dreams. Nonwriters typically vow that if they can’t make the book on paper look as good as the one in their head, they just won’t write it. Working writers know this is an impossible dream and settle for the closest facsimile.

“All of us failed to match our dream of perfection,” said William Faulkner. “So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.”
The above quote, along with Keyes’ overall message, caused me to question my own creative methods and decide that the artistic process was a worthwhile subject for starting my academic studies.
Subsequently, I read Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, Trust the Process by Shaun McNiff, and The Blank Canvas by Anna Held Audette and found that all four authors are essentially saying the same thing: 1.) Don’t strive for perfection, 2.) Just work and work as often as possible, 3.) Work with what you know/what is important to you, and 4.) Don’t worry about what other people think/how your work will be received.
I needed to hear all of these points. For years I entertained an abundant number of ideas that never reached fruition. (My work was so conceptual it never achieved material form!) I blamed my schedule, my lack of time, etc. for my failure to create personal expressions, but now I realize my approach was at fault.
The few times I actually started a project, I quickly became frustrated when it didn’t match the picture in my head or I became distracted by a “better” idea. (I suspect the parameters of deadlines and assignments prevented me from experiencing the same lack of productivity in my design work and as an undergraduate.) I was annoyed with myself on many levels.
So it was very liberating when I read that even William Faulkner couldn’t pull off what he created in his mind. Art and Fear drives the point home very succinctly with a single line:
…vision is always ahead of execution – and it should be. (2)
In Trust the Process, Shaun McNiff, of course, informs me that I shouldn’t concern myself with the initial idea in the first place, but allow the process to lead me. He says:
Truly original expressions can never be planned in advance. (3)
Anna Held Audette throws another slant on the subject in The Blank Canvas:
First of all, keep in mind that thinking about what you’re going to do is a way of stalling.(4)
I had definitely been stalling! Audette also remarks:
Of the two abilities, talent and the will to work, it is the latter that plays the more important role in an artist’s development. (5)
In spite of the Nike® slogan, the concept of “just doing it” had not really occurred to me. I have since applied this work ethic to my studio practice and the results have been very satisfying. I sit down and work for an allotted period of time regardless of where my thoughts are. Some days I follow a specific idea, other days my work is more spontaneous and directed by the media. I have adopted Mcniff’s belief:
The discipline of creation is a mix of surrender and initiative.(6)
I accomplished more in the first few weeks of my graduate studies than I had in years and, according to the above authors, by accomplishing more I increased my odds of accomplishing something good.
Aside from improving my productivity, my reading also encouraged a growing confidence in my choice of subjects and methods of expression. Bayles and Orland say:
In a large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. (7)
Audette says:
The quality of your work is directly related to your involvement with what you are doing, (8)
It is, however, of paramount importance to know what moves you and to act on that knowledge. (9)
I find that I am able to step away from a designer’s mindset and its accompanying commercial concerns for the “audience” and pursue highly personal work simply because I want to.
Of course, there is a good chance that such work will not be well received. Bayles and Orland encourage me not to worry:
…the real question about acceptance is not whether your work will be viewed as art, but whether it will be viewed as your art, (10)
…courting approval… puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. … The only pure communication is between you and your work. (11)
Audette backs them up:
Jane Freilicher spoke pointedly to this issue when she said, ‘To strain after innovation, to worry about being ‘on the cutting edge’ (a phrase I hate), reflects concern for a place in history or for one’s career rather than for the authenticity of one’s painting.’ (12)
So I move forward by following the premise that genuine work is far more appealing than self-conscious pandering and that the best measure of my success as an artist can be found in the spectrum of my own work. This concept is truly cathartic.


1. Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write (How Writers Transcend Fear) (New York: H. Holt. 1995), pp. 26-27.

2. David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear – Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (United States: Image Continuum Press, 1993), p. 15.

3. Shaun McNiff, Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go (United States: Random House, Inc. 1998), p. 60.

4. Anna Held Audette, The Blank Canvas – Inviting the Muse (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1993), p. 64.

5. Audette p. 42.

6. McNiff, p. 2.

7. Bayles and Orland, p. 3.

8. Audette, p. 98.

9. Audette, p. 102.

10. Bayles and Orland, p. 45.

11. Bayles and Orland, p. 47.

12. Audette, p. 63.


Anonymous said...

Hi, my name is Ken Wentworth. I am an Australian artist, I liked this entry as it I can relate to the need to let go and follow the creative process. (Not always an easy task)

With my work I use an initial collaged image from popular culture as the basis and paint over the top of the image, I find through this process I reveal via the process new cultural and personal meaning from the initial image.

I liked this entry and have added a link to it on my website for my and others future reference.

Thanks :D

MDH said...

Thanks Ken! No it's not always an easy task to let go (especially for a control freak like me.) I guess that's one of the reasons why I like alternative forms of photography such as pinhole photography. There's a great element of chance and you have to work with what you have.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and setting up the link. I took a quick peek at your site - your work is very interesting.