Friday, July 23, 2010

Internalizing Failure and Externalizing Success

NOTE: I've decided to include more writing in the regular updates on my blog, both for personal writing exercise and to give myself a reason to more thoroughly examine my own processes. Undoubtedly, many of my posts will be about comics, art and art making, and probably even creative writing, scripts or whatever else.

I hope that by making my process more transparent, I can better evaluate what works and what doesn't work for me creatively, and maybe even produce something of interest to anybody who happens to read this and is genuinely interested in the artistic process.

- the mgmt.

As artists, we are often guilty of romanticizing failure and discrediting genuine success. Why is this? Are we really just inherently self-loathing, depressive people as pop psychology and contemporary media stereotypes would have us believe? Is this what drives people to become artists initially, or is it perhaps that when we adopt the artist identity we are also adopting our current cultural vision of the artist, and all of the projected ideas that come packaged with that identity.

We as artists all too often casually dismiss successes, both large and small scale, as uncontrollable flukes or happy accidents caused by the divine powers that our culture has indoctrinated into us as being the primary cause of artistic inspiration and talent; yet, somehow, we accept our shortcomings and failures as a testament to the limited human capabilities of our corporeal bodies.

This attitude, a remnant of the Greek idea of the Muse and later co-opted by the church as divine inspiration, is still the predominant attitude of the day, despite how antiquated it may seem when presented to any modern, critical thinking person. Over time, we haven't changed the core idea, we've only altered the source of this divine power. What we used to say was "the intervention of gods" is now commonly dismissed as "genetics." Yet, the idea of being born with the magical power that we call "talent," in reality is still as untraceable and ethereal as being blessed with good luck. There is no exact way to quantify or measure talent, no specific region of the brain that we can clearly point to and say "that's where the talent is processed/stored," and yet we treat it as a scientific truth because it comes couched in the vast and commonly misunderstood realm of genetics. When examined critically it's fair to say that our current understanding of artistic talent has far more in common with magic than science.

This is not to say that it does not exist in some form. We base our understanding of talent predominantly on two thoughts; 1) on the artistic qualities that we can examine in children who have little to no artistic training or practice and 2) on the fact that most all people have had the personal experience of trying, failing and quitting art making during their own lifetimes. Obviously, we could disregard the second point as nothing more than an obvious personal bias, but it would be foolish to dismiss just how important this bias is in regards to formulating a mass opinion on the origins of artistic skill.

As children, I believe it's safe to say, we are all exposed to artmaking in some form. Typically, those who express an aptitude for art at an early age will be praised for their ability and continue to make art, until either an external force, such as the judgment of their peers, an internal force, such as a shifting of personal interest, interferes. Those who continually overcome this interference are artists, those who don't are ex-artists. At that first critical juncture, when we first see some children expressing an aptitude for art making and others not, is where I believe this personal bias takes root. For people who continue making art beyond this first juncture only to quit later in life, this bias is only strengthened by their rejection. What the bias ultimately reflects is a basic defense mechanism which allows us to blame fate, or divine/biological intervention, as opposed to our own stunted artistic development.

In regards to the first point, there is indeed evidence that clearly indicates that different children develop artistically at different speeds. This idea is the first thing pointed to when somebody seeks to prove a claim about the importance of inherent talent. But this idea fails to hold up under scientific scrutiny due to the vast array of external factors involved with childhood development. Simple things such as a child's exposure to visual arts and media would have a vast influence on their ability, not to mention the development of basic motor skills which would allow them to create more complex and intricate art at an earlier age than their peers.

Again, that is not to say that there aren't any genetic factors at play. A person with borderline mental retardation would be unlikely to ever produce a novel with the depth and quality of Hemingway, but the idea of inherent talent being paramount to artistic ability seems to fail to hold any merit under critical scrutiny. Even if it does have some effect, it appears to be negligible at best.

This idea alone would be a trifle, as it must seem to non-artists, if it were not for the burden it placed on artists. It is not merely an unhelpful mode of thought for artists, but a harmful one.

As artists we tend to internalize our failures as a reflection of ourselves. After all, the artistic profession (all artistic fields included) is unique in the fact that we do not, as a culture, separate the identity of the artist from the artwork they produce. They are intrinsically linked by the contemporary view of art as an exploration of the self. The view of art as deep self-reflection is all too often taken for granted as the sole definition of art, born from the moment man first painted in the caves, but that is simply not the case.

The notion of art as self-reflection is a modern idea which we project onto primitive man. An idea that is deeply ingrained within us, perhaps due to it's ties with our modern religious and mystical beliefs that the journey to spiritual enlightenment is an internal quest. But this notion was introduced to man far after the concept of art, which predates nearly all of mankind's endeavors. Primitive man made art before language, even before the idea of the self. What primitive man was doing was a reflection of his external world. A reflection of the incomprehensible patterns of nature reflected onto itself. It was after the separation of art and craft as distinct entities, which came much, much later in history, that we began to make a distinction between internally and externally guided art.

So, due largely in part to the modern construct that the artwork is the artist, or at the very least a reflection of him/her, we cannot as artists help but feel responsible for our failures. The weakness of our ideas, of our abilities. We open ourselves willingly to public criticism and judgment, which can be a healthy and functional way of improving and developing artistically, if we were allowed the luxury of separating ourselves from our work. This ability requires a great amount of discipline on the part of the artist and is one of the skills developed in art institutions through peer critiques and learning to separate quality criticism from the bad or destructive criticism that artists too often face in the professional world.

This is what pushes us to romanticize failure. It is a defense mechanism that makes it possible to continue making art in defiance to being personally affronted by destructive criticism. We romanticize failure with the notion that others are simply unable to understand the breadth, goal or ideas behind the work. That critics have simply yet to jump the intellectual gap, over which they will finally grasp it's true genius. We hide behind the one fundamental truth we learn in all our art history classes, that great artists are not welcomed with open arms by the public and critics. That truly great artists must battle against adversity and public opinion as they patiently wait for the masses to catch up to their genius. On paper this all sounds well and good, but in reality, it's rarely the case.

The unfortunate downside of this mode of thinking is that it causes artists to relish their failures under the pretense that they are actually future successes. In reality, they are more than likely just present failures. Failures that an artist with a healthy grasp on the separation of self and work might be able to view objectively and learn from going forward with their next piece. If we are not able to separate the artist and the artwork, we end up internalizing personal failures, and if we are reliant on the idea of talent as the primary factor in ability, than we also simultaneously externalize our personal successes.

This is the dilemma of the modern artist. We need to stop accepting the importance of talent as projected by our culture and we need to begin to understand that the work we create is not only a reflection of us, but also a reflection of our environment, our time and our culture. At any given time an artist could not be creating another artwork, nor at any given time could another artist be creating another artwork. Through this, we must learn the difference between taking responsibility for our failures and taking blame for our failures.

- Zac G.

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