Practical Theory Understanding the artist's relationship to the creative process, a basic primer.
One of the most difficult things about becoming an artist that I've found that those who are just starting out struggle with is that in terms of the social expectations placed upon them adults have a much different set of obstacles to contend with then children do. To give you an example of this, I didn't start teaching myself how to draw until I was in my mid-twenties, and unlike those artists who can claim that they spent a large part of their childhoods and teenage years drawing I hated anything and everything to do with it, but then again I attended public school and the level of instruction I received amounted to, draw whatever you feel like, nobody is going to judge you. To which I call bullshit, not only were we being graded on those art projects but we were also showing them to the rest of the class before bringing them home to our parents and in terms of psychosocial development that means our peer group's responses to our earliest efforts is one the first defining aspects that establishes the primary association by which we relate to our work, and in terms of developing a healthy relationship to the creative process, being unable to distinguish objective information from the subjective appeals to the senses that the social hiearchy relies upon in order to determine merit is pure poison to those who are starting out as artists as reinforcement and reward, the earliest forms of motivators that we have the ability to recognize are actually detrimental to long term development as there comes a point where they cease to be a practical consideration. Which can be seen evidenced by the fact that social, cultural and cognitive dissonance all serve to disrupt the creative process as the sudden divergence in value systems from that point onwards as the artist begins to define themselves as an independent entity brings them into conflict with the old established order.
Holy crap, I feel like I just gave a crash course in Egocentrism, only without any of the fun references to Freud's theories about The Id, The Ego, and The Superego, but I'll get to that later, for now its important to understand that the initial personification of the self as an artist involves less about learning the fundamentals of art, as it does finding a way of resolving the paradox that arises when we first begin learning to observe the world in a way that is fundamentally different from the typical methods that we are conditioned from birth to rely upon, which can in turn be understood as the psychological separation we first experience when we remove our presence from others is a conscious decision undertaken for the purposes of enriching the self, rather then an intentional exclusion of others or a selfish decision to withhold our selves from those who need us to be present both physically and emotionally. Though to be fair, the return from this same separation can have consequences all its own and typically requires a level of heroic acceptance in order to find one's self being welcomed back by the tribe. Its also is one of the reasons why learning to draw while surrounded by others can have an initial positive benefit as it creates an emotional support structure that creates a shared sense of being that lowers our mental thresholds and reduces our inhibitions by offering us a level of anonymity within the group while at the same giving us a structured environment in which to work and play, but does absolutely nothing for us if the entire goal of that environment is to either discover one's self or recieve the adoration and adulation of our peers. Favorites, likes, subscriptions, comments and all of the other number based metrics can also have a deleterious effect on the artist's psyche as the immediate feedback they provide typically obscures the initial reasons why we decided to become artists in the first place. One of my earliest experiences posting my work on-line actually brought me into conflict with this issue as my sense of self as an artist hadn't fully established itself yet and so while people were supportive of my efforts, I wasn't able to balance the new reality I found myself in with the sense of obligation that comes with producing content on a consistent basis. Not only did I overwork myself and quickly burnout, but the knowledge that being able to support myself based solely on my skills as an artist meant that I would first have to learn to develop a relationship to my work that would reciprocate in a way that would be sustainable rather then draining. If you've ever heard famous animators talk about the stress involved in meeting their project deadlines all while coordinating the efforts of an entire team of artists and dealing with issues around funding, marketing, distributing and all of the other challenges that surround the creative process, well, I had barely stepped into that world before reality hit me upside the head and said, what are you, stupid? My reply to that question now would be, not stupid, but some combination of inexperience and hopeful naivete. One of the ways we develop a healthy relationship to the creative process on the other hand is to understand that it is in every way like a real relationship, you're going to end up having to deal with issues around your attitudes to sex, marriage, raising a family, time management, career prospects, work life balance and yes, money. Being an artist is also highly political and can draw you into all manner of conflicts with other people in terms of how things should be done, how things are actually done, how much its going to cost, and my personal favorite, due representation. If you've ever seen an argument on whether certain characters are accurate portrayals of real people or just stereotypes used in wish fulfillment fantasies in the comments section of just about any website dealing with comics, hoo boy, it took a lot of research into human behavioral psychology to be able to cut through that particular gordian knot and get to the heart of the emotional issues involved but to make a long story short, no matter how you phrase the disclaimer that this is merely a work of fiction and does not reflect the attitudes and opinions of the parent company people are still going to hold artist accountable for the things that they have a hand in creating and that means either we have solid, grounded reasons for the things that we create that we can then explain to people in a reasonable and rational fashion or you get emotional outbursts and explosions of on-line drama. The motivations and underpinnings behind this phenomena are actually fairly interesting and I'd love to discuss my thoughts about them but for now I'll just toss some of the concepts I came across during my research out into the ring. Percepticide, Revictimization, Social Dominance Theory, the intimacy of betrayal, the circle of harm, okay that list could go on for quite some time and while it contains some pretty heavy emotional lifting one of the things I was able to discover while researching them is that if we don't exercise the ability to regulate our emotional states we can actually lose the ability to manage them altogether through a process of attenuation. Which is one of the reasons why adults have a much harder time learning how to draw then children do as the social expectations that are placed upon them by society are often measured by the idealized notions of the time.
Note that I said ideal and not real, as idealized states of awareness rarely have anything to do with reality and are instead used either as an invisible standard of measure or as a means of making the past more palatable then it really was. The generation of adults that came out of the Fifties is a notorious example of this as some of the ideas around raising children at the time were based around things like don't talk, don't tell, children should be seen but not heard, walk it off, don't be a sissy, we don't do divorce and a whole host of other things that make me truly grateful that I was a latchkey kid as not only did that mean was I able to figure things out for myself without their interference but it gave me the freedom to develop my intellect in any way I saw fit. Which typically involved me sitting in a library surrounded by books that were considered to be way too complicated for a child of six and freaking out the adults who walked past and saw me reading things by authors like Tolkien and Kierkegaard. Good times, good times. Also I used to keep a copy of Where's Waldo on hand whenever they would come over and ask me what I was reading about just to really mess with them. Ah, the looks on their faces, shame I ended up developing a speech complex along with a social anxiety disorder, but a six year old with a high I.Q. is considered precocious, a disaffected teenager growing up in poverty while surrounded by people who can't grasp the concept of intelligence being something that isn't measured by the clothes you wear or the music you listen to with a high I.Q. is shit your pants terrifying. My escape from that world was into roleplaying games by the way, as not only did it give me an effective sense of agency but the concepts involved in the various narratives I was being exposed to showed my that a life could be about what you wanted it to be, not what others had tried to make you into but I've digressed.
If any of this sounds really complex and confusing its the curse of knowledge in action folks, I can't go back to the point when I wasn't aware of how these concepts affected the development of the creative process and so I can't discuss learning how to draw or write without making others aware of them as well. I will say this however, art gets easier to understand the more experience we have working with it as its only in the beginning that we have to struggle to establish our understanding of the concepts involved. Its actually one of the stranger paradoxes I've encountered in terms of the different systems based on learning a particular skill as unlike with mathematics and any of the other reproducible sciences for artists the usual models of repetition and reinforcement can actually do more harm then good as cultivating an awareness of the processes involved has more to do with discovery then anything else, which in turn means that formalized training can only ever give us the most basic foundation upon which to build because without the ability to think critically or objectively we will all too easily succumb to the temptation inherent in subjective reasoning. Or in other words, confirmation bias says we will prefer to focus on those arguments which make us feel good about ourselves rather then challenge our position or deeply held beliefs. Which again is one of the reasons why some artists reach a plateau in terms of artistic development and never leave it. Its not that they somehow lack the potential to keep growing as native intelligence is an environmental and cultural adaptation rather then biological one, don't quote me on that one as I'm the research I'm basing it on is anecdotal rather then peer-reviewed and the nature vs. nurture argument is complicated enough already, but because they've grown to the limit of the least available resource and further investment would involve risking their currently held position. I've got a whole stack of research notes on that particular subject by the way but back to the discovery based methodology. Because we all start out at the same basic level of artistic ability the biggest difference between those who stick with it long enough to actually see reproducible results and those who don't has nothing to do with talent or inclination but rather is a result of our ability to resolve the frustration that arises from experiencing the sense of failure that is engendered whenever we fail to live up to our own expectations. Or to put it another way, the internal and external value systems that we are exposed to as children has a profound effect on the way we measure our own progress as adults. For instance when we're first learning to do basic arithmetic, there is an immediate sense of gratification whenever we get an answer right and usually a visual reward that reinforces the pattern in our minds such as a smily face or a good job. So not only are the answers objectively verifiable through different means but our achievements can be recognized by others in such a way that it serves to validate and reinforce our initial experience. But writing and drawing on the other hand requires much greater degrees of familiarity with the specializations involved, and even then true objectivity is incredibly rare as most of us have preferences that are based on appeals to the ego rather then the highly technical things like the Aristotelian Unities or the Appolonian and Dyonisiac Dichotomies. If you don't have a clue what those things are, well it doesn't really matter does it, since as long as you're doing whatever you feel like then everything should turn out okay. Right?
Well, from my perspective, if we're writing and drawing whatever we feel like, and all we feel is a sense of frustration and failure, then all we're going to be able to write and draw about is that sense of failure, which in turn becomes a negative emotional spiral that constantly feeds in upon itself as the initial struggle we often encounter as artists is, why doesn't it look anything like what I see in my head? Writers have a different set of experiences relating to that problem as people can't just look over your shoulder and see what it is you're writing about as if they don't ask first it borders on the level of creepy stalker behaviour but back to what I was saying, because concepts such as the Zone of Proximal Development and Psychomotor Learning are involved in the initial process we often model our behaviour on those we have most come to admire. Look up how many artists and writers decided to take up the profession because they saw someone famous on television or because their favorite book had a profound effect on them and you'll start to see some of the patterns that I based my research on. But anyway, because the ideal that exists only in our minds often comes into conflict with the harsh reality that awaits when we first start out the initial relationship to the creative process we tend to develop as adults can come across as cold and unsympathetic to the needs and desires of our complex emotional lives. Children usually just want to draw things that look cool, its a very different level of association and while feeling discouraged is just as devastating for them as it is for adults, children typically don't process concepts that involve the social hierarchy until sometime after the deconstruction of the ego. Which is one of the reasons why I refer to various artistic abilities as being part of a skill tree as in order to construct a positive mental representation of ourselves as artists its important to understand that a great deal of instruction can only be conveyed through the use of metaphor and seeing a giant tree in bloom whenever I think about all of the work I've had to do in order to learn these skills is a far better place to rest a weary spirit then a barren emotional wasteland. Zen Buddhism folks, the only reason I didn't dedicate myself to becoming a teacher of it is because I reek of worldly desires. Now another thing to be aware of when we are first starting out it is that sketching and doodling are synaesthetic processes and since one of the primary means of learning how to draw is based on visual cognition and the process of normalization which in turn establishes a baseline for comparison in our minds when we have nothing to compare those experiences to save the achievements of others, is it any wonder that people say they'll never be as good as someone else? Bit of advice, you can admire the works of others without comparing your own efforts to theirs, all it takes is a bit of practice and a goal that no matter where life takes you, can always be used to find your way back to yourself whenever you lose your way.
That's a hard sentence to follow up on even for me folks and as a personal rule I prefer to finish off on a strong idea rather then a weak one, so until the next time, enjoy your day.
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16 September 2016 at 10:47:50 MDT
Practical Theory, an artist's guide to understanding the hidden world of art, is a blog in which I'll be discussing all the weird, strange and semi-mystical things I've encountered while researching the emergent principles inherent in the transdisciplinary nature of art. So if you've ever wondered why art works the way it does, or if your just a fan of seeing if words can be weaponized in a way that can make people's head explode, check it out!