Practical Theory Bringing things back into balance, the importance of vertical and lateral skills and being able to create a familiar work environment.
It has been my experience, that a great deal has been written by artists about how they go about achieving various visual effects, or how they translate the different ideas they work with into mechanical action, but very little has ever been said about the things that in turn sustain that process. And the reasons for this are actually quite simple and have a lot to do with resource development, investment management, power brokering, oh the list goes on and on, but that's behavioral economics for you, as whenever something is hard fought and hard won such as the level of experience necessary to achieve one's own desired level of expression in terms of being able to write or draw the Ego quite readily steps in and says something along the lines of, why are we just giving this away again? To which the Superego often replies, because we want those things that are intangible yet ultimately essential to securing our position within society such as respect, prestige, awe and yes even admiration. After which the Id of course chimes in, can we eat any of those things? Thus, a conflict within the self is born. So is it really any wonder then that many artists would struggle to express themselves in a healthy manner? Because, here's the thing, once you reach a certain level of ability, passion, desire and even a love of the craft cease to be the motivating factors behind our artistic pursuits, no, they are each in turn replaced by the forces which drive us to excel no matter the cost, mania, obsession, the desire for perfection or the hunger for new experiences it matters not. It happens to each and every one of us folks, and if anyone ever tells you that artists should do it only for the love of the craft kindly remind them that they're ignoring one key facet of reality, and that's when you dedicate the better part of your life on this Earth to mastering a craft you don't have the time to learn how to do something else. You either live every moment of every day in the light of your own dreams or you die a thousand different ways whilst dwelling in mediocrity's shadow. This phenomena is called the burden of choice, and its one we experience whenever we make a decision for the first time, or act upon the limits of incomplete or unavailable information. You see, because every time we make a choice we are in turn denying some other possibility the potential to exist we often begin to feel as though we are somehow missing out on essential aspects of life, that others are having more fun then we are, or that at some point in our lives, we made this great and terrible mistake and everything would be better if we could just go back and live our lives over again. Now personally, the idea of spending another thirty years beating myself against the anvil of life in order to hammer out the details makes me sick to my stomach, but in my case I've experienced this phenomena enough times to learn to recognize it for what it really is, a trap used to ensnare the weak willed and the unwary, and the reason this is so is because any time we make a difficult or challenging decision we are exercising our executive order decision making skills, which in turn means that not only is our capacity to handle various emotional states expanding, but our ability to deal with the situations that arise and the consequences that stem from being the one who makes those decisions begins developing as well. Or in other words, we can only learn to think for ourselves if we're allowed to learn from the mistakes we make without fearing that the repercussions involved will be catastrophically dire. Which for many artists or anyone who happens to be living in poverty at the time can be especially difficult to do because it invokes both a sense of loss aversion and rising investment costs, which if you don't have a lot of time, energy, effort or money to dedicate to meeting those costs means that your development as an artist begins to stall and since recognizable progress is an essential part of what can initially keep us going when we've just started out, you can see how a vicious cycle has already begun to form in terms of measuring our selves against others and rationalizing the costs involved while justifying the reasons why we've come too far to give up now.
This is why its important to be able to dialogue with our selves folks, a lot of the time we keeps these thoughts underwraps, letting them bubble away beneath the surface of our minds, disturbing our every waking moment and coloring our every action. Which is why I'm going to transition into talking about vertical and lateral skills as I think I've just illustrated one of the many ways that lateral skills can be used to make us, if not a better artists, a more effective one.
So, what are vertical skills and what are lateral skills. Well, first it helps to imagine our artistic development as a skill tree, and yes I mean that both literally and figuratively, as if we only focus on the areas that are in turn visible to others, we often fail to learn how to recognize our own growth as artists and the maturation that follows. Part of this is due to the normalizing effect that seeing small changes accumulate over time has on us and part of it is due to the way we are typically taught to measure things in terms of tangible results, but as many artists can attest to, if your efforts are intangible, and all anyone else ever sees is the finished results, and that's what you're being graded on, then that's what is going to be used to establish and determine the value judgments that in turn serve to define the value proposition people in turn come to rely on when they initially set out to assess a work. I hate the way the word grade is being used in that context by the way, as a grade is meant to be used as a distinction in metallurgy and manufacturing processes in order to determine the objective properties of an object, not the subjective qualities that we've ascribed to it, so the fact that it gets applied to people in a learning environment is not only a mind fuck of epic proportions, it also creates unconscious biases that inform our decision making processes as the heuristic patterns involved relies upon the curation work of people who are inherently fallible to begin with. And if those same people have been promoted beyond the limits of their abilities, then who's to say that if we lived in a true meritocracy they wouldn't feel threatened by the fact that the very people rising up beneath them are the same ones who are going to one day replace them. I know that I've digressed a bit with that one but part of what informs my philosophy about art and about teaching in general is that I want those who are going to one day surpass me in terms of ability to be as competent and capable as possible, otherwise when I'm old and gray I'm putting my legacy into the hands of idiots. Not exactly the most promising prospect now is it? Anyway, back to what I was saying about vertical and lateral skills, vertical skills are the ones that anyone can see, both in terms of being able to appreciate their difficulty and their complexity. While they are most often linked in the mind to things that often involve the use of perspective and composition in art, or narrative structure and various other forms of literary technique that involve a high degree of execution in order to pull off believably, two big problems immediately jump out at me when I say that. The first of course has to do with the fact that being able to appreciate anything requires a degree of highly specialized information and acquired experience. Bear with me for a moment while I explain the logic of how that works because the word appreciation is in this case being used as a technical distinction rather then as a basic descriptor as words in English tend to have different levels of impact based on their application so while enjoyment and appreciation can mean similar things enjoyment is the weaker word while appreciation is the stronger word which in turn carries with it a differing connotation in terms of intent, and because context in many cases can be interpreted based entirely on subjectivity, the only way to eliminate any and all confusion is to make my intent clear. Which also goes to show that unless you really know what the hell you're talking about in terms of being an artist, the English language is by far the worst one out there to try and explain things in because it relies on convincing the listener, rather then adopting the position of the speaker, in order to make translating concepts work. Which is hell on both the brain and the tongue, as, if you hadn't already noticed, the syntax structure that I'm using is based on High Order Domain English and Queen's English. And frankly, I don't think the two were ever meant to meet let alone be able to mix in such a way, but hey, if Shakespeare can write an entire play in iambic meter why not go for broke and make it so that every single sentence stretches in order to fit the borders of the page. Because it makes reading a much smoother experience and publishers actually use fonts and layouts that achieve this effect and because reading anything edged with a jagged border takes us out of the moment while larger text makes us feel as though we're reading faster then we actually are. Ah, the unconscious biases that tend to arise whenever we use formalized layouts or standardized formats, not only do they serve to inform our work, but they also come to define the mediums we use for expression in so many ways. Back to what I was saying about appreciation, when it comes to enjoying a work of art the criteria involved occupy a completely different set of expectations and considerations from those that typically stem from appreciating a work, as when we take into consideration the perspective of the audience and the nature of presentation we are then stepping into the world of lateral skills as they're what serve to support the experience rather then express or create it. As it happens a lot of artists who focus solely on learning vertical skills tend to suffer when it comes time to present or promote their work because again, schools typically focus on all the things people can see rather then what they can feel because objective statements are much easier to quantify then subjective experiences, which are in turn unique to the individuals in question. Which, is getting a little too close to the curation effect for my tastes but I'll get to that part later on. Now, the other problem that arises from all of this, is cultural, social and cognitive dissonance and this is the big one that happens whenever we try to read something unfamiliar to us, as whenever we lack a frame of reference or encounter a situation in which we cannot see our selves being represented the outsider effect comes into play and triggers one of those three dissonances which in turn leads to all manner of unpleasant psychic phenomena, so let's just stick with one of the easier to understand examples shall we. Manga, and comic books. A controversial comparison right? But its also one that's extremely telling as we can easily trace the roots of culture in terms of how each one has progressed and developed based on the social and cultural influences that each has either absorbed or integrated into their aesthetic narratives. Or I could just use the world style, but style as a word doesn't actually say anything as its all too often used as a blanket term, so I guess in this case its quite literally been robbed of all its meaning. But anyway, if you grew up reading one but not the other then whenever you pick up the one you aren't familiar with reading, well, the most common experience that I've come across is, what the hell is this shit? Which are my words exactly whenever I look at some of the anatomy that gets used in superhero comics as I don't care what it is you do for a living bodies simply do not bend in those kinds of ways, but what looks familiar to us and what looks right are subjective distinctions the mind makes based on familiarity and preference, not on execution or informed design decisions. Which also has a lot to do with working on a schedule or under pressure to perform as those are all things that often get lost in translation because when the investors confidence is on the line then delivering a product, any kind of product, is always preferable to bailing on the whole endeavor and squandering their money. Or as we in the business like to say, while I can refund your money, you can't refund my time. And trust me, that's another bone of contention entirely, but again, this is where having first hand experience dealing with an issue, and having theoretical experience dealing with an issue tends to separate all those who can do something, from all those who only know how to break wind with their face. Now to really get back to what I was saying, because making an informed decision also means either having previously invested ourselves in a work either through time, energy, effort or money, or being introduced to a work from a trusted or reliable source, the cost of entry and the barriers to access all involve the burden of choice, and when all we have available to us are limited means, the decision that often gets made is based on the group consensus and the gestalt collective rather then the individual's experience as this in turn mitigates the cost in terms of loss aversion. Wow that sentence ran away from me, so let me try and put it a way that doesn't involve a whole lot of exo-speak and psychobabble. Hmm, that's going to take some doing, uh, whenever we develop a preference for certain forms of expression such as say dance or music, I'm generalizing here, we in turn come to understand the language that is common to those forms of expression, and once that happens, we begin to recognize all of the times when it isn't there. Or in other words the absence of evidence really is evidence of absence, and that means when we experience something where we are required to learn an entirely new language common to that form of expression, the only things we have to compare it to, are the things we already prefer. Which is one of the many reasons why new forms of expression are so often despised by the majority of people who've only experienced them peripherally or tangentially as the primary means by which we disassociate ourselves from experiencing that which could lead to either anger or frustration or any other form of loss is to disavow a work in order to lower the inherent or implied value in our own eyes. Especially if that work is in any way going to compete with or detract from the things that we already enjoy as creating new markets means increasing the investment costs in terms of resource management and dammit curation effect I didn't sit down to write about you! Arrghh, stupid bloody stream of consciousness writing, how the hell does Stephen King do this kind of thing anyway? Oh right, drugs, lots and lots of drugs. Okay, my point being, that regardless of the medium, the form of expression that becomes a signature distinction that marks an artist, I refuse to say the word style folks, can be summarized using various terms, for instance when it comes to writing I'm a Humanist, and when it comes to drawing I'm a Fantastic Realist, or at least that's the kind of work that holds my interest and its what I gravitate towards while I'm drawing, now could anyone ever know that just from a few sketches or a couple of blog entries, eh, probably not, but while the vertical skills that in turn support those forms of expression are different from the ones that are considered to be typical in the western side of the world, they can not only be more commonly found in the eastern artistic traditions, but are highly desirable as well. Which really serves to illustrate the fact that environmental exposure has a profound effect on our development as artists as the idealized notions of art are often what are used to serve as an objective means of identifying what is considered to be good or not. And without them all you have is popular opinion and that's just nightmare fuel as far as I'm concerned. So while vertical skills can be considered part of the overall structure of art, lateral skills are the presentation that supports and sustains the experience. Which can in turn be understood by reading your favorite online posts in the morning before work, or at night when all we want to do is decompress and forget the outside world even exists. Which of those experiences is more likely to satisfy our existential need for connection or our emotional desires? Well, that's where art as a ritual action comes into play as the creative process is highly dependent on the thoughts, feelings and impressions that we in turn absorb from our surroundings. Which also works in reverse by the way as when we we seek to create an organized or structured composition in terms of art we operate on both an internal and external basis, which means our immediate surroundings can often become an extension of our selves in the sense that, in order to actually see ourselves reflected in the mundane world around us, we either remove any and all potential distractions from our space, as any time we allow our thoughts to drift in order to explore a thought or idea we can find them getting tangled up in the immediacy of our physical needs, its much harder to enter the open state while we're hungry, cold or worrying about paying the bills by the way, or we fill our space with all of the things that will in turn remind us of past achievements or accomplishments in order to maintain a sense of focus and discipline. I'm surrounded on three sides by an art desk, a computer and a workstation used for sewing and other forms of mixed media, so any way I turn I either see books on how to draw, some of which are good and some of which are expensive paperweights that I keep around to remind me of all the things not to do, or concept sketches of future projects. Oh, and I have a shoebox in a drawer filled with research notes written in print so small it could fit on a grain of rice. Not legibly mind you, but I still write pretty damned small because I hate wasting space and because I don't need people giving me dirty looks whenever they try to read what I'm writing while walking past me on the bus. Wow I just dated myself with that anecdote, but I'm old school when it comes to being a writer, that means pen and paper all the way baby. Paper because seeing the words in front of me physically is a far more satisfying experience, and pen because the temptation to erase an idea that isn't working the way I want it to is just too damned easy to succumb to. That and a cat once walked across my keyboard while I was typing up my revision notes to a novel that I happened to be working on and managed to hit Ctrl+A and then F, which is both strangely ironic and profoundly apt as when you watch several months worth of work and a few hundred thousand words vanish right in front of you there's not much else you can think of other then Ctrl Z, hit Ctrl Z! Since then I back everything up in triplicate because my god you only need that kind of scare once in your life before you realize that working digitally isn't always the blessing that people make it out to be. Now in terms of learning how to paint or doing any kind of graphic design, that's a completely different story as the cost savings alone in terms of time and materials are enormous. But that's a discussion for a different time, now when it comes to all the familiar associations that creating an artistic space can in turn provide us with one of the most essential things is the permission to sit down and be our selves. You see all too often when we step out into public we put on the face that we want other people to see, we do that as artists as well but for very different reasons and through very different means, but that involves talking about partitioning the mind and compartmentalizing our thoughts, so for now I'm just going to focus on the borders we create around ourselves in order to distinguish one action from another and the sense of time and place where we become conditioned to perform an action as part of its required function. Oh man, did that really sound as bad being read aloud as it did in my head? Well, this is what I get for doing all of those thought experiments in terms of anthropology and xenopsychology, wild crazy theories about how future societies will come to function and how modern humans might learn to recognize themselves within them. Or, you know, the Rip Van Winkle trope that writers rely on in order to either give a character strangely specific forms of amnesia or to introduce a common element to the reader so they can see how wild and crazy everything is without becoming a stranger in a strange land. Anyway, part of developing the mental discipline that allows us to simply sit and be creative involves repeating an action over and over again until it becomes an essential element of our routine because energy cuts a flow just like water does, and any path in our minds that energy has flowed through before becomes both a better capacitor and a much stronger conductor as time goes on, which means that while we struggle in the beginning to establish those essential connections, once they've actually been made, its a whole other ballgame. Remember when I said the process can go both ways? Yeah, that means people are going to try and step in and rearrange things to their liking, which not only involves rearranging all of the furniture, but changing the drapes and curtains as well. Strange metaphor I know, but if we take into consideration the fact that most artists who are just starting out hunger for recognition and acknowledgment, then they're more then likely to make the kinds of compromises that will be detrimental to their long term growth either to appease their intended audience or to try and become the kind of artist they think others want them to be. That's why it takes years to truly become an artist as anyone can learn the skills provided they put in the time or find someone who's willing to teach them, but the vision, the hunger, the drive, those are things that only come with age and maturity, with having spent the better portion of your life fighting to stay alive, because those who survive, are the ones who learn how to survive. Against all the odds, against all the obstacles that life puts in our way, time and time again we hone ourselves in order to become a blade forged for a singular purpose, to cut through uncertainty, to strike down doubt, and to carve a path in which the future we desire becomes not just a possibility, but the very essence of our reality. Okay, whenever I start going into method writing without conscious awareness its definitely time for me to stop as that felt way too much like I was stepping into someone else's life. Would be a great opening line for a jidaigeki though. Until next time folks, have a good one.
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4 November 2016 at 16:56:22 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!