Monday, 27 April 2009

There are no shortcuts to the future.

“There is no such thing as a calculus of discovery or a schedule of rules by following which we are conducted to a truth. There is indeed no such thing as "the" scientific method. A scientist uses a very great variety of exploratory stratagems, and although a scientist has a certain address to his problems - a certain way of going about things that is more likely to bring success than the gropings of an amateur - he uses no procedure of discovery that can be logically scripted.”
Peter Medawar, The Limits of Science.
One thing that I encounter all too frequently whilst teaching art students is their tendency to preconceive work before any real testing or experimentation is undertaken. I'm probably particularly sensitive to this ‘shortcut’ because I was also guilty of it as a student myself and to be honest, I still do it more than I’d ideally like. Nonetheless, I think there's a considerable difference between doing this as a relatively experienced artist as opposed to someone still learning the diverse and varied methods and processes of creative production.

Artists make discoveries and learn by doing. But not all doing leads to learning. Procedural doing is something we barely think about once we’ve got the hang of a process. Experimental doing (some might call this “playing”) on the other hand, creates opportunities for testing, discovery and innovation. Of course, it often comes with a more than generous helping of frustrating but instructive failure. But failure can only really come about if we, as Peter Medawar suggests, have “certain address” to our problems. If we don’t, then there’s little to loose and equally little to gain - barring certain eureka moments which in themselves require a degree of sensitive observation to be recognized as such. And this is where experience comes in. Experience furnishes artists, and everyone else for that matter, with the ability to predict the future. The more familiar we are with the circumstances and dynamics of a material, process or event, the more likely we are to be able to predict its outcome. Anyone who makes art or teaches it has to do this on a daily basis and it’s what we mean when we talk about “visualizing” an idea.

When students describe their intensions for an artwork it’s essential for both them and their teachers to be able to foresee the possible outcomes: to visualize them; to conjure them into existence in the imagination. Moreover, the teacher, furnished with a greater wealth of experience, is therefore able to foresee and discuss any likely pitfalls and obstacles which might arise as a consequence. However, although all art production necessarily requires a good deal of prediction, I believe it’s crucially important to allow the work to develop and evolve beyond these initial thoughts and expectations in order to preempt disappointingly predictable outcomes. If we end up where we expected to be, we’ll have only confirmed what we already knew and we’ll have discovered nothing. How often has an artist come up with some “great idea” followed by weeks or even months of hard work, simply to achieve its realization? And in the interim they’ve become nothing more than a mindless slave to their own monomaniacal vision. Some might say that this is what makes a great artist: singular vision, hard graft and skill. I don’t think so, and that’s why I used the word “shortcut” above, because far too many people are of the mistaken opinion that this is what it takes.

Undoubtedly there are times when artists have ‘inspired’ ideas that are worthy of a significant investment of time, money and/or skill and result in work of genuine value, but such cases are the exception rather than the rule. More often, when an experienced artist has a great idea that simply needs to be realised, it’s actually the product of a whole history of experimenting, making, looking and thinking.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Parable of the Good Student.

Many years ago I was told an important story by someone very close to me. He was studying under a talented and highly respected tutor and one day they had a decisive tutorial. During this tutorial the student expressed his deep frustrations with the medium, with life, with art and with the apparent sheer impossibility of achieving anything of genuine value. At length he detailed his commitment, his faith in the endeavour of previous artists and his tenuous hope for the possibility of true realisation. He catalogued his disappointments, enumerated his woes and elucidated his fears. He made it clear that this deep anxiety and profound confusion were leading him to the brink of giving up. During this monologue the tutor listened intently with a fixed and inscrutable smile and eventually the student fell silent. At this point the tutor stood up to leave and without malice, mirth or irony he uttered one word – “Good”.

Recently I wrote the previous story as an intro text to a student publication and surprisingly, to me at least, it was rejected. Instead I was asked for a more conventional alternative and once I’d gotten over being peeved at their ungrateful lack of imagination I decided to write a more standard intro mentioning the usual mix of creativity, commitment, energy, humour, passion, insight and perception etc. Of course, it’s in many ways understandable that they didn’t like my original text - it didn’t talk about them and their work and it didn’t refer their audience to just what promising artists they were turning out to be. The fact is that I’m not at all convinced that many people actually care a great deal about introductory texts to catalogues (except the people who are in them and maybe their immediate friends and family) so my parable was aimed squarely at those who invited me to write the text in the first place. Presumably they didn’t get the message, or perhaps they were mildly insulted at the insinuation that they might be more than a little confused or at least should be.

Confusion has an unhappy home in contemporary thought. We tend to play it down or more often attempt to avoid it altogether since it’s associated with weakness or lack of control. Certainly it’s not a comfortable place to be, but I would argue that it’s a profoundly important place to find yourself as an artist precisely for this reason. If everyone else is trying so desperately hard to avoid confusion then perhaps it’s an ideal place to stop a while and to simply explore. And having stayed and explored wouldn’t we be more likely to return from our travels with something of real value? However, I’m certainly not advocating just any old wholesale, undifferentiated confusion. The previous story describes a confusion born of dedication and hard work: the kind of confusion which comes from scrutinising something so carefully that you begin to perceive its deepest flaws and imperfections. This is the landscape that artists should aim to venture into, and, armed with intelligence, sensitivity and skill we might hope that they’re able to make some sense of the experience and in the process share their discoveries with the rest of us.