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.


Vivian Oblivion said...

The emphasis on process as integral to artistic growth parallels the developmental method of writing, as elaborated by Peter Elbow (Writing Without Teachers) and that I currently practice. The process, or what Elbow calls the alternate "cooking" and "growing" of writing, is essential to the process of creation. Elbow insists that one must not approach a writing task with a preconceived notion of its goal or ending, much like JH's example of "monomaniacal vision" above. Of course, there are formal, structural, and other requirements for most (student and professional) writing, e.g. deadlines, genre (column, review, play), length/word count. His text fully explains the "cooking" and "growing" metaphors but suffice to say that they allow the writing to grow and discourage "shortcuts," which are too common among both new and established writers and, according to JH, also to artists.

I recommend the Elbow Writing Without Teachers text to artists tempted to take those detrimental shortcuts. In WWT each time "writing" appears, simply replace it with "painting" or "art-making" or "drawing," etc.

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