Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Art & Fear, Thoughts

Perhaps I did myself a bad turn by reading Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell (a fascinating book that is going to make me question pretty much everything, ever, from now on) and then reading Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. And also by being a rather avid fan of Regretsy...

You see, Blink reminded me how very manipulable the brain is, how we can be primed to accept something (or not). I'm also reminded of a piece I heard on NPR some years ago, about the riots that occurred when Stravinsky's Rite of Spring d├ębuted. (There's a biological/psychological side to that: the brain needs to hear new music more than once before it can "accept" it as music and not noise. Most new things, truly new and innovative, are heard as dissonant until they've been heard more than once. The brain needs to learn the new patterns.) So the brain is both malleable through intentional leading through word choice (classic eyewitness study by Loftus and Palmer shows this so clearly, and ad execs know it all too well), and through repeated exposure. Which brings to mind what Bayles and Orland talk about in their book, that innovation is an essential part of artmaking, but that it will invariably be met with criticism (and derision) until people get used to the new pattern. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. (Attributed to Mohandas Gandhi, regarding nonviolent protesting.)

Like Stravinsky, you must simply wait out the criticism, let everyone's brains get used to the new patterns you're providing, "and then you win," Though they don't really discuss it in those terms, Bayles and Orland talk about how just the wrong words from a teacher to a student can end an artistic career before it even begins -- priming the pump. Something else they don't mention, but I will because I am cynical and nasty: Telling people they are "special snowflakes, just like everyone else" does everyone a great disservice. If everyone is special, NO ONE is. (See Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron.) Not everyone can write an opera, not everyone can paint/sculpt/etc./ad nauseum. But we persist in telling people "you can do anything if you put your mind to it!" (demonstrably not true), and then praise their mediocre and misguided efforts when they've created a "masterwork" from chewed gum and bits of string.

While I praise the efforts of Bayles and Orland for helping assuage the terrors of being an artist by reiterating the idea that all artists feel that way, all the time, forever... sometimes the "artist" in question simply believes they're special, no one understands their art, or "you're just being mean!" Frankly, there are people on Etsy selling items they have no earthly reason to expect to be paid for - it's not that I don't get it, or that I'm mean, it's that the piece is poorly executed, badly rendered, childish (at best) and, frankly, crap (I love how she calls herself a "new artist" in reference to that piece, as if it excuses the smudges and awfulness of it). There are also people on Etsy who are undercharging for very skilled work. I don't agree with everything Regretsy posts as a Fail, and I don't agree with all of the critics there who gleefully snark away on those pieces. I don't have to. My opinion is mine alone, but sometimes it really is that bad.

But I'm probably overthinking it all...

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