Knowing What You Don’t Know

I’ve been a guitar player for a very long time, but each and every day, I discover something else I don’t know how to play.  It is this acquisition of knowledge that turns out to be the main challenge, in guitar playing, more than the development of dexterity.  Getting your hands to mechanically move, on your mind’s command, to where they need to be, on time, is a big challenge, for sure, but it becomes an obsession with so many players, that they turn a blind eye to all the other things they need to know.  When you observe the best players, they play lines of the most astonishing complexity, but their hands hardly move at all.  This seems to be a necessary pre-condition for playing really well, but it isn’t the whole story.

Honestly admitting to yourself what you don’t know is a very important part of improving, as a player.  I know this to be true for all spheres of art, actually.  Sitting down and talking to yourself and making an inventory of what you don’t know feels quite deflating, at times.  You realise that, as far as you have come, you have so far to go.  On the other hand, that’s what keeps you excited, interested and engaged in becoming a better player.  I guarantee that for every player that has become bored with his instrument there is a person in sheer denial about what they still don’t know.  A counter balance for the list of things you still don’t know is a list of the things you already do know.

Having worked out what you don’t know, setting yourself the task of learning it and putting in the effort to really make the knowledge stick, in your mind, is the next difficult challenge.  Don’t rush.  This step takes a lifetime.  What you have to do is chip away at the list consistently and diligently.  You aren’t going to learn it all overnight.  Nobody does.  This is where the dedication to your art is tested.

Quite frequently, while learning something new, you discover gaps in things you thought you had already perfected.  For example, while I am quite dextrous on the fingerboard, my right hand finger picking technique is pretty rudimentary.  In some cases, that lack of muscle memory hinders my learning.  I also occasionally find a stretch or left hand repositioning exercise that is beyond my ability to achieve, even with the fluidity and dexterity I have developed to date.  This is where I have to go back to the drawing board and gradually build up the physical moves I need to be able to play the thing I want to play.

What makes guitarists amazing to watch, for me, is their ability to pull just the right sequence of notes, or the perfect “lick”, out of the bag at the right musical moment.  Their knowledge of musical possibilities is encyclopaedic, they know how to articulate every phrase they can choose from and playing just the right phrase becomes analogous to selecting just the right word (the mot juste), when writing prose.  They know their licks so well and they have such an extensive phrase vocabulary, that the selection process is almost automatic (or at least autonomic) and driven by emotion, rather than intellect.

Things I do know how to do, on guitar, include playing fluid lines, playing to the sweet notes in a chord, I know my way around the whole fingerboard reasonably assuredly, my tone is well sorted, I have pretty good vibrato and tremolo technique and I can articulate notes well.  I have a reasonable back catalogue of phrases and licks to draw from.  Those are all assets.

What I don’t know (and this is a hopelessly abbreviated list, given as an example) is how to play extremely fast and extended legato runs, I don’t know all my scales, my jazz chord substitution knowledge is risible, I encounter guitar players with more extensive lick libraries in their brains, my tone is still evolving, I am working on subtler tremolo techniques and I don’t really sight read all that consistently.  I’m working on borrowing ideas from a range of techniques outside of my usual musical style.  Every day, I find a new lick to play that my fingers are reluctant to play.  To learn these phrases, I have to do a lot of repetition; a hell of a lot of repetition.  The idea is to start slowly, play the line cleanly and to gradually build up the speed over a period of days, or weeks if necessary.

Part of my learning technique is to use video instruction, such as the excellent tutorials you can buy from Truefire.com, but I also use tablature transcriptions from Ultimateguitar.com, loaded into a programme called Guitar Pro 6.  I also listen to tracks by artists I like and sometimes use Riff Station to slow the faster lines down, so that I can build my own speed gradually.  The tablature is something I use to clarify which notes were played, but I often change the fingerings to suit myself, so that I can play the lines more comfortably.  You also often see a difference between the tabbed fingering and what you can observe the original artist playing, on videos of them playing live that sometimes appear on YouTube.  Tablature is more a suggestion, than gospel truth.

When I began learning guitar, none of these resources existed.  I had to pick out lines by ear, from vinyl records or cassette tapes.  My renditions were frequently inaccurate.  There wasn’t any available tablature and the sheet music that was available was quite heavily biased toward jazz and piano.  A good guitar teacher could encourage you and make sure you weren’t developing extremely bad habits, but it was all pretty crude and rude.  Guitar players, today, have much better learning materials and learning opportunities.  Knowing how hard the musical knowledge was to acquire, in previous decades, really tells you how hard the star guitar players and guitar heroes had to work, to develop their musical abilities.  It wasn’t easy.  It’s still not easy, but at least there are better resources for learning available.

When you pursue this programme of continuous learning, you very quickly build up an almost overwhelming backlog of things you want to learn, but find you cannot learn them fast enough to satisfy your hunger.  Patience.  All you can do is the equivalent of turning up at the woodpile and chopping the wood.  You know what I mean.  There is a huge pile of logs to be split and you feel daunted by how long it will take and how much strength, sweat and endurance it will require.  It’s also endlessly repetitive and boring.  However, you split the first log, and then the second and you keep going, log by log, until the whole pile of logs has been split.  That’s all you can do, when you set yourself a programme of learning.  Keep at it.

I know experienced players that are content to rehash the things they already know, or who get fixated with sorting out their gear and their tone, but neglect their absorption of the licks and techniques of other players, or whose dexterity seems stuck at one level, but never improves.  They all have things to learn.  We all do.  However, they don’t do anything about it.  Doing something about it is the hard part.

I know that I have fallen into similar traps, over the years and the price of doing so is losing interest in playing.  To keep your playing vibrant and fresh, you have to keep moving forward.  You have to admit to what you don’t know and painfully take baby steps to learn it.  It’s brutal and humiliating, humbling and frustrating, but it is the only way forward available.  Eventually, though, you find yourself playing things that put a smile on your own face, which amaze yourself and which are closer to the elusive music you can hear in your head.  It’s a nice feeling when you find yourself really liking what you’re playing.  That’s when you begin to find and express your own, unique musical voice.

The biggest upside of all the pain and drudgery that comes with continuing to set yourself new challenges is that at least you’ll always have something new to do.  While you have something new to do, there is a reason to get up in the morning.  Let that purposefulness carry you forward.

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Chasing Your Tail

Have you ever seen a dog chase its own tail?  It’s a spectacle that is both bemusing and somewhat alarming.  Here is a supposedly sentient creature engaged in something that is utterly pointless and completely impossible.  If they ever catch their tail, what will they do with it?  Bite it savagely?  On the other hand, if their tail remains tantalisingly out of the reach of their jaws forever, what purpose will be served by continuing to run around in circles?

How do you, as an artist, respond to the following feedback?

  • Your CV / artist’s statement / portfolio is too brief / too long / doesn’t have enough of / has too much of /doesn’t emphasise /overemphasises .
  • Your music is too fast / too slow / overproduced / under-produced / lacks punch / is too punchy / too long / too short / too commercial / too esoteric / doesn’t have its own sound / doesn’t fit within any recognised genre / sounds too much like / doesn’t sound enough like .
  • Your painting is too subdued / too bright / lacks colour / has too much colour / is too realistic / too abstract / not representational enough / too literal / too big / too small / too detailed / too naive.
  • Your writing is too florid / too colloquial / uses too many big words / talks down to the reader / has too complex a story / has too simple a story / is too long / is too short /doesn’t grab the reader / tries too hard to grab the reader.
  • Your career is too narrowly focused / covers too broad a skill set / indicates you’ve done too much of / indicates you haven’t done enough of / shows you never stick at anything / shows you never take a leap of faith and try something new / demonstrates that you were too unsuccessful / demonstrates that you were too successful / should be different, at this age.

Everybody has an opinion about your work and about you, as an artist and as a human being.  In stating their opinion, their expectation is that you should immediately heed their advice and take on board their criticisms, morphing your work and yourself to be perfect embodiments of the preferences they have expressed, or else just go away.

How is that any different to a dog chasing its own tail?

Your particular, unique way of expressing yourself, through your art and your character and makeup, as an artist, is already who you are and what you do.  A future perfection, according to somebody else’s stated aesthetic preference, is not something separate from you or something you will eventually attain.  You already are you and the art you make is already a characteristic expression of who you are.  It’s not like you should be aiming for some external thing to complete yourself.  What you need, you already have.  Your taste and influences already lead you to make the kind of artistic work you make.  So what should you make of the “constructive” criticisms?

You are evidently showing your work to the wrong person.

It may be the case that nobody appreciates your art and your uniqueness as a person.  Do you care?  Should you care?  Is that a good enough reason to start second guessing your instincts, as an artist and begin chasing your own tail?

More likely is that somebody somewhere will think that what you made is just right and that, as an artist, they think you’re exactly perfect.  The hard part is finding them.

The only guarantee you’ve got is that if you spend all your time running around in ever decreasing circles, chasing your own tail, you won’t find them that way.

Follow your nose, instead.

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Time

Time is a key ingredient, in the life of an artist.  After all, we only have one lifetime in which to acquire our skills and abilities and to share those with anybody appreciative of them.  The competition, in art, is fierce and you compete not only with every artist alive, but every artist there ever was.  It is difficult to get it all done in, a single lifetime.  There isn’t enough time.

If you can afford to spend as much time as you would like on your art, all day, every day, then you can go quite a lot further than if you have to find the time to attend to your art and to your personal development, as an artist, between other calls on your time (such as a full time job).

Most artists, even full time artists, have to juggle their time quite carefully.  You have to divide your time between your art and other things that are demanding of your time, many of which are genuinely important and a priority for you, but some of which are pure time wasters.

What you choose to spend your time on is a decision that needs to be made without spending too much time on it, prevaricating.  The more time you spend in indecision or doubt, the less time you will leave to create.

Many artists find themselves out of time.  They are either too far ahead of public taste, or behind the times.  On the other hand, much art becomes more valuable and more widely appreciated, in time.  An artistic career, like many things, depends on fortuitous timing.

The ravages of time can dismantle an artist, slowly.  What they were once capable of creating, in their younger days, becomes harder to accomplish, as their faculties and strength wanes.  Time can be cruel.   Time can also allow you to develop your capabilities to the full.  Many guitar players play better in the twilight of their careers, than they did when they were first noticed.

Some art is of its time.  It might have resonated with audiences in a particular decade, but no longer seems relevant to how people think and live today.  Recapturing the magic of those moments can appear futile and pathetic.  People have no time for it.

The longer time you work at something, the better you get, but if you lavish too much time on every creation, there won’t be as many.  Sometimes, the art is in learning to produce your creations quickly, taking as little time as possible to reach the required standard.  Spending too much time on a work or artistic project that isn’t worth your time can be a complete waste of time.

Time can heal.  Many a musical collaboration has ended acrimoniously, only to be resurrected under more harmonious circumstances, some considerable time later.  Good times.

Time can also wound.  What was once a happy artistic collaboration can turn sour, over time, as one partner or the other realises they have been taken advantage of or not treated fairly.  Bands often break up over disputes regarding authorship and the fair distribution of royalties.  It’s time to call a halt to the abuse.

Time marches on relentlessly.  It isn’t the case that you can always make up for lost time.  Sometimes, opportunities vanish forever.  If you start your artistic career late, having taken time to pursue other things, you might accomplish the goal, but your lifetime’s work will necessarily be more limited than if you had taken up your artistic career earlier.

You never know how much time you have.  People die, unexpectedly and too soon, all the time.  Artists are not exempt.  You just never know when it’s your time.

Once you spend your time, you don’t get to spend it again.  It has been spent.  Spend your time wisely.  People tell you this, time and time again.  This is a timely reminder.

Sometimes, it isn’t the right time to create and to work on your art.  Other things need your attention.  You’ll get back to it sometime, often times, but sometimes not.

My time is up and I have wasted enough of your time already.  I hope you have a great time, with your art.

Time to go.

 

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It All Depends on How You Look at It

When I was a teenager, circa 1975, I had a band.  We liked to play loud and we practiced in the front rooms or garages of our parents’ houses.  Sometimes, if the weather was fine, we’d play on the back porch, which was about four feet off the ground and formed an imaginary stage, of sorts.  In our dreams, we could play on that porch, imagining we were playing to a small festival audience, or some such.  It was our favourite thing to do.  We just loved to play.  It’s practically all we did, outside of school.  If we weren’t playing, we were talking about playing or planning to play.

We also liked to write songs.  Our songs were not great, but whose are, when they’re just starting out?  What we played was something like what has come to be known as “Aussie Pub Rock”.  It was designed for dancing.  Although relatively unsophisticated, it was good time music and we tried our best to inject a little technique and artifice, as we got better at playing our instruments.  Our parents were indulgent, but encouragement was otherwise quite scarce.  Our peer group largely ignored what we were doing, for the most part.  The local popular culture revolved around going to the beach and surfing.  Rock musicians were a relatively strange anomaly.

As we got louder and rehearsed for longer, with bigger amplifiers and drum kits, our constant struggle was to find a place to play that wouldn’t result in a visit from law enforcement.  That’s right, folks.  Our neighbours were so unappreciative of our nascent musical endeavours and thought so unlikely a career in music that they were prepared to unleash the forces of state violence to silence us prematurely.  Having the police called out to issue you with a noise abatement warning was about as far from encouragement as you could possibly get.

Unsurprisingly, we eventually lost heart.  The rock band broke up and I went and got the proverbial “proper job”, as an engineering trainee.  My erstwhile band mates started playing jazz (some still do).  At least people didn’t tell you playing jazz was wrong.  That was acceptable music.  It was also, even then, dated and somewhat antique.  Conservative people liked jazz.  It was the music that guaranteed parental approval.  In short, it was a safer option than writing and performing original rock songs, about subjects that were relevant to people our age.

Our little band was seen, by our community, as a nuisance and an annoyance.  We were considered to be a bad influence on more studious kids and unwelcome, as community members, if we insisted on making that ungodly racket.  The thought that what we were doing could have been an industry, or earned anything of significance, I’m sure, never occurred to our neighbours and peers.  Australia was a reactionary culture, still seeing the devil and debauchery in music that had a strong beat and an insistent rhythm section, which compelled audience members to dance.  It was a pity that such clever, nice young boys had gone astray, was the general reaction we received.  We were considered to be on our way to penury and a life of crime.

About the same time, not more than one hundred miles north of where we lived, in a bigger city, another bunch of lads were playing quite similar music to ours.  They were writing their own songs and adding a little technical pizzazz to their performances.  We shared pretty much the same schtick.  Their band makeup was identical to ours; two guitars, bass and drums.  They played loud and they played danceable rock music.  Being a couple of years older than us and having started a year or two before we did, they were already playing the pubs and clubs.  We, on the other hand, were too young to set foot in the door of those venues, under the liquor licensing laws that existed.  Those laws were strictly enforced, too.  We sat on the sidelines until the lack of permission and encouragement finally made us give up, rather than persist against what felt, at the time, like insurmountable obstacles.

If you want to know what happened to that other bunch of lads that seemed to have a better foothold on a musical career, in the middle seventies, than we were able to establish, AC/DC are still thriving.  Now they’re pushing seventy!  Last year, according to Forbes, they were paid $114 million USD.  They grossed a staggering $226 million USD on their last tour, clearing $2m a night.  Their career earnings are inestimable.

What was seen, in our home town, as having little potential (certainly not an export earning potential), annoying, noisy, a public nuisance of the first rank and representative of the decay and degeneracy of the youth of the day, which needed to be corrected and stopped, before it all got out of hand, was instead seen as the incubator of potential stars, in that other home town.

Nobody, I’m sure, could have predicted the earnings of AC/DC, even if optimistically calculated, back in those days.  However, their songs were permitted to develop, they got to play and they became a big draw card.  It can’t have been an easy climb for them, as their song, “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)”, states in its title and lyrics, but at least it was possible.  The message we took, from community reaction to our efforts, was that what we were attempting to do was positively impossible. 

(Cultures change.  The same home town that had given us no hope spawned the globally successful band, Silverchair, almost twenty years later.  The high school that two of our band members had learned to play jazz music in, as outcast, oddball music nerds, is now a dedicated school for the performing arts.)

I can’t help thinking that if both bands had swapped home towns, the outcomes might have been quite different.  Or perhaps those lads felt they had no other options, so had to stick it out, despite the indignities and discouragements, whereas we were happily steered into other, more academic, safe and secure directions, because, being adjudicated as “bright boys”, people around us felt it their duty to ensure we didn’t waste our lives on a folly.  This is one situation where being intelligent definitely didn’t help.

That’s the thing about artists, while they’re still struggling and unknown.  You can’t tell what they’ll become.  However, you can alter their outcomes, depending on whether you embrace their efforts and encourage them in that direction, or level strict prohibitions and sanctions against them, or else completely neglect and ignore them, in a misguided effort to straighten and correct them.  The community you exist within, as an artist, can either nurture you or suffocate you.  We had the misfortune of forming our band in an environment positively hostile to our new musical ideas and derisive about any far-fetched ambitions of making it biggish.

The naked truth about community attitudes toward unknown and struggling artists turns out to be this – it all depends on how you look at it.  I wish we had known.

 

Ironic post script:  The safe and secure job I was steered into was with the largest employer in the region, a steelworks.  At the time, the works employed 13,000 people and it was considered to be a local institution.  My father was its longest serving employee, with 47 years service, when he retired.  Nobody could imagine the demand for steel abating at any time.  That steelworks is now a vacant site, denuded of its buildings and machinery, which were sold to Chinese steel manufacturers and transported to China in crates, wholesale.  All of those safe and secure jobs for life have disappeared forever.  AC/DC, on the other hand, is still going.

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Unwanted Encouragement

You would think that encouragement is always welcome.  Who doesn’t need a little encouragement, from time to time, right?  I thought that too, but I’ve discovered that encouragement can be most unwelcome – catastrophically so – in some circumstances.

We’re brought up to seek comfort, in this life, by getting a well-paying, secure, “proper” job and keeping our heads down, working hard and waiting for the rewards of that career choice to accumulate.  As a life strategy, that can work.  There is no doubt about it.  Many people follow that path and receive nice things, for having played their part dutifully.  They succeed.  It enables them to have a nice house and cars, some gorgeous holidays and to raise fine children, in relative comfort and privilege.  This path can take you a long way; there is no doubt about it.  Unfortunately, that choice comes with a cost.

There are many individuals that are highly creative, who develop outstanding talents in writing, music, philosophical pursuits, spirituality, acting, singing, theatrical performance, crafts, culinary arts,  and so on.  Every now and then you will find somebody that has developed interests and abilities in all of these.  Those extraordinary individuals, as able as they are, show even more potential in these pursuits.  In their presence, you feel that they could go as far as any human being could, in those spheres of creativity, given the right encouragement.  They’re inspiring and something in you, as a human being, cannot help but admire them for their talents and hope that they can continue to express their creativity, benefiting all of mankind with it.  You just want them to go on and create all the beauty you sense they are capable of making.

What do you do, then, when that person is determined to turn their back on all of these creative talents and pursue something far more solid, as a career?  That’s not to say they wouldn’t apply their extraordinary creativity to their chosen field, thereby making them one of the very best of their kind, compared to their peers, but it is to say that they would more or less stop writing, making music, acting, performing and paying as much serious attention to the abilities they have already begun to demonstrate.  They might not stop completely, but they definitely wouldn’t develop their talents to the fullest extent possible.  The flower of their creativity would never fully blossom.  The novels won’t be written, their songs would never be composed, performed or recorded, and they won’t appear on stage very often.  In short, humanity will be denied that part of their very considerable creative output.

You might think that no loss.  In applying their creativity to a proper job, they make a better world that way.  Besides, there are legions of other talented people who will fill the void, writing their stories, making their music and entertaining us all.  That would be correct, but it neglects the price paid by the highly creative individual.

My belief, fervently held, is that if you are a creative person, with creative interests and partially developed talents, they represent a significant aspect of your soul and being, as a person.  If you leave those parts of your makeup underappreciated, unimproved and neglected, it eventually weighs heavily on you.  I don’t know if that’s a universal experience, but I suspect that it is.  Nobody wants to die with music still hiding inside of them.  If you once had the motivation and interest to create imaginative stories, eventually those stories, which you don’t take the time to write down and craft with care, well up inside you, almost demanding that you pay attention to them and let them out.  To deny those creative impulses is to impose a slow death on yourself.

If you are an intuitive, empathic observer of somebody that insists on consigning their creative talents to the closet, while they earnestly apply themselves to the obtaining and perfection of a proper career, you might feel a deep, acutely painful pang of regret, which causes you to act upon it.  The thought of seeing a beautiful, creative person tortured by their own unrealised creativity can cause you to say something, especially if you care about them as human beings.

You might try to encourage them to take their creative talents more seriously and to respect their authentic condition more reverently.  In so doing, you might be accused of trying to sabotage their career, of second guessing their life choices in a patronising and demeaning way and of trying to undermine their life plan.  The fear that their talents are not good enough, to make a comfortable living with them, may come to the fore.  Perhaps they are realistic enough to understand that a life, honouring their talents, would be a struggle, compared to the relative ease of the proper career path.  What they underestimate, though, is the difficulty of keeping those creative talents at bay – undeveloped and unexposed.  That’s the price that must be paid for the safety and security.

When you meet a person like this, your encouragement to pursue their many gifts is unwelcome.  They might never speak to you again.  Your encouragement may be met with a lion’s maw.  Your insistent encouragement is unlikely to change their mind and convince them to pay more attention to their own considerable creativity.  The encouragement will be resented.  That’s a pity.

In the end, people make their own choices and decisions, in life.  It might pain you to see talents wasted, or at least never brought to their fullest potential.  There might be a great deal of regret involved in seeing a person like this, later in life, struggling with frustration, boredom, regrets and the certain knowledge that they could have made more of their creativity.  Sure, it’s possible that they never miss their un-realised creative pursuits, but it seems highly doubtful to me, especially when the initial promise was so pronounced.  Equally, they may take a stance of public, steadfast denial, for self-preservation reasons, insisting that nobody ought to be obliged to create, just because they can create.  In any case, it’s their bed, which they made and they must lie in it.

I’ve said it before, but encouragement really is a very delicate art.  In trying too hard to encourage an artist, you might cause them to, instead, dig their heels in and reject their own talents more determinedly.  Your encouragement might be wholly counterproductive.  My advice, especially to younger people, is to encourage carefully and judiciously, without smothering the artist.  Sometimes, the very thing you would like to see flourish will, instead, wither and die, because of your insistence that it be nurtured.  That’s the opposite of what you hoped would happen.  It’s very sad and regrettable, when it does.

Encourage with caution.  It’s not always welcome.

 

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Disasters, Disappointments, Decrepitudes and Embuggerances

I don’t know a single person whose life has not been blighted, at one time or another, by disease, discomforts, disasters, disappointments, debilitations, disquietudes, decrepitudes and embuggerances.

It seems to be an inseparable part of being human.

The important thing is not to dwell on them or let them bring you down.

They’re inevitable and happen to everyone.

The antidote to them is compassion, cohesion, contentment, collaboration, co-operation, caring, creativity, connectedness and solidarity.  We need each other’s support and help to cope.

Together, we can make it through the trials of every life.

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Iconoclastic is Fantastic

An iconoclast can be defined as a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc, as being based on error or superstition.  An iconoclast is a breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration.

Do you do any of that in your art?  Maybe you should.

Part of the work of an artist is to help people see in new and more insightful ways.  They can do this through the images they make, the music they compose or the writings they produce, just to name a bare few ways.  The act of attacking entrenched ideas, viewpoints, perspectives, established traditions, systems, rules and so on, because you can see through their bluster, bluff, illegitimacy, stupidity, cupidity or bone-headed nature, is an act of iconoclasm.  Any time you move things forward, make progress, or replace the old with the new, chances are you have done something iconoclastic, even if you don’t necessarily know you have.

I once received a back-handed compliment from somebody I knew quite well, who said that I was “unique”.  That was meant to mean I was an oddball, I suppose, but even in my young twenties, I had a sense of what I wanted to do most, in the world.  I responded that I may be unique, but at least I am iconoclastic about it.  (Her response was that I was good, but not that good).

Well, I think my track record speaks for me.  I have managed to bring new things into the world, which never existed before.  I have ideas that attack widely cherished, comfortable, entrenched beliefs and I have written about some of them in this blog.  It is my fervent belief that the current ways we bank, work, value art, co-operate and earn are deeply flawed and I have written about some of the possible alternatives to those, too.  There are numerous sacred cows yet to slay.

Lately, I have been reading some fascinating books, written in the 1880s and the remarkable thing about them is how comprehensively the ideas presented in them were resoundingly rejected by the majority, at the time of writing.  Some of the authors were actually hung for their ideas, which were published, in book form, posthumously, by their widows.  These authors were cruelly and unjustly put to death, by those who upheld the orthodox views, for the crime of challenging entrenched societal beliefs and suggesting better alternatives.  It was the establishment’s attempt to silence those ideas and consign them to history.  It didn’t work.

Writing and publishing a book, in those days, was no small undertaking.  It required significant sacrifice, not the least of which was monetary hardship.  Some of these books sold only a few hundred copies, in their first editions.  The prefaces of the books describe the privations and disappointments endured by the author, with subsequent editions remarking on the almost universal rejection of their writings and their forlorn hope that perhaps, just maybe, their ideas would endure, against the odds.  Well, endure they did, as evidenced by the fact that I am able to access these works freely, via the Internet, today and I am reading them (and perhaps so too are others), over one hundred and thirty years after they were first written.  The authors are long dead and buried, but their ideas remain.  Iconoclasm has an enduring quality.

So much of what people believe is due to somebody they trusted having told them so.  Quite a lot of people never take the trouble to examine what they believe and test whether or not it is, in fact, nonsense, based on error or just plain superstitious.  Evidence is the key.

A lot of the ideas that people hold onto and uphold, both in life and in artistic practice, are set up for religious veneration, of a kind.  People do tend to revere information that they are told, by artists or public figures with towering reputations, or by those with culturally or personally significant relationships to them.  Too bad that so much of it is wrong, wrongly applied or anachronistic.  What might have been a valid approach, in the specific case, need not be a solution at all, in the general case.

If you think the current orthodoxies are to your benefit, or serve you well enough, there is a natural inclination to reject the ravings of an iconoclast, who is presenting truths that you would ideally not want to acknowledge or recognise.  The change is feared.  This conservatism persists, even when the alternatives are ultimately much more advantageous to those wedded to current orthodoxies.  That’s just human nature.  There isn’t much you can do about it.  As an iconoclast, all you can do is follow your conscience.

I believe it to be your duty, as a human being and as an artist, to challenge and attack cherished beliefs, from time to time.  A lot of them turn out to be illegitimate or inappropriate for your situation.  If you simply obey and propagate bad ideas, or outmoded ones, you are cheating future generations of the benefit of your intelligence and powers of logic.  It’s a truism that without dissent, progress is not possible.

There is a possible downside, to being iconoclastic.  If you are of that inclination, you can find yourself understanding your place in the world and the world you live in very differently to most people, if somewhat more accurately, in reality.  That can be quite isolating and lonely.  It also means that you find yourself powerless to change a situation, not of your making, which is, nevertheless, upheld by all of those around you, even when you can clearly perceive a better way for it to be and have figured out ways to change it for the better.  The support you need just isn’t there to accomplish it.  You get good at seeing the traps you have no choice but to walk into, knowing full well that they are traps, before you walk into them.

There is something liberating, which affirms your artistic and intellectual freedom, about being an iconoclast.  Smashing something stupid, or needlessly limiting, into metaphorical pieces, is deliciously satisfying.  In fact, it’s a fantastic feeling.  It might injure the feelings of those that hold those things dear, but I believe the truth sets one free.  If you can replace a bad idea with a good one, the dividends accrue rapidly.  Even those put out and hurt by your iconoclastic actions are ultimately better off.  They just might not like you, for having done so.  Iconoclasts seldom win popularity contests, even if they are proven right, by the passage of time.

Being iconoclastic is fantastic.  If you’ve never tried it, I recommend you do, but not for its own sake.  You should only be an iconoclast when you have something of greater value than the cherished beliefs to offer in their stead.  Smashing venerated, but bad ideas, even if erroneous or superstitious, is rarely as helpful as providing a better answer.

Don’t aspire to becoming iconic.  Aspire to becoming iconoclastic.

(Nobody will thank you, though… except posterity…perhaps).

 

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