Like all artists, I struggle with my artistic endeavours. I don’t mean that I am engaged in some sort of all out war against myself resembling a fight to the death, but I do mean that some things just don’t come easy. They take more effort to accomplish. What has become clear to me, lately, is that while some things do not come easily, others are becoming a breeze. I began to wonder two things about that. The first is why some things should be hard to do and why I experience resistance to immersing myself in starting or finishing them, whereas others take virtually no effort at all to produce. The second is whether or not that state of cognitive ease, with some tasks, is healthy or not.
To answer the first question, I began to notice that the projects I personally deemed most worthy, which carried the most meaning and which I wanted to be proudest of, because I cared most about them and their subject matter, are by far the hardest for me to start and to complete. I get stuck. I am beginning to notice that the higher I imagine the stakes to be, the more paralysed I become.
In contrast, the projects that are easiest to start and to complete are those that have the feel of discovery and experimentation about them. These are the sorts of art works that give me a feeling of harmonious cognitive consonance. If I am simply playing with the medium, or have no preconceived idea of the outcome, just a general direction to explore, I find I can begin that kind of project whenever I want, no matter how I feel and bring it to completion, in not very much time. Better than that, I am usually happy with the result. The more I am “just playing”, for the sheer recreational enjoyment of it, the easier it is to start and finish. I think there’s a lesson in that.
If your most important projects, which you want to be your very best work and to which you want to make a positive impact on the largest possible audience, can be seen (at least in your own mind) as more of an experimental exploration, with no fixed idea about the outcome, but with a general direction to head in, I’m pretty sure that will make the work easier to get done. This is something I need to try myself. For example, when I am just jamming and improvising on guitar, without rehearsal or preparation and where what gets played doesn’t really matter, because there are only the people in the room to hear it, then some amazing stuff gets played. It just comes out. Sitting down to write what is intended to be a hit song, on the other hand, feels completely unlike this. That process starts with a weight and an expectation that stifles the work. Who needs that overhead? I need to start taking a more carefree, exploratory approach to those artistic projects that matter most to me.
This leads me to the second question. Is the work produced under conditions of cognitive consonance too glib and too facile? Doesn’t the best work require a little discomfort, challenge and stretch? I think it does. It needs to involve some discomfort, but not so much that it prevents progress. I think that the danger with staying in that comfortable zone, where you are able to complete works at will, because they are a playful exploration of your materials and techniques, whose outcome doesn’t really matter, is that you produce works with little structure, contour, polish, finish, refinement and quality. That isn’t to say that the playful, carefree approach is of no use. It is absolutely essential to getting the work to progress. The art is in finishing the first draft, but knowing how to make the work polished in the final few furlongs.
I don’t necessarily mean you should take your first draft and fiddle with it, making it better and better until all the life and spontaneity has been bludgeoned out of it and the task becomes drudgery. I don’t think I actually mean starting from scratch to make a second draft of higher quality either. I mean that the exploration should include experiments into getting a refined outcome without too much fuss, time or bother. In this, I think a little playful planning, at the beginning of the project, could also pay some dividends, so long as the planning doesn’t displace the actual work. The idea is to learn how to make something of quality as a matter of course, unconsciously, so that the process still feels carefree.
It’s going to be the case that if you do enough exploratory work, playfully, some of your art works are going to turn out looking finished and others won’t. Some will always look (or sound) like sketches. The point is that, in the beginning, you can’t tell which works will turn out looking (or sounding) finished and which won’t. They all start out the same. The more you practice your artistic skills, however, through simply making and finishing more works, the more likely it is that more of the things you produce will meet the grade you’ve been trying to reach. That’s probably the best we can do.
The artistic projects that matter most to you, which you want to be your best works that you can exhibit to a large audience with pride and which successfully move them emotionally, are precisely the ones you should approach as a series of playful, experimental, explorations, with an open mind about the finish and the outcome. The more you do, the better you’ll get.
You need to impose some cognitive consonance on your most precious goals, or you’ll never reach them. Having done so, then the art is in learning to produce a high quality result, every time (or most of the time), just through sheer strength of technique, which you can only obtain by simply putting in the hours and making many works.
To make better art, first you have to make more art. I know I am going to give it a try.