Cheese removal, I assert, is a very important part of the artist’s creative process. Cheese leaves unsightly stains. It’s best to get rid of the cheese, before you release your work.
By “cheese”, I mean those elements of bad taste and derivative content that are so easy to leave in an art work, but which you really have to be vigilant about expunging. An artist needs not only to consider what they include in their work, but more importantly what they choose to exclude.
A very good television news journalist I know once told me that he always ensures that he parses his work, after drafting it, with an eye to moving clichés. Nothing, he claimed, grated more on the audience and was more distracting, than the overuse of cheesy cliché (grated – cheese – did you see what I did there?). Even though a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, to be honest, he felt that all bets were off if his prose was all dressed up with nowhere to go, exposing the writer’s Achilles heel of “anything goes”. If his sentences were all over the map, it was all in a day’s work to put another nail in the coffin of every oldie, but goodie and all’s well would end well. You get the picture.
Cheese removal is all about defining and adhering to your own aesthetic standards and integrity. If your work is to express your authentic soul, as an artist, then it needs to avoid repetition and being too obviously derivative of other works in the same genre. In fact, the whole idea of “genre” is anathema to the diligent cheese remover. Define your own genre. Avoid being labelled, racked and stacked; dismissed as just another example of a type.
Avoiding the fashion du jour entirely is the best way to ensure you continue to delight and surprise your audience. Artist after artist will attest to the fact that their best work was produced without reference to other popular and comparable works of the day. Falling into familiar patterns and the assumed rules of the art form, as expressed by the most popular artists working in the field, is a certain guarantee of producing unremarkable, unexciting art.
What purpose is served by heavy-handedly ladling on the schmaltz of worn out, hackneyed, trite, obvious, facile elements in your work? You might feel that the more faithfully you emulate something else that has already been a big hit with the public, the greater the assurance that your work will be received with similar enthusiasm, but nothing could be further from the truth. You just look and sound like an inferior copy of a genius.
It amazes me that record companies still make this mistake. They observe that one musical style or another is selling well and immediately start signing and commissioning artists that sound similar, in the hope that some of the magic (and lucrative sales) will rub off. It never does. In fact, it serves only to further tarnish the artist, subsequently perceived as an ersatz and disreputable knock off of somebody really clever. Tragically, an artist caught in that trap can produce high integrity works for years afterwards and still be ignored as a copy of someone else. Cheese stains can last a very long time.
Not so long ago, it was the fashion to purposely overuse worn out, faded-from-popularity clichés, for purely post-modern ironic reasons. Even this approach has been “done to death” and has become tired and boring. Don’t do it. It’s no longer cool, groovy, rad, tubular, gnarly, outta sight, uptight, wicked or sick. It’s not even dope. In fact, it’s kinda square.
While most popular art forms require an element of repetition and familiarity, to make them memorable, I advocate doing the unexpected, from time to time. Moving your art into an unlikely, or unforeseen direction always creates a wonderful contrast to the sometimes unavoidable and necessary patterns of regularity that allow the work to have a large, public following. If you make these surprising moments a part of your art, I guarantee your standing as an artist will reach new heights. You’ll be spoken of as a radical, experimental visionary, instead of as a journeyman. People will confer upon you the label of serious, visionary artistic pioneer, rather than that of plagiarising hack.
Know the rules and then break the rules you choose to break, when people least expect it. Don’t tighten up and become too concerned about the monumental, eternal significance of the art you’re making. It’s just your art. Stay loose and relaxed about it. Mastery requires that you feel comfortable with your work, not at odds with your materials. Above all, don’t do what you think you ought to do to please an existing market. The market for your work is different to the one you imagine it to be and you can never tell who will like what you make, or for what reasons. All you can really do is provide them with something substantive to appreciate.
Put the effort into adding the special something that is your own, while scrupulously avoiding the addition of handfuls of cheese. To use a metaphor, cheese is a comfort food that makes you feel secure and warm, while you consume its rich, unguent, oleaginous, gooeyness, but too much of it is definitely no good for you. In fact, it can give you the runs. OK, we’ve belaboured and overused that particular metaphor far too much already. Let’s move on.
You don’t need to take audience polls or organise focus groups on what the marketplace thinks it wants. You don’t have to inventory the competition, or what you perceive to be the competition and respond by creating a “better” version of what they produce. There is no reason that your art should offer everything that established artists in your field offer. You aren’t a full line catalogue, nor do you have to be. Your primary task is to make what you want for yourself. Make art that gets you excited and inspires you to play with your creativity, some more.
Be true to yourself, having integrity and leveraging your experience, so that your art stands on its own. Only when you are completely happy with your creation should you turn it over the rest of the world to throw their rocks at it. That’s not an invitation to obsess over insignificant details, but it is a statement that you ought to be at least content with what you have made, before you allow it to commence its life as an artwork in its own right, independent of you; the artist. Its life could be and typically is far longer than your own life. I said your art shouldn’t be about agonising over its monumental, eternal significance, but I lied a little, back there. Your art can become monumental and eternally significant, but only if you take the cheese out first. You just shouldn’t drive yourself crazy over it.
And finally, as we all know, the easiest way to remove the cheese is not to put it in, in the first place. Decide on your own particular cheese-free process and stick to it. The worst kind of cheese is processed cheese.
Don’t worry about who moved your cheese. Worry about removing your cheese.