When I was a kid, I liked to make my family laugh. I made silly voices with my armpit, I’d talk like a radio DJ during car trips, or I’d sing made-up songs about butts while eating my Lucky Charms. Entering high school, I found a more like-minded audience through my circle of friends; and as can be witnessed from any circle of teenage boys, it was all about getting the laugh. But for me, it became a habit. In mixed company, I’d utter a slew of non sequiturs, expound on weird theories, or let out random, humiliating, awkward, and sometimes downright rude point of view, understanding that, if it came out haphazardly or off-the-cuff, it colored me as more of an innocent moron than a malicious asshole (which was true for the most part, but I still knew more than what people thought I knew, and therefore hid behind this innocence). I eventually outgrew this tendency, graduating college and becoming a bartender in the city. Writing for over a decade now, I’ve discovered a number of essential personality traits of myself that help you to become a passionate, serious artist—riskiness, inquisitiveness, rebelliousness, creativity, and (that most essential one being the very urge I thought I’d outgrown) a spark for conflict. The only difference between then and now is instead of saying or doing things for a laugh or a gasp, I am now writing about characters in conflict, with other characters, with their environment, and with themselves. So thank you, teen David, for helping me to become the snarky, mature artist I am today.
I offer this little autobiographical side note because I am un enfant des Arts—I love all kinds of art deeply. I love them for the ways in which they inspire my own works, I love them for what I can learn from them, by either how they’re taught or how they’re produced by the artists. But most of all, I love them for this ‘spark’ that comes from putting two things together. When I look at a Klee painting, listen to a Coltrane album, or watch a Bergman film, what sparks in me is the urge to create as beautifully and as honestly as they have.
Kit White’s book, 101 Things To Learn in Art School, sparks so many things for me in terms of advice and art theory, but among the most important is the idea of what we can and should do in our own creative pursuits. Like the previous books I’ve reviewed, this is not a book for the casual reader. Although it’s a book of 101 pieces of advice or comments on art production, its simplicity belies its depth.
Here are some of my favorites:
“To return to things themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks.”
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
Whatever we know, we know from the world that surrounds us. Art studies the world, in all its manifestations, and renders back to us not simply how we see, but how we react to what we see and what we know as a consequence of that seeing. The world is the source of all of our relationships, social and political as well as aesthetic. Art is a part of the world, not apart from it.
Composition is the foundation of image making.
It is the spatial relationship between all of the parts in an image. Whether a drawing, a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, a video, or an installation, how a thing is composed determines its look, its feel, and its meaning. Compositional variation, like musical tunes, is limitless.
Art is not self-expression.
It is the self expressing all of the elements of the culture that has shaped it. We filter the ambient information that surrounds us—from our families, from our communities, from the information that bombards us every day from myriad sources. We do not create this information; it helps to create us. We in turn start to interpret it and describe it to ourselves and to others as a means to understand it. This is the art impulse. Even works of pure imagination have sources outside of ourselves. Know your sources.
All images are abstractions.
Even photographs. They are never the thing pictured; they are a conceptual or mechanical reproduction of a thing past. This may seem obvious, but it has everything to do with the way we perceive and use images. As pictures are symbolic assemblages of forms, recognizable or not, they are always metahors. Metaphor is the medium of symbolic language and is the langauge of art. Realism in art is anything but. The greater the art, the greater the illusion.
Clear sight makes clear art.
Observation lies at the heart of the art process. […] Unless you can see what lies before you, you cannot describe it. Train yourself to eliminate preconceptions and received understandings when observing anything. Try to see what is before you, not what you think you see or want to see.
I’ve always loved slamming two opposing things together, whether it be from my own actions or my words. That is the essence of Literature Adjacent, producing this spark, and it is the essence of creative discovery. So go outside of your normal crowd of books to read something that can inspire you, something just next to what you’re doing. Use other art forms to influence your own and your own creative habits. Take the specific lessons from a book from one field and apply it to another. Expand, discover, reach out, explore. More often than not, you’ll find more similarities than differences.
Create and complete.