Good Art Ruins Everything

Whenever someone tells me that they don’t have any artistic abilities I want to scream. From childhood we draw pictures that make our mothers turn the refrigerator into an ad hoc gallery. We make up original songs in the back of the car and sing them at the top of our lungs. We choreograph dances and plays that we perform for the neighbourhood. We’re literally born artists. We don’t lack ability, but as we are socialized we lose the ability to see and hear with fresh eyes and ears, to know what has value.

I can’t say this enough: art is not a product, it’s a way of thinking. It pushes you to learn what you don’t know you know. And this is what makes the arts such an invaluable tool for everyone to engage with. For your job, for your relationships, for problem solving in every aspect of your life.

However.

What many people mistake for artistic ability is technique.  Sure, it’s nice to learn how to wield a 2B pencil and render like Leonardo or to exercise your vocal chords until you can sing like Joni Mitchell. But if you practice fearlessness and create what you sense rather than what you think you see or hear, you will learn something new every time and your work will take on power and authenticity.

Another thing that drives me crazy is art education that lets students fall in love with their medium. Do you really think you just discovered photo transfers or wax? Please play until you don’t care about the tools anymore; look and listen to everything under the sun, whether you like it or not. Then do it again.

There are art schools which will offer “support” for a fledgling art practice, but they are not doing us any favours.  Good teachers are ruthless while they leave their ego at the door. They tell us to abandon what we think is “good” and value what we don’t realize is valuable.

One of my favourite teachers was the painter David Bolduc. The first day of class he gave us an exercise – something like, paint a still life on paper using only 3 colours. We slaved away silently for hours – the only sound in the room was the rasp of chalk and charcoal on paper. Then in the afternoon he asked us all to place our paintings on the ground.  “Now tear ’em up,” he said. There was an audible gasp in the room. But in that moment I learned the power of  detachment for a mature art practice.

I have always loved this quote from Picasso: “When you begin a picture, you often make some pretty discoveries. You must be on guard against these. Destroy the thing, do it over several times. In each destroying of a beautiful discovery the artist does not really suppress it, but rather transforms it, condenses it, makes it more substantial. ” In other words, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

And what has value has imperfection.  The Japanese have a term for the aesthetic of beauty within the flawed – wabi sabi.  Good art, like love, to paraphrase Nick Cage’s character in Moonstruck, “don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart.” It stays with us and shakes us up and makes us question everything we know. And that’s a good thing.

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