22 Truths

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Truth #7

“There are some things you don’t want to understand in your work process.”

—Ashley Bickerton

Art is not mathematics. Art is conjuring, and has to go to the places inside you that are dimly lit. Art is about letting what is inside you get out — onto the page, onto the canvas, into the pixels, cast into metal — without it having to pass through too many intellectual filters on the way to the surface. One needs a strategic idea, but then you need to get out of your own way. Note that Bickerton says, some things — he does not say “You shouldn’t have any idea what you’re doing or why.”

There is a key art-making process distinction here, and it’s this: You stand a much better chance of making new discoveries (and new discoveries make for exciting work) in uncharted territory, so an appetite for mystery and exploration is essential. Go for it. Pragmatically, it’s impossible to fully understand a truly creative work until it’s complete. It’s not until a work exists that the creator can fully try to see and experience the work as the audience will. It is simply a reality that the artist’s conception of how a work will feel or land when complete usually ends up different in actuality, regardless of the fidelity of execution to the vision at the start.

Philosophically — maybe even spiritually — Bickerton argues that work that follows a dry, sober execution route is dead on arrival. The removal of the possibility of discovery from the creative act, and the artist’s open response to it, squeezes the art right out of the thing, rendering it flat and lifeless.

So make work without needing to understand it before you start. When trying to create, swim out to ‘where your toes no longer touch bottom’, as urged by David Bowie. But then, afterwards, figure out what it is you are doing. Look at the work as if you’re the audience, not the creator. Review yourself with the rigor of a critic. This will make you better. Don’t try to tame yourself or understand how your subconscious and automatic brain is working before you start. Try to honestly assess whether it’s working well or not by the results — and then tinker with adjustments and methods and new ingredients just to see what happens.

Reiterating: there is a bold — though perhaps dotted — line between the creation of the work and the post-creation evaluation of it. Variations on the oft-repeated quip, “Write with a glass of wine but edit with a cup of coffee,” are regularly and wrongly attributed to Hemingway, who famously wrote in the morning and was done for the day when the drinking began. But like all great false quotes, the value of “write drunk, edit sober” is its wisdom, not its accurate attribution.

Writers experience this process divide acutely: they write, they read what they’ve written, they edit and rewrite. For almost all authors, manuscripts pass through multiple cycles of creation, evaluation and adjustment. First drafts rarely resemble the final published texts (and many writers are in a deep collaboration with a hands-on editor during this work phase). The painter may spend ten minutes adding paint to a canvas and then ten hours looking at it, trying to assess if the most recent addition is a mistake or a critical breakthrough.

Lucien Freud, who usually painted over 8 hours a day and did so for almost sixty years, was known to exclaim that he had no idea what he was doing. Looking and reworking is just another part of the creating. But, the evaluative edit period is more considered and therefore less spontaneous. It is a separate, necessary, part of the process. But don’t confuse it with the more instinctual and (ideally) freely unedited process of creating.

Bickerton’s full quote is worth memorializing:

“Listen, there are some things you don’t want to understand in your work process. If you’re working under the lights of laboratories with everything spelled out, ticking boxes, it somehow ceases to be art. You have to be groping in the half light, doing some sort of interpretive, intuitive dance, picking things as you go, grabbing at psychic markers and making moves accordingly.”

It’s in this interaction that art makes connections that language and science and mathematics cannot. We value art for exactly this access to the human subconscious and the mind’s in-between spaces. This is the job that art does.