Guiding Principles for the Artist

It is insufficient to simply term oneself an Artist, or to simply pursue art without knowing where to go with it and why one does it. Some say great art is created in periods of unrest, and perhaps there are many who are now as excited as they are anxious about the cusp of an era on which we seem to sit. Others, possibly a minority, have proclaimed that great art is to remain timeless, though I wonder how this premise would coincide with today’s proliferation of technology and media art. Nonetheless, there needs to be in place for each artist a set of standards by which they can define themselves and their work.

Increasingly, I have abided by symptoms of these following principles in judgment of my own art and process, as well as the art and processes of the artists I see. I have always been a person with strong opinions and have personally longed for the sorts of opinionated discussions I don’t hear in museums, libraries, screenings, and the like. I want to be unafraid of opinion, judgment, and the contentious discourse that often derives from them.

In moving towards this, I have outlined parameters for the space in which I’ll operate. I hereby shun:

  • the word “quirky.”

Above all, avoid anything to do with “quirkiness,” “uniqueness,” “eccentricity.” These are adjectives that can be used only by those who maintain some distance from the subject, and who thus see in the subject a projection of judgment of their own tastes. A certain subset of people want to keep to themselves an idea of who they are and how they are special by pointing at what they like. Don’t make art for audiences to hoard, or you will only be complicit in this false elevation of self.

  • lording over knowing the history of things.

For all that’s said about the youth of cinema, there is nonetheless a sizable body of work and literature that form the history of the medium. Undoubtedly, a contextual understanding of film is important, but I argue only insofar as to grasp the whereabouts of your own ideation. It is not conceit to attempt originality, not if to be original is to arouse thought original to you. Keep a sense of wonder about things, and try to remain curious. Think things through and play a game of chess with yourself. This must be the way to produce art truly capable of questioning.

  • the false distinction between crudeness and sophistication, except in thought.

An encounter with sophisticated thought is an encounter with intellectual curiosity, which anyone can possess. Elsewhere, the discrimination between “high” and “low” serves nothing but insecurity about one’s own self-esteem.

  • the competitive drive.

There’s no need to hurry yourself and your work arbitrarily. Feed your ego as far as it will help you believe that no one can complete your work better than you. Then acknowledge that in beginning your work, it will no longer belong to you. The artwork trumps the artist, always. You will have all your life to prove you are in service to your craft. One day, you shall will into the world the truth you’ve always wanted to see. Even if it isn’t talked about, the work would’ve been most crucial for the most important person in existence – yourself.

  • the linear path.

The arts does not and cannot exist as a career. There’s no way to define the processes of art-making, the standards for its consumption, nor the limits of its existence. Similarly, to be an artist is to engage with the world, which inherently defines it as a state of being. So don’t be overly concerned with works that are as yet immaterial. If you’re thinking and dreaming in art, the potentiality is there.

  • any medium restrictions.

Form is important when it’s of value to the work, but works aren’t born already constrained by pre-existing thoughts on form. As such, always allow experiments in medium to be part of how you imagine or reimagine a piece. This also applies to sources of inspiration, which can, and often do, come from everywhere.

  • the critic’s perspective.

To be clear, this does not mean one should avoid criticism. Rather, it needs to be recognized that the artist, while in the middle of a piece, cannot assume both the roles of artist and critic. The critic situates the work in its broader historical, sociocultural, political contexts – this must be done from a distance and without a full understanding of intention. The artist could have in mind, prior to creating the work, an idea of where they want the piece to fit, and an analysis afterward of how much it will do. But while the piece is being made, the world it belongs to has to be created by the artist alone. This is why the best works each contain reflexivity and, to this end, some degree of authentic truth.

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6 thoughts on “Guiding Principles for the Artist”

  1. It is a concerning point that you mention “the arts does not and cannot exist as a career.” Of course, to be an artist does not mean that one must make art their career, but often artist’s do pursue their passions as a career. It is limiting to say that art cannot be a career.

    Indeed, to maintain a sophisticated level of artistic intellect in our world, artist’s must pursue careers devoted to art. To dabble in art as a hobby is important for one’s personal well-being or interests, but for the artistic agenda to survive, individuals must pursue career’s in the arts. In our world, the “arts” is evolving, but the importance of the realm is only increasing. Technology is impacting art, but art is absolutely pivotal if we are to continue to provoke and prod institutions. Individuals must pursue careers in art to push humanity to think about complex subjects.

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    1. Francesca–you call out a line that did stick out, in particular, when taken directly: that art does not/cannot exist as a career. Certainly, if taken absolutely literally, there is much to quibble over in this statement. Indeed, one could come up with numerous counterexamples, many coming from the music profession or any other popular media, forcing us to either give up the proposition or to declare that anyone making a hearty living on their art is not really an artist (an assertion I would strongly disagree with).

      But, in context, I took the comment, and the article as a whole, as a declarative statement–a personal resolution of the author’s, being proclaimed in a public setting. In this “stanza” she resolves to shun the “linear path.” Thus, it seemed to me to be a call to be clear about one’s intentions in creating art or even desiring to create art. The implication seems to be that if she worries over the “linear path” and makes career first and foremost in her pursuit of the arts, she forsakes some essential characteristic that makes art, or at least great art. She opens the article talking about the importance of an artist knowing their intentions and this seems to be the declaration that “career cannot be my intention.”

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    2. Hi Francesca. Thank you for commenting! Nathan’s already responded to this, but here’s my take on it as well: one does not become an artist by labeling themselves as such on their business card. As a career path, the arts cannot exist as the means to an end. So to be a filmmaker does not mean you exist merely to make films, which one can easily do if you occupy your time with networking, pitching, and so on. In your comment, you seem to argue pretty passionately for art as a whole, because it’s something society needs. I agree as fervently, if not more so. One can never tell where the next “great” work of art will come from, and I think it’s because in many ways the public cannot know what they’re looking for until they see it. And in order to produce such works, yes, the artist will be conjuring out of their worldview, but they must exist simultaneously within and without it. In this manner, the work produced will be in service to society, but the artist is not. The artist is in service to the work and, contrary to your point, the work is too valuable to be limited by the idea of a career.

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  2. I was struck by two lines of thought in here, and it’s my hunch that they aren’t unrelated.

    (1) In phrases like “a false sense of self” and “in beginning your work, it will no longer belong to you. The artwork trumps the artist, always” you are alluding to the idea of the artist as servant. You mention being
    “in service to your craft,” but what else does the artist serve? It’s a beautiful notion that reminds me of a metaphor given by Jesus of Nazareth: “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single seed.” Thus, the artist humbles herself, empties herself, and it is the antithesis of the self-aggrandizement you seem to criticize. Yet, your comments suggest that this is the true path to great art. What ends do you foresee this enterprise to be in service of?

    (2) Curiosity, reflexivity, and authenticity–surely these constitute a chain, one leading to the next. And we do not dignify the obvious with the label “sublime.” Thus the truly grand can only be discoverable by the passionately curious. True curiosity stems from the desire to see things as they are (or perhaps to recognize with clarity how things seem); perhaps that is an ultimately elusive goal, but I would wager that there is nary a truly great mind or artist for whom the big and small things they had to say did not stem from the big and small things they had inquired after.

    For anyone interested in these kinds of ideas, I recommend Paolo Sorrentino’s film THE GREAT BEAUTY!

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  3. One part of your criteria that sticks out to be me is your criticism over knowing ‘the history of things’. Perhaps this is because I’m a cinema minor and I’ve been inundated repeatedly with the importance of constructing your works using the tools already curated by others, but I would argue that the “sense of wonder” and “curiosity” that you suggest can only come from first looking at the works of others. At least when it comes to cinema, we require knowledge of specific techniques, sophistications, and tools that have enhanced former cinematic bodies of work in order to innovate our own original pieces. Where does ‘wonder’ lead you, then, if not to past works that have resonated with particular audiences? Even if you are creating your art for yourself and not for an audience, which I agree will often lead to false elevation of self, I think it is important to come armed with critical knowledge of artists who came before you to either inform your work or push you towards a further discovery. I speak only in regards to cinema, though I would imagine this extends to other forms of art as well. To understand what I’m getting at, take a look at “Visual Pleasure” by film theorist Laura Mulvey. Her notion of the “cinematic gaze” has informed the way cinema has come to be used as an advanced representation system for society, and her thoughts and perspectives on this matter have led to countless innovations in terms of female representation and inclusion in cinema–innovations which were wholly credited to those who brought them to fruition, but that remain highly informed by Mulvey’s works as well.

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  4. I think your point about staying curious is very important to think about when entering any field in art. Aiming to reach a complete understanding of a field or to become a complete ‘expert’ on a particular subject would just restrict one’s own thoughts and creativity. Believing that you know the ‘correct’ way to do something and everyone else may be doing it wrong is completely misinterpreting the meaning of art. The ability to understand many people’s perspectives and processes is just as important as perfecting your own ability and specialties. Art is perpetually changing and there is never a right or a wrong way to create something. So to me, the study of art is helpful in order to get new ideas, improve one’s techniques, and stay excited and curious about a field; however, becoming a know-it-all will stop that curiosity all together— defeating the purpose of art all together.

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