We who wish to make art, many of us, and who are serious about it and dedicated to the dream, have come at it from essentially the same direction – a direction shaped and codified through the centuries, ever since humans began creating representations of things, or making things that exceeded mere functionality and displayed an “added value” of some sort that appealed to something greater than utility. That direction was either a formal or a catch-as-catch-can student or apprentice training, during which one learned how to perform one’s task, to have the basics drummed into him, then to do the work over and over until one attained a certain mastery of skills. If one wanted to be a painter, say, it would include the grunt tasks of mixing paints and cleaning brushes and stretching canvases, and acquiring a second-nature knowledge of tools and how they are best used, and the nature and properties of mediums to be painted with and on, and so much more. If one were to be a writer, the novice would need to know grammar, and punctuation, and have a good vocabulary, and know how to put words together, and then paragraphs, and how to get as close as possible to putting down on paper what is in your head, and to do so in your own voice. Beyond the mechanical skills, one also needed to be taught the ineffable wisdoms – of perspective, proportion, color, metaphor, assonance, consonance, repetition, rhythm, symmetry, syncopation, harmony, juxtaposition, and so on – all these to modify and enhance and, in the hands of good craftsmen, to personalize.
But the problem with becoming knowledgeable, to the point that these abilities and acquired bits of information become as much a part of your life as breathing, is that too many get mired there, stuck in that place of skill and knowing. For them, the knowing is sufficient – more than sufficient: the knowing, and the doing resulting in replicable, polished, admirable and talented end-products, were the endpoints, the pinnacle. That to have it down is to have “made it.” For many, this is enough, this is the point, like breaking a horse so that it will respond to your slightest knee prompt. And one can make a fine living, and receive the accolades of fans, and also experience some self-satisfaction, by arriving at this level of doing – the attainment of the level of craftsman, of tradesman, of technician.
But, in some sort of ironic twist, to be an artist, a true artist, one must know all that needs to be known about how to do what one does … and then one must venture into areas where one does not know anything, and, by using the skills now inherent in him, must wade into the unknown and grasp it.
This is most perfectly articulated, in a recent documentary about Charles and Ray Eames, by Richard Saul Wurman. In speaking about the multifaceted achievements of Charles Eames – from chair design to filmmaking to exhibition design – and how, in a sense, he might be considered the epitome of a true artist, Wurman said: “You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. [Eames] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject, and the journey of him not knowing to knowing was his work.”
Nice work if you can get it.
To know every step, no matter how skillfully you stroll, is to follow paths and create ruts. To start with the knowledge of how to walk, then to set off in a way that will challenge you to overcome your ignorance, redefine your way of walking to suit the terrain, and arrive at a place that the journey compelled you to find – that is the making of art.
The place where art resides is the place furnished with your knowledge but fueled by your not knowing and your wanting to learn, to do not what is merely acceptable but creatively unexpected, and yet inevitable, to embrace the challenge even if you have never met that challenge before, and to use the old to form the new, and use the new to remake yourself. The outcome will not always be successful – Eames had his failures, and his reliance on the chair that he helped design in many ways limited him (though financially supported him) – but, then, it needn’t be. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.