(A)RT! Lecture Excerpt.

A philosophy for everyone, not an object for the few. 

At Dancing Monkey Laboratories show last April I introduced myself as a (S)cientist and I got an e-mail from a colleague who hoped I wasn’t doing this because the word Artist had become distasteful to me. I answered No! of course not – but there was a little ‘yes’ in there somewhere. ‘Yes’ because sometimes the word is used too easily as a label – as a description of identity – and not because of anything that person actually does – and DOING is the only thing that matters in Art. This is not an attempt to defend Art and Artists and say they/we are awesome people and we should be viewed with reverence – We shouldn’t be – This also isn’t an apology for our constant cry for more funding – We do need more and it’s not because there’s not enough money, it’s simply a matter of the priorities of those who have it all. What I am hopefully here to do and what I try to do with my own Art is to remove it from its pedestal – for the Artists and the Non-Artists. Yes it is important; it feeds culture and creates identities for peoples and nations. Well so does Sport, Science, Medicine, Engineering, Farming, Carpentry and on and on… Culture and identity are made up of many things and ART as a philosophy is within each of those disciplines – within every discipline.

PIss Christ
Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

I say the words ART or ARTIST or ARTISTIC and images might pop into your head – a painting or a Museum or a pretentious flake maybe? Sometimes positive, sometime negative but what are they based on? How we react to Art things is sometimes not even a personal reaction but a manufactured one. ‘Piss Christ’ by Andres Serrano is an extremely controversial image. I didn’t feel or know that when I first saw it – but my Fine Arts Professor told me it was so now I see this image as controversial and ‘important’. When I first saw it, I felt it would probably be a difficult image for some with its religious imagery but I saw colour and composition and I reacted to it – I tried not to see it for anything other than how I saw it – I didn’t care if it was important – because when art is presented to you as important, you have to understand that ‘important’ can easily be another word for agenda. Depending on your knowledge of these things, you begin to form opinions not on the work alone but on all these other variables that have little to do with the piece itself – If I showed you this image – Without the title – how would you feel about it? What do you see? What is your reaction? And can you say based solely on your reaction, if it’s ‘Important’?

Many people might say that they’re not Artistic or Creative or talented – and that usually refers to the fact that they can’t draw or they’ve convinced themselves they don’t have any cool ideas or can’t play an instrument – Let me tell you that not even the self-described Artists are all that creative and talent does not mean taste. This idea of what exactly being Artistic means is based on things that you’ve been told, taught or read about or might not understand– I consider myself an artist – and I can’t draw.  So when you tell yourself that you are not Artistic, you are basing that on subjective ‘rules’ created by a system, controlled by mechanism of economics and academia wrapped in an enigma viewed though a mirage of usefulness and on and on. I don’t consider myself a terribly gifted artist – I don’t have that ease with language or music or drawing – but I have ideas and the conduit to manifest these ideas is craft and craft can be learned. It might take you longer, it might not be the greatest thing in the world, but commitment and focus can make pretty much anything real. This applies to everything, not just Art. And I would like to argue that the majority of the artists working today – in any discipline – are not the most talented or gifted – but the ones that wanted it more – were hungrier. We study geniuses – but have any of us met one and were they even considered geniuses when they were alive? They are extremely rare so don’t compare what you do to what they do – you’ll never win. And I would also like to suggest that you are subconsciously more imaginative and creative than you think and it’s only when you start thinking too much about rules and reception that you allow that creativity to dissolve. There’s a quick story in the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland that perfectly captures this, they write:

Recently a painter of some accomplishment (but as insecure as the rest of us) was discussing his previous night’s dream with a friend over coffee. It was one of those vivid Technicolor dreams, the kind that linger on in exact detail even after waking. In his dream he found himself at an art gallery, and when he walked inside and looked around he found the walls hung with paintings – amazing paintings, paintings of passionate intensity and haunting beauty. Recounting his dream, the artist ended fervently with, “I’d give anything to be able to make paintings like that!” “Wait a minute!” his friend exclaimed. “Don’t you see? Those were your paintings! They came from your own mind. Who else could have painted them?”

The word Art has been hijacked by  – or feels hijacked – by an elite few, by an academic machine and most unabashedly by business. If I ask you if you like Art  – most people will say yes, what’s not to like – but if we dig deeper and ask what kind of Art its starts to get more complicated.

Philistines by Jean Michel Basquiat
Philistines by Jean Michel Basquiat

There’s High-Art, Low-Art, Avant-Guard, traditional, popular, mainstream, independent, Middle of the road, Meta, Post Modern (POMO for the hipsters), Post Dramatic, Post-what ever the next thing is – and those are just a tiny percentage of descriptors and styles – there’s also the many different forms – painting, music, theatre, film, sculpture, photography, dance, graphic design, visual arts, performance art and on and on… We as humans feel the need to categorize everything. This all makes Art really scary to a lot of people because no one wants to feel stupid. I recently sent a video of Dancing Monkey’s latest performance of our show Satellites to my sister – She liked it but felt the need to qualify her response with “I don’t want to sound like a complete ignoramus but…” then she went on to list the things she liked and why… Why couldn’t she just say what she liked? Maybe she felt her reactions were too basic, too pedestrian…? But you see, that’s what we forget – the simplest connections are the important connections and everything she described were things that we as creators tried to make happen.

How many times have you read a review destroying a popular film for being juvenile or unsophisticated, or a rave review of some independent ‘art’ film that you didn’t fully understand and left you empty – or downloaded a new album from a band that’s a critics darling to find out its just noise but then you catch yourself singing along to every word of what ever hit is on the radio and is dismissed as not serious music. Do you need to analyze everything you see or hear or feel and why should you feel the need to qualify your opinions? Big words don’t always make you sound smarter – sometimes they make you sound like an asshole. The conventional wisdom is ‘popular = not art’ and ‘real art = not popular’ – And sometimes this equation works but I believe there is art in everything if want to look for it.

Now, to me, ART! (with mandatory exclamation point) is not a thing, not a noun – It is a philosophy, an energy, a way of doing things – not the things themselves with their alleged value based on finished products. As far as I’m concerned, once something is technically finished it becomes a product – something to market, promote and exploit. It is the product not the art that is being ingested by an audience – What kind of room is it displayed in? How does it compare to the last thing? Will it sell? For how much? How smart will I feel if I say I like it? Will that girl or guy I like find me more attractive?  And as Artists we have a tendency to base whether something has been a success or a failure based on how it is received when that is completely out of our control. No matter how amazing I think my new play is – and it is amazing – the audience will have their own reaction to it based on a 1000 different subjective variables.

So the finished product is just that, a product. The ART! has already been done and we can’t base its value on how it is received, we can only learn from the doing – what were the obstacles, challenges, discoveries and successes while you were making whatever thing you were making? How does this matter at all to you if you are not an artist? Let me ask a question: How many of you have a dream, a goal – something you want to achieve? Now, what happens if and when that dream comes true? Then what? What if it’s not all that you imagined? It can never be all that you imagined. What if you don’t achieve your dream? What if you placed your entire being into achieving this dream and now you find yourself in a weird void? Very little is learned from achieving the dream itself – its just a thing. All the knowledge is in the quest. Chasing it, working towards it, over and under obstacles, struggling for it, re-evaluating it, seeing the dream itself begin to change and evolve – without that, the dream is empty, a mirage. How you achieve the dream is where the ART! is – in the DOING.

I don’t teach my students “How to make Theatre” – As in, follow these steps and you will end up with Theatre. Because the ‘Theatre’ part of the sentence is the finished product – a style, or genre or a convention. It’s a finish line. I’m more interested in teaching students the “How to make…” part. Also, saying “This is how you make Theatre” assumes there is a right way and a wrong way – and then rules are being taught and used and perpetuated and then we all die a very boring death. So I try to avoid rules and focus more on tools. Tools require your involvement, alone they are useless – Rules or steps can be skipped over and have an assumed involvement, but not tools, you either use them or you don’t.

These tools can be layered and meshed within almost any discipline, any project, any life. Right now there are five ideas/tools that I’m bringing into the classroom and I am not so arrogant to believe these will not mutate and evolve or transform into something else over time. Maybe something more focused, maybe something with more room for interpretation but for the moment here they are: Pre-Creation, Instinctual Negation, Justified Resistance, Fail More and Acquired Knowledge and the Subconscious.

Lets break these down: 

Pre-Creation or to Pre-Create is a sickness. Stop it. For my theatre students this means to only think of the finished product before you even know how you might get there or what you want to say. We can imagine what and where we’d like to go – that’s in and of itself is not a horrible thing, but to hold on to that image will only lead to frustration. If you are only fixated on the end game, you’ll miss all the ideas, impulses and possibilities along the way that could take the work in a multitude of new places – These new places might not look at all like that first image, or could look very similar, but you have to work in the moments of development, stay open to those new sensations and meanings that will permit the work to be more connected to you and your intentions. This also means a slowing down of the process – so you can root yourself in the work and not race forward to the end  – missing everything along the way.

Instinctual Negation is the mirror image of Pre-Creation. What this means is that you – by instinct – dismiss ideas before they’re allowed to be worked on, explored and developed. It’s like racing to a finished product by saying ‘No’ to every idea that jumps out – because… Because why? The older we get the more we negate. “I don’t like this” – “I like that” –  “That’s stupid” – “that’s too complicated” – “That’s too pretentious.”… We begin to inherit all these instincts about everything and after awhile we stop asking why. Ask Why!! Some of these instincts are based on experience – things we’ve learned about ourselves, but we as a species are not set in stone, we change, we grow – every new experience we have adds to the who and what we are and we experience new things everyday. So, if new experiences continue to shape us, we have to then re-evaluate our instincts based on these new experiences. Yes, it’s safe and comforting to declare ‘This is who I am” – but it is inaccurate the moment after you say it. Some of your instincts might be re-affirmed with investigation but I will wager there are many that will not stand up to scrutiny.

Justified Resistance is the natural outcome of Instinctual Negation and can work on anything. It’s an intellectual exercise that does nothing but make you feel good about not doing something. In Theatre, where you might think that everyone is opened minded and will try anything – Justified Resistance very much exists. Students who have set up what they like and dislike about certain styles and methods and even one teacher over another. This is mostly based in fear. Fear of not wanting to feel stupid, or embarrassed or that you might actually be open to things that you have so resolutely said you would not be. Ego gets in the way all the time. This also requires questioning. We can justify anything we don’t want to do or things we want to do. But make sure that the justification is based on real experiences and not some imagined (pre-created) outcome. Resistance also keeps you in a comfort zone where little interesting can exist because you feel comfortable  – meaning you’ve done it before – it didn’t ‘hurt’ you – so therefor must be safe. Safe is boring.

Fail More. You will always fail more than you succeed, and the successful fail a lot because they keep trying and keep failing. If you stop failing it means you’ve stopped trying. If you stop trying, you can’t succeed. Ever. This is a standard business trope with start-ups and for business leaders. Even Steve Jobs got fired from Apple – and his own start up after the firing – Next Inc. – bombed. But he took what he learned with that failure and brought that new knowledge back to Apple and now we all live in his world.  In Nolan Bushnell’s book Finding the Next Steve Jobs there is an entire chapter (Pong) called “Celebrate Failure”. This tool is so indispensible to ART! or anything else because you learn very little from success – mostly you’ll end up trying to re-create exactly what you did the last time, but everything is unique and what worked on one project, might be a disaster on the next.

Acquired Knowledge and the Subconscious: The more you do, the more you experience, the more you allow into your imagination, the more knowledge you have at your disposal  – the greater your metaphorical languages, the greater your tool box. And this final tool is a mix of doing and researching. Being street smart AND book smart. Don’t limit it.  The more you can actively do – not just think about, builds this file cabinet in your head and body that is always being crossed referenced. And the best part is that you don’t have to actually think about putting the information into the cabinet. Everything you do and see and hear is recorded and filed away into the sub-conscious. Now there’s one problem – its really hard to consciously access the sub-conscious and you can’t actually ‘Think Harder” – the brain is not a muscle.  Squeezing your face, rubbing you temples, hitting things – all useless. Might make you feel better, but won’t help you find answers. The only way to access the subconscious is to relax. Stress will cut it off, panic will lead to worry, and worrying will lead to stress. There’s a great line in The Wisdom of Insecurity by Allan W. Watts that reads: “Seeing that it is unreasonable to worry does not stop one from worrying because now you are worrying for being unreasonable.” It’s fun to tell a group of university students moving around the studio to stop thinking!! Thinking too hard or trying to force ideas or solutions will just get you stuck in the spin cycle of stress, panic and worry. So as it is with the Arts and what I try and teach in my classrooms is that in the process of creation, or problem solving or brainstorming – you need to include time into the schedule. You need to let things marinate – work on something else for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes, a fresh mind and a fresh heart. And in the time you’re not hyper-focused on this thing you’re working on, when the mind is relaxed and you are not negating, justifying and worrying about failing – solutions will appear. By DOING and acquiring knowledge you are filling the subconscious.

A final analogy between ART! and Life. The Actor, when preparing for a part, takes the text and reads it several times, looks for the theme of the story, discovers the objective of the character they are playing, then breaks the text into the separate acts and scenes. Then the actor will break those individual scenes down into Units and Beats and even down to individual words and syllables. The actor will return to this analysis several times, fine tuning and then exploring and rehearsing those choices. But at some point, close to opening night, the Actor has to let go of all of that and be in the moment. The Actor has to let all that preparation sink into their bodies, fall into the subconscious and only re-act to the present – to the mood of an audience, the energy from the other members of the cast, how the Actor feels from performance to performance, a malfunctioning prop or a lost line of dialogue… These things will happen and if the Actor in not fully present in the moment of the performance, all the rehearsing and preparation and choices will be for not.

Now, in life, we do the same thing. We have dreams and goals and desires as we create our own characters, and we think about how we can achieve these things and start making plans – and we break down these plans into years, months, weeks, days, minutes. Just like the Actor breaking down a text, we break down our own life objectives. And as we break down our lives into these shrinking sections of time, we make choices on how to proceed. But, just like the Actor, all of this detailed planning is wasted if we are not present in our own lives. If we are not ‘in the moment’ we will miss everything and be left with an empty, all be it well planned… plan.

So go ahead, make plans, have dreams and goals, but instead of only being concerned with the final product – the show – with that future achievement and possible success – instead of confusing the end with the art – Remember that Art! Is not a noun, not an object. Remember that Art is in every month, week, day, hour – every thought, idea, impulse and image. It is a way of doing things, it’s in how you do things, how you do everything.

Mike and Monkey by Harry Papavlasopoulos
Mike and Monkey by Harry Papavlasopoulos

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