Artists Don’t Fail
Failure is not the same as making a mistake, although a mistake can lead to what at first might appear to be a failure. Nor is it necessarily about being wrong. We learn by our mistakes and making errors, but I’m not so sure we do when we feel like we have failed. That’s because it is not always obvious to us when exactly we failed, or what part we played in it. The word appears so categorical and absolute, yet it is surprisingly soft-edged.
Failure is subjective, marginal and mercurial. For years Monet, Manet and Cézanne had their paintings rejected by the all-powerful official Salon in Paris. All three artists were considered failures. But within a few years they were hailed as visionary pioneers whose paintings went on to be considered some of the most important works of art produced in the modern period. Who, then, in hindsight, failed? It would appear the Salon, not the artists. The same goes for exams. The poet John Betjeman went to Oxford University, where he was taught by the writer C. S. Lewis, but failed his degree. As we know, he subsequently wrote some of the twentieth century’s most enduring poems. Was he the failure at Oxford or the other way around? Or were both parties? Or neither?
Artists Are Seriously Curious
If necessity is the mother of invention, curiosity is the father. After all, you cannot produce something interesting if you are not interested in something. Outputs need inputs.
But then, curiosity needs a motivation too, a trigger to excite the mind. Our intellectual side doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s one part of our cognitive being, the other side of which is emotional. It is only when the two are working in tandem that great feats of creativity are likely to be achieved. And that can only really happen when we become passionately interested in something.
Passion—enthusiasm if you prefer—is the spur that makes us want to know more. It provides the impulse for the thoughtful inquiry that generates the knowledge, which fires our imagination to come up with ideas. These lead to the experiments that eventually result in the production of a realized concept. This is the path creativity takes.
This is about disruption and how to manufacture ideas. It’s about the techniques involved and how we can all set ourselves up to have original thoughts. It is also about recognizing that they don’t come out of the ether. Yes, brainwaves happen, but only because we have primed our unconscious to have them.
Ideas emerge from a specific way of thinking. They come when we encourage our brain to combine (at least) two apparently random elements in a new way, through a mixture of disruption and application. It is an approach that has been identified—among others—by Albert Rothenberg, an American psychiatrist who has spent his professional life studying creativity in humans. He has interviewed and studied numerous leading scientists and writers, and through his research pinpointed specific, consistent forms of cognitive behavior displayed when someone is generating an idea. He calls it homospatial thinking. Rothenberg describes it as “actively conceiving two or more discrete entities occupying the same space, a conception leading to the articulation of new identities.”
Often the “new” element in really big ideas comes in the form of a disruption. Moving home, changing jobs, conflict and heartbreak can all stimulate your brain to start making some radical connections. In our lifetime technology has been a major disrupter, making what was once impossible possible. Take, for example, the old idea of an encyclopedia, reapply it to the Internet age and, hey presto! you have Wikipedia.
Artists Are Skeptics
Regardless of the form it takes, creativity can only start in one place. It doesn’t matter whether you are planning to bake a birthday cake or designing a fancy new piece of software, there is only one possible way of kick-starting the creative process, and that is by asking a question. What ingredients should I use? How can I make the interface more intuitive?
Take the sculptor who carves away at a block of marble until a recognizable figure emerges. Each tiny incision made by the artist’s chisel is a question being asked. What happens if I chip this bit off? Will it shape the torso in the way I want? And that leads to another question: did it work? The final form is the culmination of hundreds, if not thousands, of similar inquiries, followed by decisions, which often lead to more questions and revisions.
Artists Think Big Picture and Fine Detail
Creativity, like society, thrives when the individual elements fit within, and add to, a bigger picture. Ernest Hemingway would sometimes spend hours on a single sentence. Not because he was attempting to write the perfect solitary line of text, but because he was trying to make that single sentence successfully link to the one preceding it and seamlessly lead on to the next—while also contributing something to the story. He was thinking big picture and fine detail.
As do artists. Most obviously those making paintings, where an eye and an ear for both the major and the minor are prerequisites. One tiny dab of color can radically change the appearance of the largest of paintings. Each stroke of the brush is a note struck in a visual concerto; any mistake is as obvious to the viewer as hearing an orchestra member hit a wrong note.
Artists Are Brave
Courage is a quality we tend to associate with conflict. We honor soldiers for being courageous, and treat sports stars as heroes when they take on a superior opponent and win. David is a legend for overcoming Goliath.
It is in extreme circumstances that these courageous people show their mettle. They will go that little bit further, take the chance most of us wouldn’t, and expose themselves to dangers others would avoid. I suppose the ultimate form of this type of courage is the heroism of those who risk their own lives to save others. But there is another sort of courage … There is a form of courage, a courage that’s based on the same principle—personal vulnerability—but does not put the protagonist in any immediate physical danger. It is the psychological courage needed to stand up—unbidden—and express your feelings and ideas in public to a potentially hostile audience.
Of this type of bravery the legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel declared, “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” This is what artists do, even though it leaves them exposed. They are, in a way, naked in front of the world, saying, “Look at me!” And they do this when they are not entirely sure what they have produced is any good. Creativity, as Henri Matisse said, “takes courage.”
Nobody wants to make a fool of themselves in public, to risk humiliation in front of friends, family or strangers. We are programmed not to put ourselves in such a position. We are born with an inclination towards self-doubt, particularly when it comes to creativity. Doubt is there to stop us at those moments when we feel confident—or foolish—enough to put the fruits of our creativity in the line of critical fire. It is at this moment that our modesty kicks in and stops us before we shame ourselves.
At the time it feels like a relief. It even feels quite good. Humility, after all, is an honorable quality. But not always when it comes to creativity, when it can be nothing more than a big sofa to hide behind. Daunting and unnatural as it may seem, boldness is required to release ideas into the world, even though it can feel alien and arrogant.
Artists Pause for Thought
If you visit any artist’s studio there is one object you are pretty much guaranteed to see. It might be in the middle of the room, or tucked away to one side, next to a ladder or surrounded by jars of turpentine. It might even be covered by a dustsheet. Whatever the particular circumstances, it will be there: the artist’s much loved but often battered old chair.
Its purpose is far greater than simply providing a weary painter or sculptor with a comfortable place to sit, although that is undoubtedly part of its function. It has a higher calling, which is to play a vital role in the creative process. The artist’s chair is transformative.
When artists sit down in their chairs they switch personas. They stop being the creator and turn into a critic. With the temperament of the most fastidious connoisseur, they look at what they have just created and evaluate their efforts. Their hyper-critical eyes scrutinize the work for insincerity, sloppiness and technical mistakes.
Sometimes, having identified a problem, they will jump up and make a small correction. Painters like David Hockney are known to do this almost as a matter of routine. He will finish painting, sit down and look at what he has done. His eyes will trace the surface of the canvas as if he were tracking the flight of a fly, darting to and fro, scanning the painting for problems. Sometimes they will see nothing untoward and he will lean back and light a cigarette. On other occasions they settle on one tiny area and narrow. This is when the revered British artist will rise out of his chair, grab a brush, charge it, and apply a dab of paint to the offending section.