Essays

Notes on Developing as an Artist

This essay is meant as a personal history of my own aesthetic narrative, as I would imagine it to be for artists in general. In essence, I will be attempting to explain my experience of developing a creative process through the larger context of what it means to be an artist. In this way, I can analyze my progress and lay the groundwork for others to potentially examine their own personal narratives in relation to mine.

The first stage, which I will call the Nascent stage, is the very beginning of the creative process, sort of like an aesthetic mirror stage for the artist to recognize his or her own creative potential. It’s interesting that I would have the opportunity to begin this essay one week removed from my interview with Argentinean indie musician Juana Molina. She had mentioned that she no longer actively sought creative influences; instead relying on some of her earliest influences as a child to inform her creative impulses. These influences were often inherited directly from her parents’ decision to expose her to different music and art a young age. However, not every artist is fortunate enough to have this experience. For me personally, these influences were sparse, somewhat lacking in coherence. In other words, I didn’t have too much early, purposeful exposure to art. So naturally, my appreciation was limited to whatever I happened to come across. Either way, let’s just say that this stage can be stretched back as far as you want it to go. The most important aspect is the raw, uninhibited quality of the early work, a willingness to explore your own creativity without strict adherence to form. This is what Juana Molina was referring to and what allows her to continue making music despite a lack of new influences in her creative repertoire. And that’s because there are no expectations during this period, nor have you developed any aesthetic convictions. You’re merely exploring the limits of artistic process, uninhibited.

Afterward, there is the long, often frustrating transition into the Amateur stage. This is where you start to have more opinions on art, more expectations for your work. You may have also developed some techniques relative to your chosen medium. However, in my experience, it was the moment I decided to take my art seriously, without really knowing what that meant. Needless to say, this transition can be disastrous at times. For one, it is very easy to be consumed by the notion of being an artist, especially as this notion begins to merge with your identity. Here’s a perfect example: when I was an undergraduate, I took a course on British Literature where I ended up writing a bloated essay decrying the Victorian Era because they didn’t keep it as real as the Romantics–which is obvious and redundant when you think about it. And only now can I really appreciate some of the more grandiose arguments I was prone to making back then. At the same time, these experiences can be a necessary evil. Eventually, you learn that being pretentious can only get you so far. You have to find a more reliable aesthetic, which means accepting some of your limitations and the fact that you’re probably taking the quality of your early work for granted. I remember having so many ideas and not really understanding what it meant to properly express them. Looking back, I still have a sentimental attachment to this early work, but a much more nuanced understanding of its value.

The Amateur Stage is about deciding how fluent you would like to be in another language, without really knowing how to immerse oneself in the grammar or syntax of this new language. You just know that others speak it well enough to have a personal dialect. In the end, it’s not very difficult for an artist to get stuck in the amateur stage. There’s a lack of maturity that only becomes apparent later, in retrospect.

The only problem with this notion of perceived growth is an inability to qualify it. After the Nascent Stage, developing as an artist becomes a more transitory experience. The quality of your work is defined by more external factors: time, effort, materials, opportunities…just to name a few. In many ways, an artist never stops being an amateur. That’s why the next stage is also the one most open to interpretation. However, let’s call it the Professional stage for the sake of reference.

The following definitions are only meant as examples. They are also to be used as reference points in this essay.

The first and most accessible definition is also the simplest I can offer: You are either famous, getting paid for your work, or some combination of the two. It’s also probably the least reliable definition, quickly becoming more and more irrelevant as the Internet takes over. The next category includes the artists that have some sort of formal education. This is the most technical definition, otherwise known as cafe-worker syndrome. The last definition involves telling everyone you meet that you are artist. Unfortunately, it’s the reason that the term has lost most of its value, thereby reinforcing the first definition. I won’t get into what it means to identify as an artist. When it comes to the democratization of art, it is what it is. The rest of us find ourselves uncomfortably vacillating between the ambiguous and perilous threshold that exists between the two, amateur and professional. It kind of feels like that video of Lauryn Hill singing at the Apollo for the first time. The audience is booing her off the stage until the moment they are in boisterous applause. And you see Lauryn Hill, going from amateur to professional in the same moment. So it’s not like one could exist without the other.

This is where I’ve been in the last few years. I had spent so much time developing an extensive aesthetic vocabulary, that my work was often stifled by whatever intentions I may have had. At this point, I’m more interested in producing work and marking progress with a certain attention to detail that comes with continuity–which is another way of saying that I’m no longer concerned with influences or posturing or pedantry. I just want to create, now that I feel I am ready to.

Lastly, we have The Ascetic Stage. These are the artists that have gone so far into the creative process; only seeking to expand the boundaries of their art forms by creating experimental, academic, or simply difficult work. This is pure asceticism in search of a pure aesthetic. They defy category or typical interpretation. As a consequence, they’re definitions of success are very limited in scope. They can either create something that transcends the work that came before them or they can reduce themselves to obscurity, only appeasing the needs of a small minority with an overdeveloped sense of aesthetic appreciation. This is perhaps the most fleeting of all the categories, a self-imposed exile from the world. It can be said that this is not a fixed category, almost none of them are save for the Nascent Stage. You can go back and forth, exploring and interpreting each stage of your creative process to refine and regress as necessary.

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