I need to start writing again for professional reasons and so here I am to clear some space first.
I spent most of yesterday framing an artwork for an upcoming exhibition in August. Since I have been working at home in the basement and on the kitchen table so much, I really have been enjoying the idea of making something that is necessarily small because of my space at home but, when exhibited, becomes something larger that can only been seen as a whole in a gallery. This piece that I am framing is 30, 9 inch by 12 inch drawings displayed in a grid. Each needs to be individually matted and framed and the time for the exhibition is fast approaching, so that is why I decided to spend my time in our dark basement on a perfectly lovely Sunday afternoon. As I worked repetitively cutting mats and wiping down plexiglass, two different but interconnected things came to mind:
- I don’t know if this piece is any good.
- I need to quit this shit.
First, the piece itself. It is derived from the sheet music of Bach’s 15 Two-part Inventions. It is the same source material I have been messing around with for a few years now. I first learned to play the pieces when I was training to be a (very awful) classical pianist. That initial experience with the works in the early 90’s lay dormant in my mind until I got my first full time teaching job in North Carolina in 2006. My friend Jamie was two doors down from my office and Jamie is a legit pianist. Don’t believe me? Check this out:
That first winter in North Carolina saw Jamie plugging away at Rhapsody in Blue. Creeping outside his office door taught me what real practice sounded like. He broke down that whole piece into two to four measure fragments and just ran through it, again and again, until the phrasing and fingering were perfect. I would say the dedication to his craft was admirable but that seems insufficient to categorize the way he helped me rethink craft. When I was (sorta) seriously playing, I would just play the whole piece again and again until maybe I had played it at most five or six times and call it a day. In my defense, I didn’t know there was any other way to play. Walking slowly passed Jamie’s office was an epiphany: Oh! That’s how it should be done!
Those Bach Inventions popped in my head around that time and I guess over the past ten years or so I have tried to be more deliberate about what I did with them. Listening to Jamie lock himself into a room and atomize a piece gave me a bit of inspiration to take this thing by Bach and see what I could make of it if I forced myself to know it in as many ways as possible. I have probably made 15 or so works about the Bach Inventions now (many more than that if you count all the parts of the pieces), and I have more on the way, one that Jamie is even helping with (even though I suspect he thinks I am an idiot).
So this 30 drawing grid is another permutation of this relationship with these Bach scores. And I really do like the idea of this piece and all the pieces that have come since I locked myself in a (mental) room with the work. But, and this is a huge but, I am not sure that it is any good.
What do I mean by good? Well, that is a slippery term to be sure. I could say good artwork has value by provoking contemplation and a conversation but, mostly, I would say that good art is what other people make. I don’t write this with any particular joy and I especially don’t write it out of any sense of false modesty. I have the privilege of being friends with a fair number of artists on Facebook and Instagram and I see their work and their work is art; they deal with a richer and fuller universe than I. And while I am happy to see all their amazing works and happy for their success, I also often feel depressed, like I am a dilettante, a hobbyist. All of these people are better at this than me. What kind of way is this to spend my time? I take interesting ideas and manifest them into incomplete artworks that I can’t afford to present professionally. I mean, I don’t even have a real studio and I certainly don’t have gallery representation. When I am lucky enough to exhibit my artworks, they often return home, to sit in the back part of our basement like some sort of archive of personal failure.
What is the point of writing this? Well, what I do not want is a bunch of people telling me that I am a good artist and I should stick with it, keep your chin up, that kind of thing. I think my hope in writing this down would be that it would help somehow, like just to put a name on it would be a way of moving past it and being able to get back to the task of making things. Hopefully, it would be a way of forestalling item number 2: I need to quit this shit, the “shit” being, in this case, making art. I mean, after all, could I really just quit?
One of my painting professors in grad school was a man named Frank Herrmann. His artworks weren’t particularly my taste and I don’t think my works were to his but I loved the way he taught and lived. He was so direct, joyful, and unpretentious. We would go to his studio and he would talk about finding the top of a Kleenex box interesting and using tracings of it to generate compositions. Anyway, he was talking about one of his colleagues retiring from painting and I remarked, naively, “How can you retire from painting?” His response to me was something like, “Well, you try painting for forty years and tell me how you feel.” He said it without malice or hint of sarcasm, just matter of fact. I sometimes wonder if what I have been going through is the feeling he was talking about; maybe it just grinds you down.
I don’t think I could quit right now if I wanted to because the making of art is too much fun for me. Dealing with these ideas, physically manifesting them, brings me joy and some peace. It is after the work is finished that I begin to second guess everything. Maybe one day that feeling that comes after the work is finished will be too daunting to wrestle with anymore. I guess that’s maybe when I will quit. I’ll just get tired of telling myself that beginning again with a blank page is worth it. Seeing all this written down here is helpful but I don’t think that is the whole reason I am writing this right now.
I suspect the real reason for writing this relates to something that happened a few years back. At the time I was working on my dissertation and I had just gotten some feedback on what I had written. The feedback was brutal. It was not brutal because it was mean, it was brutal because I felt like I wasn’t capable of writing what people on my committee thought quality academic work should be. I remember being in Philip Armstrong‘s office and Philip, being the best, asked me how I was holding up and I almost burst into tears. I told him I just felt like I wasn’t smart enough to do this; specifically, I said, “I just feel so stupid.” Philip, again being the best, said, putting his hand on my shoulder, “Michael, we all feel that way.” I can’t write about the feeling that came from this without seeming like I am understating it, so I will simply say it was the most lovely and uplifting thing someone could say to me at that moment. That it came from him (and, seriously, look at that CV) made it all the more meaningful.
This gets to the heart of what I am feeling right now. I realize there is a decent probability that if you have read this far you too have felt this way about your own thing. And, maybe, if you have felt this way it has seemed a little terrifying to admit it; I mean, really, who wants to claim they feel like they are a total fraud sometimes? (Certainly not some presidential candidates.) It feels weak, and vulnerable, and shameful. But I have decided, right now in writing this, that these feelings have to be a part of being a complete human being. I think we need others to tell us it is ok to feel this way sometimes. Moreover, I think that we need to hear this from other people besides our spouses/significant others/families who already have enough to deal with.
So welcome to my community of people admitting they don’t have their shit together all the time and sometimes feel like they are not good enough. What will we make? Well, that is to be determined, but we will make it.
Gratuitous picture of the day (kids making a secret hideout edition):