The Meta-Aesthetics of Artists

A quick thought for the evening on this strange relationship I (and hopefully others, so I’m not alone) have with the appearances of artists and other creative types. Specifically, it’s so very easy to develop the idea that what in my more sober moments I see are fairly superficial characteristics of talented people are actually fundamental and, really, causal.

That is, you see a picture of Jackson Pollock smoking a cigarette and looking intense and you think “smoking and being super intense are part of what made Jackson Pollock the artist he was”. And then, worst of all, “if I were to start smoking and being all intense then I would increase my ability to create great art”. And worse again if we begin with “Jackson Pollock was an alcoholic and frequently an awful person to be around”, so…

Actually, I don’t tend to look to Jackson Pollock for these things, but more toward the jumble of stimuli that is always hurtling towards us, information on what X does, or how Y behaves, whether X and Y are celebrities or admired friends or something else.

Haruki Murakami gets up early in the morning and goes for a jog before sitting down to write – should I?. Talented friend Chad seems to stay up almost every hour of the day –  could I go with as little sleep? Benjamin Franklin used to check up on his successes and failures at virtue every day – should I?. Some internet dude is monitoring his every minute of time usage to optimise his life – would that help? The main character in Dahlgren writes poetry in a strange kind of trace – could I induce such a trance? Doug of the Copenhagen Game Collective is extremely social and excitable about his game design ideas – is that the secret?

I admit to being heavily swayed by these pieces of correlation a lot of the time. I start getting up early, or try staying up late. I try to be more passionate or dispassionate about the things I make. I try to be a particular kind of person, effectively to re-represent myself to myself so that I will do better.

But as I said, in my more sober moments I feel I can see that this is toying around with the aesthetics of creation and not the creation itself. Yes, I could program games in a leather jacket or while smoking a pipe, and it’s oh so tempting and desirable to think that would make a difference, but if we’re being honest… it won’t. Literally the only thing you can do scrap the meta-aesthetic move, and buckle down to the boring old move of… making things. As your boring old ordinary self, preferably, simply to avoid wasting time on retooling your image, whether to show to yourself or others.

Make something, make something else. Whether you’re wearing a waistcoat and plus fours or not is spiritually (if not literally) immaterial.

13 thoughts on “The Meta-Aesthetics of Artists

  1. For my money Gladwell’s 10,000 hours discussion helps cuts through the rhetoric of the ‘artist’, and is reminiscent of Milt Kahl’s “Everyone has 10,000 bad drawings in them. The sooner you get them out of your system, the better!”. And I should say that I’m always coming back to you Pippin to remind myself of the value of discipline in an art practice, which is hard to dress up as the passion of the artist, but godamn you must feel good at the end of the year, looking back on what you’ve done. Day in out in out..

  2. The outward symptoms of artistry are just that — symptoms. Pollack’s drinking, smoking and bastardly behavior were *CAUSED* by something inside him that also caused his artistry. Mimicking the effect will not produce the cause. In the same way that getting bicep implants won’t make you stronger.

    The answer to dramatically increasing your own artistic ability is straightforward: create a lot of stuff.

    Read this:

    Pots-by-the-pound is the answer to the whole thing. Unfortunately, it requires you to change your mindset from focusing on judging your work to creating your work. Most of us have been trained since childhood to value the praise, applause, gold stars and outside validation more than the process of making the art.

    You’re searching for another way, because you don’t like the art you’re creating. You think you’re missing the key. the thing you’re missing is those 10,000 “bad drawings” that you need to get out of your system. (Yay, Milt Kahl!) Ira Glass has a great bit of wisdom about pressing on through those 10,000 crappy creations:

    Want to take a quantum leap as an artist? Look for all the ways you’re investing time that takes away form you creating things. Eliminate as many as you can, and use the time to make as much stuff as you can. Pots by the pound.

    10,000 drawings. 10,000 hours. 10,000 pictures. You get the idea.

    Why are you reading this? You could be creating something!


  3. Your Pollock comparison reminded me of the exact same comparison done about stellar rock guitarists: “this guy is fast and loud and good, if I play faster and louder that’ll mean I’ll be better!” and thus you end up with copied cacophony of noise instead of original music.

    I agree: art is rooted in personal experience, and what we each feel the need to express. You can’t force yourself to live according to what works for other artists because it won’t necessarily work for you (though trying the idea out is not wrong). I know there was this “fake it until you make it” thing going around before, but if you spend so much time faking it, you’re not making anything at all, are you? So yeah, let’s just focus on making things and getting better at making things.

  4. This article was a punch in the face that I sorely required.

    I feel like a bit of a fool.

    Although, I suppose if the piece of art you’re attempting to create is one intentionally linked to the superficial characteristics of known artists in some form of amalgam character, it’s ok…



    Great article, thank you :)

  5. Oh man… what a great bunch of comments! Came as a bit of a surprise that this one struck such a chord with people – but how delightful to not be alone in the abyss of self-re-re-re-representation!

  6. I can relate. I wonder if it starts with the noteworthy artists we know also sort of acting cool when we can see them. Like, Pollock knows he’s being photographed, so he has the cig resting in his mouth for the shot. But you can’t always smoke & look cool while painting– you have to take oxygen breaks here and there. Another guitar analogy: I used to see guitarists taking the cigarette, and sticking it in between the strings above the fretboard, and playing while the cigarette was burning. Supposedly convenient. I’ve found, through emulating this practice, that your cigarette usually just burns out in the time it takes to play a 2 minute song, and it would make more sense to not even light it in the first place. The point being that looking cool is often just a distraction from what you’re really trying to do.

    found you through good writing btw.

    1. Hah… love that you performed the “cigarette in the strings” experiment to check the practicality of the cool – there should be some kind of forum for tests like that. Like “Will It Blend?” but more “It’s Cool, But Is It Practical?”. It’s so tempting to believe that Pollock was being totally un-self-conscious in the shot, but it’s also true that people are, by and large, pretty damn conscious of themselves (particularly around cameras). Be great if his inner voice was like “don’t fuck this up, Pollock, angle the cigarette just so… squint your eyes a bit… think intense thoughts!”

    1. Well thanks, Mr. Horner! It did find its way to some corners of the internet in the end – it was really nice that it resonated with people. We’re not alone!

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