Trying to know what’s possible

When you’re starting out in your art, you might want to learn from the masters to get some credibility while you find your voice. It’s a smart thing to do, rather than reinventing the wheel. The greats that came before us perfected techniques that lead to highly regarded art. Might as well pick up where they left off, in order to save ourselves some time. Each technique was a reaction to the one before it–either in embrace or rejection. We learn the history, and gain wisdom, perspective, and experience. We learn the map of the land, prior to venturing forth into uncharted territory. They already made the map of the known universe–we just have to learn it and then go explore further.

Marcel Duchamp is a perfect example of this process. He learned from the masters before him, and contemporary to him. By mastering classical and expressionist techniques, he became well respected in his community. Early on, his avant-garde interests were largely kept to himself and his closest friends, from what I understand. But he dabbled enough that he became director of the Society of Independent Artists in New York, which I think was an avant-garde arts festival that pretty much allowed anyone to submit art for a small fee. So there were hundreds of submissions every year.

And then one year, he submitted The Fountain. It was just a urinal. The board of the SIA was so shocked by it that they actually went so far to take the unusual step of rejecting his art. He immediately resigned, and then dove headfirst into the Dada movement never to look back. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but he must have been one of the first artists to successfully use found items in his work.

Was it a huge risk on his part to submit a urinal as art? Or did he have plenty going on at the time that he was confident in thumbing his nose at the so-called open Society? Perhaps as director, he knew he had enough clout that he wouldn’t completely fall out of favor and instead get even more respect for making a strong and shocking statement. Or perhaps, he just had the conviction to do whatever he felt like doing. I hope it was the latter, but nothing wrong with it being the former. But today, we see similar actions by famous artists. In music today, we see Miley Cyrus going from innocent schoolgirl, to overnight punk rock sexual millennial icon–and shocking those in the established music industry. She paid her dues, building up a strong reputation as a safe tween icon, and then she (or her manager more likely) made the decision to shake things up with a  strong statement–just as the pop icons all did before her (Lady Gaga, Madonna, etc.).

But starting out… we learn from the masters before anyone will bother to notice any strong statement we would care to make (“Who’s this joker? Why should I care what he has to say? He’s a nobody.”). But here’s the scary part: which masters do we focus on? We can’t learn everything from all of them. We have to prioritize in some way. Certainly our interests will help guide us, and we can learn from those who inspire us. Yet, here’s the scarier question: From any particular master, what do we attempt to learn? By nature, the masters are super-human. Not only were they in the right place at the right time, but they were ready to take advantage of those opportunities with their superior intellect, creativity, and coordination. It would take me two lifetimes to learn to play like Buddy Rich, and then I’d just be called the Buddy Rich Ripoff. Not only do I have to learn some sweet techniques, but I have to also leave time to find my own voice. How do I do both?

So, you have to figure out what you can actually learn with a reasonable amount of effort, or you have to be willing to take the risk.

A mentor will help you prioritize these things. Did you ever have a moment–I certainly did, when my mentor told me that I could learn the push-pull technique in a year–when you suddenly had clarity that you could actually learn something that in the past seemed unattainable?

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