Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

May 21, 2010
well you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good
but if it’s really good
you’re gonna need a bigger room
and when you’re in your bigger room
you might not know what to do
you might have to think about how you got started
sitting in your little room
--The White Stripes

Last night I watched “The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights  (2009), a video of The White Stripes’s tour of Canada in 2007, where this two-person band that can easily fill stadiums, travelled to far-flung towns and villages, playing their punky bluesy, countrified rock in free daytime shows at each location with as short notice as possible. Similar to Sigur Ros’s tour of Iceland, which can be seen in their gorgeous video “Heima,” Jack and Meg White played venues as diverse as a rec center, a pool hall, a small boat, and a flour mill, culminating their tour with their 10th anniversary show in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia—where they interfaced with local musicians, said to be distant relatives, playing regional music. The effect is surprisingly heart-warming, with attitude-free Jack White coming off as a total sweetie-pie.

White is also someone who’s thought a lot about the nature of creativity. His favorite quote about the band describes them as “simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world,” which made me think about how it’s the deft mixture of artifice and reality that makes for great art. Err too much on one side or the other and the magic is lost.

And White’s soliloquy on creativity was just the pep talk I needed before going into the studio:

It used to be, before I ever was on stage, there was the excitement of what it would be like to play onstage, or if I could just record… what would that be like? I don’t have inspirations like that anymore. Ten years later we’re just working in the same box….one part of my brain says I’m tired of trying to come up with things in this box, but I force myself because I know something good can come out of it if I really work inside of it

Inspiration and work ethic, they ride right next to each other. When I was an upholsterer… sometimes you’re not inspired to reupholster an old chair, sometimes its just work, but you do it because you’re supposed to and in the end you look at it and think “it’s pretty good” and you move on. That’s it. Not every day of your life are you going to wake up, the clouds are going to part, the rays from heaven are going come down and you’re going to write a song…sometimes you just have to force yourself to work, and maybe something good will come out of it. Whether we like it or not we write some songs and record them….book only 4 or 5 days in a studio and force yourself to record an album in that time…deadlines and things make you creative. But opportunity and telling yourself, oh, you’ve got all the time in the world, all the money in the world, you’ve got all the colors in the palette you want, anything you want— that just kills creativity. I’m using the same guitars onstage I used 10 years ago, and I like to do things to make it really hard for myself. For example, I don’t have picks all taped to my microphone stand. If I drop a pick, to get another I have to go all the way to the back of the stage. I place the organ just far enough away that I have to leap to get to it to play different parts of the song…. so I have to work harder to get somewhere. And there are hundreds of things like that…like those guitars I use that don’t stay in tune very well; they’re not conducive, not what regular bands go out and play. So I’m constantly fighting all these tiny little things because they build tension. There’s no set list when we play—that’s the biggest one—each show has its own life....when you go out and everything’s pre-planned and the table’s all set, nice and perfect, nothing’s going to happen; you’re going to go out and do this boring arena set….

All those things have always been a big component of The White Stripes: the constrictions…only having red, white and black colors on the art work and presentations, [sticking to] just guitar, drums and vocals, storytelling, melody and rhythm—these force us to create.
February 18, 2010
Alberto Giacometti, Tete Noire (Diego), 1951, oil on canvas, 31 7/8" x 25 5/8"

Reader Joan, in a comment on my post below, "Elizabeth Gilbert and Creativity" contributed this from James Lord's Giacometti: A Biography, and I felt it was worthy of reprinting as a post on its own:

It becomes always more painful,” Alberto (Giacometti) said, “for me to finish my works. The older I grow, the more I find myself alone. I foresee that at the last I shall be entirely alone. Even if, after all, what I’ve done till now counts for nothing (and it is nothing by comparison with what I would like to create), fully aware of having failed till now, and knowing from experience that everything I undertake slips through my fingers, I enjoy my work more than ever. Is there any understanding in that? Not for me, but that’s how it is. I see my sculptures there before me: each one—even the most finished in appearance—a fragment, each one a failure. Yes, a failure! But there is in each one a little of what I would like to create one day. This in one, that in another, and in the third something that’s missing in the first two. But the sculpture of which I dream incorporates everything that appears isolated and fragmentary in these various works. That gives me a longing, an irresistible longing to pursue my efforts—and perhaps in the end I will attain my goal."

Giacometti and Beckett, each in a deeply individual way, personified the pure commitment of the creative man. Driven beyond the conscious self by a need to express what defies expression, they found the strength to sustain that need in the ironic authority derived from a mortifying acknowledgement of failure. Beckett had learned that words are powerless to convey an idea of a feeling, just as Giacometti had found that neither paint nor clay can possibly embody the experience of vision. But both were infatuated with the expressive possibilities which baffled their passion for self-expression. It was the futility of the pursuit that made it fascinating and saved the effort from becoming monotonous. Its purpose was not to produce works of art but to wrest from the process of perception its utmost resources. A thankless, well-nigh ridiculous task, performed with humility as an act of pride.
February 10, 2010
No matter what you might think of Eat, Pray, Love (if the Web is any indication, a lot of people have opinions about the book who’ve never even read it) Elizabeth Gilbert’s reflection on the nature of creativity is worth considering. For me, it came in the nick of time, challenged as I’ve been lately with my work (or non-work, as it might more accurately be termed) in the studio. I needed to be reminded that I’m simply the conduit, and that all I need to do is open the door, allow whatever is going to happen to happen, instead of trying so fucking hard.

This may be the reason some people have big successes and then fall off—they begin to believe the hype, to think that they did it, and then struggle to do it again. I think about Philippa Gregory, who wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read (The Other Boleyn Girl) and some of the worst (all the rest). Or Rauschenberg, who never seemed to be able to get past himself.

Students are often taught—or at least given the impression—that making art is about having an idea and executing it, when actually it’s about doing the work and then getting out of the way.

If I build the tracks, the train will come when it’s ready.