The Other Columbus: Art is a process, not an object
The work is where the real answers live
I once made a comment years ago online about writing a ton of poems in a short period of time for one wild project or another, and another poet hit me with a line that’s stuck with me ever since: “Yeah, you can do it, but what’s the quality of the work going to be like?” That line stuck with me over the years, not because she was right, but because she thought I should be more concerned with the results than the process.
As a self-made artist, I’ve always been a sucker for a challenge. If you tell me you never heard of someone writing 30 poems in a day or reading poetry aloud for 24 hours straight, I’m going to put those things on my calendar. The more important angle, however, is that it’s never about ego. The work is how I learn things about my craft. If you do anything for 24 hours straight, you’re going to learn some things about your art and yourself.
The first time I did a 24-hour poetry performance, I learned which poems I like and which ones I just thought I liked. I learned that reading a poem at 3 a.m. to an audience given license to fall asleep during your performance will reveal any shortcomings in your work. I learned what my body was capable of, and what it wasn’t. I learned about aligning the rhythm of a poem with the rhythm of my body, which carried me over several hours once those two things synced. I learned what being a vessel really feels like, and that it can be achieved working backwards from art piece (poem) to process. I learned whole styles of poems I could live without.
That’s process as classroom (and, in this example, masochism as instructor). The work is where the answers live, and I have so many questions of myself and the world.
Picasso once said, “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it,” which is perhaps the coldest flex in all of art. I say that having read Salvador Dali’s autobiography twice. A lot of artists would find the vision embedded in that quote petrifying, the idea of filling wall after wall with personal expression freezing them in the headlight of expectations. For me, it is a deeply inspiring mantra, on the level of playing Ice T’s “Lethal Weapon” on the way to work to pump up for the day. It’s a very hip-hop sentiment, which is a value I readily recognize. It says, “Whatever opportunity you place before me, I will execute.” (Obviously you have to kill whatever part of your brain flips the imposter syndrome switch to get to that place, but it is a crime worth committing.)
The thing that Picasso didn’t say out loud was, “I will fill your museum with nothing but great art.” If you ever have the opportunity to watch the 1956 French documentary “The Mystery of Picasso,” you’ll learn why. In the film, Picasso is recorded painting after painting; a couple dozen pieces in all. It’s all real time creation, a genius in action. Some of the work is outstanding, some less so. But it is all Picasso, and in the observation of his process, we learn more than any museum docent could convey.
There is a moment in the film where Picasso remarks on a piece in utero, saying “muy mal.” If you don’t remember your first week of high school Spanish, he’s saying the piece was “very bad.” Another massive painting he essentially completes, then destroys by painting over it with an entirely different vision. The ultimate moment of pearl-clutch comes after seeing the film and learning that once filming was complete, most of the art was destroyed. Pure art gangsterism.
For Picasso, the documentary gig was largely about process. There is a truth that can only be gleaned in the creation of things, a memory rolled over and over in the palm, a realization only gleaned in the fortune telling dust of pencil shavings. This is true for the genius and the neophyte. Picasso saw one thing and painted it. Then he saw another thing in the same painting and chased that ghost instead, even to the destruction of the original vision. Except destruction isn’t really what happened. What happened was truth-seeking, and not just of the painting that should exist, but the artist and person that needed to exist, even if only for a moment.
Let us now heed the insight of an artist who isn’t an abusive misogynist. English author Jeannette Winterson is instructive here. From the titular essay of her book Art Objects, she writes:
The true artist is connected. The true artist studies the past, not as a copyist or a pasticheur will study the past, those people are interested only in the final product, the art object, signed sealed and delivered to a public drugged on reproduction. The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process, the thing in being, the being of the thing, the struggle, the excitement, the energy, that have found expression in a particular way. The true artist is after the problem. The false artist wants it solved (by somebody else).
Winterson touches on artistic process the way I like. She sells the process of creation as revelry, but also communion. With art, the process is the result, and all art is the record of process. It is supposedly why a big red square painted by Rothko is worth millions and the big red square by your 5-year-old is refrigerator fodder: the artist drills into the medium — the color, the tools, the technique — and fills the space with themselves, with the stuff of life they bring with them.
Any artist more concerned with the result — the attention, the money, the piece itself — than the process is missing the entire point of creating anything.