As an artist, would you choose to be moderately proficient at a lot of the arts, or wickedly proficient at one?
I'd like to be wickedly proficient at all of them. I'd love to be like Leonardo da Vinci, brilliant scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, painter, sculptor, architect, botanist, musician and writer... but I think it's too late for that.
I did -- for a few years -- try.
I earned my B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Creative Arts which sometimes sounds like one step up from a degree in Underwater Basket Weaving. I focused on performance art, conceptual art, documentary filmmaking, and painting.
I loved -- and still love -- that interdisciplinary approach to creativity. The best interdisciplinary artists have a kind of artistic synesthesia, The edges blur, each art informs the others. Genres are artificial delineations of creative expression anyway. An interdisciplinary artist finds the right gesture to express the impulse. Sometimes you sing it, and sometimes you say it, and sometimes you dance it, and it's all one art, one self-expression.
Like many young interdisciplinary artists, though, I was a little scattered. My education left me the artistic equivalent of The Life of the Cocktail Party, able to converse (artistically) for about ten minutes on about anything. I was artistically broad but shallow. And to say it simplistically, when you're broad and shallow, you're not deep.
Many years ago: it's the second day of my sculpture overview class at San Francisco State and we're working with clay. It feels fabulous in my hands. As I work the slick red lump my mind is working too, and ... and... I'm Auguste Rodin. I'm Camille Claudel. My work is acclaimed, transcendent... I look down at the pile on my board. Shit. It's a lump of red clay. And I've got delusions of grandeur. To become Rodin, Claudel, or the Acclaimed Sculptress Lutz, I obviously need a lot more than a few classes. Creative or not, my artistic impulse won't magically translate to great sculpture just because I want it to.
Take your average fairly-creative person studying an art form. First you learn a little about the art/craft, then you learn more. You work hard at it, and if you don't quit, after a year or two, you're usually somewhat adequate. You know how to draw, a bit. Or you know how to weld. Or you've taken a few film classes and done a few small projects, enough that when twenty-odd years later you're smack up against iMovie, you can figure it out and whip out a short piece that fools some of the people some of the time.
That's it, though. You're fooling some of the people, some of the time. If you want to really move your audience, if you want to truly contribute, you have to commit. As Herbert Selby Jr. said, "Being an artist doesn’t take much, just everything you got."
Without that commitment, the art won't work, and it's more than critics who will fail to see your brilliance -- the broad strokes, the wide skim of a skipping pebble across the lake, ultimately won't satisfy you, the artist. Because there's so much more than doing a good job at a lot of things. While "Perfect is the enemy of good" might be a truism, "Good is the enemy of perfect" is true as well.
Maybe Leonardo could commit to it all, to the science and the painting and the architecture, and the botony, and the engineering and, oh my god, even the math. But most of the rest of us are less gifted than Leonardo. I am, anyway! And we have families and jobs and responsibilities that suck up time and energy. And so Reality means Choice.
In my late twenties I faced the question head on: would I choose to be moderately proficient at a lot of the arts, or wickedly proficient at one? I feared that if didn't choose, I would lose the profound experience of going deeper and truly becoming excellent at something.
So I chose writing.
I've spent twenty years going deeper. I've learned the power of exploring the layers of craft. About pushing against my own limitations and pushing, and pushing, and finally either feeling the POP! of pushing through, or suddenly seeing the way around. I've learned what it feels like to move to a place where craft becomes a resting place for the art to shoot off from. I've worked hard, and I've been fortunate to be able to work hard, and I'm proficient. (Wickedly proficient? That's for others to decide.)
Yet sometimes I miss the breadth of the interdisciplinary approach. I still believe in the wisdom of fitting the genre to the content, not the reverse. So sometimes I stop and clear my head from words.
Years after that first sculpture class: I come back to clay. I take a sculpture class, and then another, and manage my expectations.
I come back to performing, doing solo shows and loving it.
I learn to garden, work on my rusty French, take a cooking class.
And all of this cross-pollinates and feeds me. Learning how to oil paint gives me workable layering metaphors for writing a novel. Visual composition translates to narrative arc. The seasons of the garden help soothe me through fallow periods in my writing. The ability to improvise in cooking teaches me how to blog. Performing gives me the immediate audience feedback I crave during the solitude of writing a book.
There's great joy in settling for being a low-rent Leonardo. I can study things that won't make me cry from wanting so badly to do them well.
But mostly my interdisciplinary bent has given me a certain kind of fearlessness. So I'm willing to try, and I'm willing to be not particularly great at something. I'm willing to sit down one evening to explore the iMovie application that came with my laptop and, the next day, post my two-minute experiment on Red Room. I'm willing to be the artistic fool.
Because I know it's not about the product anyway.
It's about the flow.