Stealing from Yourself

There once was a thief, a man named Emanuel Ninger. The year is 1887. The scene is a small neighborhood grocery store. Mr. Ninger is buying some turnip greens. He gives the clerk a $20 bill. As the clerk begins to put the money in the cash drawer to give Nr. Ninger his change, she notices some of the ink from the $20 bill is coming off on her fingers which are damp from the turnip greens. She looks at Mr. Ninger, a man she has known for years. She looks at the smudged bill. This man is a trusted friend; she has known him all her life; he can't be a counterfeiter. She gives Mr. Ninger his change, and he leaves the store.     

But $20 is a lot of money in 1887, and eventually the clerk calls the police. They verify the bill as counterfeit and get a search warrant to look through Mr. Ninger's home. In the attic they find where he is reproducing money. He is a master artist and is painting $20 bills with brushes and paint! But also in the attic they find three portraits Ninger had painted. They seized these and eventually sold them at auction for $16,000 (in 1887 currency, remember) or a little more than $5,000 per painting. The irony is that it took Ninger almost as long to paint a $20 bill as it did for him to paint a $5,000 portrait! It's true that Emmanuel Ninger was a thief, but the person from whom he stole the most was himself. He was another in the endless list of thieves who steal from themselves when they try to steal from others. 

Zig Ziglar

Throwing Away your Children’s Art 

When I first tried throwing away my own young children’s art…I felt an ache as I pitched it into the trash. There’s a moment when a child first presents you with her art, holding it out with the last split second of attention she can muster after completing it. That moment contains a burst of pride on both your parts, and a frisson of mutual love. But in the end, your pride lasts longer than the child’s does. Eventually, and soon, it must move on to another venture. Theirs always does, but yours lingers, heartstrings tugged.

It’s the wish to prolong this moment artificially, I think, that motivates the urge to keep and curate your children’s art for posterity. You convince yourself there’s some future where your child will want to return to that moment of pride and love through the act of witnessing the thing she made so long ago.

Don’t fall for it. You’re only trying to make yourself feel better. You’ll never quite be able to tell which moment your children will remember, and it’s not as if you can regulate that memory on their behalf anyway. And besides, childhood is made from a thousand moments just like this. There’s no way to hold on to all of them.

Of course, you shouldn’t throw something away that your kids say they want to keep. But absent that urge, and particularly in the early years before it develops, most children’s art exists to be destroyed. The point of life isn’t to prolong youth, but to have grown up. That requires discarding things along the way, and enjoying the appropriate relief. That’s the kind of activity a parent ought to put their moral and aesthetic weight behind.

Mary Townsend writing in The Atlantic

 

The Freak out Test

If I were feeling really anxious what would I do? If we would pick up the phone and call six friends, one after another, with the aim of hearing their voices and reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we’re operating hierarchically.  We’re seeking the good opinion of others.

Here’s another test. Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?  If you are alone on a planet a hierarchical structure makes no sense.  There’s no one to impress.  So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger were the last man on earth, he’d still go to the gym.  Stevie Wonder would still pound the piano. The sustenance they get comes from the act itself, not from the impression it makes on others. 

Now: What about ourselves as artists?

If we were freaked out, would we go there first?  If we were the last person on earth, would we still show up at the studio, the rehearsal hall, the laboratory?

Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

Being Remade Through Music

Students tend to spend hours a day plugged into their tunes. Their musical lives may well be their spiritual lives. It makes them feel more vital, vigorous, intense. Usually it's about getting your emotions packaged for you, quieting the static inside, fabricating an exciting identity (the gangsta, the hipster) to counteract one's commitment to a life of secure banality.

Most music listening, like most reading, is passive. It's about girl watching rather than woman wooing, which is a tougher game. Schopenhauer says that most reading is letting other people think your thoughts for you. I'd add that most music listening is about letting other people feel your feelings for you.

Feel them for yourself, I say. Then shout them out loud. And sing them too. Do it for your own pleasure. It doesn't matter whether anyone is listening.

Mark Edmundson writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education

the artist is a collector

An artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: hoarders collect indiscriminately, the artist collects selectively. They only collect things that they really love. There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income. I think the same thing is true of our idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.

Austin Kleon, How to Steal Like an Artist

My cultural preferences are God ordained

A young boy complains to his father that most of the church hymns are boring to him because they are so far behind the times. His father becomes angry and states that "the hymns are good enough for your grandfather and me, and they will serve you just as well." But the teenager says that not only are the tunes boring, but the words are meaningless ... the songs are just too old fashioned. Putting an end to the discussion, his father says to him, "Well, if you think you can write better hymns, then why don't you?" The son says that he will. He goes to his room and writes his first hymn.

The year was 1690, the teenager was Isaac Watts, and the hymn was "Behold the Glories of the Lamb." During the next few years he wrote other songs. "We're marching to Zion", "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross", and "Joy to the World" are among the almost 350 hymns he created. The lyrics were his own but sometimes the melodies were similar in origin to Luther's ... seized from the streets or from popular theatre.

Larry Norman, liner Notes to In Another Land

The freak-out test

If I were feeling really anxious what would I do? If we would pick up the phone and call six friends, one after another, with the aim of hearing their voices and reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we’re operating hierarchically. We’re seeking the good opinion of others.

Here’s another test. Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it? If you are alone on a planet a hierarchical structure makes no sense. There’s no one to impress. So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger were the last man on earth, he’d still go to the gym. Stevie Wonder would still pound the piano. The sustenance they get comes from the act itself, not from the impression it makes on others.

Now: What about ourselves as artists?

If we were freaked out, would we go there first? If we were the last person on earth, would we still show up at the studio, the rehearsal hall, the laboratory?

Steven Pressfield. The War of Art

When self-expression meets the classics

Should we teach art students to recognize, understand and dissect classic works of art - or should we encourage them to explore creative self-expression, apart from the cultural context?

If beginners are taught to internalize the classics before finding their own voice, won't they be nudged to conform to expectations and tempted to stay inside the box of what has gone before? Are they wasting time learning how others express themselves rather than learning to do so themselves? Will stepping in the shoes of the masters cause them to avoid pursuing ideas outside of the norm? 

Unconventional artists and visionaries have often been shunned by peers - only later to be revered by another generation. If these craftsmen had conformed, if they had stifling their inner voices, they might not have stepped out of the crowd and we would have never had the chance to appreciate their genius.

However, if we teach students to venture out on their own, aren't we just treating them like toddlers, telling them to go play in the paint - without guidance? Failing to study the masters means missing the opportunity stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and to see further down the road. Keeping them away from the classics could mean failing to grasp the value of the great works that have stood the test of time. How can students understand where their own feet are planted in history unless they know about others who have struggled and flourished.

Perhaps we need both sides and the danger lies in slavishly taking one position or the other. Perhaps we can learn the rules before breaking them and avoiding simply mimicking the masters. Perhaps we can tap into the echos of their inspiration rather than plunging into our own narcissism.

Asking, "Am I creating to please myself or to please others?" may bring clarity. If you are creating to please yourself, then diving into what’s culturally hot may take you away from your goal. But if you have decided to create for the crowd, then knowing what is already valued seems like a reasonable starting point.

Stephen Goforth