The Sin of PRIDE

In the 21st century, it’s more difficult to see “pride” as a sin. We think of LGBT pride, Black pride, national pride, Bono singing “In the Name of Love.” Isn’t that song about Martin Luther King — surely he wasn’t a sinner?

Here’s a different take on pride. Actually let’s call it ‘hubris’ so no one gets confused.

Hubris is about insisting on your own greatness. In fact, that’s why Lucifer fell from heaven and ended up on the dark side. He insisted that he was greater than the rest of the crew.  But, Kanye not withstanding, most creative people seem to have a problem with low self-esteem, not grandiosity.

But whereas they would never say that they are better than others, they insist that their work be. They judge their art too harshly, dismissing what they produce with contempt.They demand a higher standard than is reasonable, possible, necessary. They are absolutely intolerant of anything but perfection. It’s hero or zero. Whatever misses the mark gets binned.

If you can’t accept your own normal human weakness, isn’t that hubris? If you are completely intolerant of your own mistakes, isn’t that vanity? Aren’t you saying you can and should be perfect? If it’s a sin to judge others that way, why doesn’t the same apply to how you look at yourself?

If you are unwilling to be vulnerable, you are limited by fear. Overwhelming fear of any form of weakness, of being irrelevant, of being rebuked by others, of falling even slightly below the mark, can prevent you from taking chances. If you are so wary of falling on your face that you won’t take risks, you will never achieve anything great, no matter how high your standards.

Do great work, please, and be proud of it. But don’t let perfectionist, monkey pride stop you from expressing your real, human self.

Third in a series on seven deadly creative sins. Incidentally, and I say this with all due humility, the original list of seven deadly sins was written by Pope Gregory I. Probably no relation.

The Sin of GLUTTONY

Gluttony means consuming way more than you need. And it’s a great way for the monkey to distract you from your creative path.

Walking through a museum and snapping a picture of each painting you pass, then hurrying on to the next. Signing up for classes, then never bothering to show up and do the work. Why start that painting when you and your credit card could while away the afternoon at the art supply store? Easier to amass more drying tubes of paint, teetering piles of empty sketchbooks, basket-loads of supplies for crafts you doesn’t have the time to master — than bypass the monkey and get to work.

Gluttony means valuing quantity over quality. And we live in times of more, more, more, where there’s always a new distraction, a new treat popping upon our phones. Why do they call it a Facebook feed, d’ya think? Because it stuffs our troughs with trivia, 24/7. We consume bytes instead of being in the moment and appreciating the wonder and beauty around us already. We are gluttonous with our time and yet stingy with it too, wasting it rather than investing it in the self-improvement and habits that can bring us the things that will truly satisfy our hungers.

Gluttony is a sin of lost control. Like Lust, it drives out of our minds, to places we don’t recognize in the mirror. We automatically grab for more entertainment, more stimulation, more consumption, faster, longer, all of which distract us from our purpose, our skills, our deepening experience as human beings. We are unable to ignore the buzz in our pockets, the dings on our night stands, we drool and reach and feast.

Creativity is about creating something new, adding to the world of beauty, not just taking and acquiring.

Gluttony stems from fear. We are afraid of exposing ourselves, standing naked as we are. Afraid of being vulnerable. We cloak ourselves in a thick protective layer of shopping bags from Abercrombie & Fitch, Dean & DeLuca or Windsor & Newton. We need distraction from our true selves, from loneliness, from inadequacy, from being who we are.

The solution is to make more, rather than take more. Pull your excess art supplies off the shelf and give them to your local public school. Turn off all electronics a day a week and fill your time with songbirds and wind. Unsubscribe from distraction and sign up for a healthy diet of starving artistry. It won’t kill you, it’ll fill your soul.

Second in a series on seven deadly creative sins.

The Sin of GREED

Creativity, like songbirds, can be bought and sold. But songs sound differently from behind the bars of a gilded cage, when sung for a supper.

Greed makes artists compromise. They follow trends rather than their hearts.  They measure success in sales rather than in the call of their souls. They agree to distort their work to fit corporate agendas and market demands. Greed turns originality into predictability into a worthless tin horn.

Ironically, greed rusts the very things that made an artist’s work valuable in the first place. Greed transforms artists into celebrities, hogging the limelight, addicted to fame, prisoners of their egos, and detached from the pure, original source of their creativity.

Greed distorts and cripples the true purpose of art, turning the fruits of personal expression into a mere commodity. An artist’s heart-felt response to the world shrivels into a rich man’s prized asset, garnering millions at auction, then hidden away, another coveted diamond on a dragon’s hoard.

The opposite of greed is generosity.

Greed prevents artists from sharing their work with the world, afraid it will be poached. Rather than joining a creative community, inspiring others, collaborating, teaching, sharing their insights and lessons, greedy artists hide in their studios, squirreling away their work, waiting for the best offer. They refuse to support causes, to contribute their creativity, to reap the benefits of selflessness.

Greed clouds perspective, skews values, saps generosity.

Greed is a symptom of fear.

When you are afraid of being deprived, you hoard possessions against any possible future famine, no matter how remote. When you are afraid of being passed over and neglected, left to shrivel and die, you hoard attention. Afraid of competition, you crouch on your mountain of toys so no one else and play with them. Afraid of being taken advantage of, you refuse to open the door to others. Afraid of being vulnerable, you amass a pile of any stuff than could be a bulwark or a weapon. You bank your work rather than letting it see the light of day and of possible critique.

Greed blocks your way. Generosity and creativity clear it.

First in a series on seven deadly creative sins.

Freaky Friday

A few days ago, I woke up in a parallel universe. It took a while to realize that I was in a new dimension because my bedroom, my bathroom, my dachshunds, all looked pretty much the same. But the back page of my neighbor’s New York Post, lying face down on the elevator floor, clued me in.

The headline screamed, “Yee Dominates Open” over a picture of some ceramic sculptures. The caption went on to explain that artist Lulu Yee’s work was all the rage at the Bushwick Open Studios.

I nudged through the rest of the paper with my toe. Where I expected to see hockey scores and an update on the Yankee’s quest for a shortstop, I found reviews of two shows at the new Whitney, a long essay on Robert Motherwell’s legacy, and a table charting the top twenty seniors at RISD and their expected prospects at Art Basel in Miami.

I walked back into my apartment and hit the remote. A flashy logo for ESPN (the Exhibition, Sculpture & Painting Network), swept across the screen. Two talking heads were discussing Gerhard Richter’s decision to switch to a new brand of paint thinner, then rumors about Damien Hirst’s wrist injury, the economics of a trade of three Rachel Whiteread sculptures between the Guggenheim and a huge new museum in Dallas, and Matthew Barney’s newly trimmed beard.

In this alternate world, art schools recruited talented third graders, galleries poached art school freshmen, and major corporations viciously competed to sponsor retrospectives at the Guggenheim. There were hundreds of extraordinary new artists I had never heard of before: they now had the chance to show their work, were supported and encouraged to push boundaries and create new dimensions in art.  School art programs were lavishly supported and even the most provincial colleges had big, sun-swept studios, subsidized art supply stores and  deep pockets. Most athletic programs, alas, had meager support and sparse attendance.

Every city built stadiums to present Pussy Riot performance pieces and screen Tom McCarthy videos. Teenaged girls mooned over half-naked pinups of Richard Prince. Marina Abramovic had her own cable network. Every street tough wore Basquiat dreadlocks and paint spattered shoes. Kids coveted jackets festooned with Liquitex and Grumbacher logos. Parents named their babies “Winsor” and “Newton”. Art students lived in mini-mansions and drove Escalades to Starbucks where star quarterbacks made them pumpkin lattes.

Exhilarated and exhausted by my first day in this wonderland, I drank too much absinthe and passed out. When I woke up the next morning, it was to the sound of reality, two cab drivers across the street arguing over how the Yankee’s star pitcher’s strained forearm would effect their season. Art funding was still in crisis, parents still worry about their creative kids’ prospects, museums catered to the lowest common denominator, and our education system and our culture were still ruled by sports and money.

Oh, well.

If I figure out how to get back to the other side,would you want to come with me?

No title. Really, that’s the title.

ArtistI think my mother was the first one to tell me, “You can’t call yourself an ‘artist’.  Other people will decide that for you. It’s pretentious to assume the title for yourself. It’s like calling yourself a  genius. Maybe you can say you’re a ‘painter’. But not an artist.”

My mum is humbling like that.

“Teacher” is another title I am loathe to assume. I don’t have a degree in teaching, I don’t work at a school. And I think teaching is one of the most important and difficult and unrecognized jobs around. I really do think that’s a title you have to earn.

But I guess I do spend a fair amount of time telling people stuff, instructing them on how to live, to drawn, to think. So I’m either a bullying bore or I am maybe a teacher. Not that the two are the same thing, of course. It’s just that if you walked into a bank and started criticizing people’s penmanship or cracking knuckles in your local Starbucks because people have poor posture and are chewing gum, well, that wouldn’t fly. Teachers get to know better because they do.

I’ve had loads of corporate titles and they all seemed sort of ridiculous. Yesterday, a guy gave me his business card and said, “There’s no title there because I still haven’t quite figured out what it is I do.” He was being modest (he was actually the boss of a really big company) but I liked his attitude.

Let me get to the point.

One of the biggest irons I had in the fire when I left my last titled job was to put together an online class.  I’ve alluded to it here a bunch of times since — but it never seemed quite right to me.  Maybe it’s because of those two titles, ”artist” and “teacher” and the even more daunting combo: “art teacher.”

A couple of weeks ago, everything changed.

As result of number of amazing conversations I had in Amsterdam, most importantly with Koosje Koene, a clear, bright path has opened up. I now know what I will be doing next and I think it will be amazing.

It combines everything I have been working on for the last decade. Making art; sharing with other people; meeting so many amazing “artists” and “teachers”; thinking about creativity and all of its gifts and obstacles; the Internet and the global nature of everything; Everyday Matters and what it has come to mean on Yahoo! and Facebook; the thousands of emails I have received from great people everywhere; my decades in advertising helping big companies tell their stories —  all of this mass of rich stuff lumped together in one beautiful stew that finally is really bubbling.

A group of us are working on something that I really think is fresh and fantastic. It’s an answer to all those people who have asked me to do more workshops or to teach online or to give them advice or make more Sketchbook Films, all the people who are interested in art and want to make it more a part of their lives. And I think it’s a great answer, like nothing out there.

We still have a lot more work to do but we think we will be ready to roll it out in March. Gulp

It’s a lesson that settling for an existing title or solution or direction may not always be as good as making up something brand new.

Which is what we are doing.

If you find this, whatever it is that I’m going on about, interesting, stay tuned.

And if you’d like me to update and include you in our project, send me an email. Please do. Even if you are only intrigued. Or vaguely interested. Or utterly confused. It’s gonna be big. And probably won’t involve titles.

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How to kick monkey butt.

I’ve written a lot about the nature of the inner critic that confounds our creativity. And so far, I’ve urged you to fight it by just getting to work. That may not be as easy as all that, so let me be more specific with some ways you can push past that hectoring little voice in your head.

Just start. Do one small drawing on one small piece of paper. A Post-It. Or draw a loose grid on your sketchbook page and fill in one single square with a line drawing of your foot. Whistle while you do it. If the monkey starts to grumble, hum louder. Push off that inner criticism for 120 seconds until you can get something down on the page.

Creating something, anything, can break the logjam. And it can give you something to look back at hours later, to get excited about. Initially, the monkey may sneer about your tiny attempt but go back at it and look at it again. Find something to love in it. It’s in there.

Don’t talk about it. If you are having block, don’t endlessly discuss it and seek solace from others. The more you do, naming it and broadcasting it, The more you solidify the block, the more of  a living entity it becomes. Give it a name and you give it power. Stress over it and you become twisted and jailed.

My words here are a double-edged sword. I want you to be able to see that your problem is a common one, that you don’t suck any more than the rest of us. But the more we dwell on this discussion, the more attention the monkey gets, and the less time we are spending making something.

Give him a banana.  Try holding out some sort of reward to yourself. A bribe to get it done. Say, “if I do three drawings today, I can buy a new fountain pen. ” “Or I can watch TV for an hour if I draw during three of the commercial breaks”. Or “I can eat that donut, if I draw it first .”

Use this tool judiciously. You don’t want to end up obese, broke, or in jail.

donut

Get your lazy ass up. If the monkey tells you are a hopeless slug, agree with him. Tell him you want to improve and so you are going to set the alarm a little earlier and start the day right. Sit down and draw before your first cup of coffee. Fifteen minutes of drawing the reflections in the toaster as the coffee perks. Monkeys are lazy bastards too and they can’t get it together so early. I find I do my best work before I start reading email and talking to people and dealing with the day. Then for the rest of the day, I glow with that knowledge that I have already made art today and the rest is gravy. By knocking out a few drawings with the dawn, you will lubricate the wheels of habit while the monkey turns over and keep on snoring.

Do something you definitely suck at. Buy a medium that’s absolutely new to you. Draw on your iPad for the first time. Paint with ketchup on the kitchen counter. Play the digeridoo. By doing something you have never done before, you have the perfect excuse for sucking. If the monkey pops up, you can say, yes, yes, I know but this is my first time. Have fun. You’re making something. Sure, it’s no good. But keep going. Keep making. Keep exploring.

The great ape debates. If you can’t screen out your monkey, tune him in. Really put his critiques to the test. Ask the monkey to take the stand. Grill him.  But this time bring your inner lawyer to dissect his arguments.

Give the primate the benefit of the doubt. Take his arguments at face value and see if they hold any water. Maybe you do have room for improvement — none of us is perfect. You can learn and grow from self-examination. The thing we must avoid is self-destruction and abuse.

So, write down his complaints about you and come up with strong rational responses.  Write these down too. Next time the monkey levels these same criticisms at you, just tell him, “I’ve heard you and responded to the charges. What else you got?”

Stock your own arsenal. Sit down, like I’m doing, and come up with a bunch of ideas to trick yourself into sitting down and coming up with a bunch of ideas. If you want, start by critiquing my suggestions and then making up better ones that will work for you. Hate the idea of getting up at dawn? Fine, then draw at lunch, draw in the train, draw on the toilet. Come on, plus my ideas. What works for you?

Senioritis

A tentative first step back into my illustrated journal. Drawn while sitting, overtired, in bed.

Jack was eager to settle his college plans early and so was I. His acceptance to RISD was a huge relief for both of us. The stress and uncertainty of the college process was over and now we can both relax until September.
But doing next to nothing turns out to be a lot less fun than he thought it would be. Fall is a long way away and Jack still has to get up at 7:00 each morning and sit in classes all day, listening to droning teachers, half-heartedly writing homework assignments in the period before they’re due, doing the bare minimum to keep his grades above water so his acceptance isn’t rescinded.
I say to him, well, you’re still being taught useful and interesting things, even if your grades really don’t mean as much. Can’t you just learn … for the fun of it? What’s the point, he groans. Who cares? I’ll study when I get to college… Etc.
Senioritis isn’t confined to teenagers. At every point in life, it’s easy to be so focused on goals that one can’t see the value in anything that doesn’t pertain directly to them. All around are books and classes and conversations and experiences that would enrich us greatly but it’s easier to just do the same-old and not expend the effort for something that doesn’t same to have a direct benefit or relevance to one’s occupation or obligations. What’s the point in learning to draw or reading about ancient history or trying sushi or visiting China? We think we know it better, so despite the richness of the world around you, if your mindset is wrong you won’t absorb or even register it. You screen it out.
When we’re toddlers, we are constantly exploring and asking questions about everything we encounter. That impulse diminishes when we get older because our pre-frontal cortex develops and filters out the firehouse of information that is constantly streaming in. Most of the time, we certainly need that filter so we can be focused and goal oriented — it would be impossible to get anything done if we were always walking around in slack-jawed amazement. So we increasingly notice only those things that we have decided are related to our preconceived goals and orientations.
That means it takes an extreme form of novelty or trauma to snap us out of this narrow tunnel we have burrowed into. Something like 9/11, a death, an accident, can force us into a reassessment and new orientation. Our eyes are opened, we say, and suddenly we see things we’d never seen before.
We use this metaphoric language to describe this epiphany but what if we take this notion literally and force ourselves to actually see things anew. We can reorient our perception and put on a wider lens. Of course, we don’t want to eliminate this screening function altogether or else we might wander off the road and spend all day picking wild flowers, but we can pick moments to relax our pre-frontal cortex, return to a more childlike state, rebuild our muscles of perception, and restock our cache of creative stimulation.
When you draw something you see it in a new way. A good drawing is a fresh perspective on an object you may have seen a thousand times before: a building, a body, a bowl of fruit, your breakfast dishes. But by paying deliberate and careful attention to every nook and cranny, you flood your mind and your page with new information about what you are seeing — the texture of a banana skin, the way light hits a brick, how the knee connects to the shin bone, the exact curve of a cup handle. You are suspending the critical function of your pre-frontal cortex, refusing to decide whether there’s importance to each individual line and aspect; you just record them all. This information isn’t actually that important to you beyond the act of drawing, you don’t need to retain the visual data about that banana skin, it may have no further utility to you. But it is expanding your awareness of the world around you, strengthening for observation muscles — it has as much purpose as lifting the same weight over and over at the gym.
When your mind’s eye is open and your screens and filters are down, you get more and more useful information, and that information and experience are the raw fodder for creativity. Forming associations between apparently disparate things to create a new idea is what creativity is all about. And the more open your mind is, the more you are open to experiencing things are interesting but may not have immediate and obvious relevance to your current endeavors. By exposing yourself to art, to novelty, to new ideas, facts and experiments, you stretch your mind so that it is pliable and elastic, so that it doesn’t seize up when you have to move in a new direction. Your reservoirs of references are loaded and you have oodles of bits and bobs to build new ideas with.
Senioritis hits senior citizens too. It’s easy, as you become middle aged and older, to think you know it all, that you have discovered what matters, that you know what you like to eat and like to vote for and where you like to visit and what you like to read and that experimentation and exploration are things of the past. But if you can loosen up your built-in filters, if you can slow down and draw every petal of a flower or the hairs on a dog’s muzzle, you’ll soon see that you don’t know everything, far from it, and in fact you never will. And that realization, that the more we know the less we know, will set you free to devote the rest of your days to exploring the depth of your ignorance, to gathering sticks and shells and tastes and smells, and weaving them together in to combinations you and no one else have ever seen before.
Jack can afford to suspend learning until September. But I can’t.

Now, watch this: