When IBM surveyed the world’s CEOs on how to thrive in business, technology, health and every other industry, the results almost unanimously pointed to one determining factor. More than rigor, management, strategy, integrity or even vision, creativity came out as the top skill. Less than half of senior leaders believe their businesses are equipped for an increasingly complex and volatile global economy, and their proposed solution is to bump up the value of imagination. Part of this plan is to set up projects like “skunkworks” — innovation theorist Everett Rogers’ term for a free-association think-tank on company time. The problem is that committees, by their nature, tend to kill ingenuity in favour of what’s comfortable. And what’s comfortable is usually what’s most familiar. In advertising, it’s called “status quo bias,” and brands rely on it to keep their customers coming back for the mediocre.
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Yesterday, I was being curious again about one of my little habits — a habit that some artists might relate to. I like to start a painting off in a mess and then try to harness and control the thing. It’s appealing to me to make something unruly into something ordered. Please don’t mention this to anyone — right now I’m compulsive about it.
You may have noticed the odd times when something is irking you, putting you into a bad mood, and you sit down at your easel and do good work. While it’s not as pleasant as when you’re in a good mood and everything is coming up peonies, it works to your benefit in another way. In my experience, a bad mood helps the attention span and the critical faculties — not necessarily to be more creative, but with a wider vision and a sharper focus.
A wonderful email appeared in my inbox recently, suspiciously arriving six times and from six different people. Here’s one of them:
My name is George Barbara from California. I actually observed my wife has been viewing your website on my laptop and i guess she likes your piece of work. I’m also impressed and amazed to have seen your various works too, You are doing a great job. I would like to purchase one of your paintings “watermark, 60 x 60 inches, oil on canvas, 2014”, as a surprise to my wife on our anniversary.
There are all kinds of envy — including the kind that Freud thought he detected. The kind I’m talking about is called professional jealousy. Some artists have it bad. Salieri had it for Mozart. Who wouldn’t? It’s supposed to be one of the main sins. I’ve had lots of confessional letters from artists. They’re jealous of the success and talent of others. It happens everywhere — at art schools, with the artist next door, even sharing the same studio. One woman wrote to say that the envy she felt for her friend’s paper tole drove her to stop working in the medium.
A subscriber wrote, “I wonder if you have any thoughts about channeling negative energy into creative endeavors. The other day, one of my most valued friends and I parted company. I was pretty upset by his obviously calculated quarrel, and went over to my studio and picked up and attacked an old unresolved painting. I’m quite happy with the results. Another time I was irritated with the monitor of a life-drawing class to the point that I almost left, but instead focused on my drawing and did some powerful sketches. Nice to know that good things can come from an upsurge of choler.”
Some time ago, I wrote to you about Canadian artist Claire Sower, who’d recently signed with Agora Gallery in New York. For those unfamiliar, Agora is known for soliciting artists online — if you have a website, you may have received one of their emails. For a substantial fee, artists are given an 18-month contract for representation, a promotion package and, if accepted, the opportunity to exhibit at Agora’s polished, two-level gallery in New York. Though initially wary of a business model that profits from artist registration rather than sales, after some encouragement from a supportive gallerist friend, Claire decided to go for it.
Although some artists may put me down for this, I’m pretty sure that the production of art has to do with a sense of well-being. I’ve found that art is at its best when the art more or less takes over your life. It’s great if you happen to be a fan. Other specifics contribute as well, like the ability to access both sides of your brain. I call this “bicameral wobbling.” Sometimes “BW” is automatic, at other times you have to put a cattle-prod in your ear.
On the beach at Le Pouldu, near Pont-Aven, Brittany, there’s a leaning formation of rocks that could be organized a bit by looking down on it and laying the horizon fairly high in the composition. It took a while to get the position right. A few minutes into the painting I realized it would benefit with a figure or some other motif in the lower right. The next day I organized my daughter, Sara, to stand in as a model. This painting was among the ones I brought home that summer. Off it went to a gallery and subsequently disappeared into the great Diaspora where all paintings go.
A question appeared in the comments on a recent letter about studio space. “I have always painted at my kitchen table; because of the holidays and guests coming I have had to clean. Sorry to say I have not picked up a brush since then. If my table is cleared then there are no paintings. It makes me feel sad; it is hard to find a balance between keeping the house clean and producing art. Any suggestions?”