After making my way through the “Dick and Jane” readers (“See Spot run!”) in Grade One, I moved, in Grade Two, to the subtle advance of “Think and Do.” These new books introduced the concepts of free will and self-control. I soon became aware that I could think of things to do, but could not always bring myself to do them.
More recently, Dr Roy Baumeister of Florida State University has done some valuable research on free will and self-control. It seems self-control is not limited to folks with strong character, or something that develops with practice, but is a diminishing resource that all of us use every day.
A person trying to lose weight, for example, will have little trouble turning down a donut in the morning, but later on is liable to cave in because the old self-control bank has been depleted during the day. Baumeister’s findings included the observation that self-control and decision making arise from the same fount of neural energy.
If you are practicing a lot of self-control and decision making in your regular life with perhaps problems of food, booze, difficult kids, partner, parents, ex, boss, etc., you may be lessening your abilities by the time you come to your art. In other words, when you get to the easel, your self-control, like the juice in the lithium battery of a plug-in car after a mountainous trip, has been depleted.
There are two solutions to this problem. The first is unrelenting forgiveness. Simple avoidance of the vexing issues will only partly clear you. You need to build a private equanimity based on a philosophic understanding of human nature that absolves all and blames none.
The second solution is to cave in to sublimated temptations. By sublimated I mean temptations that are at once harmless and progressive. I’m talking about hobbies and pastimes that give their own subtle rewards and satisfactions. In many of us this takes the form of art itself. “I couldn’t live without my art,” is a remark I often hear. With the complex stresses of society these days, it’s not surprising that — not in a negative sense — a lot of our art is flamboyant, permissive, and without self-control.
PS: “Most of the problems that plague our society — addiction, overeating, crime, domestic violence, prejudice, debt, unwanted pregnancy, educational failure, under-performance at school and work, lack of savings, failure to exercise — are in some degree a failure of self-control.” (Roy F. Baumeister)
Esoterica: When artists step into their workspaces they enter a unique and private world of think and do. For some artists, a few minutes are all that is needed to shake off the outside clutter. Others never do and their art may suffer for it. It’s my view that a sense of purity and ego-force, unsullied by guilt or anger, is vital to the free flow of creativity and productive work. The result of this clarity is a steady and almost dreamlike flow of one thing after the other. Think and do. Think and do. Think and do.
Homeschooling and self-control
by Gail Nagasako, HI, USA
We homeschoolers feel that the loss of self-control starts when control by others becomes more important — either through an authoritarian parent (the preacher’s daughter is the wildest kid) or through school, where our behavior is controlled by clocks, bells and people most of our waking hours. Kids learn responsibility and self-control by being given opportunity to use those skills. In homeschooling, our children are more in control of their own lives and futures and thus are more self-directed as adults. In fact, the best universities seek out homeschoolers in part because of this way of being.
I am a former Episcopalian minister who still lives in the city I used to serve. As there are many parishioners here who subscribe to your letter I wish to remain anonymous. The idea of “relentless forgiveness” which you mention is central to many religions including Christianity. While often valuable to people of faith, unfortunately in traditional forms the idea of forgiveness is often tied up with issues of guilt and Original Sin. This takes the edge off pure forgiveness, often reaping the opposite result. Did Joan of Arc receive any forgiveness, or, for that matter, did the hundreds of thousands who were tortured to death during the Spanish Inquisition during Christianity’s darkest age? Pure forgiveness, repeated during the course of a working day by an individual, is a powerful resource that clears the way for your second solution which must surprise some — the free acceptance of (socially acceptable) temptations.
by Lane Hiers, Hopewell, VA, USA
Your incisive article about free will and self-control came at me like a sermon at a sinner. The message caused me to reflect upon decades of consequences, knowing full well free will and agency, thankfully, have limits. Since I began living sober I have practiced the first solution — my own “private equanimity” through Grace and conscious and humble gratitude for much, judging less.”
The value of workshops
by Melissa Jean, Kenora, Ontario, Canada
I think that’s why those “all-inclusive” art workshops are SO successful. All of the little decisions are taken care of… the food preparation, the transportation, the scheduling — leaving the mind free and ready to engage. I will consciously try every day to make my mornings “decision-free” to bring my better game to work, thanks to your letter. Things like making lunches the day before, not checking emails while drinking coffee, etc, etc. Getting up, pouring coffee and getting to the easel sounds easy, but will take some time to get into I’m sure, in a world where everyone is easily accessible. One all-inclusive painting trip per year would be a refreshing, energizing, and probably necessary addition to the routine.
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Undesirable morning stuff
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Your message implied that we all have a good daily supply of restraint unless we splurge it on some undesired morning stuff. So if I (as I often do) give up morning exercise and just sleep in, later in the day, having saved my daily dose of restraint, I will be capable of making great decisions in the studio. If this were true, I would be well on the road to the Guggenheim by now. Unfortunately, I have observed that there are periods of healthy restraint and creative prosperity, and periods of procrastination and slump when restraint is nowhere to be found. I think that I make better art when I am on the wagon. I take that your point was to let go of mulling over unsolvable problems and save the brain for art making.
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What do I do now?
by Leslie Martin, SC, USA
I am a long-time amateur artist and I have always had it in the back of my mind that someday I would put the time into becoming a “professional” artist, like when my child is grown or when I retire from teaching high school. As I get older I am realizing that waiting until “someday” is kind of stupid. I could die tomorrow, so why wait? Even though my time is limited now I want to devote more of it to my art. However, I find the notion of “do more art” kind of vague and overwhelming. With such precious little free time to devote to it I almost get stuck in figuring out what is important to work on because I don’t want to waste any time, but I end up not doing much at all and then thinking, “Well, what’s the use anyway… it’ll probably not amount to anything.” Now I’m thinking that what I need is more short term goals. Instead of “I want to be an artist,” I need something more concrete to work towards that could be achieved in a few months or this year. But I have no idea what that might be. So my question to you is, do you have short term goals that you work on? Is there something I’m overlooking that I could be doing to get me to that easel everyday with a purpose?
(RG note) Thanks, Leslie. Great art careers are built by those few who privately and passionately focus their energy on one work at a time. Forget long term. If you can make one relatively unshoddy piece, you can, day by day, produce an ever-improving stream. This is where art careers come from. Every year thousands of long-term idealists sign up at art schools for four years with the idea of having long-term careers as art professionals. If the system worked there would be far fewer art graduates available for the taxi-driver pool.
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The big frame-up
by Gail Bramer, Mobile, AL, USA
My gallery owner said I need to put my landscapes in plein air frames? What is a plein air frame? She also likes work to be in similar frames. I think she means a gold, flat frame. I like my work to tell me what frame it needs. Is that the norm? When I do a still life or large flowers, does that need to be framed at all if on a gallery canvas?
Money is a concern. Our market here does not warrant huge prices on art so I price my art at what the piece has cost me, what I think it is worth in this market, plus my time and the % the gallery receives. I am just in a place where the framing and getting a piece ready to hang has begun to hold me back. We have a nice frame shop that gives discounts to artists but I have begun to question my ability to pick out the right frame.
(RG note) Thanks, Gail. For commercial reasons some framers try to distinguish a type of frame that “works best” for plein air paintings. In our area this can mean black wooden frames that are gold-leafed and then hand-painted with a black wash that reveals hints of the leafing and a “classic Spanish finish often seen in museums.” This baloney varies from one area to another. When artists are framing for themselves or direct sales they need to frame, as you say, to the needs of the painting. Having said that, when working with galleries, consistent framing is all the rage nowadays and often gives shows a feeling of unity and impressiveness. But the main issue is that aware galleries do the framing for the artist, tailor it to the needs of the art or to the tastes of customers or geographic locations. Wise dealers soon learn that frames do not travel well from the artist to the dealer, and that there are two valuable advantages in doing the framing themselves — switchability, and even higher markups to be made in frames than in the art.
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The Self Beyond Itself
by Liese Sadler, Salisbury, NC, USA
To get some thoughtful revelation about free will works, pick up the new The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences and the Myth of Free Will
by Heidi Ravven. I’m a third way through some scary, mind blowing material.
(RG note) Thanks, Liese. Heidi Ravven’s book looks into modern neuro-scientific research and the brain’s capacity for decision-making — from mirror neurons, self-mapping and neuroplasticity to new understandings of group psychology.
Her research points to the social and historic influences on moral choices. Ravven shows how a good and ethical society can be created by independently responsible people. Like me, she’s a bit in love with the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who gave us a philosophy that finds surprising confirmation in modern neuroscience.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Mary Breal who wrote, “Huh? : ) That was deep!”
And also Elizabeth Bertoldi of Ontario, Canada who wrote, “Thanks, Bob, this letter really spoke to me!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Think and do…