You may not have heard of Carl von Clausewitz. Back in the early nineteenth century he wrote “On War,” a brilliant treatise that is read and taught in military academies to this day. His observations were based on his experiences in the Wars of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and on considerable historical research. The book is shaped not only by purely military and political considerations but by Clausewitz’s strong interests in science, education and art.
Clausewitz said that you have to have a battle plan but the plan had better include plenty of room for the absolute certainty that the plan will start going wonky from the get-go. “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy,” said the great German general Helmuth Graf von Moltke who spent an energetic lifetime applying Clausewitz’s theories.
Clausewitz figured “strategy” belonged to the realm of art. “Tactics,” on the other hand, belonged to the realm of science. True brilliance in the field requires the blending of the two. Clausewitz was obsessive about the roles of chance, uncertainty and what he called the “fog of war.”
In our game this is the fog we get into when we can’t see ahead and are confused, disappointed and even disabled, generally through the effect of our earlier, poorly planned sorties. In war and art, courageous early sorties determine the early coup.
Clausewitz also talked about what he called the “culminating point of victory.” This is where the happy resolution is in sight. The business of battle is to get to this point, he thought. Early culminating points are better than late ones. This is one of the reasons we need to cut to the chase by laying in basic strategy early on.
His was a dialectical approach to problem solving — “if not this, then maybe that.” Improvisation overcomes what he called “friction.” Friction deranges, to a greater or lesser degree, all prior arrangements. Successful campaigns in both art and war require boldness, audacity, creativity and targets of opportunity.
PS: “Given an equal amount of intelligence, timidity will cause a thousand times more problems than audacity.” (Carl von Clausewitz, 1780-1831)
Esoterica: To see an art project in the manner of Clausewitz, we must see our canvases as fields to be organized, both in area and order of deployment. Just as you might bring up your horses later rather than sooner, you must learn to deploy resources appropriately. For example, keeping reserves of colour and tone, and finessing in the safety of the culminating point. Oh, and always keeping in mind that if you don’t pay attention, something is sure to come along and ruin your day.
Additional points from Clausewitz
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
You too are an eclectic collector of the arcane. My copy of Clausewitz is marked up in various colors, each one from a different epoch of my life as I have reread it. I first came across it in my days as a young midshipman as the Naval Academy. (How many artists have come out of that environment?)
You did leave out some important points for your audience of artists:
a. Find the critical point and focus all of your resources on it. This was Napoleon’s and Nelson’s key to success. Rothko and Beuys would apply as well.
b. Mobility; do not let the game stagnate.
c. The military (life at war in the studio) will not be victorious without the political (marketing).
by Vivian Anderson, Sydney, Australia
What sound advice. One must make things happen in life, I have found. For the longest time I worked quietly away on my own, and one day I decided to “just do it” and entered my website in my favorite Art magazine’s Encouragement Corner. This took great courage, because I am not used to being judged, but I was awarded the Winner’s Prize for my artwork and encouraged to show it locally. I never felt better. It was the pure exhilaration of having the courage to overcome my timidity. I now have lots of feedback, good and otherwise, all of which is rewarding beyond words. Thanks for putting the ‘campaign’ advice out there for we who needed courage… it works.
The 700 Billion Dollar Bag
by Rolf Räcker, Germany
I just had that very experience while I was designing “The 700 Billion Dollar Bag.” Its culminating point of victory was the day the US Senate approved the 700 Billion Dollar Bailout Bill. On that day all the parts of the puzzle slipped into the right place, the scheme of the early strategy emerged. “The 700 Billion Dollar Bag” which gives every Girl the right to cash any sum of money at any bank in the world. The bag will be offered through galleries as a numbered edition.
Courage in making and marketing
by Jim Doubleday
I think this letter on Art as Campaign applies particularly well to art marketing, as well as art making. Let’s face it, we creative types tend for the most part to be on the coy side, to the detriment of our selves and our audiences. A battle plan, with audacity in the mix is probably a healthy approach.
by Kate Lackman, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Recently, I noticed that some paintings get to an almost point. The Almost point is where you just don’t get that Wow factor. I was talking with another artist that I admire and he told me something that gave me a better understanding of what I was missing in these “almost” paintings. It is very similar to what I think Clausewitz was getting at in his treatise. My friend said, “Imagine you throw your things into the car and take off driving. The day may go fine and you may have surprising moments that create great memories. On the other hand, you may run into having no where to stay, you may get lost, or things just go awry. Now say you are going from New York to California and you make travel arrangements, book hotels to stay in, and prepare your agenda. It’s a better way to control having a good experience from the start. One could still have problems arise but they are better equipped to make the necessary decisions to strategize and improve the trip.” As artists, we are all striving to paint better paintings each time we prepare a canvas. Starting out with a plan just helps us control where we envisioned going in the first moments that made us decide to paint a particular subject.
Saving the loudest for last
by Gail Sauter, Kittery, ME, USA
I find the choice of which white is used in a painting can add extra punch in the final strokes in the canvas battle. This is the strategy I use. Use any white except Titanium White for the majority of the painting. Titanium white is the whitest and brightest white there is — save it for when you need to kick things up a notch! It’s the “loudest” gun in the color arsenal. Instead of using it for the whole painting, hold it in reserve. This will give your highlights that something extra that allows them to really stand out.
The value sketch
by Carol Jessen, St. Louis, MO/East Boothbay, ME, USA
Recently I gave a demonstration at a local art group’s monthly meeting with exactly this point; you should have a plan before you start. I brought the value sketch I had done and set it up next to my easel. It had all the basic information I needed to start the painting. But as the watercolor started to progress, I altered the tactics and adjusted a few things. A few background shapes had to be added to stop the eye from wandering off the paper. Naturally, one color would determine what color to glaze over it or place next to it. Many in the group commented afterwards that they appreciated the advice because they are often so tied to a photographic reference which contains too much or too little subject matter. The value sketch is an important aid to confident and smart painting.
Churchill on planning
by Chuck Rawle
I don’t know if you are familiar with Winston Churchill’s discourse on the subject of art and war. I have included it below. It is from his small book Painting as a Pastime:
“In battle, two things are usually required of the commander in chief: to make a good plan for his army and, secondly, to keep a strong reserve. Both of these are also obligatory upon the painter. To make a plan, thorough reconnaissance of the country where the battle is to be fought, its fields, mountains, rivers, bridges, trees, flowers, its atmosphere all require and repay attentive observation from a special point of view. So many colors on the hillside, each different in shadow and in sunlight, such brilliant reflections in the pool. In order to make this plan, the general must not only reconnoiter the battleground, he must also study the achievements of the great Captains of the past. He must bring the observations he has collected in the field into comparison with the treatment of similar incidents by famous chiefs. Not only is your observation of nature sensibly improved and developed, but also you look at the masterpieces of art with an analyzing eye… But it is in the use and withholding of their reserves that the great commanders have generally excelled. After all, when once the last reserve has been thrown in, the commander’s part is played. If that does not win the battle, he has nothing else to give.”
Buyers detect timidity
by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA
I think the notion of timidity causing more havoc than audacity is an absolute truth in the arts. My experience has led me to understand that even the most uninformed and inexperienced viewer can smell timidity and see that the artist did not approach the work with true conviction. Audacity rules the day! I plan to embrace the concept for my 2009 resolution.
Striking a balance
by Carol Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA
Your last line is supported by General Patton, who I believe said, ‘When in doubt, attack!’
People-pleasers with me included have a tough time with this concept, artistically and personally. The secret must lie in knowing how to ‘fight fair.’ We must know when to go for the big contrasts (principles) and when to stay in the middle value zones (sensitivity to others). We also must know when to yield in order to not just win the battle, and then lose the war.
Enjoy the past comments below for Art as ‘campaign’…
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 Moncy Barbour who wrote, “Remember that a lost battle does not mean a lost war. And a defeat only is reality when one gives up. Those that fear to live life never really live life at all.”
And also Mark Larson who wrote, “Successful campaigns also require adaptability, cunning, and knowing when to retreat.”
And also Helen Opie who wrote, “You say, ‘If you don’t pay attention, something is sure to come along and ruin your day.’ I’d add, ‘If you don’t pay attention, something wonderful may give a hint of its presence and be ruined instead of sought and brought out.’ ”
And also Bruce Meyer who wrote, “This letter Art as ‘campaign’ captures the dynamic of artmaking better than anything else I’ve heard or been taught.”
And also George Robertson who wrote, “Unfortunately, I all to often and too easily become faint of heart and shy away from that audacious stroke, settling instead for the comfortable line that I know will suffice. Still, it is one day at a time.”