A few days ago a young bicycle courier brought his first five paintings around to my studio. “I’m not trying to get good,” he said. “I just want to enjoy myself in my evenings after I get off the streets.” We wondered together if it was possible to enjoy oneself as a painter without trying to get good. “Your definition of good,” he said, “may not be my definition.”
During the past few decades biologists have been noticing changes in the behaviour of wolves. They’re getting nicer. Not nearly as aggressive. Their ears no longer stand straight in anticipation of danger. Some researchers think they may be howling just for the fun of it. In captivity they can be trained to sleep with pussycats. Even in the wild, many wolves are now acting like your dog and mine.
Apparently, the same thing is happening to us. Many humans now choose to be tail-waggers. We’ve become domesticated. We’re gentler. If you’re an easy going, relaxed, fun-loving, non-competitive artist, you may be one of the breed.
It’s mainly a Western phenomenon. Less challenged by our environment, out of harm’s way and generally better off than previous generations, we’ve become complacent. Getting away from boredom in the workplace, we need only a pastime.
An estimated forty million hobby painters propel the art-materials business. Like quilting, journaling, or maintaining an aquarium, folks just do it. Quality control may be a lesser aim. Marketing is a non-starter. These days, many artists mention goals of fulfillment and personal happiness over challenge and professionalism. The play’s the game. The emphasis on inner child, return to innocence and the youth bias of the media stirs up the latent kid. Delayed maturity, in the traditional sense, is the result.
What are the possible benefits of all this puppyhood? In the arts, immaturity has become a good place to start. We need the puppy-love before we seriously fall. The work, in Bernard Berenson‘s words, is simply “life enhancing.” The downside may be chronic mediocrity, the effect of which can fan out through an entire culture. While teachers and workshoppers report daily discoveries of potential in beginners and hobbyists, many just stay put, ambition free, content to be out and about and part of a happy pack.
PS: “Ambition is made of sterner stuff.” (William Shakespeare)
Esoterica: An artist may be a lone wolf. She may occasionally run with the pack. Most often she is happy foraging on her own. She may be wily and alert to opportunity. She may know that adventure can bring out her best. There are times when she’s out for blood. There are also times when she’s as playful as a puppy.
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
I think what’s being discussed here is neoteny. How long does a particular creature stay a child? Some say that domesticated dogs are wolves that forever remain puppies. My new dog, a shepherd mix named Rosie, is very puppy-like at about 2 years old. Our cultures have become increasingly neotenous. At one time, people were marrying in their late teens, grandparents by their 40’s and often dead by 65. Today, 90 is the new 19, and we seem to maintain “the things of youth” with an enthusiasm approaching the Alpha wolf’s survivalist ferocity.
Can an artist thrive without “growing up?” Some would say that the wild spark of childhood is an absolute necessity for the artist. In view of the many forms of art, I’d not agree with that, or any such generalization. Is it more mature to market your art? Hey, it depends what you’re getting out of it. As long as the happy howl is there, it may be all the “successful” artist really needs. I recommend the film, Where the Wild Things Are, for an example of a child’s world view brilliantly processed into a story for all.
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Settling with our muse
by Barbara Ettles Carter, NS, Canada
That young courier brought the paintings to YOU, not to his grandmother; not to the lady down the street who used to put a band-aid on his knee when he fell off his bicycle when he was a kid. He brought them to a professional artist. He doesn’t want to be good? I don’t believe it. I think he hopes to be told that he (or she) has enough talent to continue and to work to be better. Sure he (or she) wants the pats on the head but a person doesn’t put paint on canvas for no reason — he wants to paint and be a painter. The self-effacing “I don’t want to be good” only deals with the possibility and in his mind maybe the probability that he is going to have his work rejected and therefore is going to feel rejected as a person. We all want to be a “Master” from the beginning — we all find out that most people succeed through hard work and perseverance. And those who reach the highest levels of success seem to be the ones who work the hardest. Weird, huh? The worst that can happen is that we learn to “settle” in our relationship with our muse. Especially the muse that tells us that we must settle for mediocrity because we just aren’t good enough. That’s a muse we must put in handcuffs, leg-irons and gags!
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Creativity a lawless activity
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
If there are artists satisfied with mediocrity, I guess this doesn’t matter. But for the rest of us it’s a very serious question: To be or not to be? Wolf or puppy? A few weeks ago I watched the documentary Man on Wire about the guy who evaded the authorities and walked a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Philippe Petit risked his life to transform himself into a work of art, literally. That was the way he looked at it. It existed only for an hour or so, and can never be repeated, but still I felt it had the spark of great art, and I started feeling something that I think I’ve always known and feared but had put away in a black box: that great art demands that we walk that wire — that we are willing to risk everything for the work. No wonder Plato thought artists were crazy and banned them from his Republic! It’s a matter of freedom vs. security.
The “divine spark of inspiration” can be a dangerous thing, dangerous to us and to those we love. How many of us have the courage (or foolhardiness) to go for it full out? — to crawl into the darkest, deepest part of the cave, like the Paleolithic painters, or walk in the air between the tallest buildings in the world? Our cowardice may make us good, decent, productive citizens — but is it also the reason we fail as artists? Or is the feeling of defeat and failure a part of being an artist — maybe a part of being alive?
On the other hand, that could all be bullshit, as several of my friends have pointed out. One reminded me that Charles Ives held onto his security as an insurance man, and yet in his spare time composed some of the greatest and most daring sounds in the history of music. Charlie Ives was certainly no puppy. There are no rules for creativity. It’s a lawless activity, and we have to make our own rules. But I think that, if we’re possessed by the demon Art, sooner or later, like Hamlet, we arrive at that question.
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Leaving validation to someone else
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA
I am feeling this point is often made when someone wants to separate the process into immediate moments. In my humble opinion the act of making art does not require value judgments except when it is an addendum to commerce. I’m not against someone earning a living making art (I try), for if more did it the world I think would be a much better place, but I don’t know if that is the pinnacle of the act, selling that is. If the act is play, and people affirm that then they are the ones who should value that process. If people take to task the difficulties in space, form, color and viewership then they are the ones who should value that. As an Artist I like to leave the difficult job of validation of my work to people who want to do that. If one is going to enjoy more economic benefits then they had better cater to economic sensibilities in one way or another. Be it Art to their taste, creating a mystery, or simply socializing as part of the process. In economic circles who is really looking for anything else? They don’t make Art they buy it.
by Gerti Hilfert, Langenfeld, Germany
Concerning hobbies, I believe that each person is an artist. It is a question of discovering the talents instead choking them at very early age by wrongly grading from teachers, perhaps parents.
Artist’s kids are mostly privileged — being raised in a special atmosphere teaches them casually playful what other persons have to study later at school or university. AND have to analyze from their ratio. The early impressions are the most important for any model. The same concerns languages, including animal language. A child raised in a healthy atmosphere with dogs or horses, for example, doesn’t have to overthink its behaviour with these species later because a clear communication has grown early enough very naturally. It doesn’t need any explanation, no reasons, no studies. It works the way it should because the basis was internalized at very young age when impressions and influences just happen – without thinking.
If we manage to live more in the Now instead worrying about any definition or grading we would be much happier and healthier. See Eckhart Tolle The Power of Now.
We cannot change past or future. But as long as we live in positivity, respect and responsibility for the present moment we can change the future today.
Exposure to art
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
Nearly every adult can drive a car but that doesn’t make all of us Dale Earnhardt. It is all about goals. Do I want to enjoy a leisurely drive or beat everyone else to town? Both taxi drivers and NASCAR champions earn compensation.
Humans are artistic by nature otherwise we would never have progressed past hunters and gatherers. We dream, we solve problems, and we seek: art is not just a life vocation for the truly driven but can be an enjoyable pastime for others. How is that not positive? Hobbyists do not take from the gifted but are bypassed by those who truly excel. Often, those who try their hand at art are more appreciative of real talent and become patrons and buyers.
I wish art appreciation were taught from early education through high school rather than an occasional field trip to the local art museum. This same class of children after ten years of exposure to art will pause and be able to give a more balanced reaction to any work of art.
Striving to improve
by Richard Mason, Howell, NJ, USA
“I’m not trying to get good,” “I just want to enjoy myself.” I think the artistic gene pool has become contaminated because of this attitude. I don’t want to be relaxed, fun-loving and non-competitive. I prefer challenge and professionalism. There are far too many mediocre paintings flooding the market place. As for me, I want to become a good artist. When I feel complacent about a painting and not care what others think of my work it will be time to put away the brushes and take up something that doesn’t drive me to constantly strive for improvement. Ambition is not a bad thing. I think it’s the only thing. It’s great to have fun and enjoy yourself but I believe you can do that and still strive to improve.
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by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I remember asking a friend of mine after she told me she left Ballet school in Paris and gained 40 pounds, “Were you any good?” She said, “Of course I was good, but I just couldn’t make it to the next level.”
Being an artist can be intimidating. Everyone seems so talented and confident. You try to express yourself and carve out a niche for your work. But what is selling is not necessarily “good.”
I would say the best thing to try and be when you’re an artist is, “Always try and be better.” No matter what, keep creating. I know more artists who are waiting for a grant, or waiting for a gallery to sign them or just waiting and yet they have little or no inventory. They haven’t done anything in years because they are fed up with this and that. You have to paint like nobody is watching and do it like you don’t need the money! I am about to open my latest exhibition in less than two weeks. While the paintings are lined up on my studio floor like little soldiers, I am confident this is going to be a good show. But I know my work can always be better. Being good is just a state of mind.
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by Skip Van Lenten
I think you might be wrong when you say the downside to “Perennial Puppy Syndrome,” as you call it, may be “chronic mediocrity… which can fan out through an entire culture.” There will always be people who rise above the pack, and stand out as a superior example of what human beings are capable of becoming, but that does not mean that the rest of humanity labors in mediocrity. I think the young courier had it right, “Your definition of good may not be my definition,” and who is to judge anyway? The point of art is self-defined. It is not necessary to become a professional if the aim is simply to enjoy the process of creating something, and the quality of the finished product (assuming money is not involved) is ultimately the artist’s to judge. It doesn’t matter if we come in last, as long as we ran a good race, and enjoyed the personal satisfaction of having reached the finish line.
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by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I used to be very cutthroat in my career and very competitive. About 5 years ago, I gave up my climb to fortune and fame and turned to my easel to work. I have focused only on painting for awhile now, not concerning myself with what is going on in the art scene. I guess you could say I have become a tail wagger, nicer to other artists and so forth. The result has been surprising. My work has grown tremendously and so has respect from other artists, museums and opportunities. Perhaps the tailwaggers have something going here.
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Never enough energy
by Tony Wetherington
I live in Eastern North Carolina, and actually have never been very far from home. Local artists here were hard to find, and mostly if they had talent, they moved away as fast as they could to seek a Professional Level of Education and exposure. I didn’t have those options. So, I stayed here. And I worked with my art. During all these years I never sold but just a few pieces, because, I was never good enough. I never was ‘enough.’ Never had enough education, background, degrees, etc. I worked for a small community college for a long time helping others learn basic academic skills. This drained me to the point I didn’t have “enough” energy to paint. Three years ago, I had a major heart attack and open heart surgery which left me still without enough energy… for much of anything. So, I had to quit work in order to return to WORK… at 50. I don’t have a bank account, and live on a very small social security disability income. We often have to lose the world in order to gain it.
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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 Catherine Thornton of Cary, NC, USA, who wrote, “Puppy syndrome could be very dangerous, if, like an oil spill, it spreads into the hearts of every artist around.”
And also Marti O’Brien, who wrote, “Perennial Puppy Syndrome has comforted me somewhat as I have been feeling guilty for not taking my art more seriously. After reading this letter I feel much better in just enjoying myself.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Perennial Puppy Syndrome…