Two separate conversations from the recent past got us thinking about how artists view their past and on-going work.

The first one revolved around showing your early drafts, your works-in-progress, your it’s-just-not-that-good-enough-yets to someone, anyone, for the sole purpose of getting feedback. Go ahead and ask any of your artist friends and they’ll likely confirm — doing that is pretty goddamn scary. Artists are often reluctant to show you their work-in-progress, and at first glance, the reason “why” makes total sense:

Great art is difficult to create.

So difficult, in fact, that bad art happens a lot. Usually — it’s unintentional. An artist, driven by desire to make something great, takes a series of wrong turns — perhaps getting too distracted with the message, unwittingly ignoring the narrative. Sometimes running out of energy and things to say, or simply burning out in the process of chasing tired ideas — unable to see that perfectionism must be applied selectively.

Bad art is more tragically beautiful than good art because it documents human failure,” says fictional Henry Letham from the movie Stay.

Behind the scenes, in the mad scientist’s lair, where tiny monsters hunt for harlequins — there’s a lot of trial and error. Scribbling on the margins, wrestling with the blank page, endless sketching and singing slightly out of tune to every newly written melody or riff… and just general “arrrrggghhhh this is terrible!!! I quit dammit! For real this time!”

Showing that process to someone is… well… far from ideal.

On the one hand — an artist wants you to enjoy whatever it is they’re creating. That usually means working, and waiting until IT has reached its full potential. Until that piece of art is primed for maximal emotional impact. And on the other hand—it’s just damn scary to show that endless trail of revisions and dead-ends to people. The Process, it seems, is not meant to be seen.

Which brings us to that second conversation, and the catalyst for this mini-essay.

A man, whom we’ll call Brian (because that is his name,) makes a tiny remark in the middle of a decidedly-not-art-related conversation. “There should be a word for artists hating their work,” he says, and those words hang briefly in the air, their gravity forcing a series of thoughts to cascade into a realization — there fucking totally is one: vanity.

A word for artists hating their work is vanity.
Mona Lisa judges you.
Vanity — a word which here means:
1. excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.
2. the quality of being worthless or futile.

Both definitions combine perfectly to give name to that feeling an artist often experiences while examining their past (and sometimes current) work.

Vanity makes us not want to show The Process. Because it’s not supposed to be this hard, is it? The far simpler, and more attractive image of a brilliant artist getting it right on the first try has permeated our collective psyche. “It comes to them naturally” is far more exciting to think about than the ten thousand hours of trial an error. Endless revisions and dead-ends aren’t sexy. The Hollywood training montage short-cutting from “beginner” to “master” is a story telling device — and that story is fiction.

And you know that thing about stories? The most important ones are those we tell ourselves.

It’s vanity that makes us hope that showing that first draft of something will result in “wow, this is brilliant!” The knowledge that it wont makes wanting to show it a fleeting feeling that usually never translates into action — and that’s not what the art needs. First drafts of anything are rarely brilliant, and they really shouldn’t be. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be complete — not at the very beginning, and in rare cases — never.

A brilliant first draft (sketch, tune) does not a talent make. Raw talent is a good start, but it’s worth less than sustained effort. It’s worth nothing by itself. Even great talent fades when left untrained.

It’s about the art, goddammit — great art! Vanity is unproductive, and people die, you know.

Great art lives on — free from its point of origin.

Showing someone your first-drafts, your works-in-progress, your it’s-just-not-that-good-enough-yets… might just make them all better. Art cannot exist in a state of vacuum. In isolation — it loses purpose. Sharing The Process makes the artist vulnerable — but it makes them a better artist. If the feedback is informed, intelligent, and the person giving it is candid and empathetic — both the art and the artist get better. By that virtue — everybody wins.

“There should be a word for artists hating their work,” says a man called Brian.

Hating your past work is also adequately explained by vanity. Because “they didn’t like it enough, I was supposed to be a tortured genius! Or something…” Artists who rely on external validation run a risk of spiralling down a maelstrom of self loathing, while simultaneously entertaining delusions of grandeur.

Hate, generally speaking, is a very unproductive emotion. It is to be avoided when examining your past work. It clouds judgement and makes it nearly impossible to do an effective post-mortem.

What did we do that worked? What didn’t? What should we try doing again? What should be avoided? Do we kill our darlings, or cut our loses? How did we manage to create bad art?

A work of art, once revealed to the world, no longer belongs to the artist.

Parting thoughts:

Music is the highest form of art. It is perfectly, absolutely abstract. It only occurs, and takes on meaning, in the human sensory apparatus — as does all sound. Even outside the state of vacuum, music only exists for as long as someone’s listening to it. When the last human on Earth draws her last breath — music ceases to exist in that very instant.

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