Artist, do not despair
On pursuing excellence and mastery with limited time
There are a plethora of articles here and elsewhere that basically read like “self-help” for the creative soul. Not to say that there is anything essentially wrong with that. But at some point, the narrative of our personal existence must face an end; whether we arrive at achieving mastery in the craft that has called us, or not.
And therein lies the rub.
All the time that you steal away, whether in your studio or your makeshift workspace, moves you towards a purpose, you might say. You want to make more polished videos. You want to fuck up that first novel so you can approach the third or fourth one more skilled, and hopefully a little wiser. You steal away your precious time, to the deafening the cries of a —
Ah, time! Going about making a film, or writing a novel, or teaching yourself underwater Aztec basket weaving — is admittedly a selfish thing, no? Yes, but enough philosophizing you will also say.
Time is a rude awakener. We are indisposed to what consumes us by habit, and more often than not, I will concede, to the self-helpers — everything might be, more or less, the beginning of a habit. You take up smoking or you take up jogging. You take up writing or you take up talking to a shrink. Or you get a cat. Hopefully, you grasp the idea.
Virtue, that stuffy word of Antiquity, was a big idea in Greek intellectual and moral life. Its heaviness of meaning even carried into Medieval times. But it is an ancient idea that still holds sway today. Virtues, which are strengths or excellences of character, can really be thought of as pure habit, the ancient Greeks tell us. Habituation crowns the chronic smoker with poor lungs. It also crowns a man a master of a purely artistic vocation, say like Marlon Brando or the best hotdog maker on Coney Island. Rather than get super anal-retentive here, and underscore this idea with, yes, because Marlon Brando and the greatest hotdog maker worked on acting and dishing up hotdogs every day, we ought to meditate on another key idea. And by the way, Brando, although a great actor, had his own habitual defects.
Habit will lead us to excellence or mastery. But habituation asks us to enforce our will power, every day, incrementally getting better at painting, or music-making. We cannot really boil it down to day-by-day, or minute-to-minute. That is too atomic, and dare we say, too modern a way to look at the time we invest in habit. Habit consumes our limited time here on earth. Therefore the higher law here is consistency. You may, for instance, become habitually better taking an acting workshop every month or so. Just as well, you may also become habitually better at sculpting clay if you dedicate 20 minutes every day, without interruption. Holidays fuck off! It is the quality of your time spent that will matter most. And the quality comes back to who you are. Who are you to seek mastery in something that the world may not need? To make music? To shoot a film?
In order to maximise our time, we must have three rude awakenings that will tiptoe us between the moving world of necessity and desire. It’s not necessary that you become a great or even a good painter. It’s not necessary, either, that you achieve a level of prowess with the brush, and produce work that earns you enough of a livelihood to quit your day job, as well. (And nobody really needs another Stephen King novel, either). No, that is not a joke.
We are less concerned about why we do what we love, than how we might multiply our time; how we can steadily walk towards a more complete vision of our life’s work, despite our artistic calling being a mystery to us. And if you are an amateur, you certainly love what you do; but at the same time, you profess no mastery. And if you are a hobbyist, then mastery is out of the question.
So kindly stop reading; these words will be meaningless to you.
Our three rude awakenings amount to:
Art is by nature purely unnecessary
But the paradox is that it is meaningful. Common sense tells us that the world is imperfect. A fractured narrative, a drama of the tragedy of human life whose balm may be Christianity, or Hinduism; a heady philosophy, or conversely a more pleasureful way-of-life.
Art can only be meaningful in an imperfect word; consider that the Mona Lisa would be better savoured after seeing a trashcan spilt out from the streets — than if you were instantly escorted to see her on her bright wall.
Time management systems are basically useless
Are you going to create more complexity in your day? Look, I’m an admin by day, and if you stare at a spreadsheet long enough, I tell you, you will arrive at a level of organisation — and to such a degree — that it will rival the good foresight of an honest-to-god tealeaf reader.
But we must remember the big picture. See ourselves for who we are — our creative work serving to nourish meaning in our lives; seductive enough to rob us our limited time on earth. Desire, impulse — passion to create art in a world that does not require it of us. Our partners, family or even boss may be perplexed as to why we retreat as soon as we can to work on something not necessary in our day. But instinct tells the artist that he or she must be ruthless with time, if only to get one more brush stroke in before lunch.
You may ask, “Who is this Jean-Luc Godard to command our attention?” “War and Peace to warrant a reading or even two?”
“Who are these directors, Spike Lee or Herzog, to command a viewing of their so-called (and well-deserved, we may even say) cinema?”
And yet, whether the world wants our works or not; we must confess to ourselves how we have spent our counted time, applying ourselves to the craft that has chosen us. Least not, we are yet liable to account for the phenomena of their being masters at all! For you see, there are mortal men and women who not only found the reason, but also the time to achieve a deep level of understanding, and master their craft. They are wise to exhort us to the thought:
Consider that you will die
But you will. We cannot refute this. As time managers we must be ready to greet Death confidently — boldly — when she arrives, knowing that we lived out the virtue of working steadily on our craft. (Even Proust kept editing until the end; what a beast!)
Death has little opinion whether we soared the heights of Beethoven’s composition in life, or if we ever arrived at Picasso’s level of mastery. She will not wait for the final draft of anything. She is the final editor-at-large.
So Artist. Do not despair.
Remember who you are, a mortal with a taste for the Infinite. And brood ye not. For life is urgent. And Art is True. And we must conquer our limited time through habit.
Your thoughts? How do you conquer your time daily?