Some artists want credit for every note, brush stroke, or word. Others see themselves as instruments of random instructions from the ether. For every Elizabeth Bishop, Bridget Riley, or Johann Bach there is a Charles Bukowski, Sam Francis, or John Cage. But most artists land between extremes, negotiating control and surprise anew each time, hoping to make peace between intentions and possibilities along the way.
I’m no Frank O’Hara or Jackson Pollock. I appreciate spontaneous, idiosyncratic expression, but hoping perspective and voice will carry me through every project—that just being myself and “doing what I do” will be enough—brings me face-to-face with my finitude. I imitate myself. The accidental becomes incidental, the choice becomes a choice, another manifestation of familiar, eventually parodic, technique.
It’s hard to imagine Hemingway writing without his characteristic economy—and the influence of his style is impossible to measure—but I’ve long suspected his voice was his undoing. Artists working in a personal mode chafe against it eventually. After a career of writing spare, imagistic poetry, William Carlos Williams turned expansionist. Each time others settled on a definition of Picasso’s approach, he looked anew. I’d rather not be myself all the time.
Yet exclusive attention to innovation, improvisation, and play—to being someone different each time out—seems no answer either.
This summer, I’ve been fooling around with iOrnament, an app for iPad. It works with the various forms of symmetry (apparently, there are mathematically only seven—who knew?), and the program allows anyone to transform a simple design into something dramatic as one basic line or shape or form or space radiates, mirrors, reverses, flips, and proliferates. I’ve experimented endlessly, playing “What if?” with bright or dull, variably saturated, thick and thin, blurry and sharp lines. I’ve tried something new with every attempt and created interesting fabrics and/or wrapping paper. Each time I’ve asked how much is me and how much is iOrnament making it easy to shake out possibilities until something hits. In other terms, what do I learn?
Paradoxically, taking a new route each time out can become as safe and devastating as using your one voice and one perspective. Improvisation excuses me from deliberation or consequence.
At her readings in the eighties, one of my poetry teachers used to crumple her work up and toss it at her audience, shouting, “Poetry to throw away! Poetry to throw away!” The audience obliged. The difference between innovation and gimmick is a lasting result, repeatability that opens new and viable roads of expression—new ways of doing—instead of achieving pure novelty.
I like looking at what I produce on iOrnament but never feel responsible for it.
In the memoir Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, Mark Salzman describes his high school experimentation with Jazz cello, his (often high) application of years of cello instruction to produce wild and brilliant (at least from his perspective) musical inventions. After a summer of relentless noodling, his nearly infinitely patient social worker father puts an end to the noise in a moment of released fury, finally calling Mark’s music what he hears, “Bullshit.”
Progress in art means recognizing what happened last time, avoiding it, extending it, amending it to locate something fresh. I’m not sure what will happen to all I’ve produced in iOrnament other than decorating this post and stuffing the memory of my iPad. Eventually, I’ll have to decide what’s worth keeping and what the program teaches me, what it might help me do with my real art.
An artist who studies his or her work may seem to violate spontaneity and creating “in the moment,” but anyone initiating inspiring (and not so inspiring) approaches stretches to greater altitude. Focusing and developing talents, an artist diversifies techniques and adds to the range of methods available and discovers how to apply them.
Be relentlessly yourself or run away from yourself—you become stagnant either way. Look for a way to incorporate experimentation, you make what you learn a part of you.