This post tackles the conundrum: can a creative being–say, just for example, me–express themself–say, just for example, myself–without the super-ego (commonly known as the boogie-man critic)–say, just for example, mine–interfering?
What is the deal with my super-ego? Is there a part of my personality so starved for work that the minute I start on something new it feels that it’s job is to tear the hell out of it?
Even as I write these words my boogie-man is busy reminding me that this is a dumb subject, and no one will read it anyway. What a bummer even before I’m two paragraphs in.
OK, boogie man, three.
Lately I have been “producing” re-cycled art with polyform clay. See photo.
A friend who owns an Etsy store turned me onto this. So first, the boogie-man points out, it is not a form that I invented. I “borrowed” it. Second, it adds, my lines are not even and I run out colors before I finish, therefore the pieces are artistically unbalanced. My critic could go on and on….
This is a lightweight version of the critic. When she really gets going she wakes me in the middle of the night and broadcasts, in my brain only, a documentary that reviews everything I said or did wrong in my project, featuring how I forgot this and that or I said that and should have said this. It wouldn’t be so bad if the criticism was the least bit constructive, or was broadcast at an hour when I could distract myself with something useful. It isn’t and it isn’t. Whatever I did was not good enough; will never be enough; and that’s because I’m not good enough. And I will never be.
You could call it a habit of mind. Time and time again I remember that it is my responsibility to curb this meanie, and sometimes I do a good job. But I have to be vigilant. Sometimes she changes her voice, or hacks into the mainframe with a new set of passwords. And sometimes she runs a documentary about what a shit job I do handling her.
In my early 40’s I was a young mother. I was working through mothering issues with my child, and mothering issues with my mother. I was having powerful dreams. I started painting my dreams to understand them better. I painted big canvases for a couple of years–producing about twenty of them. They were non-painterly, meaning I didn’t care about brush control or medium manipulation but just about getting my images onto the canvas. I thought they were brilliant. I managed to capture the feeling of the dreams, unafraid and directly.
But then–I am an extrovert, after all–I wanted others to see them too. I wanted others to think they were amazing, too; and I wanted them to want get to know me because I created the art. So my “art” was not only an opportunity for me to work through my confusing relationship to mothering; it was an opportunity to be seen by others.
It is one thing to create your work and it is another thing to share it. Sharing it puts you into the world of Art. Capital A, Art.
In the world of Capital A Art, the fact that the shade of green you chose is the perfect color to convey the feeling in a dream does not matter. The world of Capital A Art cares about media, skills, techniques, perspective, line, practice–based on standards that have evolved during the whole history of Capital A Art.
Years ago, my brothers and I went to the Museum of Modern Art–MOMA–in New York. A man named Cy Twombley (Dave Barry, I am not making this up) was one of the featured artists. Here is one of his pieces.
At the time I couldn’t, and even today I can’t, find anything that makes the smallest amount of sense to me. But…oooh, ahhh, there it is in the MOMA so he’s gotta be good, right? There must be something I didn’t understand.
But I wonder: did Cy Twombley wake up in the middle of the night and say, “oops, I did one curlique too many?” Did his evaluation make his creativity a double-edged sword- one where he enjoyed the process of creating, but hated the process of evaluating?
So is a painting a painting if no one is there to see it?
I recently lead a two-and-a-half day music workshop. It’s one of the things I do for a living. The workshop, something called TaKeTiNa, demands many skills–among them an understanding of rhythmic structures, competence in playing an instrument–the berimbau, a difficult-to-play single stringed instrument from Brazil–and most important, the ability to gauge the group and move them through the material at the right pace, and with the right rhythmic calls.
I was happy with the workshop except for one part. That one part wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t up to a standard that I held. This one part influenced my feeling about the entire workshop. The participants reported meaningful, transformational experiences. I saw the progress that they had made. Yet, I was left with the sour feeling of having failed to deliver what I had wanted to deliver. And even if I had been 100 percent spot-on in every moment, and felt good about what I’d done, I’m sure that I would have been criticizing myself for feeling better about my work than I had the right to feel. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t .
How do I live with this super-critic? I’m not against criticism. In every art there are reasonable criteria, whether fully articulated or not, that reflect standards of competence. But then there is my super-critic who ignores or dismisses everything that turns out well and who turns anything that might be constructive into punishing annihilation. That is not playing fair!
And then, there is also the drive to create, and through the creation, to exist. There is the ego who like a small child says, “Mom! Hey Mom! Look at me! Look at what I did!” Beneath my occasional childish desires for adulation, fame, and riches, is a deep yearning to create something of lasting value for it’s own sake. And here is the gift: in my most brilliant moments of creation, while teaching or performing, the ”I” disappears and only the teaching is left in the room, instructing me as well as everyone else.
I will continue to balance on this tightrope between creativity and criticism.
No matter how much Monday morning quarterbacking might ensue, and no matter how much I want to be seen and witnessed, the moments of grace/presence allow for the possibility of something beyond praise or blame. The moment is the moment is the moment. It is enough.