Self Destruction and Why It's Good for Artists
I was recently in a small airport in Mexico, waiting on, what turned out to be a cancelled flight when I met and started chatting with a lovely couple from Houston, Texas. It was a much more entertaining way to pass the time and the conversation had me reflecting on my thoughts as an artist. They have a daughter pursuing a degree in visual arts at a university in New York, photography specialization. I applauded them for being such supportive and positive parents, for not only allowing their daughter to study her passion, but also for being so enthusiastic and genuinely interested in learning about the artist life. They posed a question to me, “She is such a perfectionist. She keeps working on a piece, but how does an artist know when it's done?” I nodded my head. I understood exactly what they were talking about. I was that person.
My answer.... “As an artist, you have to be OK with destroying your own work. You need the confidence that you can create again, and again, and again.”; creation and destruction, and in essence, destroying what the artist self created.
Sometimes an artist will push a work of art too far (and we know it when it happens), but that's good. We need to know where that line is. Too often, we don't go far enough, out of fear that we'll overwork a piece, so it can lack a confidence, a conviction, a statement. And sometimes, a piece may be done for the moment, but later, I realize, I can, in fact, do more with it. I call these transformations “Make-overs”. Sometimes, a painting just needs a little face lift later on, if you will. Sometimes, the change needs to be more dramatic; the piece gets a new coat of gesso and it's original existence is erased. Or the canvas is cut up and repurposed. Or it can be a cathartic release of frustration to slash away at it.
The artist needs to be comfortable with looking at their own work objectively, practising the act of dettachment and unattachment. It's not easy. It's like looking at your baby and realizing that maybe she's not the prettiest thing in the world, or he's not as bright and you originally thought. But, with a painting, the artist can get rid of it, as heart wrenching as the act can be. The first finished piece that you destroy yourself is probably the most difficult. We put our heart and soul into our art, there is always a piece of ourselves each production, so in a way, it is a form of self destruction.
Fellow artist, Darrell Frank, set fire to a pile of his artwork. This is a portion of his art portfolio that was destroyed.
But, fear not! With the practice of detachment and unattachment, the psyche of the artist is not completely messed up. (Artists will always be a little messed up, but that's what makes us charming). The ability to be objective with ourselves ,and our art, opens us to not take things so seriously, including our art. Afterall, what I do, in simple terms, is make 'things' (beautiful 'things', 'things' that make others happy), 'things' that inspire, I hope!). To look at ourselves from an outside perspective allows for a critical and analytical discussion to happen, and hopefully, progress and improvement. This is merely a mental exercise with material impact.
I encourage artists to practise creating and destroying. After a while, it gets easier, then it can actually be fun, and liberating. Sometimes, like in life, it's better to just start again.