That’s what my father said to me. His interest in my work and praise were rare, so I wasn’t quite sure how to take his comment, “That’s the best piece you’ll ever make.” He referred to a portrait I had painted of my mother, having come up with a technique that was very innovative back when I was in high school, which was when this took place. I do believe he truly meant it as a compliment, yet after a while, the words started to sound dismissive. You’ll never do anything as good, so why waste your time?
I continued to paint and draw, pushing myself and my materials to the farthest reaches of my imagination. Time and again I would hear, “Remember that portrait of your mother? Well, I still say that’s the best piece you’ll ever make.” Okay, so my Dad really loved my mother, and I’m sure that had something to do with it too. Yet this comment touches upon something important.
[Plato and Aristotle in a detail from Raphael's The School of Athens. Plato is holding his Timaeus, a speculative scientific work and pointing upward, while Aristotle is holding one of his books on ethics. Click here to view images of the entire fresco and find out who's who.]
The results of creative experimentation are rarely easily or immediately digestible, mainly because the true explorer is seeking to discover something, rather than just render what is already known. That new thing demands of both artist and viewer an open mind, a fearless attitude, courage, patience, tolerance. If it’s new, maybe you don’t know how to look at it yet.
Over the many years of my career, I’ve frequently encountered the phenomenon of having people scratch their heads over my current work, while exclaiming they love the body of work I had finished previously. Yet that same work they now love had them mystified when it was brand new. Why didn’t you just keep doing what you were doing before? We loved those pieces! Remember when you used to do x? Why did you stop? There tends to be a predictable time lag before people are ready to embrace the new work, and it’s usually about the length of time it takes for the new work to become old, supplanted by even newer work.
For some people, their practice is about doing what they did before: making a formula, and repeating earlier successes. That’s enough.
Not long ago, someone struck up a conversation with me about art, and asked me what I was up to. “Experimenting away with a new body of work,” I explained. “It’s the most exciting part, when an idea starts to take shape, and suddenly you can make the leap over the big crevasse, and you’re on the other side — a new landscape with new possibilities!” The person’s eyes opened wide at my mention of such risk and experimentation. “I knew an artist,” he recalled, and went on to tell me how he used to travel and repeatedly purchased prints from a particular artist. But one time, he visited the artist’s studio, and saw instead sculptures and paintings. They were totally different! And terrible! Being outside of what he had narrowly come to expect from this artist, he couldn’t accept the artist’s need to explore. As far as he was concerned, the prints were the best work the artist would ever make. Dumbfounded as to why the artist would change, the collector never returned. If the artist’s work was good enough to attract the collector in the first place, it seemed unfortunate to me that the collector would not have enough faith in that artist’s talent to give the new work more than a cursory glance.
Therein lies a great challenge for the artist. There’s a temptation to repeat what works, to please the audience, to make it easy for them, get work on their walls and put food on your table. Not every artist embraces risk and experimentation. You risk making mistakes. You risk looking foolish. You risk your security. You risk harsh criticism. But then, to quote Aristotle, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, and be nothing.” I’ll take my chances.
My father worked hard and had many things to occupy his mind. I understand if my personal pursuits were not his priority, and sadly, he’s not alive to defend or explain his remarks. Still, it would have been nice if he had said instead, “That’s the best piece you’ve made yet.” Naturally, some works will shine more than others, but on the creative journey, the goal is discovery and improvement, and the best always lies somewhere in the future.