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Make Sure To Do Nothing
To take better care of artists, we must embrace the natural rhythms of a creative practice.
Many years ago, I saw a scene in a film in which a man was sitting alone in a room staring at the wall. At some point, his partner walked in and asked what he was doing. He replied, "I'm working."
The line was intended to elicit a laugh from the audience, but that's not how it landed for me. The man, like me, was a writer. This was the first time I'd ever heard someone acknowledge the fact that thinking—or daydreaming or being still—was as much a part of writing as was the physical act of writing. It was the first time I'd ever seen someone place value on what comes before or after the visible acts of creation that everyone else acknowledges as important.
We live in a culture that prizes productivity and output above all things. Capitalism will always favor the product over the process. For those of us who make art in a capitalist society, part of coming to terms with that reality is consciously resisting and offsetting the insidious effects it has on our mental health and our creative practices. We cannot change the way the capitalist world treats us,but we can be thoughtful in the ways that we talk to ourselves and to each other.
As someone who's been lucky enough to observe the cycles in many artists' creative practices, I've long noticed that an artist's most rudderless time is often right after the closing of an exhibition, the completion of a project, or the last day of a performance. Appreciators of their work—which include other artists—often ask them, "So, what's next?" This question, though always well intentioned, is capitalism at work. It communicates to the artist that they must immediately start working on something new without leaving time to reflect on or celebrate what they've just accomplished.
What if, at these moments of completion, we asked artists, "How can I help celebrate you?" or "What are your plans for rest?"
Let me be clear that celebration and rest are not conditional upon the completion of work, obtaining a goal, or being productive in a way that is quantifiable/commodifiable by other people. This is simply one point in the cycle that we can remind ourselves of the natural rhythms of a creative practice.
Your worth is not measured by what you make.In fact, your most valuable contribution to the art world is your unique perspective, the way that only you can see through the lens of your own experience. An artist’s greatest gift is the fullness of their humanity. As such, your days spent doing absolutely nothing, as well as your days engaged in activities that have no relation to work are as important to that work as the time you spend writing grants, creating in the studio, and collaborating with other artists. Without the days that look like nothing much at all to other people, the so-called productive days aren't possible.
Just as fields need to be left fallow, artists need periods of rest (and play). They act as times of integration and regeneration without which new work cannot find you, and without which you cannot find yourself.
So, as much and as often as your life and circumstances will allow, please: rest, be still, throw a party for your last project, play. If anyone asks why you’re not working, tell them you’re doing important research for your next project.
(Though I will die trying because I'm very very stubborn.)
It’s important to note that not everyone’s rhythms are the same. Some artists might find delight and momentum in moving from one project to the next in quick succession, because it helps their motivation. Their periods of stillness or reflection may look different or come at other times.
This is one of the many reasons why I started OUT OF THE BOX. Most outlets only feature artists when they have an exhibition, furthering the impression that artists are only worth talking to when they have work to show. I don’t have a problem with this type of coverage, because it’s really useful in getting the public excited about going to see an artist’s work, but I don’t think it should be the only type of coverage that artists receive. I go out of my way to interview artists at every point in the creative cycle. In my experience, some of the most interesting and insightful conversations with artists can be had when they’re not actively working on anything.