Technique and Aesthetic

noise

There’s a danger in getting better at things. Well, there are probably several, but I have one in particular in mind right now. As you improve in your chosen field, art or music or writing or whatever, you gain the ability to make more complex and ambitious structures work. You gain the ability to add fine detail, unexpected little twists and facets. This is a useful skill: It allows you to make things that would be unachievable by an artist with less experience.

Here’s the problem: Sometimes, those solutions? The beautiful and intricate and just-this-close to falling apart but somehow holding together works of elegance? Sometimes those are just a terrible approach to the actual problem you set out to solve. And, of course, the more work you put into creating a solution, the harder it is to give it up.

To be fair, losing sight of the problem isn’t an issue unique to the experienced, nor an issue unique to the arts. It’s more of an intellectual pandemic. If you want to see attempted solutions to problems thrown far off-track by their own complexity, look at any legal system. But I’m digressing.

Just because you can do something isn’t a good reason to do it. Just because you have mastered the hammer doesn’t mean that all of your problems have turned into nails. A work of endless and unyielding detail becomes nothing more than static. Noise without silence means nothing, detail without simplicity means nothing. You can’t have everything: At the extremes, everything and nothing lose definition and become alike.

In art, contrast is the foundation. Contrast is what defines a line, contrast is what cuts between a paragraph, contrast is what turns a noise into a note. If you always strain yourself to make the most extreme and extraordinary, it will only end up seeming dull contrasted against its own relentless grandeur. Only by including the simple and ordinary can you truly showcase your skill.

Of course, all of that is still part of your skill as an artist as well. This is the difference between technical skills and aesthetic understanding. Your technical skill allows you to make the intricate, the complex, the nuanced, the detailed: Your aesthetic wisdom is what let’s you decide when to be nuanced and when to be obvious, when to be detailed and when to be simple, when to be extraordinary and when to be mundane.

Both skills, the aesthetic sense and technical craft, are necessary: A vast technical talent can amount to nothing if what it depicts is empty of meaning, and the deepest idea is worthless as art if it can’t be expressed in a way that other people understand. Of the two, aesthetic understanding is the harder to develop. This is why we must kill our darlings: Any specific manifestation of technical skill is useless if it isn’t in service of the overall aesthetic of a work, and removing the part that doesn’t fit the puzzle is easier than removing the puzzle that doesn’t fit the part.

Some problems can’t be solved by cleverness. Useful solutions are better than clever ones.

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1 comment
  1. Tertia said:

    Nicely put…there are times I let my aesthetic take over in an unbalanced fashion and create ” selfish art,” and that’s ok, but it’s important I acknowledge it as such.

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