The Idea Of The Thing


Something I’ve learned anew with each new medium I tackle is that, as much as the breadth and reach of human imagination is amazing, imagination is terrible at the details. Starting out, when one has an idea for a piece to create, it’s nice to imagine that it’s all planned out, set out and mapped in the mind, immaculate and ready to manifest. It’s a nice illusion, isn’t it? The truth is, whatever is constructed in our mind is a summation of symbols and shorthand, a patchwork cardboard cutout version of an actual artistic creation. When you try to draw that out, to sketch an image of it on a pad or to turn its tones into notes and instruments or to codify its behavior into a set of rules, you quickly spot the holes in what you believed you had imagined to completion.

The trick is, when we look at something in our mind it’s constantly changing shape. If you notice a part of it isn’t detailed enough, the very act of noticing makes that detail take shape, while still adding nothing to the completion of the image overall.

This is why everyone says ‘idea men’ are useless. Everyone has ideas, and most of them are skeletal and, in many cases, self-contradictory. It’s the job of artists and engineers to fill in that skeleton. Okay: This may seem obvious. But my point is that, contrary to the conception of the idea as being the model of the piece with all the work going into realizing that model, the idea is more like a note scribbled on a napkin – even if it’s your own idea – even if you think you’ve thought of everything – it’s an illusionary completion, and the more work you put into it the more holes you’ll find in the surface that once seemed perfect, smooth, pristine.

Our imaginations are so robust that they imagine themselves to be more complete than they are.

Here’s the upshot. If you haven’t actually done the work of being an artist, if you haven’t tried to take your idea and turn it into something substantial, you, to be blunt, basically don’t know shit about your own idea. If there was a machine that could reach directly into your mind and translate what you’re thinking into a real solid object, to record your thoughts directly to a film reel, it would be an incomprehensible mess. That’s what thoughts are! That’s what all of us start with! And, if you had this miracle machine, if you practiced with it day after day, maybe you could make the stuff that comes out of your brain start to take the shape you want, the shape you thought you were imagining. Maybe, eventually, you’d have something you could share with everyone else. And in the process of creating this, the way you see the world would start to change – you’d notice more, analyze more, interpret more…

That’s art. That’s 80% of the work right there, filling in those gaps, figuring out the little details, making everything solid, consistent. The rest is just mechanical, all in the wrists and the ankles, a list of facts and formulas, a bunch of friends and connections, and/or a budget. Depending on your medium.

If you haven’t tried actually creating something, instead of just thinking about how amazing the thing you could make would be if you made it, I recommend it. It will change you. It will make you realize, in a way you simply cannot if you don’t try yourself, both the incredible patchy shallowness of imagination and its indescribable reach and flexibility.

Whether you end up actually creating anything, in the end, is incidental.

  1. loggolag said:

    If I say that I have always been thinking the same I would seem obvious, wouldn’t I? But this is actually what you tried to explain, I guess: I had the thought but I never tried to write it down because it was too difficult. right Now I am trying as hard as I can to keep a simple blog, nothing funny or interesting to read, don’t bother taking a look, and I am experiencing the same thing. Anyway, day after day it is getting better, and I don’t need anybody’s attention (I have none) to be aware of my improvement. Keep working!

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