Good Idea

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One of the hardest lessons for me when it comes to art is that it’s not always possible to take a piece that is unsatisfactory and work on it for long enough to make it good. This is counter-intuitive, especially when it comes to digital work: After all, it’s just a collection of pixels, infinitely malleable, so surely if I just work long enough the pixels will come aligned in just the right way, come together to form the incredible work of art that I know could be there. So they may, given enough time and effort, but it’s just as likely, or more so, that all that work merely serves to blur the outline that first gave it energy and potential.

At first I was hesitant to work in physical media for this reason. It terrified me to think that each stroke, each movement of the brush and each fleck of pigment, was an irrevocable decision that shaped the piece, with no undo button available. Well, I’m still not entirely comfortable with that, but it’s become more apparent to me over time that pixels aren’t so different. In theory, they are completely controllable: In practice, that is not how artwork is made, and each stroke, each randomly generated fleck, becomes part of the history of a piece, shapes its final form in subtle ways.

Though I’m speaking here in terms of visual art, the principle holds true in all forms. The words we choose matter, even if they are edited out later; the code we write matters, even when it gets refactored; the melodies that go unused, the frames that are redundant, the level that gets cut for time, these all still make their mark on the finished work. Every step we take in creating changes the creation, even those we take pains to erase – perhaps especially those we take pains to erase.

However, no stroke matters more than the first. The first motion of brush or pen, the first sentence, the first object you orient in your program, these form the shape of all that is to come. This is why there’s such a focus on doing quick works, in gesture drawing and game jams; it’s all about practicing that initial motion, so that when the time comes for polish we find ourselves polishing gems rather than turds.

Thus artists have a complex and tense relationship with ideas. The idea is the spirit of that first stroke, and placed properly it can form the basis of a masterpiece. Or, perhaps, rather than being the first stroke it might be the accent, the perfect twist that adds the character that distinguishes a work. However, ideas are in all cases worthless without the effort and mastery to put them into practice.

Additionally, the difference between an idea and the idea is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning*. Bereft of context, there’s no such thing as a good idea: It is the context within which an idea is made manifest that makes it a fumble or a master stroke. An idea is simultaneously invaluable and valueless, priceless and worthless; we write them down and hoard them because we never know which idea we will need, but also know that no idea is valuable unless it can actually be realized.

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