Friday, July 3, 2015

ART ESSENTIALS: Arrogance! (and Doubt)

by Greg Ruth

The conceit of making art is commonly a tightrope walk between the two valleys of Arrogance and Doubt. Crossing successfully to the other side insists we both engage and temper each of these to form a directed passage through the treachery of creating a work so we can turn at the other side of the journey, look back and see what we have done with clear eyes and a distinct vision. There's many teachers, critics and peers that will discourage hubris, or arrogance in making art, but I would argue both are absolutely essential to the act. While this whole premise is an exercise in extremism to make a point, the real purpose here is to recognize the inherent need to be big and bold when making your work. That you can be internally arrogant without being rude about it outwardly. Whenever we make our work we are presuming our own notions of how we see the world, onto the world, and rather than look at that as a negative I want us to take a moment to see it as an essential good. Doubt too must always be present and must at times lead the journey for the journey to fin it's best possible end. It's an affected thing to reduce the creative process like this, but it helps to whittle down something so big and effervescent into something overly reductive so we can grow it back to its needed size. So bear with my doubtful hubris, and don't be afraid to disagree with any of it. 


Geronimo rallying the tribes from INDEH
Arrogance- or if you prefer, simple chutzpah- is the primary force in making art, and has to be present for the act of art-making to even begin. Essential to every artist, and secretly delighted by all. Arrogance plays an essential role in the life of an artist. It like all measures and vehicles for the exploration of art can go too far and not far enough of course, but unlike other aspects of the nature of art, this is not one of choice. It is inherent in the act- a phenomenological Thing in Itself. We must court and dance with arrogance both when we make art and when we present it publicly. (Personally I hold to sculptor Toshio Odate's insistence that art has a requisite public aspect to it or else it ceases to be art and instead is more an act of private self indulgence. He often cited the idea of a tea cup filled with ostentatiously large holes: place it on a pedestal and its art waiting to be filled with the un-spillable ideas applied by the viewer, keep it secreted away in your cupboard and its just a terribly useless teacup.)

The act of making art is largely the enactment of creating something that no one else has made, clothed in the voice of an artist presuming he or she has something interesting to offer. It has for it a bar set above the usual mundane concerns of everyday life. Art neither nourishes, clothes or shelters us. It is scorned by those lacking a vision to appreciate it for this reason entirely. Like love in many aspects art is unquantifiable and ineffable. How then can one justify making something that is not inherently functional? How can one craft such a thing with the arrogance to presume it is despite these practical claims, worth bothering with? How dare one make such a presumption. It relies upon a near hubristic ego mania to presume that one vision, the artist's vision is both worth the time to craft the piece and worthy of occupying some of the limited time of the viewer, reader or audience. The artists demands of the viewer to be seen, his/her works are, as their first purpose, demanding of attention. They have to be. Art is the ignored quiet child in the back of the classroom that has to raise its hand, stand and deliver even and especially so, if no one else in the room assumes it has anything at all to say. Art requires convincing of others to engage with it, it sells itself and demands of others something even willing participants must be coerced into bestowing. Time and attention, observation and consideration. Further to insist upon others to forfeit money that would be otherwise used for the more tangible needs of survival, art is committing a distinct act of salesmanship. It's convincing to squirrel to disregard the nut in favor of a bauble it doesn't actually need to survive winter, but wants anyway. It takes a good measure of arrogance to pull off such an audacious trick. it takes even more to presume others won't see it as such.

In the making of art, the artist has to adopt and hug his or her own braggadocio about what they may be making. The marks and strokes, chisels strikes and smudges on a flawless and beautifully clean surface are a complete expression of this. To look upon it and decide it is not complete until the artist sullies its uniformity with a mark takes a good deal of swagger, whether we know it or not. A level of controlled arrogance can give us the confidence that's required to take us into new directions, or to find succinctly our voice as creatives people. Arrogance taken too far creates that opposite. If we neglect a measure of taming our own hauteur, we shrink and become less expansive. Less observant and clear. Less capable. We as artists must be brave within ourselves at this stage in order to dig deeply and find what it is we intend to express- whether its music, dance painting or film. Arrogance can be a comfort and a guide when we're lost in doubt,. It can be a beacon for us when there's no other reason to get up and work again. It whispers in our ear that we have something worth saying, that it matters and that it's important even when there is no outside support to help us do this. More important still when we are faced with outright discouragement for doing it at all. Arrogance fuels us to pick up and try again when we inevitably fail at our craft. it nudges us forward to stand in a room of strangers and tell them why it matters, and why it's important they pay attention to what we're doing. It fuels us in a publishers office when we sit across from an editor having invented some pretend world, or invented idea we expect and hope they will pay us to bring to life. To stand in an opening inside a gallery receiving visitors to see what imaginary joys we have pulled from our personal sandbox. Arrogance insist to us secretly its own essential nature even when we are being scolded for it from others. The opposite of course is death to the act of making art. So we must, we have to embrace arrogance as a requisite tool of our trade. Tame it, bridle it and mount it, never forgetting who is the horse and who is the rider.


Walt in the grip of the Shadows from THE LOST BOY
Doubt is the other basic essential pole of artmaking. it's not the opposite of arrogance, but it is the countervailing force that can rescue us from arrogance's foulest temptations. Out apprehensions about ourselves drive us to pause and question our choices. left unchecked it can suffocate us into atrophy and surrender, but harnessed and used to its full measure, doubt can deliver us from the fiery pits of self indulgence and claim alterations and directional changes that we otherwise might have to rely upon our audience to deliver. if they bother to. Where arrogance dutifully lies to us, doubt can be a source of honesty. It is the quality of making work that allows us to rise up and out of the place from in which we are making something so that we may see it, observe what's working and what isn't.

Doubt can be our guardian in the strictest Castanedan sense that can swiftly become a guard. Once protector now jailer, doubt can be allowed to flourish too wildly undermining our essential bravado in making work and presuming we have something to say about it. Doubt, while not the primary element, delights in utilizing more tools of trickery and deception to get its way. Like Arrogance doubt is a creature that wants to eat the world. Controlling it, harnessing it is, like with arrogance, an act of throwing a lasso over a tornado and riding it towards a new horizon. But never forget its desire is to consume, and so it must be always left hungry, chained and controlled or it will engulf everything in you. It even has the audacity to express itself as pride, for what is false modesty but disguised arrogance and self importance? Doubt subverts arrogance and uses it to make its own ends come to be. It can choke off your ability to see your own work, to make new work, to branch into new territories and experiment with new ideas. When let loose upon your world it can fill you with so many questions as to grind to a halt the artist's ability to think at all. It can prevent the artist for failing to stand up and make a case for his or her work, to bypass opportunities to do so and to receive praise and accommodations for the work the artist makes. It is tricky business indeed, dangerous and treacherous filled with the promise of more failure than success. But this is where arrogance come sin to pick up the pieces and sidle onward. When properly controlled doubt is your own personal editor and navigator. Incertitude can keep us honestly on the path arrogance fuels us across and is what can allow us to open ourselves to new interpretations and understandings of what we're trying to do. Doubt can be arrogance's needful bridle, and the disquiet it brings later can save us from a thousand pitfalls and elevate us higher than we deserve.

As a recent example... In making INDEH for example, both of these comes into full and daily play with each other. Presumptuously assuming I could sit down with Ethan who had spent more than a decade writing and building a library of facts and narratives on the subject of Geronimo and the Apaches, and scuttle it all mixing and remixing it together into a new story demanded a level of arrogance and doubt on an unprecedented level. Taking on as an anglo this native story, with all its abuses co-optings and betrayals insists upon the presence of both. Sitting down and drawing, shaping and writing the book with Ethan, allowing for that creative intimacy to full unfold and to take that direction it demands of us both to paper and ink, could not happen without both. Daring to then convince others it is worth reading or taking their food money to buy it, to go out and do press and interviews about it pretending confidence when there may be none could not occur without a hefty mixture of doubt and arrogance.

I can no more express the idea of artistic ego without including in some form the dance between these two aspects. I don't think any artist successful int heir career, can. The world insists we rise up and do so humbly, and celebrates it while scorning it at the same time. Arrogance can shield you from the sneers and jealousy of others where doubt wishes to feed, and doubt can throw needed water on the raging egotistic fires of arrogance non stop praise creates. Moderation in all things is considered the acceptable ideal, but in making art, moderation is death to creativity. We must be bipolar and manic in our wild swings between doubt and arrogance if we're to survive the journey, and even to enjoy it. Art should be a wrestling match and a battle we wage upon ourselves if we are to exact it's highest aspirations. As long as you remember to hold the reins return to the saddle and control the swings, you will surprise yourself with what you come up with in art and in life, even enough one hopes, to give it another try and show it to others again. And again.


  1. I imagine we could have a semantic debate on the word arrogance. My thoughts are arrogance is that supreme confidence taken too far. Taken to the point of; everyone else is lower than I am. An arrogant person sees himself as always on top and a confident person will work to stay on top. But whatever the word we choose your point is excellently made again Greg. The book of Greg.

    1. I originally swapped it out for "chutzpah", but it just didn't have the same edge to it. It is a bit of a device, no doubt, and to be honest I am still not sure of it being exactly the right word here. I think you can hone arrogance into a personal bravado in the studio that isn't the same as walking around town like Burgermeister Mesterburger. At least that's what it is in the Book of Greg.

  2. I've had similar thoughts trying to look at my own work. I need to detach from how precious this thing I just spent a week on has become and just look at it coldly with eyes that are ignorant to how much I want it to succeed.

    But... for the artwork to not feel careful and controlled to the point of neutered, I need to execute it fully believing that I am a badass that cannot make a mistake.

    Its a weird gear shift.

    1. White knuckling it is a sure way to kill it. Pretending you're a badass is the shortest distance to Badass-istan, (a country rarely visited, never settled, but always - hot property most aought after). Arrogance is essentially the lie we tell, ourselves that fuels us towards keeping on. And really keeping on is the goal. Each piece you execute is msrely a step,towards the next one. If you have to lie a bit to get the wheel moving, then i say go for it. Truth is far less valuable at the end than a success is, and sometimes if you're lucky, the thing works even despite your not understanding why.

  3. Excellent read again. I have always found it amusing how rapidly the two feelings can cycle. Personally I am finding it helpful to reserve different tasks for different moods. When I'm feeling like shouting from the rooftops how damn awesome I am, that's the time to get nose to the grindstone and keep working. When the doubts creep up asking me if I would like to buy hey aren't you a total fraud insurance, then it's a good time to generate thumbnails and ideas, and return to the navel-gazing school of art. I U.S. To think the cycle would level out, but the more professionals I talk to, the more it sounds like it's just about learning how to yoke both ends and somehow use the resulting zigzagging path to keep heading forward.

    1. I am sorry to report that, at least for me, it just gets harder. The stakes just increase in your life, and I think that drives the cycle upward. When I was in my twenties, happy to have rent raised by the third week of the month and no one else to think about. Now in my ancient forties, two boys, wife and mortgage and car payments and time ticking away... it just gets worse is all. The more you care, the more you freak out. Better to know it now!

      But it truly is about learning to lasso and bridle the wild horses. You don't want to kill them, or ignore them because these crazy parts are the pillars of your creativity, but taming and using that force can rocket you forward to places you never dreamed of.

  4. I suggest you read the studies at Stanford University about the relationships of manic depression and creativity: