Tidy: Friend or Foe?

Tidy: Friend or Foe?

November 18, 2011

I like order.

Or, more precisely, I like order to the extent that it promotes effective use of time.

You may relate: when I have to spend seven minutes rummaging in studio classrooms on a mission of scissor reconnaissance, I’m convinced that’s seven minutes of unnecessary distraction. And in those moments I think (and often try to gently remind my students), “There is a better way. . . .”

Cleaning up after ourselves is, in general, a groovy practice when used in the service of making spaces that promote uncluttered thought and creative work. The Tom Sachs Studio team creatively encourages this practice in their “10 Bullets” video regarding best work practices.[1] They describe the practice of Knolling—arranging objects into spatial relationships of 90 degrees. With a healthy dose of humor, they, like so many others, recognize that creative production requires a degree of order.

But creative work requires a degree of chaos, too. Or, more precisely, an environment—be it physical or the mental space we allow ourselves—that promotes unexpected connections between words, materials, and ideas. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, along with most writers I know, lauds the value of free writing, or the zero draft—a practice in which one tells their mental editor to take a hike for a little bit so that ideas can drain onto the page without restriction.

Who knows if such scratches will lead anywhere. But allowing a sketchbook to siphon ideas from our minds without editorial pressure, letting spill those endless, specific observations we make about the world in our day, actively pondering that thought that haunts us, and living with those piles of stuff on the materials shelf that we knew we had to collect—these “unproductive” practices keep our creative lives unfettered, fertile; they allow us to eventually see connections that we didn’t predict or anticipate. In other words, it’s all necessary, sanctified mess.

Over the past couple of months I’ve pondered how this mess—or rather, a threshold of comfort with mess—is prerequisite for the making of well crafted, and also meaningful work. My impetus for pondering is my observation of how many young artists, particularly those who enter training in the academic setting, are resistant to the idea of mess. To be truthful, they seem resistant to the idea of experimental process as a method for learning in general. Unless, of course, the process results in a praiseworthy product.

Don’t get me wrong: these students still make headway; they are learning how to express their ideas and perspectives. But they shy away from anything that might not be the “right” answer, even though there isn’t a right answer. It’s as though I’m watching the same germ-phobic consciousness that compulsively evokes the desire to wipe everything down with Clorox seep into the consciousness that directs students in creative disciplines. Keep it clean. Keep it right. Keep it sanitized.

If artists stand uniquely skilled and positioned to comment upon and direct the societies in which we live, how is sanitized, proper, and socially acceptable work at all helpful? It might be marketable. It might even be positively reviewed in select circles. I can celebrate those moments of triumph. Lord knows we all get enough rejection letters/ emails that we need to celebrate successes when they come. Still, when I am honest with myself, the work that most profoundly impacts my life has never been tidy stories with perfect resolutions, “pretty” paintings, drawings rendered without flaw. I am able to find merit in those works, absolutely. But works which confront me—either boldly or with a whisper—with discrepancies between what is and what could be, those that invite me to empathize with the complexities of human existence . . . these are the works in which I encounter God, my neighbor, and my unabridged self.

I appreciate that the notion of mess is not always a comfortable one. But in this season of post-harvest entropy, when nature falls apart in a way that eventually brings life to next season’s crop, would you join me in following suit, falling apart just enough to invite our creative peers, and especially young artists on a pilgrimage of faith, embrace the beauty and glory of sanctified mess?

Glad to be walking with you on this journey,

[1] Please check out the video “10 Bullets." I think it is fabulous, fun loving, and ever so true. Especially the last bullet.

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