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Guiding Light for the Artist’s Journey

The journey to creative excellence is not unlike any other journey in structure: there must be an origin, a destination, and some pathway between the two. The artist’s destination, though, is not a clearly fixed endpoint, but rather a continuous extension of creative aims.

In my last Artistry at Work post, I listed five characteristics of one’s work to consider:

  • Form — depth and dimension
  • Color — vitality and passion
  • Composition — balance and proportion
  • Perspective — focus and direction
  • Frame — alignment and boundary

The question is: what guides the journey toward these features? After all, we must have some means to get our bearings. Given that our path through life will not look like anyone else’s, it makes sense to concentrate on the more universal beacons that will enable each of us to conduct our own uniquely personal journey.

I think there are two simple lodestars on which we should fix our gaze. They provide just the right creative tension: authenticity, and audience.

The first is an inward focus on the self. The second is an outward focus on others…the recipients of what we produce.

A bit more on each.

AUTHENTICITY

The first point of light is that of authenticity. Get this wrong, and we shall create no masterpiece.

[blockquote_right] “Ninety percent of the world’s woe comes from people not knowing themselves, their abilities, their frailties, and even their real virtues. Most of us go almost all the way through life as complete strangers to ourselves.” – Sydney J. Harris [/blockquote_right] Authenticity entails locating the elements of our work that allow us to be genuine, true to who we are and wish to become. Authenticity allows us to summon our very best. Authenticity is what will provide clues to our most creative zone. Authenticity is what will reveal our true artistic potential.

When we come from an authentic center, we can learn to better engage and command our gifts in the daily challenge to invent and innovate by focusing on key talents, testing our perceived limits in the search for those magic moments of flow when sparks fly and time slips.

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Legend of Bagger Vance, drawn from Steven Pressfield’s novel by the same name. If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s about a disillusioned war veteran, Captain Rannulph Junah, formerly a golfing wunderkind. A young boy (the narrator) gets him to play a match against the greats of the game: Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. He finds the game futile until a mystical caddy, Bagger Vance, teaches him to find his “authentic swing, the one true swing.”

My point: your “authentic swing,” as in the movie, turns out also to be the secret to mastering any challenge and finding meaning in life.

AUDIENCE

The second consideration is our audience – the human targets toward whom we must aim our authenticity.

We must put our artistry to best use by reaching out to connect with those impacted by our work, as well as with others who are an important part of our life.

We start by understanding that the heartbeat of artistic intent is contribution, and that the true artist toils not only to create, but also to inspire others with his strokes. This captures the spirit to serve that may live as our greatest legacy not in any recorded format, but in the hearts and minds of our audience.

[blockquote_right] “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.” -Aristotle [/blockquote_right]To make those rational and emotional connections, we must learn to balance our interests with those of others in the larger systems to which we belong. An important part of reaching our audience is remembering that we don’t work in a vacuum, and just as we wish our contributions and accomplishments to be appreciated, so must we appreciate the art of others.

Art cannot thrive without appreciation. Understanding the power of appreciation helps build trust and sparks a spiral of collaboration that propels us upward and forward. Contribution, service, mutuality, appreciation and trust – these are the cornerstones of excellence in reaching and connecting with our audience.

While I’m on the movie reference track, another all-time favorite is Jerry McGuire. I love the opening scence. Jaded sports überagent Jerry McGuire has a midnight epiphany during the superfirm’s annual backslapping corporate retreat. Business for business’ sake is shallow, he realizes. More clients and more money is not what it’s all about. He works feverishly to write a mission statement. Words like ‘greater good’ and ‘caring’ go down on paper. Rushing out to an all-night copy store to bind and duplicate his opus for everyone, the scene closes with the clerk, having obviously read the mission statement, saying, “That’s how you become great, man.”

SEPARATE TOGETHER

Done right, these two points of light when kept front and center, aligned and integrated (no easy challenge!), should help to channel our creative efforts toward a significant end. In theory they should allow us not only to write the book of our life, but to read the last page.

They should lend a certain discipline to our dreams by grounding our ambition firmly to who we are and what we most want, avoiding the frequent lament of a life disappointed. They should allow us to render the vivid image of our future that draws us forward, marking the mission with audacious goals that make us move ever closer to the masterpiece we envision.

They should allow us to think about our work in clear terms of cycles and projects with defined starts and stops, the churn of which enables us to maintain our momentum and constantly renew our creative energy.

Combine authenticity and audience, and we get a good definition of artistry: masterful work performed for worthy reasons toward a meaningful end.

But, while it seems like so much common sense to summon our creative best, use it to connect with others in a positive way by composing a path that takes us where we want to go, it’s not commonly practiced. Simple enough to understand, it’s a journey most don’t make.

The reasons? It’s not easy, it’s not quick, and there’s no guarantee of commercial success.

ART IS WORK

The story of creative excellence is one of constant diligence, study and hard work. It is the business-like discipline that enables repetitive creative achievement.

[blockquote_right] “For the essential thing about the work of art is that it is work, and very hard work too.” -Joyce Carey [/blockquote_right] Mozart, Gallileo, Rockefeller, Renoir, Schubert, Plato, Einstein, Raphael, Shakespeare, Newton – all considered artistic geniuses, and all believed in the constant and purposeful application of talent and self toward a worthy end. Investigation into their magnificent renderings reveals a lifelong process of deep reflection, keen observation and constant betterment.

The ancient Greeks believed that to become able in any profession, three things were necessary – nature, study, and practice. The Japanese to this day focus on hansei, genchi genbutsu, and kaizen – reflection, observation, continuous improvement – as the guiding principles in business.

The U.S. Army for 40 years has preached a leadership model of Be-Know-Do, stressing that while knowledge and skills (Know and Do) acquired through education and experience are necessary and valuable, they are perishable because they are not always applicable and can quickly become obsolete in today’s competitive environment. It is the Be element – one’s talent, purpose, and ambition – that remains the true competitive advantage, for what you know and do can be copied, who you are cannot.

Coming up next: As if the thought of a long and arduous journey isn’t daunting enough to set us on our heels, we must consider the other barriers likely to impede the path.