If you are relentless about trying to improve your art—which, incidentally, is a good principle—then you’ll most likely be a bit disappointed when you look backward. To glance into the rearview mirror as an artist is to glance at an uncomfortably large disaster just behind you, full of injuries and surrounded by flashing lights, while you continue to speed away. Regardless of what you create, your older work will look a tad innocent in your eye, it will look misguided, incomplete, not quite right, as long as you keep growing, adapting, and improving. Because those older creations will reflect a younger, different you, which you neither could nor would return to today, just as you wouldn’t wear the outdated styles in your old photographs.
Although the contrast between the open road that you’re driving toward and the disaster that you’re fleeing from is only visible when you’re on an upward trajectory. If the creations in your rearview mirror match the creations out your front windshield, then you’re quite clearly driving in a circle. This is creation without any desire to evolve, which is in fact perfectly fine, as there’s no actual destination, there’s no moment of arrival, for those who spend time toiling with paint or shooting photographs or scribbling on blank pages—although it is still worthwhile to strive for that upward trajectory, for that elusive sensation of marginal progress, in both your art and in your life.
But looking at your older creations will also feel like looking into a rather peculiar mirror—one that shows a much younger you. What you see in this mirror is the self that you no longer inhabit. It is the equivalent of reading an old notebook, or a teenage diary, where the handwriting is barely recognizable, and where the emotions seem powerful on the page yet distant from your recollection. Even if you tried, you couldn’t recreate that old work —the self that fashioned that work left long ago. Yet a little kindness to your older self is important, as that older version of you strained for the best, and the future you will surely cringe—you can only hope—at what the current you creates.
Perhaps it is worth remembering that improvement requires the jettisoning of an older self. Once your goals, desires, or even principles, start to shift, then you’ll be shedding skin like a snake in the sun, which is a transformation that sometimes demands a little pain. Recognizing a new self, an improved life, is, in some ways, analogous to describing a past self as misguided. And that’s usually too costly. It is much easier to grind your teeth and clench your fists rather than change: wrong and consistent is more satisfying than right and inconsistent. Although any reasonably active person will persist, ensuring that the current self is sufficiently different from the past self, ensuring that at least a few lessons are picked up along the way, which is exactly the same mentality that an artist should bring to craft—ensuring that an evolution toward the new always comes with a discarding of the old.
For the artist, however, there’s the curious additional fact that these shifts will almost certainly be reflected in the art, especially because art requires and is pretty much the consequence of revealing an individual sensibility. Once the artist as a person begins to change, their artwork is guaranteed to change, too, with our best artists somehow able to imbue their character into their work. In our greatest art, in the art that’s profound and lasting and that people travel to see, you always sense that individual sensibility, that first person perspective, that reflection of the artist as a person within a sculpture or song or canvas. And this capacity for instilling a creation with an individual sensibility that feels true and complete is what so often attracts a wide-eyed, passionate audience, as there’s something profound, almost magical, about a landscape painting that reveals a painter’s character, or about a city photograph that reveals a photographer’s worldview—with the artists who enrich their work with their character those that we most celebrate.
For my own work, there’s eventually a point of completion, a point in which I—constrained like everyone else by whatever abilities I possess, constrained like everyone else by my willingness to face the difficulties of the work—can no longer continue. On a page of writing that doesn’t feel too grand, nor too shameful, but simply one that’s good enough, I do eventually reach an endpoint, content that I won’t discover any glaring errors, content that I won’t realize that I overlooked some promising directions. And that’s pretty much the conclusion: that’s when the work reaches the world, once I am unable, despite my best efforts, to uncover a new path for the page. Which is also about the time when readers appear, with reactions and interpretations and associations about the work, to which I observe, for the most part, from a distance.
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