Artistic Voice: Get Your Dirt In It (with Homage to Prince)
Prince died today. He was one of the people from my heyday, though I was more in the Cyndi Lauper camp at the time (note that he did write her When You Were Mine). As I grew older I could appreciate how clearly talented and innovative he was – a true Renaissance Man in purple brocade. In the rainbow of posts documenting his career, I chanced upon this video of Dick Clark interviewing a very self-assured yet casual-cool 19 year old Prince.
In this screen shot he’s explaining that four years prior – when just a lad of 15 – he turned down offers to produce his demos because
“um…they wouldn’t let me produce myself”
He oozes creative confidence as he doesn’t regret the wait, which of course would result in his debut album, For You (1978) for which, he composed, arranged, produced, and played all 27 instruments. Of course, he went on to be famously (or infamously) adamant about creative control – everything from saturating the market against Warner Bros. liking (by being ultra prolific) to divorcing himself from his given name and replacing it with the “love symbol” as a protest of the record company’s overbearing dominance.
The thing that has perpetually perplexed me about Prince (how’s that for alliteration?) is his strange relationship to intellectual property – particularly in respect to the social sharing platforms enabled by the internet. On the one hand, he was
artistically selfless –
he supported protege groups and artists…he wrote numerous songs for other musicians under pseudonyms…was philanthropic without attaching his name to all his deeds (in fact I just now heard Stevie Wonder comment about Prince’s spirituality and that the deed was enough without him needing recognition).
“If you give away an idea, you still own that idea. In fact, giving it away strengthens it”
On the other hand, we are all well aware of Prince’s tireless cease and desist crusade against anyone posting his images or music on the web (particularly YouTube). It got a bit dicey when he covered Radiohead’s Creep and banned all posting of footage from the concert, even though Radiohead condoned it (recently he changed his mind on this).
“The Internet’s completely over”
I could go on and on about the paradox that was Prince, but I really drafted this bulk of this piece prior to his heartbreaking early death. And I want to discuss something Prince had, irrefutably –
Part of being a connected learner is that like-minded friends often share juicy bits of delight – things that send me over the edge with thought. Recently @ronald_2008 brought to my attention a piece about the “Helsinki Bus Station Theory”. It’s by brilliant Finnish photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen, quoted at the top of this post.
It touches on something we all go through when we create – emulating the artists (or writers or dancers or fellow scientists or whoever) we admire, drawing from their technique at first until we develop a style of our own. Prince did this, as his parents were both jazz musicians and he infused in his work those roots as well as psychedelia, funk, pop, rock, disco, soul, R&B, hiphop- you name it.
Minkkinen cautions us: “damn those who would say you are merely repeating what has been done before” and that
“It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire it’s time to look for your breakthrough”
The bus station analogy is helpful because we must choose a “bus line” you like, – the “bus of your dreams” says Minkkinen – and it’s key to “stay the course”. After a while your style will come unto its own…the influences will be there, but they will have morphed into something unique –
the voice that only you can give the world.
Probably the most comforting advice he offers is something Prince most likely embraced – that
“we only have to be number one to ourselves”
If you can free yourself from the shackles of self consciousness and the need to explain or justify your work- or heaven forbid the preoccupation with impressing people – you will find you can achieve a certain flow. When you you get this flow going you will inevitably create more often…and the more often you do, the better you will get at your craft. Prince, at the time he was being uber prolific cranking out albums to spite the record company, perhaps realized and didn’t care that they wouldn’t be all chart-breaking (they weren’t), but as an artist he was intrinsically compelled.
I recently read a Facebook post from a friend who suggested experimenting with wild makeup application right before bed- because if you know you are just going to whip out those makeup remover towelettes in ten minutes you can go wild with extravagant creations (DO try this at home!)
Just like there will always be someone richer, prettier, thinner, younger than you – Minkkinen boils it down simply:
“We just need to be good. And make good work”
That brings me to another great piece on artistic voice shared with me by Doug Belshaw (@dajbelshaw). In “Style Over Everything” author Matt McCue interviews several artists and comes to the conclusion that
Expression Trumps Perfection
He gathers from these creators that style is ever-evolving – akin to a growing vocabulary, in fact. It’s not a linear, progressive process, but one with twists and turns, and one that might never be totally finished (who can speculate what wonders Prince might have created if he’d lived another 15 years?). Indeed he encourages would-be artists to “chuck the road map and explore unchartered territory”. As for that ubiquitous troll creative insecurity, he reminds us that
“someone can always come along and be a ‘better’ artist than you, but no one can take away your style”
Perhaps it’s a bit like Picasso’s “learn the rules before you can break them”– except you want to get to the point at which you are breaking them and sharing your individual voice. This means doing a lot of “artistic reps” and running away from notions of perfection. Poignantly, graphic designer Jonathan Calugi reminds us that
“your errors identify you”
McCue asserts that “artistic persona is an accumulation” of 3 factors:
point of view
ideas that bring you joy
That last bit is quite important, because joy is a powerful thing. McCue states bluntly that doing “what you love and what you’re getting paid for or earning a grade from might not always align”. I think this is a wonderful point to consider as a consummate learner and tinkerer. If you are an educator – propose this notion to students. Sometimes we need to keep on that bus even if it’s not going anywhere specific, and most definitely despite the fact that staying put – not even hopping on the bus- will be more stable and safe.
How do you know when you’ve arrived at your personal style? Rhode Island School of Design president and furniture designer Rosanne Somerson suggests she came to the realization
“When I could carry out the picture I saw in my head”
Sometimes I think I’ve semi-arrived…like one foot off the platform arrived. At other times I’m a lost traveler wandering the routes until something sparks. Any of us can only hope to have that Prince-at-19-like creative confidence…but of course, that is for the rare speck of stardust who graces us with their presence on this planet…the Bowies, the Chanels, the Marilyns, the Picassos. Speaking of Picasso, Greek illustrator Alexis Marcou (as interviewed by McCue) sums it up best, I think –
“Your work has to look completely original like Picasso…It has to have your dirt in it”
So start digging (as I will) for “your dirt”…embrace your imperfections, and strive for your special voice from within. I’ll leave with an apropos quote from Prince:
“Everyone has their own experience. That’s why we are here, to go through our experience, to learn, to go down those paths and eventually you may have gone down so many paths and learned so much that you don’t have to come back again”