I’ve heard many artists speak about wanting to return to the mindset they had as children, when they approached their canvas or guitar or notebook without any fear of mistakes or outside judgment. They were bold, unapologetic, unfiltered. They created art that made them happy and avoided the art that didn’t.
For years, I’ve had this same yearning, but not towards the act of artmaking. I yearn for the bold, unapologetic, unfiltered way in which I used to criticize art.
Before I had any traditional schooling, I was a high schooler in a small town, checking out classic movies and art history books from my local library. I didn’t have much context for the art I was viewing, so I judged what I saw primarily by what spoke to me and what didn’t.
I would ask myself simple questions such as: Why do I like this? Would I want to do something similar to this artist? Why do I hate this? If I were to make this, how would I make it better?
These questions might seem embarrassingly rudimentary, but I took them seriously, not resting until I found the answers that satisfied me. Sometimes, that looked like Google searching Picasso and then using that information to come up with my own interpretations for his work. Other times, it looked like pondering over why my mom fell asleep during this Hollywood blockbuster and not the other one we watched yesterday.
No matter how it appeared on the outside, on the inside, it always felt like a sacred, private act—and it was. It was my first attempt at understanding the mechanics of art and its effect on me. It was an earnest attempt.
Not only that, but it actually worked in helping me find my voice. By narrowing the expansive world of art down to just the art I liked, it clarified what I wanted to do creatively—the themes I wanted to explore, the materials I wanted to work with, etc.
Ironically, when I finally got the opportunity to attend art school, I was immediately asked to take all these conclusions and shatter them into a million pieces. My professors advised that, before I could venture to figure out who I was as an artist, I first had to learn what art could be.
My first year of schooling was entirely devoted to changing and expanding my definition of art. I was required to take classes in every visual medium—photography, video, printmaking, drawing, painting, sculpture, digital art. This way, I would know for sure what I liked, instead of assuming I liked painting when it may have simply been the most accessible means of artmaking I had growing up. I got introduced to Marcel Duchamp, Jan Švankmajer, Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, and Kara Walker—incredible artists who took my assumptions of art and cut them up, folded them into origami, pasted them on walls, ate them, and set them on fire.
This expansion was initially a good thing. Arguably, it’s one of the best things to ever happen to me. It was through this process that I realized how much I valued storytelling. Pretty quickly, I found myself swapping my paintbrush for the keyboard, as I started writing scripts for my own Jan Švankmajer-inspired stop-motion videos—my first attempt at filmmaking.
But on the other side of this coin was the pressure to be so open-minded toward all forms of art that I stopped asking myself those embarrassingly rudimentary questions that had once been important to me. Some of this pressure was internal—a desire to fit in at my school and in the larger contemporary art world—but a lot of this pressure was blatantly external.
My professors didn’t want any of us to say we “liked” or “disliked” things. We were advised to look at art objectively.
I believe that the moment I stopped asking myself these questions, I lost my north star as a visual artist.
Without that firm understanding of what I liked and disliked, I found myself making art I considered objectively important but that made me feel hollow inside (when I allowed myself to consider my feelings). Conversely, when I did try to make something for the sake of my own enjoyment, I felt embarrassed by it, as though joy in itself was not enough of a justification to make art.
At a certain point, I realized I had no idea what I wanted to create anymore. I had bypassed open-mindedness and stepped into some kind of art limbo hell.
Instead of figuring out how to reconcile this, I escaped to the theater and enrolled in a playwriting and directing program. Here, we had conversations that were much less heady and much more primal. Things could be exciting, entertaining, thrilling, boring, disturbing, comforting, funny, etc. We were allowed to have emotional reactions to things—we were expected to have emotional reactions to things—and it felt like oxygen for my artistic soul. I was once again connecting to the unbridled observer I used to be.
I fell in love with writing to elicit emotional responses from an audience, although I felt a growing need to do this via the screen instead of the stage. I soon entered the world of screenwriting, eager to write freely in my chosen medium.
But it wasn’t long before I found myself under the same pressure I had run away from.
For a medium seemingly so accessible and lowbrow, screenwriting is chockfull of rules to learn, and until you learn them, you can expect to see a range of condescending attitudes in the professional world—from overworked script readers tired of seeing the same mistakes over and over again, to the highest paid executives urging you to remember that movies are a business first.
I felt so intimidated by these rules (and honestly just plain confused) that I decided to go back to school to get my master’s in screenwriting. Stepping onto the FSU College of Motion Picture Arts’ campus felt like entering a topsy-turvy world—whereas art school had been all about expanding my definition of art, film school focused on narrowing that definition.
We were there to learn the Hollywood standard of writing, not to experiment wildly with rules we didn’t understand yet. We were taught to be open-minded but in a different way—before dismissing any commercial film, we should try to recognize why the film was made in the first place, who it was made for, how it used three-act structure to tell a complete and satisfying story, why it got all the ticket sales, etc.
This constriction was initially a good thing. Arguably, it was also one of the best things to ever happen to me—and, no, I’m not being facetious. I think it’s easy for artists to understand the importance of expanding your perspective, but very few understand the importance of learning to create within set parameters. (If you need some convincing, I’d highly recommend checking out the documentary, The Five Obstructions.)
But with this constriction reigning on semester after semester unchecked, it ultimately left the same impression on my artistic soul: I felt pressured to ignore my likes and dislikes in the service of education.
Not to mention, once I became involved in the #Screenwriting community on Twitter, I saw many industry professionals assign a morality to not liking a film. I’d constantly read platitudes like: “Don’t say you didn’t like it, just say it wasn’t for you,” “Even if you didn’t like it, thousands of people worked hard on that film,” “That’s somebody’s dream you’re dismissing,” etc.
Forget pressure—it felt taboo to dislike anything.
I found myself justifying the merit of any film, so long as it followed the Hollywood rules I was learning. Even when my mom fell asleep during a movie, I didn’t put the blame on the film. Instead, I’d tell her she should stay awake if she wanted to support artists.
Unsurprisingly, my north star disappeared again, and I found myself writing the type of movies I had never enjoyed watching, all the while assuring myself that my tastes were maturing.
I carried on like this for quite some time. It wasn’t until I’d been working as a development executive for about a year that I began to question my belief system.
I have the privilege of reading all types of scripts for my job—from the less-realized works of (usually) beginning writers to absolutely phenomenal scripts that can quite literally take your breath away.
When reading the phenomenal ones, I noticed a recurring quality in all of them: vision. There was a decisiveness to the writing, a subtextual layer beneath the words themselves. These scripts knew what they were and, perhaps more importantly, what they were not. I’ve never spoken to most of these writers, but I can tell you for a fact they wrote the movies they wanted to see.
In comparing my work to theirs, I began to mourn for the decisiveness I used to have. I used to know what I wanted to see. Now, my personal tastes were buried under a strange obligation to like everything.
As I set off on a journey to rediscover my voice as a writer, I began with asking myself those same simple questions: Why do I like this? Would I want to do something similar to this artist? Why do I hate this? If I were to make this, how would I make it better?
While I’m still working on recovering my voice, I’ve already seen some major results. For the first time in a long time, I love the projects I’m working on. Because I love what I’m writing, I’m better able to discern which feedback is right for me. I also experience more joy towards the movies I love, as a direct result of letting myself feel anger towards the movies I hate.
Passion begets passion.
I used to believe it was my duty to be as objective as possible as an audience member while simultaneously creating decisive, original art. I no longer think it’s possible to do both. I actually think these are two separate goals heading in opposite directions.
To clarify, I’m not saying open-mindedness is bad. It’s good to challenge your assumptions and occasionally watch art that isn’t your cup of tea. But we shouldn’t be so bound to open-mindedness that we fear our own true feelings. We should never, ever have to lie to ourselves.
It’s rarely acknowledged, but the act of liking or disliking something is a vulnerable act. If we’re afraid to be vulnerable as audience members, how can we be vulnerable as artists?
*Feature image by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)