The Sky’s the Limit: How to Make Art in an Academic Setting
As an art student in college, I find that I’m making less of my own art. I’ve realized that the projects I’m making are all class assignments rather than projects that follow my own creative whims, and I have to yank ideas from my brain instead of letting them come to me naturally. Art has always been my passion, but lately I feel like project limits and the opinions of others surrounding my projects have become suffocating. For a class assignment last year, we had to design and wear a costume based on the concept of identity. One of my classmates designed a machine that spit out drawings. She was an art machine, not an artist. I, too, have become an art machine. Assignment guidelines now act as coding while the opinions of others have become my technicians. This mentality gets many artists stuck in a creative rut, and it’s time to make my art mine again.
Functional fixedness describes limiting oneself to only using an object for its original purpose. Many artists, including myself, view critiques and guidelines as limits, and limits as something that hinders creativity; but what if our limits can help us excel? In his Ted Talk, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz discusses how unlimited options can be paralyzing. Too much choice puts more pressure on our decisions, makes us less satisfied with our choices, and makes us yearn for the potential outcomes of a different choice. Personally, if I was assigned to create anything I wanted with whatever material I wanted, I probably wouldn’t know where to start. I wouldn’t be able to dedicate myself to a project, because I would be thinking about other ideas instead of my current work.
Guidelines and critiques are what keep artist’s work structured. They keep us focused and help me maintain control of our ideas. Too much control over what you’re making could result in you losing sight of your intention or goal. You would be so focused on thinking about various outcomes and possible project ideas that you wouldn’t be able to focus on executing your work. Having your work critiqued allows for an outside eye to give new insight to your piece, and helps the artist follow their intentions. One of your artist peers may be able to recognize something about your piece that you haven’t noticed. Overcoming functional fixedness and viewing comments from your peers as constructive criticism instead of just critiques can change your outlook on your piece and allow positive changes to progress. Critiques and guidelines aren’t stopping anybody’s art, and viewing them as such is counterproductive.
In addition to this new mindset, I found it valuable to learn that an unstructured artistic setting also wouldn’t allow me to learn or grow as an artist. By having structure in my creativity, I am made to work with new mediums and explore various subject matters. The limits of my assignment allow me to stretch my creative limits and my knowledge of certain media. For example, in one of my classes this semester, I have to transform a plastic flip flop into anything- as long as the finished project doesn’t look like a flip flop. In all of my fine arts training, I have never once worked with flip flops. While I am limited in my medium for this project, I am not limited in what my finished product will be. This new medium allows me to think hard about what I should create and to learn from my creation. Having a limited medium creates a structured setting for the artist by limiting their choices, which, according to Barry Schwartz, makes the decision maker happier and more confident with their choice.
Phil Hansen is a self-taught artist who best exemplifies the power of working within limits. Hansen developed a tremor in his hand while he was in art school. His once precise, delicate work with ink and pointillism would smear from his hand shaking. He eventually dropped out of art school and paused his art career. When his doctor saw how his tremor impacted his work, he told Hansen to “embrace the shake.” Hansen took this advice, went on to create astounding works of art that range in media and subject matter that cooperated with his shaking hands. His work includes portraits made of lit matches, frozen wine and stacks of coffee cups. Originally, Hansen let his limit defeat him. He experienced functional fixedness, and let his diagnosis halt his career. After embracing the shake, Hansen created works that were completely different from his previous style, captured the attention of thousands and showed that limits are only the beginning. If we, as artists, take Hansen’s lesson of embracing the shake and work within limits, we are given the chance to think outside of the box and create something that we never would have before. You can harness your creativity and use it to its full potential and expand your horizons by limiting them.
Working within your limits and understanding their productive role in furthering your creativity is the best thing you can do for yourself as an artist. By overcoming functional fixedness and embracing my limits, I am working to create a positive mindset that allows me to push my creativity in new directions. I’m not an art machine, I’m a sentient being who can make her own decisions. To my fellow stuck artists, your art isn’t lost, you’re just not looking for it in the right place.
“Embrace the Shake.” Performance by Phil Hansen, Ted, Ted, Feb. 2013, www.ted.com/talks/phil_hansen_embrace_the_shake/transcript#t-249264.
“The Paradox of Choice.” Performance by Barry Schwartz, Ted, Ted, July 2005, www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice/transcript?language=en.