W hen we talk about art, we tend to talk about the greats. Serious discussions of art generally focus on works by accepted masters, the Kubricks and Picassos of the world, or on works that have been validated by some form of curation. Rarely do we think of children’s clumsy stick figure depictions of the world around them or of the freestyle rap verses commonly heard in schoolyards and college campuses when we talk about Art. And yet these too are artistic endeavours in terms of conception and creation, even if they may not meet the generally accepted standards of skill or quality.
We may not explicitly say it, but we all know that there is a difference between capital-A-Art and works that are merely considered to be “artsy.” This division can be based on the subject, the medium, or even the creator. A painting on a canvas could sit comfortably in a gallery to be showcased, considered, and contemplated, but an equally delightful painting done on the deck of a long-board would rarely ever be given the same artistic status. Despite their lack of cultural capital, these fringe forms of art benefit in some ways from having a wider range of acceptable subjects, creators, and works.
Even these supposedly worthless forms of art, which are in fact lesser only in the sense that they lack the monetary or social capital of traditional recognised art forms, often yield great personal returns. The stereotype of the sensitive and self-involved artist may be exaggerated and overblown, but it does contain a kernel of truth: art can create a sort of superhighway to certain types of emotional maturity, and it can help us work through complex ideas and emotions. Both our methods of creation and the subjects of our interest tell stories about us. Perhaps most importantly, the type of free expression that occurs in unselfconscious creation invites unexpected insight, but it can be difficult to achieve a state of spontaneous creativity if you’re overly focused on public perceptions or on achieving standard expectations of quality.
Pushing yourself to create quality work is important because it makes your work better. There’s a whole host of benefits that come from being your own worst critic, but when taken to extremes it can paralyse you both in terms of creativity and productivity. Although it often feels counter-intuitive to work in a way that privileges the process over the final product, it’s generally more reasonable to aim for excellence than perfection. Of course, this is easier said than done: for major projects and important essays it can be difficult and risky to completely ignore your self-critical instinct. It’s easier to explore your creative interests when the stakes are low, which allows for experimentation without the need for success. In turn, this will make it easier to tap into this impulse in a controlled way when your work is subject to scrutiny.
“Bad” art also acclimatises you to the idea of failure, which is central to any creative process. Failure in art exists not only in its traditional form, but also as an inherent limitation of the creative process. Any work of art is limited by the opportunity cost of depiction, which necessitates the elimination of unnecessary detail and deliberate decisions about what to include and what to exclude. For every idea or vision included in a work, something else must be left by the wayside.
Although the grind of schoolwork can sometimes make the complex process of reflection, synthesis, creation, and refinement seem like an endless loop in which we struggle to string together coherent sentence or hurriedly sketch thumbnails which will later be matched up with an appropriately verbose artist’s statement, the creative process is meant to be a satisfying and rewarding experience. Separating ourselves, even momentarily, from our obsession with creating “good” art can be an important step towards exploring new creative horizons and opening ourselves up to new ideas and directions.