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I Just Wasn’t Very Good

I’ve been thinking about something I posted last week — in an excerpt from his new book The Work of Art, former New York magazine editor Adam Moss described the art he makes as bad: “When I left my job, I began to paint more seriously,” he wrote. “That was the beginning of my torment: I just wasn’t very good.” Or as he put it to The New Yorker: “I kind of just wasn’t any good.” Or to Vanity Fair: “I really wanted to be a good painter. What a fucking idiot I was.” Or on NPR, “I really wanted to be good, and it made the act of making art so frustrating for me.”

The book is mostly about how other artists make their work, but I’m currently more interested in what Moss has to say about himself and his art.

Later in the VF and NPR interviews, Moss says that the main lesson he learned from making the book is that with art, it’s the journey not the destination — or, “the making, not the made” (“It’s the most banal observation”) — but of course I still went looking for his paintings online. I want to see them! I didn’t find anything (per the VF article, he hasn’t shared anything publicly yet), but to Moss I say: Show them! Maybe it doesn’t matter if they’re not good. Maybe the worse, the better.

Discussion  15 comments

Chris Frampton

Perhaps, I first heard about it here on Kottke, but this post reminds me of Ira Glass's take on getting started in creative work. I suspect he generally means "art" as traditionally considered, but it's my experience that it relates to just about anything you might want to do: play tennis, DJ a party, drop ship t-shirts, or open a chopped sandwich shop.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good.

Perhaps the best response to the problem, besides Glass's encouragement, is Seth Godin's great little book,

The Dip


Asking yourself, "is this something that will respond to guts, effort and investment?" helps you decide whether or not this is where you can commit. And then, if you do commit, you're not browsing, you're in it.

[All the old school internet/podcasting/permission marketing gurus are involved in my thoughts today. If only I could quote Gruber, somehow.]

Andrew Morton

I thought of exactly the same thing, I’m glad I didn’t have to go find the quote

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Chris Frampton

Oh, I'm so disappointed that put that Quote/Unquote in the wrong place! And, I left out this link.

Edith ZimmermanMOD

Yes! This is wonderful. Thank you.

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Edith ZimmermanMOD

Also I might just be echoing Jason from earlier today, but less succinctly!


Actually, "it’s the journey not the destination" is rule 2 for travel and road trips.
Rule 1 is to go see what one wants to not so much what one "should". That's how we got to Nelson, BC.
Rule 1 I doped out on my own. Rule 2 was told to me by a far smarter, more accomplished human being who just oozed pure honesty and knowing what she was talking about. (Now that I think about, her highest profile gig was in large part based on credibility so of course.)

Edith ZimmermanMOD

I whittled this blog post down so much that I think I cut out the part from these interviews that actually helped me the most — the part where he said that one thing the artists he spoke to all shared was their compulsion to create art. He said they were all driven, consumed by the need to make their stuff, even if they didn’t always like what they ended up making. And that was good to hear, personally. The idea that the heart of art-making is compulsion.

Mary Wallace

Yup. The good doesn't happen without the initial compulsion.

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Edith ZimmermanMOD

I’m now live-blogging the experience of actually reading the book, but I also like this bit from one of Moss’s footnotes: “If you make art and no one sees it, are you an artist? A question I think about sometimes, because I am so loath to let people see my work.”

Aileen Gallagher

My students talk a lot about having "imposter syndrome." I ask them to reframe as "inexperience." If you've never done X before, why would you be good at it? You get good by doing. There is no other way.

Louise Hornor

This is really important! As adults, we expect to just be good at stuff. We forget the process of learning and making mistakes and then getting better.

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Louise Hornor

I think it's really important to share both your good work and your bad. Your good work can inspire someone else, and that's important. But what your bad work does is even more important: it provides a way for others to appreciate their own skill and progress. Look! This artist still makes weird color choices, and I really love the colors in my latest piece. Wow, I am now advanced enough in my own stitching that I can see where they bobbled it here on the edges. Oh, I'll never have the patience to finish a piece that large, but I'm just as good at that detail as they are.

I'm happy to point out my disappointments in my quilts online, not because I'm looking for reassurance, but because I want my fellow quilters to feel good about what they do better. Who doesn't like a tiny bit of schadenfreude?

Edith ZimmermanMOD

Yes, I totally agree. Well put. I had this thought once when I saw a "bad tweet" from a writer I like. I was like, "Sometimes we get to be the person who writes the good tweet, and sometimes we get to be the person who writes the bad tweet," but like -- both good tweets and bad tweets are instructive/interesting for others. So it can all serve some kind of service. Hopefully that doesn't sound insane.

And with art, it's kind of wonderful when successful people share their "bad" stuff. Like it's very inviting -- a kind of bridge.

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Matthew Battles

A quote I saw posted on Instagram (from @philo.thoughts, which I don't follow) comes to mind:

I think that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn't do. All that I might have been and couldn't be. All the choices I didn't make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven't been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed. —Ursula K. Le Guin

Maybe it's not immediately pertinent, though I suspect folks will see the connection—your regrets, too, aren't something you can take with you. So leave them. And why wait?

Edith ZimmermanMOD

This may not be exactly relevant but Nicholson Baker also has a book out about getting into art.

From the Bookforum review: “What could be more rangy and assured than showing the world your first wobbly artworks?”

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