How to Have a Creative and Flexible Mind as an Artist and Photographer

Toronto, 2015
Toronto, 2015

Continuing my series on “Akademie x Lessons in Art and Life”, I thoroughly enjoyed an essay titled: “Me and Marcuse” by Michelle Grabner. She exposed me to a lot of new ideas that I want to explore below on the following topics: what art is for, the importance of filtering images, undoing and re-doing your world-constructs, and the importance of learning:

1. What is art for?

One of the first ideas that Michelle Grabner explores is the idea of Herbert Marcuse, in his work: ‘Aesthetic Dimension’ (free pdf here).

This is how Marcuse describes art:

“It seems that ‘art as art’ expresses a truth, an experience, a necessity which although not in the domain of radical praxis [process], are nevertheless essential components of revolution.”

I might be misconstruing what Marcuse is trying to say, but this is what I take away from his quote on art: that as artists and photographers, we need to express the truth through the experiences we see in life.

When it comes to making images, we don’t take photos in the streets simply because it is fun or enjoyable. It goes deeper than that. We need to make these images. It is something that exists deep in our psyche and in our bones.

If you have ever seen a great potential photo opportunity (and missed it), you might feel like shit. You literally feel ill. You go to sleep at night, deeply regretting having not taken that photograph.

But then again the opposite is true: when you see something absolutely amazing and happen to make a photograph of it well, you feel alive. You feel that you were able to communicate your experience of that event in an image that shows some deeper “truth” about how you see reality.

One question that photographers rarely ask themselves is: “Why do I make photographs?” Artists also rarely ask themselves why they create art.

So consider why you create art.

I think for me personally as a street photographer, I see the world in a unique way in which I want to communicate with the rest of the world. The way I see the world is very subjective— it is colored through my personal lens (which has been deeply influenced by my life experiences, education, and influences).

I also feel a need to make these images and share them with the rest of the world. If I don’t make these images and share them, it is almost like having photographic constipation. I get blocked up, feel in pain, and just need something to release (sorry for the graphic analogy, but you get my gist).

The best way to relieve photographic and artistic constipation? Stay well nourished (look at a lot of great art work), and have regular bowel movements (create art on a regular basis). That means try to photograph, edit, and share your images on a regular basis.

2. Filter down the images you look at

Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch wrote these words in the late 1960’s:

Each human being swims within a sea of faint suggestive imagery. It is a web of pressures, currents and suggestions, something often so much less definite than pictures, which ties our fugitive present to our past and future.”

What Murdoch is talking about can refer to today’s hyper-connected world. We constantly swim in a sea of images. Except in today’s world, the images aren’t “faint” and “suggestive.” They are aggressive, in your face, and constantly bombarding you.

Think about advertising. We have pop-up ads all over the internet, banner ads vying for your attention, blogs constantly publishing content that are irresistible not to click, and millions of photographs being published to Instagram, Facebook, and social media.

Today we are drowning in a sea of imagery.

So what is the solution?

Michelle Grabner suggests an idea:

“When we are faced with the blurry, the unclear and the ill-defined, we have to look carefully and with dedication so that we can assemble pictures and build a knowledge base. When things are fuzzy we have to work to clarify. That work is important and must be practiced or we’ll find ourselves merely surfing that ‘sea’, pushed along by a tide of information and jpegs.”

The way I take Michelle’s advice is this: work hard to filter the information and imagery you take in. Be very selective about the images you look at on a daily basis. On social media, only follow those whose work and imagery really inspire you. Try to unsubscribe from as many annoying notifications as possible. Un-follow those who you find overly spammy, unsubscribe from news that just promotes terror and fear, and seek imagery that is hopeful and inspiring.

Michelle talks about putting together a “knowledge base” of imagery. For me, my “knowledge base” consists of the work of my close friends and colleagues, as well as the work of the masters of photography (especially Magnum photographers).

So what type of imagery can you unsubscribe from today? I highly recommend installing ad blockers (the web looks a lot prettier and less spammy), and perhaps even unfollowing those whose work you don’t find absolutely essential to you.

I think in art, what you decide not to look at is more important than what kind of art and imagery you decide to look at.

Whether we like it or not, we are constantly influenced by the images we see on a daily basis. Therefore by controlling the firehose of images we are subjected to everyday, we need to control the valve of which images we let into our everyday lives.

Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius once wrote that our mind is colored by our thoughts. Similarly, our art and photography is colored by what types of images we see on a regular basis.

3. Regularly undo and re-do your world constructs

I think as artists we should be like water. Open to change of direction, constantly flowing, and adaptable.

Michelle Grabner shares advice in terms of how to acquire knowledge (and the importance of having a flexible mind):

You have to be prepared to regularly undo and redo your world-constructs and accommodate change as readily as you develop and share narrative.”

How can we keep our minds open-ended to art? Michelle shares three ideas: time, curiosity, and trust:

“Art as a means of acquiring knowledge is what compels my work. I have spent my life looking around art, identifying and building contexts. It takes time, curiosity, and trust in your observations to see the center and the periphery all at once.”

  • It takes time to build up your knowledge base of images, inspirations, and information about art.
  • It takes curiosity to continue pursuing your passions and following where your creative nose takes you.
  • It takes trust to know that the process of art will eventually lead you down the path you want to follow.

Furthermore, try to stay as active as you can by learning all you can that is around you. Be a sponge of information, knowledge, art, and inspiration.

Not only that, but offer your help and services to other creatives and artists. Ask others, “What do you need?” and “How can I help?” This will help open doors and bridges to artistic collaborations and shared-ideas. This is a better road than trying to just ask others to do things for you.

For me, I often fall into rigid ways of thinking. It takes me a long time to develop a certain world-view. And once I develop that world-view, my mind starts to fossilize. My thoughts become set in stone.

However I need to constantly remind myself to consider the opposite.

For example, I am generally a big proponent of the “1 camera, 1 lens” philosophy. I genuinely do believe that having too many cameras, lenses, and equipment can be bad for your creativity.

However the opposite is equally true: some artists thrive by having lots of different tools.

I have therefore realized that although I have my own thoughts and opinions, my thoughts and reality aren’t truth. They aren’t “objective truths”. They are all my opinion.

So remember, everything you read on this blog is just my opinion. The things I write are just my thoughts which have personally worked well for me, and might not necessarily work for you.

So what are some beliefs that you hold true to yourself, and how can you think opposite and open up your mind creatively?

4. Art is a manifestation of learning

When Michelle Grabner was asked by the editor of “Akademie x Lessons in Art and Life” the question: “Does art have a purpose?” she answered the following:

Art is a manifestation of learning. And to quote David Foster Wallace: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’”

“Art is a manifestation of learning” — what does that mean? To explain:

Art is created through the learning process.

What does that mean?

For me, as I continue to learn more about the world, I create art by sharing my unique viewpoint with the rest of the world. I create art by making images, by writing articles, by recording videos, and by sharing my ideas with others.

Also in terms of learning how to think as an artist is all about having control over “how and what you think”. So as an artist, you have to make the conscious decision what to pay attention to, and what not to pay attention to. If you are a street photographer, you make the conscious decision to pay attention to strangers, urban life, and the streets. You have consciously decided to ignore taking pretty landscapes, macro photos of flowers, and pretty bug photos.

Ultimately, how do you also construct meaning from what you experience? For example, if you are out on the streets and you meet someone interesting (or looks interesting), how can you make a compelling image of them that has personal meaning to you and also the viewer?

Personally I feel that street photography for me is less about the images I make, and more about the meaning I get from my experiences being out on the streets.

I shoot street photography to experience life more vividly. If it weren’t for street photography, I wouldn’t be as curious, engaged, and interested in the urban world around me.

So what is the purpose of your photography? What drives you to photograph and create art? Contemplate on that — it will give you razor-like focus, artistic creativity, and purpose.

Recommended books on creativity & being an artist

In addition to the book: “Akademie x Lessons in Art and Life“, here are also some inspirational books on art and creativity:

  1. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
  2. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative
  3. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind
  4. Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered
  5. The Artist’s Way; A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

Read more on being an artist and photographer

Continuing my series “On Being an Artist and Photographer”, I recommend my prior posts:

  1. How to Express Yourself as an Artist and Photographer
  2. How to Succeed and Survive as a Photographer and Artist
  3. The Role of the Artist and Photographer