A lot of my arty school friends disliked sport. Many of them seem to have since internalised it as part of their ideology, like dislike such things defines them as more artistic. The fact that Dance is ‘Art’, but Figure Skating is ‘Sport’ muddies these waters, as does the fact that pre-1952 you could win an Olympic Gold Medal in Literature.
I’m not going to brave the nebulous ‘what is art?’ argument we all loved when we got stoned that first time, but I might propose that all artists are, in our unique way, athletes. And there’s a lot we can learn from this change in viewpoint in regards to habit, productivity and health (read depression).
Athletes train a lot. Runners run, but modern runners also know that strength training, low-impact training (like cycling) and even massages help with that core goal. If you want to draw, draw, but perhaps support your figurative muscles by experimenting in sculpting. If you want to write, write, but you might learn something about storytelling from taking a public speaking course or doing some stand up.
What are the associated skills that could strengthen our goal activity and prevent burnout? Do we make time for them, or just repeat the same task again and again expecting new results?
The idea of the aimless, groping artist is the antithesis of the achievement-focused professional athlete. As artists we often fall in love with the idea of being romantic slackers. We talk about what we could do, or what we ‘almost did’ rather than actively working towards what we want. Think of your favourite artists and what they achieved – Frank Lloyd Wright, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol were artists with almost obsessive focus.
Is spending time arguing about the latest art-celebrity taking us closer to our goals, or have we lost focus on what we want to achieve? Athletes want to win gold medals, but good ones know that to get there they have to pick the next step on the path and focus on that first. If our end goal is ‘winning art’, what’s the next step on our way there?
3) MEASURE OUTPUT
Professional athletes track their training hours, their race times and their diets to find their optimal form. With experience they know what if they put in X they get Y. Sure, there are variables outside of our control (sickness, bereavements, landlords) but if they can measure what they’re doing, and measure the effects that has on their performance (speed, accuracy, concentration) they are on track to discovering their personal recipe for good work.
If we set ourselves measurable goals beyond the nebulous (do I like it/is it art/will it attract criticism)and could we find the patterns that benefit our work habits?
If we set ignore the nebulous (do I like it/is it art/will it attract criticism) and define measure input/outputs (how many filled pages, how many hours achieved, how much art shipped) could we find the patterns that benefit our work habits?
4) WORK THROUGH FORM SLUMPS
No one would ever say that depression, loss or alcoholism makes a better swimmer, but we often buy into the tortured-artist good-art myth without thinking. Depression is a crippling affliction that effects a lot of us at different points in our lives, but when we think back to our crowning artistic achievements did they occur when we are sprawled in yesterday’s clothes and sweat at the foot of the bed too tired to even eat breakfast? Or was it when we’re in ‘The Zone,’ that place where we are reactive to our mind and our work and seem to be effortless creating. That time when we are conduits rather than creators. Slumps happen, train through it, experiment with new work and wait them out, they too shall pass.
If we buy into ‘Artist Block’ do we give ourselves permission to torture ourselves instead of trying to find our way back to the zone that gives us the best results? What has depression done for you lately?
5) FIND COACHING AND TEAMS
Professional athletes don’t leave their coaches behind at high school, they keep working with them, seeking out new ones when they need them. Even in solo pursuits like long distance running they consult with peers and trainers, seeking advice on how they can push further and run faster. An artist is not an island, and no one comes out of school fully-formed. Plus, we have the advantage of being able to create and develop well into old age without concerns for bung knees and head collisions, so we can learn forever if we surround ourselves with the right people.
Who can we reach out to for advice, guidance and criticism to push us further? Can we create collectives or groups to discuss and compare work?
This was written as much as a reminder to myself as an artists as advice for anyone else. However if you found this interesting, you might also enjoy A) my comic, and B) these blog posts 3 Things I Learnt From an Eisner Winner and All Comic Creators are Insane.