A few years ago, I read something (an article in a magazine, a section of a book, I can't remember specifically anymore) about how flocks of birds can fly together without running into each other. Because for the big swarms, from a human perspective, something like that just shouldn't work--they're so close together and moving so fast. Researchers figured out that the birds weren't paying attention to the movement of the whole flock, that would have been overwhelming and lead to disaster. Instead, each individual bird was paying attention to the seven birds closest to it and adjusting to them.
I read that, and it stuck with me just as a really cool nature thing, like the fact that some jellyfish can effectively live forever or that some varieties of rattlesnake have family groups and huge territories. But, let's face it, these are birds: it was eventually going to default into metaphor.
While I am sure that the idea could be applied to society at large (the movement of the flock as a standin for society, the aggregate movement of our combined ideals and mores) I haven't really considered it in that context and am not actually interested in exploring it myself. If you are/do, please let me know--I'd be interested in your thoughts. As with just about everything else on this blog, this is about art.
Art that exists in a vacuum is functionally useless. I think I can say that without anyone being too shocked by it. Some people might quibble with the idea that art has use, but I suspect that anyone who feels that way will not be spending a terrible mighty amount of time on my particular blog.
So, ok, art: what does this have to do with that? Well, a lot of people seem to have this idea stuck in their heads wherein art is this magical thing that people go away to do to express only themselves in a way that has nothing to do with anyone else. And, y'know, some people do do it that way. Generally, you can kind of tell because what happens when you're not paying attention to what other people are doing is that you get art that is likely to be both technically poor and emotionally and intellectually cliched. Human beings have remarkable capacity for both difference and sameness, but if you don't look to your differences, you're gonna be the same. And when I said the thing about art in a vacuum earlier, that it's functionally useless, that's part of what I meant. If you're not producing something new, then what is the point, exactly?
Which is not to say that a person has to (or even, necessarily, can) come up with something absolutely unique, because that's a kind of vacuum too. If you don't give an audience a way in, a prior framework from which to allow people to view and understand what you're doing, then people are going to write it off. Folks are busy, they don't actually owe you their time and/or attention, let alone their consideration. Sad, disappointing, but true.
The way to make sure that you're not just making things and then casting them into a void is to pay attention to what other people are doing. You don't even have to overtly react to everything that you care about, just, y'know, watch, be aware. That awareness will bleed through. It will make your work better. You will no longer be required to walk down certain paths because someone else has already gone that way and explored it for you. And, hey, maybe they missed a side path that you think looks extra exciting, maybe it gives you the chance to bring their insight to someone else's path. Maybe you even give all that up and find something new to think about.
And there is a glorious freedom in that. As a people, there is a special place in our collective heart for high functioning polymaths, but there's not a clear way to achieve that sort of thing consistently. It may not even be possible for most people, and that is fine. It may even be better that way. There is no need to hold yourself to the standard of the idealized exceptional if you are willing to focus, work, and find the realms in which you yourself can become exceptional.
Heh, all advice being autobiographical.
But getting back to the point: the seven birds thing. If you are reading this right now, then you are probably on the internet. If you are on the internet, then you've probably been struck by how terrifyingly vast human experience can be. There are so many more things to know about then you even knew anyone was considering knowing. It is freaking nuts out there, dude. I mean, you can try to keep track of everything all at once. Be my guest; when you're done reading wikipedia, let me know, because that's just the start of it.
No one person can know everything. People hate being caught not knowing something, but I truly, honestly, have no idea why anymore. And the art world is no different. It's huge and it moves quickly. Can it even be considered just one thing anymore? 'The Art World'?
I mean, I know next to nothing about fine art photography, and exactly nothing about commercial photography. Well, not true. I do know that cameras are involved. The important thing then becomes to not let that lack of knowledge bother me; if any photographers fly close to me, then I will pay attention and defer to their expertise.
And that's what it's all about: if you see someone who is doing awesome things, pay attention to them. But don't just pay attention to one person. Pay attention to as many people as you're brain has room for and don't fret when you run out of room. In return, your job is to put stuff out there, because if you're seeing things and having thoughts and making work based on those things, there are other birds out there who are going to need to orient themselves based on what you're doing, too.
This is a pretty long post for me, I know, but I'm going to go ahead and make it a little bit longer.
While it's all well and good for me to just say all these things, I do try to follow my own goddamn advice. Plus, is there anything more frustrating that someone who posts something theoretical that could have real world applications but never once mentions what those applications might be? The DMV, taxes, and the dentist, I suppose, but don't sidetrack me, we're getting too close to the end.
In keeping with the metaphor: right now I am at the edge of the flock. I am still finding all sorts of new birds to watch, all the time. I find individuals on tumblr, in blogs, in magazines. And, fortuitously, these things all point to each other and to new things with frequency. If someone you like posts about someone they like, it is in your best interest to follow that link. It might be the best thing you've ever done for your brain.
When it comes to displaying my work, making myself known, I'm still figuring that out, day by day. I post here, I've got my website, I revived my deviantart, I've got a tumblr and a twitter, I'm trying out society 6. If there's an anthology or a contest with an interesting theme, I go for it. In the coming years (and hopefully it only takes months, rather than years) I want to move into more physical world display spaces. Primarily, that means galleries, but there might be things, opportunities, out there that I could never have conceived of.
So, there you have it, full disclosure.