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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
inspiration, craft, sprezzatura 
25th-May-2010 05:38 pm
Sidneyia inexpectans
Inspiration vs. craftsmanship. Five minutes. Go.

It occurred to me today that one of the places from which the idea that craftsmanship and devotion to craftsmanship are unworthy of artists might be coming is the Renaissance idea of sprezzatura, the art of making the difficult look easy. Sprezzatura is all about disclaiming effort, about presenting the appearance of not working hard to achieve perfection, and it seems to me like there's a point of slippage between sprezzatura as a pose, equally understood as such by author and audience, and the devaluation of craft. It's similar to what Peter Wimsey says in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club: "there's a difference between the man who can draw and won't draw, and the man who can't draw at all" (196).

On the face of it, it doesn't make sense to disparage craft and working hard at craftsmanship. Why should we be ashamed of being good at what we do, or of working hard to become good at it? But there's this idea (which I generally blame on the Romantics, but which the Romantics themselves got from Plato) that Real Artists don't have to work because the Art uses them as a conduit. Nothing but net. And it's only if you're not a Real Artist that you ever have to actually, you know, try. Or, god forbid, fail.

Any self-respecting musician would look at this idea and fall over laughing. Same goes for dancers. These are arts which have never lost the meaning of the connection between art and craft. But painters and poets and novelists (composers? I don't know enough about the ideology of creativity in composing to say) got lumbered with this idea, put forward originally by Socrates, who was, please note, NOT HIMSELF A POET, that their art is produced through them, not by them, that they are merely vessels.

I personally think this idea is pernicious and should be killed with a stick--which tells you where I stand on the inspiration vs. craft issue. Although, in point of fact, I think both is a better working position. Sometimes the ideas really do feel like the clouds opened up and the angels sang hosanna and the hand of god reached down and turned the light bulb on. That's a great feeling, and I'm not arguing that it never happens.

On the other hand, it doesn't happen all the time, either, and when it doesn't, you're a lot better off if you have craft to fall back on--that is to say, if your own personal ideology of creativity does not beat you up and tell you you're worthless when you aren't quote-unquote inspired.

In other words, it's a false binary.

And then there's this Sidney poem. It's the first poem of Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella (because every Elizabethan poet who wanted to be able to hold his head up as he walked down the street had to write a sonnet sequence), and it goes like this:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That the dear she might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain.
                    I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain;
Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburnt brain.
                    But words came halting forth, wanting invention's stay;
Invention, Nature's child, fled step-dame study's blows,
And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
                    Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
                    'Fool,' said my Muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write.'
(Astrophil and Stella 1)

Now, on the surface, this looks like a defense of Art before Craft. Astrophil wants to write a poem to Stella. He tries to teach himself to do it by reading other men's poems, works himself into a fit of writer's block, and then his Muse comes down and tells him to write what's in his heart. He's the poster child for Inspiration.

But it isn't that simple. He's written a poem insisting on the primacy of inspiration--but the poem itself is about his failure to be inspired. This poem about writing from the heart and trusting in the Muse is itself a carefully, wittily, brilliantly crafted poem. It's a sonnet, for one thing, which means it follows a specific form: 14 lines, ABAB ABAB CDCD EE. And he wrote the silly thing in hexameters. Beyond that, it's full of wordplay and rhetorical figures, the pun on "fain" and "feign," the joke about "feet," the male poet imagining himself as being in labor, the Muse invoking the poet instead of the other way around . . . at the same time that Sidney denies all artifice, he does so in a poem made of nothing but artifice. This is sprezzatura, and it is not the same thing as saying craft is for losers.

I remember when I was a teenager, I thought "craft" was what people talked about when they didn't care about their art. I remember that I felt that way, but I can't remember why. Today, I don't feel like that at all. Craft doesn't threaten art. My artistic integrity is not ruptured because I think about craft issues, or because I accept that part of being an artist is practicing my craft. For me personally, craft is like a life preserver: something I can cling to in the cold, turbulent, and sometimes hostile ocean of my creativity. And I am grateful for it.

Obviously, this is my opinion. If you disagree with me, I will not think less of you.
(Deleted comment)
25th-May-2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
Me neither. Craft, to me, is the good solid underpinning, the thing that makes the idea more than just shiny, but solid, too. Since 90% of my metaphors are textile-based, let's call the story (or whatever) a garment: art is the cut and the fabric and the things that catch your eye, but craft is the underside, where the quality of your seams determines how long that garment will last. And I have a deep respect for people who don't just think up a neat design, but finish their seams, too.
26th-May-2010 03:26 am (UTC)
This is a fabulous metaphor, even for someone who knows nothing about clothes. Or art, or craftsmanship, really. I just know what I think is neat, and what I think would be hard to do. =)
25th-May-2010 11:26 pm (UTC)
Yet must I not give Nature all ; thy art,
My gentle Shakspeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet's matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion : and, that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses' anvil ; turn the same,
And himself with it, that he thinks to frame ;
Or for the laurel he may gain a scorn ;
For a good poet's made, as well as born.
26th-May-2010 03:15 am (UTC)
Amen, Amen.

I do love Ben.
26th-May-2010 12:56 am (UTC)
Thanks for this -- it very much fits the prevailing themes in my life at the moment, and speaks very sternly to some shockingly adolescent parts of my psyche that've been troubling me lately. Just a fan, randomly passing through -- but it's nice to know that a middle ground is not only possible, but desirable.
26th-May-2010 12:58 am (UTC)
[tangent] People do this with pregnancy too. You're supposed to be a holy conduit for the Creation of a New Life; no one wants to mention that it's several months of bloody hard work. [/tangent]

It's really a pity that life doesn't consist of endless states of effortless, inspired, pitch-perfect flow. It would be much more fun that way. And it's odd that, for this one category of creation, people feel guilty for doing things the less fun way.
26th-May-2010 01:14 am (UTC)
Yeah. This.

And -- taking your point in a slightly different direction -- our cultural prediliction for complimenting creative achievement by saying "you have such a talent for X" can occasionally put one, or at least has occasionally put me, in a rather uncomfortable position: I don't want to seem to disdain the compliment, but when the X in question is something for which I actually have not much talent at all and pulling off the illusion of effortlessness took a great bloody lot of work... well. It is nice to be appreciated, but I would rather be appreciated for the right things, especially since I am so constitutionally averse to work that when I do work I quite selfishly want everyone on earth to notice. Heh.
26th-May-2010 02:20 am (UTC)
I got this a lot from friends in my undergrad; I had a math-and-sciences heavy courseload whereas many of them did not, and I often heard "but you're naturally good at math!" And finally I blew up about it, because - no, I'm not, but I worked really hard at it.

So... yes! I feel you. Even though that is waaay off topic.
26th-May-2010 02:44 am (UTC)
Slightly tangential: I recall reading about a psych study where they split kids into two groups, and tested them, and told one group "you did really well; you must be really talented" while telling the other group "you did really well; you must have worked very hard." Then later on, they gave them a second, harder test. Group B (praised for their work) did well again; Group A (praised for their talent) did noticeably worse.

Because if it's talent, then when you run into trouble, you can't do anything about it; you're just Not Good Enough. But if it's hard work, then you tie your sleeves back and rub on some elbow grease and give it everything you've got.
26th-May-2010 02:58 am (UTC)
Eh. If you have an intrisic motivation, you can learn to ignore them both and work anyway.
26th-May-2010 03:20 am (UTC)
But kids don't necessarily have that ability. And what they're told during their formative years may really influence how they respond to challenges later in life.
26th-May-2010 02:58 am (UTC)
Sometimes you do have a talent for it, and they dismiss everything you do because it's all easy for you. And they gush over something someone else threw together because that, of course, took work.
26th-May-2010 01:42 am (UTC)
Most of the work goes into making it look easy.
26th-May-2010 02:03 am (UTC)
I'd kinda like to plaster this across the sky, then very firmly take between my hands the faces of everyone who has ever said to me, "But how can you LEARN creative writing?", turn them toward it, and point and screech "READ THIS."

Pardon, I'm in a mood. :-)
26th-May-2010 02:20 am (UTC)
I personally think this idea is pernicious and should be killed with a stick

*round of loud applause*


Obviously, since my personal mission in life is to DOCUMENT THE CRAFT and what inspiration shows up when writers get lucky...

...I've decided to use shaping the historical record of literary production AS THE STICK.

Edited at 2010-05-26 02:21 am (UTC)
26th-May-2010 03:01 am (UTC)
If I thought there were any risk of a shortage, I would loan you a stick.
26th-May-2010 03:14 am (UTC)
My dear, I kiss your hands and feet. I have often thought just this, and ne'er expressed it so well.

Myself, I am a mediocre writer. What I am is a very good reviser. I work for my inspiration, and my heart seldom opens itself until I've put the work in.

Which is, imho, at least part of what Sydney's writing about, bless his little white cotton socks.
26th-May-2010 04:07 am (UTC)
Yes, yes, many times yes. There's this idea that tends to crop up in painting (though I think it may be dying a bit, or at least not the only voice in the room any more) that a lot of technical mastery, or sometimes even recognizable subject matter somehow lessens the "purity" of the painting. Mm, that's a really crappy shorthand for something that's complicated and differs depending upon who you're talking about.

Also, a lot of the issue with fine art isn't so much the issue of inspiration vs. craft, at least in terms of care going into the finished product, so much of the rejection of there being any narrative (thankfully this seems to be dying down a bit). Piet Mondrian is a good example of what I mean by this. He was entirely concered with the formal elements in his paintings, and figuring out all the glorious things he could do with black lines and colored rectangles on a white field. But those are painstakingly crafted lines and rectangles, and a lot of thought went into their placement. This is in opposition to the people who are emoting onto the canvas and will not be constrained by pesky things such drawing recognizable forms.

Oh dear, this is getting really long when all I wanted to say was hi, you don't know me but I found this post very interesting. It, er, kinda touched a nerve.
26th-May-2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
Have you watched the Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk where she argues that the reason so many artists destroy themselves in one way or another has to do with how we, as a society, view the creative process? It isn't spezzatura she's talking about, but is tangentially related, and very, very interesting. She packs a lot of ideas on inspiration, hard work, and balancing them as a writer into a very entertaining 18 minutes.

(One or twice it sounds like she's suggesting we go back to a more Greco-Roman sensibility where there's less responsibility resting on the shoulders of the artist, but I believe her thesis is really more complicated than that.)
26th-May-2010 05:01 pm (UTC)
(I came for the dS commentary, am dipping into what you've been saying more recently.)

Yes. There is something pernicious when postures are conflated with means. The posture of [insert here] is a kind of intimidation, a method of keeping the competition low and thus demand/reward high. There is a difference between an artwork that is inspired but shoddily constructed (Leonardo, why must you have always experimented?), one that is uninspired and excellently constructed, crap that is neither inspired or well made, and The Win, the inspired that is built best as it can be.

And. There is the question of those that have talent and motivation but don't have access to the needed mentors that can train to their potential instead of being relegated to 'accomplished baseline'. Or, alternatively, beat up because they are worse at things that are 'normative skills', and not appreciated for rarer aptitudes that could be Practiced.
26th-May-2010 11:31 pm (UTC)
Have you ever read Born Under Saturn? It deals with many historical sources on the character of visual artists-- and is fascinating in those chapters-- but the early chapters deal with the transition from craftsman to artist. At least some of that involved escaping guilds.

As I read, I kept wondering how they would have applied it to literature instead of painting, but I realized I'd had the history of it wrong, and I couldn't force the metaphors to my liking.

27th-May-2010 02:25 am (UTC)
I find it funny that we've (the cultural wewe) taken the concept of sprezzatura, which, if I recall my Castiglione correctly, is all about aristocrats doing their best to conceal how hard they have to work to look perfect and graceful and wonderful and talented, and applied it to artists, when the artists of that time period made no bones about the effort involved. Michaelangelo wallowed in how hard he worked to get things done, and it seems like on every other page in Cennino Cennini's little book for painters that he insists on every other page that the way to be a success and get a good reputation (and so get more work) was to take pains, go the extra mile, use the real ultramarine and gold, even if the client wasn't going to pay for it, make sure you finished things carefully even if it was a small commission of little importance compared to other jobs, in addition to eating right, keeping regular hours and taking good care of your hands.

Also, Plato should have known better. He probably did know better, and was just indulging in BS (possibly to annoy Xenophon, Mr. Study Carefully and Work Hard if You Want to Get Somewhere).
27th-May-2010 02:39 am (UTC)
Or he was being catty about a particular artist. Because the Platonic/Socratic theory about how art happens is, if you read it carefully, really catty.

There's also a whole class thing about art and poetry in the English Renaissance, wherein real art is lyric poetry (which, of course, was written by aristocrats and read in the manuscript circles of aristocrats) and the blank verse drama which we now think of as capital-A Art was just popular entertainment. Hackwork. None of the playwrights of the period made any bones about being craftsmen--I think Ben Jonson would have been deeply offended if anyone had tried to suggest he was only a vessel for his Muse.

The leisure class has to be seen to have leisure, even when they're working like dogs at their poetry or sword-fighting or whatever it is. (And, of course, that's the connotations the word amateur used to have, which I think it doesn't so much anymore.) But somewhere along the way (I blame the Romantics again), ideas about work got conflated and confused with ideas about art. So one hypothesis is that this is a class issue that has been badly (and inappropriately) translated into the creative arena.
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