art, life, and africa

Discipline is an Art or The Curse of Unfinished Paintings

I was chatting to my son’s squash coach the other day. He mentioned that none of our country’s top players have the discipline to play themselves on the squash court, which means playing the same shot hundreds of times… this seemed to imply to me an explanation of their lack of presence on an international level. I drew a comparison with art, where I’ve made similar observations: if someone is not willing to practice the same thing over and over again, they won’t advance as far or as fast. The coach added that in his experience as an English teacher, he always spent time teaching kids discipline, which usually lead to them having better self-discipline; an invaluable attribute in his opinion. Now that might sound terribly old-school, conjuring visions of corporal punishment, petty rules, and intimidated kids. But I think what he was referring to is discipline in the sense of structure and boundaries, which I have come to realise makes perfect sense in my own teaching experience:

I started off being nice. Ha. Chaos and mediocre creativity, even at university level. When I made it clear-unsmilingly- what I expected of my students in terms of punctuality and work ethic, set them challenging tasks, and had no mercy for lame excuses and negative attitudes, output and standard soared. They loved me, and I wasn’t nice. A revelation, especially for a woman :)

Now the real sticking point is of course the application of all of this insight to myself.

I struggle to finish my paintings. I have little discipline. Unless there’s a deadline like an exhibition opening forcing me to get on with it, I have problems carrying through the original impetus, procrastinating until the work has lots of all of its original appeal/reason. New Age advice has me search my chakra balance/childhood/ascendant for causes of this. So far, I have self-helped admirably in some areas but not when it comes to my art. I obviously need a stern tutor such as the squash coach, who looks like he can deliver!

So what to do when you only know the kind of discipline that leads to repression, depression, and denial, and must therefore be avoided? Thanks to an authoritarian upbringing I’m unfamiliar with constructive discipline. I rebel at the mention of daily practice, even though that is what I teach others.  My excuses are many, but I’m getting bored with my own dysfunction here.  There are times when I think that I’m just not cut out to be an artist, and should rather spend my spare time teaching my kids self-discipline :)

Anyone out there willing to share/suggest/coach?

Some of my unfinished paintings. Sigh.

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11 responses

  1. I could really relate to this post. I work mainly with video, and usually produce one work I feel satisfied with per year. This usually means that I edit it, leave it for a couple of months, and then revisit to make the necessary changes.

    I recently produced a work to submit to an international exhibition, and because I had a theme and deadline, it was a challenge to see if I could pull it off on such short notice. In the end, I did manage to submit an entry, even though I had mixed feelings regarding the end result.

    It might help to work for some deadlines, such as a solo exhibition or the ABSA L’atelier or Sasol New Signatures (even the 2013 ones!). The integrity of these exhibitions are questionable, but provide deadlines nonetheless :p

    I’m pretty sure I would be more productive if I included others in the creative process, but then they would have to be kindred spirits with the capacity to be creative on their own terms. Having a good base chakra would be helpful, too.

    P.s. I read on your title page that you have some sinus problems worsened by oil paint. You could try substituting the turps with ordinary cooking oil when cleaning your brushes, as well as some soap. It really works :)

    May 21, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    • Howdy- sorry for taking a while, wanted to thank you for the advice re turps which I have yet to try :)
      Do you post yr video work anywhere? Would love to see it.

      Re working with others; I do find that when I give drawing/painting workshops, which usually build on an art therapy approach in order to loosen up and relax people, I get a huge amount of creative satisfaction
      through the interaction/osmosis taking place. So I don’t have to include them in my process, but can be a part of theirs without the pressure of a deadline involved…

      June 3, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      • No problem, please excuse the delay on my part as well.

        Hope the advice regarding turps works for you – I’ve heard some artist complain that it’s just not the same without the fumes!

        I would be glad to show you some of my work, although it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Will nevertheless send you some links :)

        June 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm

  2. I can say that I identify completely with what you discuss here. I love squash, and the coach is right. Squash practice is far more tedious than art practice. I have a belief that even if art is your profession rather than an avocation, you must always have fun, so each day, the goal is to do fun exercises, and somehow, by doing this, you get the motor running and the magic might or might not happen but it has a chance…

    I’ll confess that I do not have any good discipline in any part of my life so I have no idea what I’m talking about…

    May 15, 2012 at 5:08 am

    • right on about the tedious squash practise Carl! Agreed on the fun bit, too- one can get very obsessed with making it work and forget about enjoying…problem with art is that there are so many cultural myths obscuring the practise, and meaning, of it. Squash is pretty myth-free as far as I can tell :) I’ll try having fun in a disciplined way, how’s that sound? Actually, fun is another cultural myth, as we all believe it cannot possibly be connected with work, productivity, or creativity. Thanks for your thoughts, I am feeling somewhat less despondent!

      May 15, 2012 at 8:52 am

  3. actually I’m reading about Emerson’s “self-reliance” as opposed to “conformity”. his writing is at the same time a turning away as well as a turn towards his readership he assumes to be caught in conformity.
    with this he has assume two facts: his readership must be able to turn towards him, and he may not deny of himself being prone to the failures they are prone to.
    hence, his writing is about finding words for himself, and thus making himself intelligible to others as to himself.
    maybe you find it applicable for your matter of discipline? ;-)

    May 12, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    • Hi, wow I had to chew on this. Still not sure how communication with your audience relates to discipline- are you saying it’s easier to be disciplined if you work in order to understand yourself, which will also connect you to others easier?

      May 15, 2012 at 8:44 am

      • hi Silke,

        when I read your interesting and revealing entry (I thought a lot of me, myself, and I :-D ) a lot of thoughts came to my mind. I take you for serious.
        furthermore you finished your entry with a question. but since I’m not acquainted with you I didn’t wanted to and still do not want to say too much, because of the danger of sounding falsely, bumptiously. so referring to Cavell’s thoughts on Emerson fitted for me to give some equivocal allusions with which you! could work, or not. (which I think is most important.)
        let me give you an example. I admire Johann Georg Hamann, a German writer from the 18th century. his style of writing is really obscure. but when I understood him, it felt more like I was understanding myself (because I put my whole self into reading him), so that I’m not sure whether I really understood, what he wanted to say. :-D since then this became my attitude for certain contexts. ;-) so it’s up to the other person whether to deal with it or not. if not, it’s absolutely no problem.
        to put it in a nutshell: in certain contexts writing shouldn’t be for the reader like a tram (get aboard(?), being driven, getting off), but like a bicycle. :-D

        one connection I saw, is to deal with discipline from a conformist and from a perfectionist (as opposed to conformism) point of view. let’s take a detour, and put it that way. recently I read an interview with a football manager. he said that in doing this job one has be able to transform pressure into positive energy. it’s likewise with stage fright. it could paralyze you if you cannot transform fear into concentration.

        with regard to Emerson’s style of writing and attitude I thought of the problem of having, or taking, or wanting influence.

        so, thank you for answering. if you still cannot get acquainted with what I wrote, no problem. ;-) then I wrote something that didn’t fit you.

        sincerly,
        J.A.

        May 15, 2012 at 2:34 pm

  4. I would help u in anyway I can.
    Im struggling to finish the editing, filling of plot holes in my book. so I totally understand.

    May 11, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    • thanks Eve, my guardian angel :)

      May 15, 2012 at 8:40 am

      • send the family my love…
        keep me in mind for any of your art that I can afford to have shipped, ok?

        May 15, 2012 at 4:23 pm

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