Monday, March 5, 2012

Can Art Be Quantifiable?

Years ago, I knew a print maker who worked with copper. What was so amazing about his work was the process. He would start with a tremendous plate of copper. When we consider the cost of copper, this thing was truly amazing. Then, he would spend hours, days, months in all likelihood, making small engravings that would eventually produce the prints. The prints were amazing, and perhaps slightly more than the process itself.
At this time, he worked as a waiter in a very popular and exclusive restaurant. I worked the neighborhood bar. He was ten years older and this story is now ten years old. In short, I am the same age now as he was then.
Now, here are a few things about my copper artist friend for the sake of our discussion. First, he was used as an example by my mentor of the time. You see I had a mentor who was a businessman and he was friends with the artist. They were the same age. My mentor was an artist in his own way, but he functioned mostly as a businessman. Both the businessman and the artist knew that I had aspirations to be a writer. The artist bade me well in my pursuit and in my endeavors taking my desire for a life's calling. The businessman told me that I ought to be in business and that all I should do is earn money. He thought I should leave writing behind. His example was the artist who had nothing and he had sacrificed his life for his art.

At that time, sadly, I listened to my mentor, the businessman. Since this was sometime in 2002, it would take me another five years to fully leave old thoughts and attitudes and give into my desire to be a writer. And if we must sacrifice life for art, we may as well do it big, make it beautiful.
The second thing about the artist happened some time later, after 2007, but before we left Denver. I ran into my artist friend after not seeing him for a few years. I wanted to tell him about how much he had inspired me. I wanted to chat about his current projects, what he was doing for work, and of course, I wanted to tell him about my projects.
He had left the copper engravings because of practical reasons, his eyesight namely. He was still making art, just different mediums. He worked in another restaurant which was equally as popular, expensive and exclusive as the one he had worked in when we met.
I told him about graduate school. Grad school was an exciting topic and how it gave me so much thinking time, writing time and pride. I was working in a busy downtown restaurant. I was working on a novel, although I don't remember which one, I think it was Just then the Moment.
“What's it about?” he asked.
“It's about,” I began. I always have a quick response to this, a generic and vague response that raises approval rather than questions. “It's about the alienation of artists in a post commercialized America. It's about fraud, fear and living on the fringe. But, ultimately, it's a love story.”
“Cool,” he said.
“I'm working like mad, it's not a good day unless I get 2,000 words,” I said.
“2,000 words, what's that?”
“2,000 words. Some days I'll write four and cut to two, some days are easier than others, but it's the mark of how much I need to get done.”
“I didn't know art was quantifiable,” he said. I don't think he was dismissive. After all, to engrave a copper plate is different. He could not say I will make 270 scratches today.
Nonetheless, it got me thinking. Is art quantifiable? And if it is, what is the measure?
For writers the quantity is easy to know. Today, I will write this story, this article, or this many words on a novel. It's a number easily acquired by a menu item on your word processor's tool bar. It's easily counted, so is it easily quantifiable?
Is it a mark of quality? No. Is it a mark of success? Maybe. It's what we get done and what gets done is a mark of our discipline in our work and our work product is a mark of the hours we spend doing what we do.
When it comes down to art being quantifiable, is it? I don't know. I do know this: in order to produce work, whether it is a novel or a showing of photographs, the artist must work. And if the artist must work, then there must be goals. Within these goals, there should be a several easily attainable tasks. Most writers do not wake up and say today I will write the beginning, middle and end of a 50,000 word novel.
Rather, it is like this—the writer gets up and says, I will work from this time to that and I will write this scene, this chapter or x amount of words today.
Art may not be quantifiable, but the way in which we work must be. 

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