Today I was wondering about how it is an artist decides which art form, media, subject matter and style will best express his or her current vision. While I'm fascinated to hear other artists discuss their own answers to this question, I can only speak for myself. For me the ultimate answer is to say that my history, ideas and personality have little to do with it. If I begin with the premise that I am an entity (human, American, man, north westerner, seeker, mystic, political agent, even an artist) that is the originator of my artistic decisions, I am already lost. The work has no chance of ringing true in any great sense. For example, while every choice is a political choice (in that it either supports, opposes or ignores its contribution to the way in which its expression will be interpreted by the world), if I begin with a political intent my quest is imbued with too much personal investment in the outcome. I am already a slave to an idea, a tiny fragment of myself, a painter in service to a goal instead of a simple painter. Of course great truths may be found anywhere, even in a straightjacket but if it lives there too long it transforms into a lie. It's the same if I start out to further the evolution of a particular art historical movement or try to break from history altogether. A template for creativity is worse than snake oil. A decision to set up a target outside of my own process of expression constrains my efforts to achievement without the joy of discovery. And while the result may be fascinating and even produce impressive work, it always leaves me feeling as if God has bestowed upon me a beautiful and cursed table set with delicious food that entertains the senses but leaves the stomach empty.
So for me, all my artistic decisions start at a much deeper yet simpler level. I don't hold a vision of the end result in my mind, judging each decision by its likelihood of taking me closer to or farther from that end. My decisions are simple, dumb and elemental. I decide to feel the connection of my feet to the floor, the tension in the muscles in my hand as it favors the heft of lifting a new canvas to the easel or the ease of fresh paper from the pad. I decide to notice the lightness that arises in my heart as I put down a piece of clay and grasp a tube of paint or vice versa. I decide to watch the anxiety that dissipates as I return to an unfinished piece in order to change its direction or start anew with a medium that is foreign to me. The quality of my decisions, if they may be called decisions, is not judged by whether they "work" but by whether I feel trapped or simply nudged by them.
This is not to say that I am a slave to my feelings. I am a free artist. My work may be a part of history and even informed by it but as I make creative decisions I am free from its dictates. Free from the trajectory of a life that began with my family of origin. Free from the joy and pain of the world and from art itself. I am not cozy in the company of my contemporaries or those that have come before me. I am at sea, alone. I am not hopelessly but preciously alone. I am ridiculous and unafraid.
I am free from thoughts too as they arise and grasp only to let go or grasp more firmly. A sudden desire to repeat a pleasing result excites my intellect and for a brief moment I have a reason to paint, a manifesto of purpose. When the manifesto threatens to suggest my next serval moves I may be seduced by the idea of having found some infallible new device that will ease the burdens of originality. When this happens I will do something, anything to peer around this shiny new manifesto that is blocking the one true sun. In both hope and desperation, like an eccentric captain, I cast the compass of my plans into the ocean and free myself again from the pretense that I know which shore will yield the most riches. I head out to uncertain seas, trusting the fact that the only riches to be found are on the deck of my boat, the crest of the approaching wave, a chance encounter with a bustling harbor, or the shoals upon which my artistic boat suddenly wrecks. Charts are for actual seaman. For artists, charts are more anchor than guide. Anchors that chain us to our strategies and leave vast oceans of ourselves undiscovered.
In the end it is ideas themselves that wrap the artist in the warm blanket of a signature style and constrain the artist to a restricted notion of Vision where so called heroic quests for truth produce replicas of false gods. Unattached to thoughts and feelings I opt for the much vaster Vision of simply wandering. I unearth both peace and good work by my willingness to be lost. Thus disoriented I am free to find that which cannot be sought but only discovered.
My artistic decisions are not so much made as calmly noticed, or fiercely shunned as I battle against my own preconceptions. A good artistic decision is the humblest of navigators, charged not with setting course to an idyllic land, but to sail my soul clear of the tyrants of my heart and mind, to parts unknown and unknowable.