creative constipation + its antagonist

For a long while now I’ve been aware of and mildly interested in Momus without bothering to investigate. (More on this below). Every so often I’ll stumble across or be pointed towards something of his, and that’s that. I recently found myself watching this new-ish video from him and liking it a lot.

Momus and John Henriksson, “Love Wakes The Devil”

I circulated it to a few friends with the qualification “I have mixed regard for this guy” or something(s) to that effect, and I got some interesting responses. One person helpfully pointed out that the mystery man in the video — perhaps a long-forgotten robot built to compete with Elvis, shelved for awkwardness? — is reminiscent of this other guy. Another asked why the mixed feelings? “I think maybe it’s his voluminous and incessant output,” I answered. “All the blogging, etc. I guess I’m a bit suspicious of someone who is endlessly interested in their own utterances, for years and years and years at a time. Or maybe I just resent him for having so much of himself out there, because it makes it sort of impossible for me to evaluate him as a casual listener.” Which is silly, obviously, for several reasons. Why should anyone be graspable in one grab? Of course they should not be, and I tend to actively dislike people who are. Why not put a ton of yourself out there is a discrete, messier and more interesting question, I think, and my friend’s perceptive response made me rosy with self-consciousness:

He’s definitely a certain kind of person. I think he is very comfortable expressing himself. I don’t think he is self-critical (I mean this in a positive way). I don’t think he is trying to make a ‘great work.’ I think he sees himself in the tradition of folk music. And in his mind giving something to world — no matter how imperfect — is better than keeping it stifled up. As a result he has really added something to the world where most of us are trying so hard to be perfect we never actually do much.

I don’t think he meant really for real on a granular level (individual albums, songs, what-have-you), but you get the idea. I’ve struggled with the trying-to-be-perfect thing at moments but the biggest issue for me is wanting to have everything in place before I start a new project. Which is, yeah, a form of wanting everything to be perfect. I find it very difficult to start something new unless I feel I can completely throw myself into it, and how can I completely throw myself into something unless my “spare” time, my energy, and my reasons for wanting to do it are all heaving with abundance? And would you believe I have some trouble getting these things synced up? Of this bundle of idiotic expectations I have, the time-related one seems to be the most manageable; I think it’s a relatively straightforward matter of learning new habits (getting comfortable working in small chunks of time rather than big blocks, for example). Where I really run into trouble is in navigating the ambivalence I develop about my reasons for taking on any potential project, my questions about why do z instead of y or x, and is it worth bothering with at all. Not because I believe in greatness-or-nothing but because I believe in deliberateness-or-nothing. Just about every book or song or arty-whatnot that’s ever really meant anything to me was made by someone who seems to have been working from a series of rigorous aesthetic and intellectual decisions (versus working from a mindset of “oh hell, I’ll just try it and see where it goes”). My ideal is work that appears unstudied coming from someone who has studied the fuck out of it. One example, a curious one considering I don’t particularly like the Ramones: A couple weeks ago this article by Johnny Ramone came out, and in it he talks about the formation of the band and the decisions they made in the earliest days. The four skinny guys in jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets (or, the four skinny guys in jeans, t-shirts and leather jackets) took six months to decide that that’s what they would wear:

At that point, we were still dressed in partial glitter. I had these silver-lamé pants made of Mylar, and these black spandex pants I’d wear, too. I was the only one with a real Perfecto leather jacket—what the Ramones would later be identified with—which I had been wearing for seven years already. I also had this vest with leopard trim that I had custom made.

We were still evolving into the image we became known for, but it was trial and error at first. I’d give Tommy a lot of the credit for our look. He explained to me that Middle America wasn’t going to look good in glitter. Glitter is fine if you’re the perfect size for clothes like that. But if you’re even five pounds overweight, it looks ridiculous, so it wouldn’t be something everyone could relate to.

It was a slow process, over a period of six months or so, but we got the uniform defined. We figured out that it would be jeans, T-shirts, leather jackets, and the tennis shoes, Keds. We wanted every kid to be able to identify with our image.

I’ve never cared about wanting to make anything people can identify with but I do care deeply about singularity, and I think it generally comes from that same process of refining one’s ideas to the point where everything that’s there represents a series of decisions. (To use another Ramonesian example, think of them playing “Happy Birthday”: it would sound 100% like a Ramones song, and we can easily visualize how they would look playing it, the way they’d be standing or holding their instruments, and pretty much everything else about it). It’s not that I think a uniform or an identifiable stance are essentials or that it should necessarily be a slow or anguished process; it’s more about starting from a place that isn’t aesthetically or intellectually bankrupt, and paring away any crap going forward.

Do any of you have secret tricks for working through these pre-working choices, for wading through the muck between having an idea and commencing work on the idea? Please murmur them into my comments section. Highly recommended drugs that enable you to start a hundred weirdo side projects while blogging like a fiend will also be considered.

7 responses to “creative constipation + its antagonist

  1. A good one. Great thoughts and I love that you are getting them down into a coherent dialogue – of course I totally agree. It is a lot to discuss. I have always been in agreement with this approach. When I have criticized art it is because I detect that the intellectual beginning – underpinnings – is absent no matter what advanced stage the work is in at that point. For artists like us it becomes instantly obvious. There is an inherent issue here though – you have to recognize when you have become trapped by form and realize that your approach has to keep evolving somehow – usually in the direction of simplicity. Inspiring!

    • Thanks!

      I’m not sure I’m doing anything that’s art at the moment but my trees project has potential.

      I think you’re very right about becoming trapped by form – the Ramones are maybe a good example of that too.

  2. In a funny kind of way this reminds me of what we might call an old-school-style Momus essay from the days before blogging was ubiquitous – and you can take that as a compliment, because as a writer he was (I suspect still is) always interesting and erudite and usually challenging too. Obviously as an artist he has done a lot of navel-gazing, but as often as not his gaze has been turned outwards, which I think has made for engaged and engaging criticism as well as songs which are both singular and potentially of universal interest.

    In terms of time, Momus has one advantage over the likes of me and very likely you too – his persona, his music and his criticism are his livelihood, whereas I have to fit my writing and projects around working for a living, and living itself. Not that I’m at all unhappy about the balance I’ve struck.

    Of course you do have to clear a space and time for ideas to germinate, but I tend to think that the things I really want to do will out; they’ll rise above the ideas that from just past the outset I feel some degree of ambivalence towards. I try not to worry about posts or projects that don’t come off, and move swiftly onto the next thing that may make it all the way to fruition. I’m reasonably certain that hidden behind that visible perfected work coming out of the rigorous aesthetic and intellectual decisions of your favourite artists are all the false starts and wrong turns that rigour demanded they throw away or stop following. The perfected work is surely the result of years of getting it both wrong and right. The smartest artists never allow us to see their mistakes, Momus perhaps being an exception.

    Counter-intuitively I think you also need fallow – empty or even switched off periods of time too, to move past what was and to allow what wants to be room to emerge. To an extent my problem has become giving myself enough fallow, and I wonder if this is your issue too – that one idea sets off another, and that in turn another, and soon you feel overwhelmed with the possibilities and unsure which path to take. That’s about the time I start making a list, to see in black and white which idea rises to the top. And then I find out if words / actions will accrete around that core of an idea.

    • Such a thoughtful and interesting response, thanks Dan!

      The work-for-money / other work thing is huge. Not only does it force me to mentally say no to more ideas than I’d like, it also, I’m realizing, requires some weird habit-shifting for me. Because in the particular type of work I do for money, nothing ever gets started until everything is in place — nothing can be done until the research is complete, the depositions have been taken, etc. And that was true for much of the creative work I’ve done at other times in my life, too. I was a film student and made a few short films before working as a video editor for a while, and in that work, too, one needs everything in place, even for crap zero-budget projects: a shot list, equipment, a crew, various things. Getting started is so different from sitting in front of a blank page alone, so much more orderly.

      Excellent point about not seeing other people’s false starts and ill-considered silver lamé pants.

      A fallow period followed by a feeling of being overwhelmed sounds very, very familiar to me. Funny that you advocate list-making — just last week I got very excited about a nice big sketchpad I bought for making nice, big lists. It seemed like such progress, to have decided that my small lists just weren’t cutting it somehow! I think it will be good for me.

  3. Languormonkey

    Q: How did this burger come about?

    A: We’d been talking about it, we decided we wanted to make a hamburger, but we wanted to do something different. I mean, originally I wanted to do a regular burger, a flat patty, but we talked about it and we kind of came to a middle ground. I was doing this Thursday night thing at Bruno’s with my friend Chris, I was going to Paris with Brandon Jew, and Anthony said he wanted to make a burger, so he said, “When you get back, we’ll start.”

    So a lot of the reason we made the burger to begin with was because we wanted to eat it.

    • Cheeky monkey! As if there’s any other kind.

      In all seriousness, I don’t think there is any legitimate comparison between making food and making art, and I’d categorize probably 99.8% of the food / art comparisons I’ve read as either embarrassing fanboy lather (when written by someone admiring the food) or an equally-cringe-worthy instance of someone who believes their own press (when written by someone who makes the food). And I’d categorize the other .2% as thought-provoking but ultimately missing something in the way of editorial judgment. I just don’t believe it holds up as a way of thinking. Cooking on a high level (whatever that means) clearly requires tremendous skill, knowledge, and creativity, but I don’t believe the plates of food a cook produces can be articulate in quite the same way a novel or a film or some other proper work can be. They may be expressive of a time and place and so forth, and they may challenge expectations, but that isn’t the same thing as art. And I don’t think it makes a damn bit of difference whether the cook is “smart” or not. Yes I know “some other proper work” is a troublesome thing to say, way too problematic to be unpacked in blog comments, but . . .

  4. fat camps With all the doggone snow we have gotten as of late I am stuck inside, fortunately there is the internet, thanks for giving me something to do.

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