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How do I find or establish quality in my work?

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As an artist, your highest goal is to understand your own ideas of quality, to grow with and expand them. Your standards will keep changing, just as you do, and sometimes conflict with each other: some works will need to scream, while others will need to be silent. Some works will need to do both. Think of your quality criteria as a rhizome, something of depth and complexity, and endless connection points: like a symphony, or a plant with indefinite subterranean roots. Something that can incorporate varying ideas of strength and power without opposition or conflict: to be slow yet strong, dedicated yet open. Over time, you’ll understand overarching standards that encompass, include, and potentially replace your prior ones: where smoothness of movement might have been relevant initially, your focus might shift to full choreographies – and later return to the initial focus. Quality standards are ever-shifting, just as you are. They will morph along your moods and life phases, carrying the potential for endless surprises.

XIV piano piece for David Tudor 4, by Sylvano Bussoti (1980); from “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia”

How to Find Quality in Your Work

You establish your quality ideals by mindfully immersing yourself into art, and life. They are a consequence of all your aesthetic and semantic preferences, including all your affinities and actual capabilities. The more sensitive you are about understanding what matters to you (media, processes, tools, aesthetics and content), the more likely you’ll establish ideals that suit you. You’re never bound by current limitations though: your today’s capabilities can change tremendously, based on your willingness to invest time and effort.

Whenever you create something, you also form a value judgement: about what worked, and what didn’t. About what moved you, or moved you too much, or didn’t move you enough. About what was too bright, too large or too slow. About the little things that might require change to result in something to feel perfect: sounds, movements, traction; density and weight;  haptics and fluidity, etc. The same is true when experiencing the world: what food, hobbies, politics or social agendas you care about. Quite obviously, your affinities are deeply personal – yet your choices can sidestep them: you might like something, but decide against it; your bias might exist on a general level, but not specifically when discussing the current artwork.

Art History

While your quality criteria are yours to establish, art has a tremendous history of choices. The more you know about them, the better you will be able to connect to someone else’s choices, and continue or transcend what’s been established before you. Doing so changes your art practice from the pursuit of pure personal expression, to the proactive advance of a medium’s history. While artworks always focus on something, this adds another focus point: art history. As such, it defines your way of interacting with art per se, putting it on the same level as worldly topics. Understand that your focus on art history can lead to art that unbalancedly cares about the past – any of your choices can have the (subconscious) intention to find a secure hiding spot, a place to rest. These rarely exist in the arts, which benefit from courageous approaches. The challenge is to find a way to incorporate your self-expression in a way that reflects the past, and potentially helps to bring it into the future. For this, your references don’t have to be obvious or explicit – they don’t even have to be understood. By existing in your mind, and during the creation process, the artwork usually creates a spin that sticks, an aura that’s hard to describe but there to be felt.

Hiking without a Compass

Consider hiking in unknown territories, without a compass to guide you. You might never reach your goal: every direction is equally feasible. You might want to rest and wait for help, but the endless horizons in each direction don’t promise anyone’s arrival anytime soon. Yet you could reach your goal by simply deciding on a direction, and by starting to walk. You might want to change directions after a while, potentially subverting your previous choices. You might notice life around your path as exciting yet worrying, and keep moving. While you’ve walked for a longer time already, you notice that there might never be a goal. You get frustrated, worried, fearful – until you realize that walking actually is the goal.

This is both worrying and liberating: instead of an external goal to get to, you understand to be embedded within one already. You don’t trust this insight too much though, and keep moving. Over the years, you realize that you can walk in all sorts of ways: slowly, gracefully, weirdly; you can crawl or walk backwards, you can even dance or whistle along the way. On really good days, you move according to your inner self, without any thoughts on how it might look like, or how incredibly stupid the whole act of walking might be. Your increasing awareness of the endless ways of moving let you understand that this pursuit of moving, of the various modes of walking, is what ultimately defines you.

The pursuit of a goal resulted in you walking, and turned to you thinking of maybe, just maybe, yourself as being the goal. Once you truly understand this, you set up camp. The sun sets. You build a home, and decorate it with experiences and schemes. You still go for hikes, but look forward to returning to your camp. You don’t explore the world as much as you used to. You found a home, by walking the earth.

Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1490
Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1490

Understand that the artistic process consists of the pursuit of .. itself. It’s a deeply self-reflecting, self-referential system, based on your own sensitivities and creations. This system is then used to process the parts of life that you care about. While you can attach yourself to the beliefs and ideals of others, this will remove your voice from the world – maybe even before it was ever formed. By fostering an atmosphere of benevolence towards experimentation, you can raise your own  awareness and sensitivities: about what you want, and who you might be. Without these, you can imitate others, but won’t be able to develop your voice, your ideas, your interpretation of the world. You’d be silenced, and stripped of your power.

Read the previous chapter to understand what quality is, and why it is relevant for artists.

I want to understand “quality”. What is it, and why is it relevant to artists?

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One’s personal understanding of quality is required for artists to establish their own work practice. Without it, they cannot understand whether a work is “good” to them, right now – and why it would be finished.

The one thing that unites all artists is their pursuit of establishing and implementing a personal work practice. For this, they need to understand their own quality criteria. Yet what does quality mean, and how does it relate to one’s work?

Quality in Everyday Life

When people discuss the quality of an everyday object, they usually think about the level of craft, as well as the care and attention that went into its creation. They also consider how well it fulfills its purpose: the durability of a battery, the sharpness of a knife’s blade, the stability of a chair. Objects rarely exist in, or emerge from a vacuum; most of them are the continuation of generational developments: consider the wheel, whose origins go back to before the Bronze Age. Quite obviously, humans had a lot of time to establish rather specific understandings of what makes a good wheel, and what doesn’t; that’s quality in everyday life: the sum total of valid expectations towards something whose purpose is clear

Quality in the Arts

Art seems to have always accompanied humans – it might even have preceded our species’ consciousness. Seen this way, it makes sense to think of quality in art as equally (highly) evolved as that of everyday objects. For sure, every art historian will be able to judge how well a piece of art fits the quality criteria established over the last couple dozen millennia!

As we know, this isn’t true anymore. While guilds and art academies originally defined, taught and pursued strict ideas about artistic content and form, contemporary art is defined by a near-total openness in regards to what can be done, and how it can be done. This is a consequence of the changed roles and functions that artists have – from anonymous cave painters to anonymous producers of craft objects (in a world before mass production, everything was a craft object), to ordinary people using technologies to depict the world. The age-old artistic function of documenting the world visually has turned optional. As a result, contemporary artists can’t rely on any of the predefined quality ideals that were developed over centuries. Instead, they can (or rather: they have to) adapt and extend the vastness of previous canons and approaches – or they can ignore them. Doing the latter feels shallow: who would want to work in a field whose history they aren’t curious about? Ultimately though, ignoring the past could be another valid way of being an artist.

Ambiguity and the People

This historic change of the role of art also has implications for the viewers of contemporary art: they might not be able to understand what they’re seeing and experiencing, why it could matter, and how to judge it. Differently to everyday objects, the purpose of an artwork might not be clear to them. Maybe the artwork means to criticize something. Maybe it wants to disturb. Maybe it wants nothing of them at all, yet their viewing expectations demand an aesthetically pleasing dialog that they aren’t getting – so their experience becomes frustrating. If viewers apply their preexisting value judgments, chances are they won’t “get” the artwork: the wide variety of contemporary artistic modes can make it unrealistic for a viewer’s expectations to meet an artist’s ideals. They might be entirely oblivious of the reference system that might give context to what’s in front of them. Outreach programs or basic dialogs can offer missing direction and explanations, but not everyone wants to listen to explanations. Some people expect an artwork to speak for itself, yet are unable to see the complexities that it might contain. In addition, some art simply wants to remain obscure. Another frequent issue is the one of craft expectations: what’s made with obvious care and attention to detail, is often understood to matter more, and to be “better art”. At the same time, some people care about art especially for its power to subvert expectations; these people tend to then be bored by art that repeats what’s already been established – they might thus miss the nuances of change in the art of those people who silently expand the canon.

Quality and the Market

Since an artwork’s qualities can be fleeting and misunderstood, it’s often not used as main metric for judgements. Many artists are acutely aware of a unique role reversal: instead of judging an artwork’s quality to derive its monetary value, some people rather want to know about an artwork’s price, in order to then derive its potential quality: in capitalism, the price of something strongly defines our expectations for it – this holds true for art as well, which can be frustrating: if the artist’s visibility is low, it will usually result in their work’s prices to be low just as well. It can take a lot of effort to experience a low-priced work of art, and see its actual qualities – especially if these qualities don’t meet our expectations about what art should be like.

Someone’s price level, awards, residencies or the number of solo shows are external metrics, and can strongly define the perception of an artist’s value: works are good because their price is high, or because they got awards, or because their creator received awards. Refine a sense of distrust when hearing about a work’s “quality”, especially when used by people in positions of power: professors, jurors, curators, art critics, collectors, fellow artists, gallerists, etc. Apply this distrust even when people discuss your work in positive ways: they might use the idea of quality to hide their actual intent.

Personal Choices

Contemporary artists have a lot of rather personal choices to make. They need to decide which media, processes, tools, aesthetics and content to use, and how to use them.

For each of these, they have to develop personal quality criteria. These can change over time – artists don’t need to stick to previous ones. To the contrary, the pursuit of quality ideals is so heavily ingrained in contemporary thinking of arts, that artists who “simply” follow one and the same recipe for years, are frequently frowned upon: certain people dislike or question the idea of formula-based art processes, although art historically, the application of such processes might be what defined Western art the strongest. Nevertheless, artists need high degrees of curiosity about their interests, and a willingness to express these interests through endless approximations, and often frustrating mistakes: no one can tell them what to do (how their personal choices might look like), yet people will only ever be interested in the consequences of exactly these choices: this is an unusual situation in today’s world.

One’s quality criteria include certain expected decisions of contemporary art: what to do, and how to go about it. They also include process-related decisions that can come unexpected to laypeople, and sometimes aren’t understood as important to the end result: which brushes to use, how to hold, use and clean them; how to mix colors; what palette and which canvas to use, and how to stretch and prime it; whether to work on an easel or the wall, or to paint on a table. While certain art schools offer specific and strict advice on how to pursue one’s artistic practice, their graduates ultimately have to decide on their own how to blend these guidelines into a contemporary art practice: their own artistic practice. If they simply stick to what they were taught, it will likely result in anachronistic works that recreate the spirit of a time that’s essentially past. In open-quality systems like art, you can’t rely on other people’s quality judgements – the likelihood of them pursuing exactly your goals is extremely low. They might be unable to comprehend your ideas, resulting in misguided feedback or advice. That’s why you need to develop and discover your own standards and ideas of excellence: your quality criteria. It can therefore be beneficial to find art schools that discuss meta-levels of art, instead of only giving explicit craft directions: how to think about art, how to pursue one’s curiosities, how to manifest and process. An ideal art school would combine meta with craft specifics.

Read the next chapter to understand how to find or establish quality in your art.

How do I start?

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You start making art by embracing an exploratory mindset, which helps you to investigate the potential quality ideals of your work.

Starting something can be both magical and frightening: beginnings require us to transcend our fear of failure. They let our hopes for success meet the realities of our abilities, and of our willpower: sometimes doubts win, and we stop before ever having begun. Beginnings can be complex – you might not know what to do, how to go about it, or even why you’re getting started. Your actions might become a beginning, without you yet being aware of it.

Beginnings are a frequent challenge for artists, maybe more so than for others: entering a new project with unknown parameters, a collaboration with unclear outcomes. Kicking off a new medium, starting one’s first sculpture ever, or a new series after the previous one didn’t resonate with others. Apart from curiosity and a certain willfulness or giddiness, beginnings require hope – and the belief that we can be more than we are right now. They are quintessentially human.

Beginnings require hope, and the belief that we can be more than we are right now. They are quintessentially human.

The beginnings of artistic processes can be unexpectedly erratic, since they can’t rely on external quality ideals – processes can legitimately begin without knowing where they are meant to go. These quality ideals can exist upfront (as the result of previous artistic interrogations, or general personal semantic or aesthetic preferences), or have to be established while pursuing the process, resulting in them often being inherently experimental. The notion of artistic processes having to be experimental is so normative to some, that sometimes an artist’s authenticity is judged by it: if your art is visually similar to your previous work, or that of other artists, it might be seen as inauthentic (“You’re just copying yourself!” or “You’re just copying others, instead of pursuing your own vision! Art is only art if its processes are unstable!”). This can lead to artists feeling self-conscious once their processes become more established and stable – as if there’s only merit in the pursuit of unknowns. The actuality is that the art making process has different phases: some more experimental, some more production-oriented. Both are necessary.

Artistic processes often don’t have a clear sequence of steps to pursue; there might be knowledge about tools and materials, but little absolutes about how to reach the goal (which doesn’t need to be defined upfront). With neither processes nor goals being clearly defined, artistic processes often start radically erratic and open-minded, and can benefit from a certain naivety. How to ever get somewhere this way?

Exploratory Processes

Many creative processes follow a predefined, sequential formula (“do this, then that, then that, ..”); they offer a sequence, and thus guideline, within which creativity (and thus personal choice) finds room. In the arts however, there often is neither sequence nor guideline – the processes can be more fundamentally open and exploratory: you can draw a figure or an abstraction on your piece of paper, or you can fold the paper, or rip it apart, or burn it and create work out of its ashes. You can draw a figure on paper, but focus on the pencil being used up (and not what you were drawing).

Exploratory artistic processes need to establish what they are about, and how they go about it. In the case of process-oriented artistic practices, this pursuit can even represent the goal, with a specific end condition being used instead of otherwise defined quality criteria: a certain time having passed, materials having being consumed, etc. These practices ultimately don’t need anything but the urge to start: one can doodle and experiment freely, to end whenever it feels right. For goal-oriented practices, the artist needs to develop some sort of understanding of where to get to, and how to get there. For production phases, one would usually want to know both these aspects; for exploratory phases, one ultimately needs neither: it suffices to get going, and stay sensitive towards one semantic and aesthetic ideas.


Various Process Modes
Formula-, process- and goal-based processes

Finishing and Quality Criteria

Finishing something requires you to understand and reach that thing’s finish line – which in arts is represented by your quality ideals: when does a painting, a sculpture, a novel, a dance fulfill the various criteria that you require of it? These quality criteria can be aesthetic (“A blue sun has been sculpted in a way that’s pleasing to me”) or conceptual (“Thirteen body movements have been made between 6:07 and 7:06pm”) – offering endless potential for confusion to laypeople. This is made even more volatile by quality ideals not only being highly personal, but also being subject to time: a specific variation of a sculpted blue sun might look beautifully complete to Artist A, but decidedly worthless to Artist B; these personal points of view do not stand in conflict with each other (although certain people will, antagonistically, lecture others about which quality criteria they feel to be “right”), since everyone is ultimately required to have their own ideas about what’s finished or good – it serves as the basis for contemporary arts’ endless multitude of quality ideals and works. In addition, an artist’s ideas about finishedness and perfection don’t have to be consistent over time, but can vary in extreme ways.

Volatile Quality Criteria in Art
Quality criteria usually change over time (Artist A), and between people (Artist A vs. Artist B)

It’s possible to finish an artwork even if you don’t understand whether it’s done – you can simply decide that you’ll leave it where it stands. If you don’t understand your quality ideals, you cannot know whether your current work satisfies them; you need to start interrogating (this might be the case because you are new at making art, or because you are experienced, but enter a new medium or concept where your ideals don’t feel adequate). You do so by embedding yourself in the processes of creation: either by using the tools and materials (pencil, hammer, your tablet, etc.), or by conceptualizing your quality ideals theoretically (“I want bold lines and large canvases”, “I want fragility mixed with cheekiness”, etc.) – or both. You increase your sensitivity and your judgment.

Over time, this fills the initially empty pot of quality with purpose and intent. Your ideas about a work’s (potential and actual) quality ideals will emerge from being immersed: you understand them because you focus, and experiment with your decisions. Before this can happen though, one has to begin – potentially without yet being able to properly understand where to go. This isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds; it’s like hiking with the intention to explore, which requires you to stay attentive and calm, and to carry on. You start without compass or map – but by walking, you get a better understanding of the territory, and the many options you have. Your walking becomes compass and map. You aren’t an explorer because you reach a goal; you are an explorer because you explore. Art requires a lot of this – it enables you to understand the territory, and your place(s) within it. You will get to judge which views you enjoy better than others, which in turn will give you moments of joy. The more of them you have, the better your life will often feel. Yet having a view at all starts with your first step: the beginning.

While it’s impossible to finish a work with unclear quality criteria, it’s absolutely possible to start working on it. Quality is a vacuum, which can eventually be replaced with purpose and intent. Quality can emerge from exposure to, and being embedded in a process. Before this can happen though, one has to begin – potentially without yet being able to properly understand where to go. This isn’t a bad situation – it’s like hiking to get somewhere unknown: you can’t get there without starting off, even though you might not always know whether the direction makes sense. You start without a compass or map – but by walking, you get a better understanding of the territory, and where it all might lead to. Your walking becomes compass and map. You aren’t a hiker because you reach a goal; you are a hiker because you hike. Art requires a lot of wandering – the more you can set up processes whose views you enjoy, the better your life will be. Having a view at all starts with your first step: the beginning.

In an open field like art, it can be hard to understand why to choose any specific direction over another – all of them are possible, and often mean the same to a beginner. There’s just not a strong compass yet. To establish one, consider using the following 3-tier structure:

  1. To focus
  2. To investigate, and 
  3. To gradually increase your commitment (and thus pressure).

Consider reading the chapters for a detailed discussion of each of these topics.