The Tyranny of Numbers

Or why I do not have a top ten list

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After December 25th, like clockwork, comes the flood of lists from news outlets needing something to publish during the quiet week between Christmas and the new year when the politicians are with family and keep their bad opinions and behavior limited to that sphere. People everywhere begin to take stock of their year. Of their career. Of their life choices. Of their food choices. Of it all.

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I used to dread my birthday. I still get moody toward the end of November when it approaches and then passes, but I now enjoy the attention as long as I avoid thinking of the numbers. Thirty-six years. One master’s. No career. As my personal year passes, I can’t help but weigh things. On one side of the scale⁠—my age and on the other⁠—my accomplishments. Each year I hope age will finally be the lighter. A month later at the end of the year, I repeat this weighing.

I remember watching a documentary on Alexander Calder when I was young. Calder is best known to most people for his beautiful and innovative mobiles and abstract monuments, but he was also a printmaker, jewelry and set designer. His work is often joyful and does not take itself too seriously. Just watch his circus and you will understand his playful relationship with his own work. I was enamored and still am. There was one statistic in the documentary that stuck out to me. Because memory is the unreliable historian that it is, I do not know if this statistic is true or a myth I made up in my childish adoration. And because I have held onto it for so long, I no longer wish to know whether it is accurate. I’m not sure it matters if it is. The statistic was this: that Calder was so prolific he made a piece of art/jewelry/etc. for every day of his life.

This was it! I thought, This was success! Now, I don’t believe that simply filling the world with junk that you made without care is a great accomplishment. No, what struck me was that to be that prolific required a relationship with creativity that was unfettered. It is hard to make that much art while carrying around the typical baggage⁠—fear of inferiority, fear of failure, fear of being misunderstood, fear of the blank page, fear, Fear, FEAR. For most of us, creating involves the incredible feat of getting out of our own way, and we come up with tools and tricks to do just this.

My painting teacher, Leigh Hyams, would tell me to stop staring at a blank canvas waiting for an idea and just make a mark. Make a mark, and then deal with it. With every subsequent stroke, you are dealing with the one before. It builds, and eventually you have a painting. Whether it is “good” cannot matter during the process. Deal with what is in front of you, not the emotional luggage at your back.

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Several years after seeing the documentary on Calder, I watched another, also about a prolific artist, though a very different one⁠—Henry Darger. Darger was a hospital custodian in Chicago whose work was discovered after his death in 1973. He wrote and illustrated three stories, the most famous of which is The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The longest of the three books, it is over 15 thousand pages of tightly typed text and incredible panoramic watercolors depicting the Vivian Girls’ fight in the war against the adult soldiers who are reminiscent of Civil War fighters.

Darger had spent his childhood in an asylum for “feeble-minded” children. At this time asylums were abuse-filled; harsh punishments were doled out for misbehavior and forced child labor was still legal. Though Darger eventually escaped the asylum when he was sixteen, it is clear from his work that he never escaped the trauma of the experience. It washes over the pages in once technicolor drawings of giant hands reaching for children as they sleep, disembodied heads screaming at the clouds, and of children lined up ready to be hanged by their captors.

Darger and Calder were very different men and very different artists. Darger is beloved in the outsider art movement⁠⁠—he had no formal training and his work was never shown during his lifetime. Calder studied in France, created monuments that became world heritage sites, and was even commissioned by an airline to paint planes as a kind of flying canvas. Recluse and janitor. Winner of the Presidential Medal of Honor.

For much of my life it was clear to me that one of these was the desired life-path. To be of Calder’s caliber, to produce the amount of work he did, to travel in a circle with other famous artists and collectors⁠—that was what it meant to be a real, capital A, Artist. That was the goal. No matter what you do⁠—painting, theatre, music, business⁠—we are taught to strive to be “the best.” Sometimes this is framed as being our personal best, but at other times the level we are told to strive for appears to be imposed from the outside. What if I don’t think being in a museum someday is a priority? What if I prefer scrappy community theatre to the hectic pulse of Broadway? Is choosing a smaller life always settling?

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I have a large art book of Darger’s work. I do not have one of Calder’s. Though to be fair, I do have books of other famous artists’ works (Cy Twombly, Anselm Keiffer, Paul Klee, etc. ), but I have been talking of Calder and Darger so we will focus on them still. While I still get excited when I see Calder’s mobiles in museums, I do not feel the need to reach for images of his work in the way I do with Darger’s. While the poor translation of kinetic art to flat image is certainly a part of this, this is not the only thing at play. While Calder’s work inspires wonder, Darger’s work mesmerizes and scares me. There is an urgency to the Vivian Girls’ story and their war. I can feel Darger’s need to make these images and write these words. Not because a commission is due, but because they are knocking at his heart, demanding a life on paper. Darger certainly had more than his fair share of emotional baggage, but instead of letting it shut him down, he emptied it out, dirty laundry and all, onto the page. Onto twenty-thousand pages in fact. He never showed them to others, but they needed to made all the same.

Somewhere during the history of the word, accomplishment shifted from simply meaning a task completed to meaning one completed successfully. This added adverb is one nasty dude. He frequently shows up when we are working on various crafts trying to convince us that what we are doing is not enough. Even if we finish, it will not be enough. So why finish if it won’t be successful

If we wish to create freely and prolifically in the way my childish and hyperbolic mind believed Calder did, we have to stop caring about that “successfully” and go back to the roots of the word. Finish things.

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But how much is enough? At the end of the year, no matter how much I have accomplished, it still feels as though it weighs no more than air. I painted six paintings I am (somewhat) proud of, but that’s such a small amount. Should have been twelve. Or eighteen. Or twenty-four. Part of the reason small numbers of accomplished tasks can feel like nothing, is again, that problem of success. In this time of online connection, not having art seen and shared, can cause us to devalue the work. Sure I made this game that I like, but only nine people played it, so is it even worth calling it something I accomplished this year? Do I wait to call it an accomplishment when it has more downloads? When it gets reviewed? Is it even worth making more?

We live in an age where we are tyrannized by numbers. We are continuously given ways to measure the value of our work⁠—website hits, facebook likes, retweets, followers, etc.—along with easy ways to compare ourselves to others. This creates a set of emotional baggage our great grandparents could not have dreamt of. To carry the metaphor further, if they were lugging around practical brown leather cases, we are pulling, on 360° wheels, textured bags in The World’s Pinkest Pink, a color with its own click-worthy feud attached.

But how to market something is the last thing we should be thinking about as we create that thing. And whether a piece of art, or game, or blog post, got you another like or follower, says very little about its value. Just ask Darger, holed up in his Chicago apartment in 1970 with stacks of art and story still unseen.

This new year, push against the pressure to rank your work and weigh your year and life. Remove that added adjective in your definition of accomplishment. Start some projects. Finish some.

Make marks, and then deal with them.