On Learning (To Be Wrong)

July 18, 2021 - 5 min read

Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)Sunset over Ischia by Ivan Aivazovsky

You can argue whether he's a true artist but once you add the word “disaster” preceding “artist”, stars align and your argument make as much sense as Wiseaus' approach to building up dramatic conflict. James Franco even made a film The Disaster Artist (based on the book of the same name) where he fictionally documented the story behind The Room and himself played the famous filmmaker.

The Room is a phenomenon, which, I believe, could happen only in the digital age. Not because we have started caring less about quality and got lower standards but because of our relationship to honest and genuine attempts, healthy irony and how fast the information spreads. We empathise, at least subconsciously, to someone who's authentic, to someone who's trying. Because that's who we are these days, at least I am.

But for or Mr Wiseau, The Room wasn't the failure that led to lessons learned and improvements made. In fact, we hardly can call it a failure. He embraced the notoriously bad film and started taking advantage of it. Mr Wiseau is an artist of one work. The Room is his debut and magnum opus at the same time. He released it and let the audience do the rest.  This is his way of learning to be wrong, or more like "staying wrong" and "embracing wrongness".

But we, as artists, as people who try, don't want to be in Tommy Wiseau's story, neither we have a desire to repeat it. Even if we did, we would have hardly been able to do it. It is an exception from a non-existing rule. You can't produce bad things and hope they become phenomenons like 'The Room'. For most of us, making a bad film, publishing a bad novel, drawing a bad picture, writing a bad essay, tweeting thousands of words of nonsense is just the beginning. It is not where we would stop and embrace wrongness. Moreover, not everyone can handle years of being called 'the worst filmmaker of all time'. We either aim for excellence or do not aim at all.

Both of these strategies seem viable to me. Being a writer, an artist or anyone who makes or tries to conjure art, you act both as an author and an observer, two separate entities melted into one, a captain and a boat’s crew. Your author-self craves making your work ideal while your observer-self tries to find this ideal, navigating work of others or reflecting on your own work. These two selves aim for excellence and work together to find land, seeing Polaris and examining a horizon. They have to, otherwise, their lifeboat will be lost in the ocean.

Another approach does not involve aiming. You just try different things and put them out because you want to tell something, enjoy the process without particular hopes. The goal to produce great work is still there but it's rather vague and unconscious. This approach assumes that one day you may natively converge to a so-called niche (or may not). The captain tends to flâneur and explore the ocean instead of trying to finish the race quickly.

There are could be different mixes of both approaches or an oscillation between them. One can start without a particular goal but then find it and move in that direction, or get tired of having the goal and switch into wandering mode without being lost at the same time.

I am more in the wanderer mode, as you could notice from topics of my previous essays. I tried focusing on “excellence” but perfectionism was devouring me and I still felt pretentious at the end. So, I decided to focus on honest and sincere attempts at the level I am currently able to maintain.

Both approaches involve being bad at the beginning and being wrong at any time along the way. By this, I mean when your opinions, beliefs and tastes collide with the opinions, beliefs and tastes of others, including your past and future selves. They either tell you it directly, or you see it yourself. If they do, they may do it brutally, being annoyed and angry, or as friends and observers who are not indifferent, people who are constructive and helpful.

The inevitable requirement is to learn how to handle both and extract lessons from them, which I have yet to face. I was thinking of a potential framework I can use to get better right now and made up another crew member for my boat, the critic-self, who always stands behind and throw insults over one shoulder and praises over another. The critic-seld has always existed but I set a goal to turn him from an enemy to my ally that can pat on the back if I need it.

Like the other-selves, the critic-self should be trained. Criticism should be considered as the way to grow and learn. It should be considered a creative act.

Reflecting on the work of others helps better understand it and learn. Reflecting on your own work, ruthlessly, helps to stay objective and don't become delusional. The latter is harder but I believe it can be trained as well by doing more of the former. When you train yourself to see good or bad sides, aspects you like or dislike, ideas that resonate or not, you will see it everywhere, including your own work.

When you criticise someone, you help this person to grow. You can give valuable advice, point out weak aspects or just give compliments. Even a simple indication that something is good might be valuable for an artist, it might help them to understand that what they are doing is right and their other self, the impostor-self will have less power. I am quite cynical and even taking praises is difficult for me because I'm often pessimistic and sceptical about my own work and the comments it receives. This is something I don’t like and trying to fix.

Learning to make art should involve learning to criticise, to reflect, to absorb thoughtfully. It is difficult for most of us but, perhaps, if more people start doing it, we can all together reach excellence, the excellence for our artist-selves, the excellence for our observer-selves and the excellence for our critic-selves. And the lifeboat can find its way to the shore, sound and prosperous.

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