Art and The Accumulation of Mistakes

Dec 1, 2014 / Photography / how to be creative / synchronicity / learn from mistakes

cyanotype print illustration of x-ray of man's interior chest with flowers surreal
Under Armor. Toned Cyanotype with Drawing, 2020. Two print sizes. © Jonah Calinawan

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Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

Scott Adams

I marvel at the simple wisdom embedded in the quote above from American cartoonist Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert comics. Perfection is the enemy of creativity.

If we require a perfect product (be it a first draft of an essay, business memo, or photograph) every time we do something, we will not take risks, we will avoid mistakes at all costs, and we will, therefore, stifle our creativity.

In my work, I try to suspend judgment on how “good” a photograph is when I’m in the middle of the actual shoot. I muzzle the inner critic, and instead, I listen to the inner voice that might say, “move this way, put more light here, remove this, try this idea.” Of course, this voice is me, but I pretend that it is somebody else, and all I am doing is following directions. It is silly and perhaps a bit weird, but if it works, why not?

One side effect of this pretending is the mindset that mistakes are okay since well, it’s not really me. However, on a deeper level, they may actually not be mistakes, perhaps they are actually signals. A Million Suns talks about a universe suffused with signs. Could mistakes actually be one of the signs from the universe or the Muse? It is an interesting idea.

Even if one doesn’t believe in any of these notions born from the Romantic era (that art comes from the Muse), I say we should embrace mistakes anyway. Christopher James in his photography book on alternative process says

This is what I’ve discovered about a workshop class if you make a mistake, and if it’s an attractive mistake, the mistake will be incorporated into the way the process is done from that point on. I have intentionally made mistakes in demos knowing that something good was going to happen that [students] could adopt. It instills the idea of play in the process.

Mistakes might just actually lead us to a better way of communicating what we want to say in our work. Scott Adams may be right: art is actually the accumulation of mistakes that one chooses to incorporate. The resulting art will indelibly be unique, since your accumulated mistakes will be different from another. It is a very interesting idea to think about, that one’s signature style, the very thing that identifies the photograph as yours, results from the amalgamation of mistakes that you have chosen to keep.

Once we make that decision to follow that mistake, what comes next? Well certain things will start to happen. 

We will set in motion the principle that C. G. Jung dubbed synchronicity, loosely defined as a fortuitous intermeshing of events.

Julia Margaret Cameron, from The Artist’s Way

Things will appear out of nowhere just when you need them.

I have a very recent example. I’ve been saying for the past year that I wanted to explore comic books and graphic novels, but between my day job, art commitments, and life, nothing really panned out. But one day this past September, out of the blue, I came across a facebook post about coursera, an education platform that offers free online courses. Curious, I went to the website to see what it was about. Lo and behold, I saw a free course on comic books and graphic novels, and it was starting the following week! I love coincidences like this. 

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!

W. H. Murray, from The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951)

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