Personal = Universal

Mar 30, 2016 / Photography / how to be creative / how i create my art

I just came back from fotofest, one of the largest photography festivals in North America. Held every other year, it is a month long festival with photography exhibitions across many art venues in Houston. I specifically went there for portfolio reviews, and I met with 21 portfolio reviewers over the course of four days. They looked at my work and gave their feedback. Each meeting only lasts 20 minutes so the feedback is high level, from the gut, delivered straight. There is no room for fragile egos here. One reviewer said that my new work was contrived, forced, and not developed enough. You’d better have a thick skin and write down the feedback for thinking later. It’s not the time to argue.

One comment that I received multiple times related to the personal nature of my work.

“The personal story is compelling, but not narcissistic.”
“Your work is directly personal, but abstract.”

These comments are so heartening to me. It’s one of the things that I completely believe in: that by making personal work, I’m addressing something universal. This idea of equivalence, personal = universal, is what I strive for. I got this from many artists.

The more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes. (Diane Arbus, influential documentary photographer)
When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice. (Cheryl Strayed, author of the book, Wild, that became a movie, the one starring Reese Witherspoon)
Given the primacy of the universal, it’s ironic that only when embodied in the very specific does a universal become accessibleäó_In the abstract, universals are so vast they’re impossible to wrap your mind around. It’s only when expressed through the flesh-and-blood reality of a story, that we’re able to experience a universal one-on-one, and so feel it. (Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story)
We all share the same crucial human experiences. Each of us is suffering and enjoying, dreaming and hoping of getting through our days with something of value. As a writer, you can be certain that everyone coming down the street toward you, each in his own way, is having the same fundamental human thoughts and feelings that you are. This is why when you ask yourself, äóìIf I were this character in these circumstances, what would I do?äóù the honest answer is always correct. You would do the human thing. Therefore, the more you penetrate the mysteries of your own humanity, the more you come to understand yourself, the more you are able to understand others. (Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting)

Of course the next question is whether this equation, Personal = Universal, is always true in a work of art. Unfortunately I don’t think so. In theory this equation is true, but it usually fails at implementation. It depends on how a creator approaches and delivers the work.

So how do you actually make the personal universal? Tune in next week to find out. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. What are the prerequisite conditions for this equation to be true in a book, a painting, or a photograph?

About the Author

Jonah Calinawan

Hello! I’m Jonah, an accountant turned artist behind A Million Suns.

I create cyanotype art that makes you think and feeds the soul. I also blog about the quest for a meaningful life using art and positivity.

When not shooting photos, I teach myself piano and recommend pianist Josh Wright’s Propractice tutorials (affiliate link).

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