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An Exercise in Futility Posted on October 31st

An Easy Ideal

In the book Willem de Kooning: Works, Writings, Interviews, De Kooning talks about a fascinating method of solving artist’s block. De Kooning recommends trying, with plaster, to create a perfect sphere. Because this is largely impossible, you’d file and sand and balance and rotate and all the while you’d never get any closer. You could make tiny adjustments indefinitely. De Kooning describes this dogged, vain attempt as a kind of useful meditation for artists.

 This is a good activity for two reasons:

1. It would allow you to practice striving for an ideal without having to think up the ideal.

When someone tries to make art, there is usually an ideal (or an intention) one is aiming for, even if that ideal is nothing more than the moment the work intuitively “feels right.” This can be crippling, because neither the ideal nor its attainment is usually all that clear. When you try to make a sphere, the ideal image is easily pictured and therefore easier to pursue. You can then practice the most difficult part of artmaking—realizing the ideal—without being distracted by the second hardest part–defining the ideal.

2. The enjoyment of the attempt is in its futility.

Art is futile, life is futile, happiness is futile…pretty much anything of any worth could be considered “futile.” Could it be that part of the value of these things is in their futility? Forming a perfect sphere by hand is futile, but its also strangely appealing. Since a making a sphere seems simple, you’d always feel like you were just an adjustment or two away. Adding plaster here or filing a bit away there is not going to perfect the sphere, but yet each attempt would make it feel more possible. The meditative pleasure comesfrom feeling like you’re getting closer but knowing that you’re not. Sphere-making involves accepting the futility of an act while being no less committed to it–as does artmaking.

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