All I did was chip away everything that didn't look like determination: On the value of process sharing.

As an art appreciator, I love seeing another artist's process, regardless of the medium. I love looking for the pencil lines under a delicate ink drawing, I like to quiz artists and writers about how they make things. I like to trace the heredity of old folk songs, and I push my knees into velvet ropes at museums, straining to find the skeleton that a work hangs on.

And sometimes I feel a bit cheated if the work is too clean. If the arches that hold up the spires have been too carefully plastered over, then I feel as if I've missed an opportunity to learn something. It's art not made for an artist, and therefore is diminished in it's impact, regardless of how beautiful or delicate the final piece is.

I'm a flying buttress man, I guess.

So much of what is difficult about trying to get under those layers, and into the creative process is encapsulated in a story about Michelangelo and the most famous sculpture in history:

It's said that, at the unveiling of his work David, a spectator asked him how he could make such an incredible and sensitive masterpiece from a blank and ugly block of marble.

Michelangelo replied “It was simple enough, all I did was chip away everything that didn't look like David.”

It very easy for a master to quip about the simplicity of purpose that art requires. He's spent years learning practical skills; how to hit a chisel with a hammer and the precise angle and force needed to take off what he wants. He has learned how to polish David's eyes into symmetry and how to furrow his brow. He knows how to carve curled locks of tangled hair without slipping and sending David's ear crashing 14 feet to the dusty studio floor. He knows what Contrapposto is and how to use it. He's knows that David's hand which holds the fateful stone is hanging down and therefore would have more blood in it. He knows how to represent the pressure of a vein and he's studied models and cadavers and so knows the path that the vein would follow.

And that's a hell of a lot more than just chipping away the parts that aren't David.

These practical facts; his knowledge and skills, add tension and beauty to the work and he knows them so well that he can boil down his creative process to that one simple and incredibly dismissive phrase.

The only problem is that this story is bullshit.

The link above is an investigation into the roots of this mythic story. It began over 150 years ago in a New York magazine and the sentiment itself has been attributed to hillbillies, an Irishman, other less famous sculptors, and even Victorian art critic John Ruskin before landing at Michelangelo's feet in the 1960's.

I think it's wonderful to find an article that examines the way in which this story about dismissing the creative process was created.

Like a folk song, this sentiment travelled across oceans, across media, and across time. It grew and blossomed and in the above article we can see it's gears, in order to learn about what we find important in the process of an artist. Or what we want to believe about genius.

And let's talk about another aspect of David; the choice of moment.

Until that sculpture, pretty much every artist did David one way: In the aftermath of his fight and victorious. David was often standing on Goliath's severed head, his enemy's sword in his slight hand. Occasionally David was rearing back to swing his slingshot with all the force and dynamism of a Jack Kirby comic book cover.

But Michelangelo breaks with those traditions and chooses to focus on another time; the time before the battle but after the commitment to war. The tension of that moment is found subtly in that veined hand and the preparation for what's next is in his delicately worked and furrowed brow. The contrapposto is used to make his pose confident and also resolute.

Michelangelo spent 3 years sculpting an homage to the moment that lies between choice and action, the moment of pure potential. In David's face you don't see victory, you see determination. David trusts and he is prepared.

And this moment goes a long way towards describing the real process of making art. Or at least more than the moment after a victory, when you can blithely dismiss it all as chipping away the parts that don't matter.

The confidence and clarity in David's face tells you one thing. He knows how to throw a rock.

And Michelangelo knew how to sculpt one.


Editor's Note: the pics here are of a recent sculpture titled "Save Me Joan of Arc". Please forgive me for writing an essay about a master sculptor and interspersing my own meager attempts. I entertained sending these out as separate newsletters but opted not to spam your inbox more than was necessary. Please don't think the comparison here says anything about my work, only the discussion of process.

(just trying to chip away everything that looks like ego!)


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