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Care > Power
Kurt Vonnegut, 1979 in New York City

Kurt Vonnegut, 1979 in New York City


Kurt Vonnegut wrote in the introduction to "Mother Night":

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

This is similar to what it means to get better at something.  We're all students in our fields in some capacity, which recognizes we'll get better over time.  If being an artist or designer provides a power of sorts, we've made a degree of commitment to the desire of that power to some end.  As students first, we owe it to ourselves to understand the importance of our context in history, as we relate to other fields and the audience we serve.  Our understanding of our audience can influence the work we do more than anything else.

The part I enjoy most about Vonnegut's quote is the word careful; there are two meanings:

  1. making sure of avoiding potential danger, mishap, or harm; cautious.

  2. done with or showing thought and attention.

The first is the most associated meaning, one avoiding risk.  The second expresses thought and attention.

If we are to be artists and designers, we should be those who are not afraid of taking risks; who understand the context of our work, especially as it relates to our bias and audience.  If we are to create at such a capacity and shape the future of the field, the responsibility is not just a power, but a gift and a weight that should humble us.  Anyone who abuses power can easily be recognized as arrogant.  Our duty is to serve our audience and our field at our greatest capacity, just as we believe people in their respective fields do the same. 

If we care not only for how our work addresses our audience, the form of our lens must comprehend history, be capable of being reformed through self-reflection, understand the present clearly, and be capable of projecting a contribution for the future.

If we care, that care will make us better at what we do over time.  If anything, caring is more important than power because it shows respect for others, ourselves, and our field.  The potential for doing our best work is still ahead of us.  If we are to contribute, our thought and attention should be aimed toward the responsibility of becoming the best we can be; not the power that comes from getting there.

Robert Henri
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In my early 20's, I read ferociously and strategically.  I was fortunate enough to have access to a university library, a museum library, and a public library and I had two rules:  I could only walk out with as many books that would fit in the bag I brought and I had to read all the books by the time the books were due, and I rarely renewed what I loaned.  Pretty simple.  I'd stack these books on my desk at home and kept a few in my backpack, reading all of them all at the same time, yet intermittently so I could synthesize and contextualize the knowledge faster.

While reading so many books about art and design, I learned of a book titled "The Art Spirit" by Robert Henri, which reportedly served as a book that helped many artists and designers understand who we are in terms of history and culture.  I stumbled across it in the stacks from Indiana University's library... it was bright blue with a white, sans-serif, condensed typeface high on its spine.  I slid it from the shelf, opened the cover, and leafed to the first page:

Art when really understood is the province of every human being.  It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.  When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people.  He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding.  Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.  The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others.  He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in any medium.  He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.  Museums of art will not make a country an art country.  But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums. Better still, there will be the happiness that is in the making.  Art tends towards balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living— very good things for anyone to be interested in.

The work of the art student is no light matter.  Few have the courage and stamina to see it through.  You have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways.  We like sympathy and we like to be in company.  It is easier than going it alone.  But alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. It costs to do this.  If you succeed somewhat you may have to pay for it as well as enjoy it all your life.  Cherish your own emotions and never undervalue them. We are not here to do what has already been done.  I have little interest in teaching you what I know.  I wish to stimulate you to tell me what you know. In my office toward you I am simply trying to improve my own environment. Know what the old masters did.  Know how they composed their pictures, but do not fall into the conventions they established.  These conventions were right for them, and they are wonderful.  They made their language.  You make yours.  They can help you.  All the past can help you.

Robert Henri, "The Art Spirit", 1923. pg. 1