Is It Any Good?

Artists often ask: how do I know my work is any good? It’s difficult because the criteria we each use to define ‘good’, is different. And we might think of it differently on different occasions.

Will it sell? Will it get a peer review? Will my friends and family think well of it?

Or, more boldly, will it stand the test of time?

Actually I think the bottom line for most people is: does it work? Does it accurately express what was in my head when I planned it? Does it work as a composition or as a plot structure? In other words, if you feel you have pulled it off? If that’s your criteria and you believe that the honest answer is, yes I think I have, you feel good! But does it mean that the work is good?

And how can you be sure you have pulled it off? I have this crazy image that I use. I don’t know where it came from. I have never sculpted anything in my life. It’s an image that I use for making audio.

I imagine scooping up a pile of sand in the palm of my hand. With the other hand I shape it, adding some water. The goal is to have a shape in my hand,that is not too wet and not insubstantial. I must pat down and secure a shape. I must not let much sand get away and slip through my fingers. I once explained this to an intern who looked at me as if I was mad. But one day, she came to me with an audio piece that she mixed and she looked at me with a serenely sweet face and asked, “Did too much sand slip?”

This kind of judgment that we have succeeded in making a creation, by our own criteria, is not the same as it technically good. Our criteria will be a mix of: did the form fit the content, and were we able to put our own stamp on it? We employ judgment based on experience. We consider what colleagues like, what audiences want and we rely on instinct.

Obviously if you build a shelf and it falls down, or if you take a pot out of the kiln, and it breaks, you have not made something good. That’s much easier to evaluate. It clearly wasn’t any good because it visibly smashed! But if you put up the shelf and you experiment with intricate new carved brackets, that you’ve never made before, and the shelf stands up, were the brackets good? Perhaps one client likes them and another doesn’t. You still don’t think you know. Then someone photographs the room, the image gets into a magazine and you get a load of orders. You feel good! You feel that what you created was a success, because not only do people want it, but it was deemed an innovative design. You now think of yourself not as a crafts person but a designer. You are the same person but media approval has made you decide that you make ‘good’ work. That might make all the difference to you.

I still think it’s our own internal evaluations that matter. One audio producer, who I think is tremendous, decides that a work is good when her best tape doesn’t make it into her final program. It means that the sum of the program gathered momentum and it wasn’t a question of good tape but something shaping that evolved and was coherent as a finished piece.

You might argue that anyone who asks ‘is it any good’, knows deep down that it isn’t. I think that’s not true. I think doubt is intrinsically part of a creative process.

I should stipulate here, that we are talking about is a creative process that is a new exploration. If you have done five watercolors of the same landscape and they all get bought by a prestigious gallery, then you aren’t going to worry that one in in a slightly different color palette is ‘any good’. The fact that they were bought, means that what you are making, at this time anyway, is ‘good’. Or so you think. Or decide to think.

In the end it’s what we decide to think. Not what anyone else thinks. That’s the goal but it’s only partially possible. It’s what we think and what others judge good that matters. That’s just being realistic.