There are many times in conversations with colleagues where an idea comes up that is a challenge in any creative endeavour: when is it “done”? This evening, I attended a book signing with a friend, and during the Q&AA (Questions and Attempted Answers) the question came up around editing, e.g. when can you stop editing and call something done?
My associative mind couldn’t help but think of two quotes that rang so true for me that years later they still resonate in my self-talk:
…it is not finished when there is nothing more that you can add, it is finished when there is nothing more you can take away.
…a great poem is never finished, it is merely abandoned.
Having just typed out these two quotes, I can’t help but remember Robert Fripp talking about the difference between an ending, a finish, and a completion (I attended a Guitar Craft experience many years ago).
The question of “when is it done” is of particular interest in the context of artistic endeavour, since it is often due to a confusion around where the value is in art. It is a confusion of which I am often guilty myself, and have to be vigilant to remind myself away from. It is this: the painting that you see hanging on the wall is not the object of value. It is a receipt (I must tip my hat to Keith Ikeda-Barry for coming up with that word in this context). It is the receipt of your experience. Great art is always co-creative in some way, and the experience of being involved in that creation is the value. That you are able to look again upon the face of that partner is no different from looking through your wallet to see a receipt for that marvellous meal you had with a beautiful woman yesterday evening, the sparkling glasses, the blazing eyes, the smells, the textures, the feeling of aliveness. The paper in your hand is merely proof you were there, a beautiful but dead “proof of life”.
However, a funny thing happens when you view that receipt, because it is the signifier, not the signified, and just looking at the receipt changes the experience again. This is reminiscent of The Heisenberg Principle, where the mere act of observation changes a thing, making the notion of objective observation or even of remembering somewhat of a philosophical minefield.
And yet it is precisely this minefield that puts into a certain perspective the power of good art, because in being co-creative, it offers an invitation to be “in the moment”, to participate in creation in a way that can seem to be outside of linear time. Any ego that gets associated with this is completely beside the point, and belongs in the “receipt” category, for whether the signature at the bottom of the page says “van Gogh” or “van Beethoven” is simply proof of attendance. The quality of the experience is in your hands, in your eyes, in your ears, in your presence and in how much of these things you dare to bring to the moment.
Returning to the opening question, then, when is it done? Don’t look to the receipt to tell you. Tear it up, burn it as if it carried the worst virus. “It” isn’t there, because “It” flows for but a millisecond through the receipt. “It” is done when the goosebumps have come and gone until the next time you can run fast enough to catch up to the next one.