Friday, 03 August 2012 09:09

The Genius of Simplicity

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"Art is the elimination of the unnecessary"
~ Pablo Picasso, painter, and sculptor (1881-1973)

A short while ago, I was invited to attend a concert at our national theatre. It was an important anniversary performance by a local band club, and they pulled off all the stops for the occasion. A full blown choir was invited to join the performance, and they had a renowned local composer write a complete work which took up the bulk of the performance.

As they say, a structure is only as strong as its weakest link, and unfortunately the musical composition was what took the whole concert down in this case. I had an inkling about what I was about to hear, but I didn't fathom the extent of its gravity. As I settled into my seat, I read the programme, and in it was the composer's statement on his musical piece. As I read, I increasingly dreaded what was to come next. The composer stated (and here I paraphrase) that there are few pieces of intense musical complexity written purely for brass bands, ones which do not require a special arrangement or adaptation. This statement shocked me in numerous ways. I am no musical expert by any means, however I very much enjoy classical music, and particularly scores from films. Over the years I have heard a few pieces which although performed by orchestras, were written essentially for the brass sections of such. This point aside, the main statement which concerned me was the apparent belief that grandiosity is proven through complexity.

I believe this statement not only to be wrong, but also an insult to creativity. Over the years, I have come to fervently believe that the most difficult thing to achieve within any creative field is simplicity - be it a product, a piece of music or a work of visual art. Picasso said that the most difficult thing for an artist is to become a child once again. Children have no concept of complexity - they have nothing to prove to the world and to themselves, and that gives them the freedom to be nonconformists, to colour outside of the boundaries, if you will. It is when we start forcing them to stick to the boundaries society has created, that  we kill creativity. This pressure to conform persists throughout our adult life, making it ever more difficult to think and act outside of the box which society has built around us. One of the sides of this box says that we need to continually prove ourselves, and written under it in bold is a rule that states that in order to do this, we need to show others that we are capable of doing things they can't, with as much fanfare as possible. This means that if you're good enough, you need to make stuff that is complex; and in order for others to see how good you are, you need to make sure it feels, tastes, smells, sounds and appears complex. In reality, it is this mentality that is completely destroying not only contemporary art, in all it's shapes and forms, but also society itself. Our need to prove ourselves and do great things, together with the need to shine in the eyes of our peers is driving us towards a world where complexity is king - where no one is really able to understand what anyone else does, because the message is buried under countless cryptic layers. The fact is that we are all missing the point - big time. Really and truly, the great people who will forever be remembered in history are those who were able to do exactly the opposite - genius is when one is able to hide unimaginable complexity under a veil of sheer simplicity.

One of the persons who has managed to do this in recent history is Steve Jobs. He has reinvented products which nobody had been able to make successful before him, just because he believed in simplicity. The simplicity of his products does not make them any less complex than the labyrinths that are his rivals' - if anything, one would usually need to add more underlying complexity to make the surface simpler - it just makes them better, easier to use, intuitive and, at the bottom line, best sellers; because everyone understands them.  In one of his interviews, he said, "we make progress by eliminating things; by removing the superfluous." This process of elimination was a fixation for him. He would spend hours, days, months, mulling over each detail of each project, trying to make things simpler. The extent to which he achieved this was such that in one occasion, an illiterate child in the midst of a rural farm in Colombia was able to use one of the most recent and more complex products within seconds of getting hold of it, and with no instruction at all. That is nirvana.

This whole concept just hit home while I was sitting in the audience, listening to what sounded very much like the hour long agony of a dying cat. I felt for the poor performers, who did their utmost to make the best out of what sounded like a bunch of randomly dissonant and completely unintuitive notes. It was incredibly difficult to perform, but the fact is that the bravura of the band and choir had already been proven before the disaster began. In fact, prior to this, the John Powell piece "Hymn to the Fallen" was performed. It is a fantastically beautiful piece, ripe with emotion, very easily delivering the message it was designed to carry. Listening to this piece carefully, one will notice the intense complexity of the music, however once you take a step back and take it in as a whole, it just merges together seamlessly - and as happens with everything that is great, it 'just works'.

Experiencing the contrast between something into which a great effort has been placed to "remove the superfluous" and present something which achieves its goal in the simplest fashion, and something else which is rough, unpolished and intentionally complex was an eye opener for me. I have always been an advocate of simplicity, but this just put everything into perspective. It made me realise just to what extent the approach we take affects the results we produce and the repercussions it has on the consumers of our creations.

This approach strongly applies also to the visual arts, and particularly photography. The distinguishing fact of photography compared to other visual arts is that the medium, in this case the camera, is undiscriminating in what it captures. It will not distinguish between strong and weak compositional elements. With most other artistic media, the artist has full control from the onset as to what to include in to the artwork - it is a bottom up approach - start with nothing and build from there. Photography is the exact opposite. Photographers start with everything - their entire surroundings - and have to eliminate from there. This obviously requires a particular skill, not to mention the fact that the photograph is usually seen, composed and captured within a very short period of time.

While this might appear as being a problem, or at least a nuisance, I realised that as photographers we might even be at a slight advantage over artists using other media. Most people who create things, be it consumer products or art, admittedly go through a specific cyclic process of creation whereby something is first built from the ground up and then revisited multiple times to remove the superfluous and simplify until the final product has reached the required simplicity. Photography allows us to very quickly reach (depending on the type of photography being undertaken) a good point within the final stage. Our surroundings immediately offer us the maximum complexity, and as such we do not need to do anything to build that. The first stage is all around us, and as photographers all we need to do is simplify from that point onwards. Granted, this next stage is also the most difficult part, and of course, it is also the part which most tend to overlook or ignore.

Simplification begins in our mind, or maybe our subconscious. We all perceive our surroundings in different ways. Good photographers have a natural tendency to isolate the important from the irrelevant - to capture that part of reality which on its own consists of a lean slice of context; enough to be complete on its own but without any excess which would create superfluous distractions, diminishing the overall experience of the pure image in its most perfect form. Of course, all this talent would be useless without the necessary technical knowledge needed to translate vision to capture. Technique is important but should never take precedence over the photographer's eye. Too much focus on technique tends to create cold, lifeless images - not to mention the fact that it makes the process of photographic capture cumbersome and long; often long enough to lose the all important "decisive moment". Technique should eventually become an instinctive part of photography - because way too often does technique tend to take over the creation of a photograph, when it should rather become a slave to creativity; a tool merely used to translate vision to capture.

I am a firm believer that the end justifies the means within the creative process. We have a myriad of tools at our disposal, starting with a variety of cameras and lenses, all the way to advanced post processing tools and printing material. All these form part of the creative process, and all are in their own way tools for simplification. Sometimes it is not possible to eliminate all the superfluous within the camera. We should never put limits on ourselves and on the lengths to go in order to create the best possible result from our creative vision. After all, who created the rules saying "we should not do this", or "we should not remove that"? Such rules are not only artificial, but also limiting, and thus damaging to our creative potential. This damage commences very early in our lives, when as children we are riddled with rules such as "colour within the lines". Society has got a particular obsession with conformity - from birth we are constantly being forced into boxes, conforming to the standards of society. We are cut down to size to fit into a social standard, and what’s left on the cutting floor is creativity and potential.

Picasso was a leading figure of 20th century art. Most of the modern art movements span off from his work. He had a strong belief that great artists need to get rid of the baggage accumulated through years of conformity and rediscover their childish freedom and naïveté. His exact words were, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” This journey of self discovery is one which every artist needs to go through. It is not only long but sometimes also painful. We need to open ourselves to our environment and surroundings in order to rediscover ourselves in depth. This means shedding the defenses built over the years and making ourselves vulnerable. It is a necessary step to connect our inner selves to the world, because only then can we completely experience our surroundings. By creating this connection between our inner self and the rest of the world, we can better understand and experience the beauty of it all, and translate that to what eventually will become our art. Some artists tend to skip this important step, usually resulting in cold, mechanical and often complex work. Their work does not connect us to the emotional intensity which one should experience when in the presence of art, because most likely they fail to experience it themselves. We need to realise that in order to transfer the beauty and simplicity of anything, first and foremost we need to connect with it ourselves, experiencing the same emotions we are trying to convey. We cannot keep ourselves closed and protected, because those who live in glass houses might enjoy the view but will never smell the fresh air.

Last modified on Friday, 03 August 2012 10:41

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