The Myth of "I could do that"

Most artists have heard it at least once in their lifetime, either about their own work, or someone else's, the non-artist declaring, “I could do that!” I've heard that from so many people about various artistic disciplines. If only it were that simple!

First, let's start off with a video:

I personally feel this video gives a good rebuttal to the afore mentioned statement of, “I could do that.” In fact, this does a good job of covering all art forms. But things actually go much deeper than the video talks about.

I'm a big lover of modern art, say from the last 100 or so years. And whenever I travel, I try to go to the local art museums. I was in New York City last month and went to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). It was exciting for me, because I was able to see some of my favorite works in person. Let's look at a couple of them:

This is One: Number 31, by Jackson Pollock, painted in 1950. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss it as, “just drips of paint on the canvas. Anyone could do that.” Yes, anyone can drip paint on a canvas, but they won't end up with something like this. One problem with seeing art in a book, or on the internet, is that you get no idea of the scale of it. Let's look at a second photo:

Now we have a person in the photo and you can get a sense of the scale of this work. It's eight feet ten inches high by seventeen feet six inches wide! The work is immense. When you see it in person, it takes your breath away. If you stand/sit in front of it for awhile, you can't help but feel amazed by it. Then you start to notice a rhythm to it. The paint isn't just thrown on there randomly. And up close you can see the 3D effect of the layers of paint. You also notice how carefully the paint was applied. You can notice the details. Try as I might, I could never create a work like this. Oh, I could come up with some sort of approximation, but it wouldn't have the sheer power of Pollock's original.

And people will say things like, “My kid could do that.” But they really couldn't. Or people will say, “I could do that, but it wouldn't get into a museum because I'm not famous. Pollock got into the museum because he's a famous artist.” And that would so miss the point!

When you want to critique a work of art/painting/play/song/dance/etc, you really need to do your homework. You need to investigate what lead the artist to create that work of art. Nothing of lasting worth just shows up out of nowhere. Pollock was a trained artist. He could do the technical stuff. He could do portraits. But he struggled for years to find something new, something different, something that spoke with his own voice. One: Number 31 wasn't something he did at the beginning of his career. He was 38 and had worked hard to get to that point where he could create that specific work.

Let's look at another one:

The famous Andy Warhol Campbell's Soup Cans from 1962. Again, it's easy to say, “I could do that.” But you didn't. You didn't come up with the idea and produce it before Warhol did. That's the key: Warhol is an originator. Everything else like it, is just a copy. But again, you need to research things and find the context that lead to the art. The late 1950s and early 1960s found America, and especially the middle class, in a post war boom. The availability of soup in a wide variety of flavors was something that everyone had in their cupbords. And that was just the point Warhol was making, the iconography of the everyday. And to add to this, Warhol's mother had made him Campbell's Soup for lunch most everyday. So he had a personal relationship here. This was a very personal memory of his.

And that's the thing. Warhol was also well trained as an artist—he did illustrations for print ads—but he eventually found his own voice in celebrating the everyday objects around us: Campbell's Soup, Brillo scrubbing pads, Marilyn Monroe, etc. It's easy to look at his work and think that you could do it. But you weren't there doing it on the early 1960s. Warhol was.

Let's move on to music. One of my favorite composers is John Cage. He is probably the most misunderstood composer of the last 100 years. Here's a great video of Cage:

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This is from 1960 when Cage appeared on the popular television game show, I've Got A Secret. The actual music part starts as around 5:40 where Cage performs his piece, Water Walk. Now he's serious about his composition, but not too serious to not be a bit humorous about it also. And much like Warhol, Cage endeavors to show us that art, in this case music, is all around us in the everyday.

Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.
― John Cage

The beauty of the piece is that it really is composed. Cage wrote a score, and I've seen it performed live. To Cage, all sounds were valid. What was usually termed noise, could also be heard as music. It's all in the context and how you experience it.

Perhaps the most misunderstood composition by Cage is, 4'33"

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This is also known as his silent piece. It is written in three timed movements, where the performer comes out, sits at the piano, and doesn't play a note. Most people seen to think it's a complete joke and that Cage is some sort of charlatan. But on the contrary, Cage is quite serious and making a great point about how sound/music is all around us. So during the performance, while the performer sits there without playing a note, we can hear other sounds from our environment: someone coughing, a truck driving by, people moving in their seats, the air conditioning, etc. Much like Water Walk, Cage is showing us that sound is everywhere and we should embrace it.

4'33" score

And again, the context is so important. Cage was not just a jokester. He was a trained composer, and all of his works have a great deal of thought behind them. He also had a great interest in Zen. Cage had thought about a silent piece for years before he actually put the idea together. As could be expected, the premier performance confounded the audience and was met with almost universal disdain. But this piece was not arrived at by accident. Rather, a lot of thought went into it, and it was designed to produce a specific result from the audience.

Yes, anyone could do this (and many have since), but John Cage was the first. So it's one thing to be able to do something that someone else did. It's another thing entirely to have an original concept and bring that to the public. So when people play the game of, “I could do that,” they completely miss the point, because they didn't do it and never will.

And that's how I feel about all these YouTube videos of 8 year old kids playing RUSH or Van Halen songs. While I can applaud them for their performance, given enough time to practice, anyone can copy another musician. I've played my share of RUSH songs in my life, but I'm only a copy of the original. I can learn all of Neil Peart's licks, but I'll never be Neil Peart. So even if I can play his music, I have to admit that I didn't conceive of it. And that's again what's most important: being the originator.

And so I watch these 8 year old kids shred away on a cover tune thinking, “OK, let's see what you are doing in 10 or 20 years. Are you creating memorable original music, or are you still just copying someone else?”

And all artists have done that in their formative years, copying from the masters before them, in order to learn, and to gain technical facility. But unless you want to play in a tribute band the rest of your life, there comes a time you need to move on into your own thing. There comes a time to find your own path.

~ MB


  1. Hello Michael,
    Great article. First time commenting but I've been reading your items for a while. Back in college, the accuracy of a cover band was everything for me. Now nearing retirement, that just bores me. What I want to hear is something original, that band's own voice. At the very least, their take on a cover tune. Granted, over the years I have found satisfaction in playing something note-for-note but it is entirely different to create your own artifact. I believe it was Frank Zappa who said that art was all about the frame: The artist puts a frame around something and that's their statement, their art.
    Jim Fiore


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