Engaged and Detached at the Same Time

Gjennom den lille og trange Golden Canyon
As creative individuals we all – more or less – indentify ourselves with the work we generate. We view the work – rightly – as an extension of ourselves. Yet it’s important to understand that we cannot become the work. The work – already from the beginning of its creation – sets out on a «life» of its own. It’s not us any more, if for nothing else than because everybody else will not see the work as the same as us. But more importantly, if we become too attached to our work, we will not be able to make it come to its full blossom. In many ways it may be compared to the having a child. It’s not ours and it’s certainly not us, although it’s created by us.

I have previously written about the need for passion in the creative process. But it’s important to bear in mind that it’s not the passion for the final product I have in mind, but passion for the process – and passion for whatever it is that we want to express. Thus, when it comes to the work itself, we must maintain a critical distance, and be capable of a more objective relationship with the content of our efforts.

This detachment is a form of freedom: We enter into a real dialogue with our materials and ideas, rather than a fragile and trembling co-dependency with the natural results of our efforts. The work comes from us, or through us; it’s not of us. This is an important distinction to recognize if we hope to continue on the creative path. We wish to attune ourselves to the process, engage our energies as deeply as possible, and allow the work to emerge as the by-product, the child, of a mature relationship between ourselves and our materials. It is thus fair to say that we need to be both engaged and detached at the same time during the creative process.

83 thoughts on “Engaged and Detached at the Same Time

    1. That sounds a little drastically, to kill your work when you get too attached to it, but I guess you maybe mean you can’t bring out the best of it, when you are too attached? 🙂

  1. I think this is the first step to realising you can’t control (and shouldn’t control) other people’s reaction to your work – something a lot of creators seem to struggle with (including me, sometimes).

    1. I totally agree with you. I think the more diverse reactions to your work you are able to get, the better. It’s always interesting to listen to what others make out of your work.

  2. I’m terrible at this. I suppose it’s one of the reasons I hate selling my best work right after I’ve made it. I prefer to hang onto it until I feel like I’ve passed out of that particular phase of myself. I’ll have to work on this lesson 🙂

    1. I think most of us have the same feeling. It’s always hard to give away your babies. But at least with photography and the digital age, you can still keep a copy of the work.

  3. I’ll never forget when I brought daughter #1 to meet my parents. My mother greeted us at the door, took our baby girl and said “Hello, button nose” then looked at me and said “enjoy her now, she’s only loaned to you for a little while.” I will never forgot that…”only loaned to you for a little while.” It was the realization that every moment with her would be precious.

    1. I have been told the same, and almost got agitated first time I heard someone tell me that. But I think it’s a very accurate understanding of a parent-child relationship. Today I might even go further, not even using the word loan, but more saying you guard your children until they are able to pursue their lives on their own.

    1. Indeed, I remember the first drawing I purposely made as a kid as a present to my grandparents; when I was done, I didn’t want to give the drawing away.

    1. I don’t think it’s negative to get attached to our work. We need to during the creative process, to be able to make interesting work, but we should not get too attached, and at the same time we should be able to detach ourselves from the work, as much of a contradiction as this may sound.

  4. “Attached” for an artist can also mean being afraid you’ll wreck your creation. I had an astute but sometimes maddening mentor who noticed one day that I was struggling with a painting I was afraid of ruining. He came up behind me, grabbed a big brush and spread red paint all over my “precious” canvas. I was mortified. I squeaked out “Now what do I do”. He calmly replied, “Paint over it and keep going”. Now that it was already “wrecked”, all my fears were gone. I picked up my brushes with a vengeance and lo and behold the painting turned out just fine. A lesson in how to work through something rather than making it be so precious you don’t even dare to go forward.

        1. Yes, thank you, Alli, for sharing this. And I think your mentor had the right attitude, as devastating as it must have been to see you work destroyed this way. I have experienced something of the same, accidentally, though. Long time ago (we are talking about a couple or more decades) I was working on a manuscript. After about a month worth of work, my computer crashed and I lost all the text I had written. At first I was completely devastated. I might have given up, had it not been for the fact that this was commissioned work, so I just had to start all over again. In the end the second version turned out much better than the one I lost (and in addition I learned a lesson about backing up my computers).

  5. our ego would love to hold onto it but as you wisely remind us, “The work comes from us, or through us; it’s not of us…”
    beautifully written…<3

  6. yes – so true, “The work comes from us, or through us; it’s not of us.” I’m learning this… Also, to be open to others opinions; that their critique is a personal observation, not the “right” or “wrong” answer.

    1. Indeed so it is. I teach many workshops, and as much as my feedback is done with the purpose of making the students improve, I tell them that I don’t have the answers, they need to see my critique as my personal opinion, and take it from there themselves.

  7. Your discussion reminds me so much of the need of physicians to maintain a level of detachment from their patient, so as not to become biased or be subject to poor or inappropriate judgment. I could say the same for artists who need o step back from their creation and be able to view their work with a very critical eye. This is easier said than done, I’m sure.

    Great post! Thanks, Otto!

    1. Your analogy is perfect, Mary-Ann, although sometimes I wish that physicians would employ a little more of the other side of the coin too, so they don’t become too cynical. That much said, I agree with you, anyone doing creative work, will only benefit from stepping back and viewing their work with critical eyes.

  8. So true Otto. It is the journey, once it is finished, let it go. The process is the joy for me, the finished product I care about what happens to it, but it is over. Well said as always.

    1. Your attitude is admirable, and I agree with you. It’s the process that brings excitement, although most of us enjoy the final product too, too much probably…

  9. I agree. Your approach to the creative process reminds me of Eastern philosophy with its view of yin/yang. We have an ever-present duality in our lives and assuredly in the act of creativity. I find that once the act is complete, it washes off my mind where it finds a place in my past. It’s as though the slate is clean again for another chance.

    1. Although I don’t know enough about Eastern philosophy, I have find a lot of ideas that resonance with me, so it makes perfect sense that you compare this with yin and yang. Thanks for you thoughtful comment, Sally.

  10. This applies so well to my art! There are times when my paintings and I argue, and finally I loosen my reins. Almost always, the struggles are over, and a strong painting emerges. (Paintings like that exhaust me, as if my energy flowed out of me and into the art.)

    Great post, amigo!

    1. I like the analogy of loosing one’s reins, because indeed we have to let go of self and control when we create. And I have it the same way as you, when I emerge from that tunnel I describe in the post, I am completely wasted.

  11. Firstly, I want to say that I really like the image very much for the contrast of the strong lines and open space, and the stance of the person. I’d call what you say, Otto, the “zen of photography”, and it certainly makes a lot of sense to me.

  12. When I think of my work it’s like it’s part of my being. It is nothing without me, and I am not me without it. We seem to live and breathe our creativity, but when you gave the analogy of a child being a completely separate being, of me and not me, it all made sense.

  13. This is the essence of the karma theory and is paramount in Hindu philosophy. We are advised to be attached to our children with total detachment because they are born of us to fulfill their karma and are entirely different souls from us. Very hard, but true — of children as well as our other creations. Love your posts for all the nuggets of wisdom one gleams from them, Otto!

    1. Thank for making the connection with Hindu philosophy. The idea of each and everyone having to fulfill their karma independently, makes sense – and feels appropriate to the creative work.

  14. oh you’re a wise man and an excellent teacher Otto.
    We view our work as an extension of ourselves.
    – – Yes I do.
    and yet I’ve never thought of the next point ie because we don’t own how a person is going to react to our work, we must be able to let it go out into the world, just as we let go of our kids when they become adults…
    Imagine all the stress that would fly out all our windows if we did that.

  15. Beautiful and inspiring. Thank you and this i’ll remember, “it’s important to bear in mind that it’s not the passion for the final product I have in mind, but passion for the process – and passion for whatever it is that we want to express. ” Wishing you and your family life’s many adventures.

  16. I totally get what you are saying… the process is a birthing and then the baby is released into the world… We nurture it but we don’t smother it… Sort of like that Hollywood line… You are as good as your last movie… meaning move on to the next project/process. Love this! 🙂

  17. Very well put! I think your idea translates into anything we create – images, dance – any artform. Thanks for stopping by my blog 🙂

  18. Yes, as I read it I thought it is exactly the same in making a drawing or a painting. I’ll see how I can use this in one of my blogs giving you the credit. Maybe post will be titled Otto Munchow 🙂

  19. Thank you for speaking to the process–the journey over the destination– as to the reason artists engage. There’s nothing like being in the zone. That’s what separates the artist from the wanna-be. The artist embraces the zone over the product. Great insight!

  20. “This detachment is a form of freedom: We enter into a real dialogue with our materials and ideas, rather than a fragile and trembling co-dependency with the natural results of our efforts.”
    So true and so liberating-you have expressed this beautifully-I know the more I create-the easier it is to let the result go-there is always another image waiting to be discovered-for me it helps to keep a kind of flow to the creative life-and truly not to be so possessive of it-Thank you for this-

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