If you haven’t seen Andy Warhol’s experimental film Empire, I can’t blame you. It’s a single, 8 hour take of the Empire State Building, about “watching time pass”. I first heard of it during a college discussion on how a creator spends more time on their work than most people will consuming it, and Empire reverses this.
Creating things used to be a lot harder, and sharing them harder still. Until recently, if you wanted to see Empire you had to attend one of MOMA’s infrequent showings. Nine minutes of it are now on Youtube, and I shudder to think of what Warhol would do with today’s tools – we can shoot such a video on our phones and have it on YouTube within minutes, but no one would watch it. You could get through most of the new season of House of Cards instead.
What’s a creative person to do? If you’re not posting frequently, it’s hard to stand out among the spew of ever-new things vying for attention. Besides, no one is looking closely – do it quickly, it’s so easy these days. The feedback is immediate: likes, favorites, shares, and retweets give instant gratification, and create a craving for such.
If validation fails to come, at least you didn’t waste any time refining it – try something else, put it out there, and see what sticks. Refinement is hard because it demands faith and time.
Refinement demands faith in your ideas and execution. When you look at what you’ve created critically, it raises questions on if the idea is any good and your ability to realize it.
Refinement demands time, because it requires perspective. To simultaneously be familiar and unfamiliar, to see with fresh eyes that take nothing for granted, and to know the original idea and how the work-in-progress fails it.
It’s easier to just ship it and move on, to say, “Hey, I made a thing!” and send it to the spew of the new and shiny.
Producing a lot of work is great for practicing your craft. Want to become a better photographer? Go out and shoot, every day. Learning to program? Write code and ship it. Same with anything. Practice deeply and with intention: a mind for improvement and an eye for criticism.
Craft alone has nothing to say: it makes technically flawless pictures of brick walls, builds software that is used only begrudgingly, plays music well but without feeling. Knowing your craft helps you turn the idea in your head into something real, but it can’t be your voice.
Refinement helps you figure out what you wanted to say to begin with. It forces you to ask difficult questions about your original idea, to question your assumptions, and to justify the existence of your creation. You started with a glimmer in your mind and before it took shape it was perfect. Now that you’ve given it a form, there are flaws and things you might do differently, and the flaws are more than apparent. Making the time to discover and address them can be a rewarding investment.
It can take several iterations before what you’ve created approaches what you imagined in your head. All the better: You’ll become more familiar with the idea and how better to express it. You’ll learn things about your craft that you couldn’t know at the moment of creation, and will help you going forward.
Don’t chase perfection; there’s a line to be drawn between impossibly perfect and the immediate gratification of a first draft. Push the line a little bit farther out towards quality, and hopefully you’ll be surprised. It’s worth it.
Maybe it took less time to create Empire than it does to watch it, but the film fits Warhol’s themes of mass production and the banality of modern life perfectly.