There's a tribe of aspiring creative who thinks the mystery of making art is in the things used to make it. If they only had the right lens, the right brush, the right charcoal, the right computer, the right desk, the right camera, the right writing software — then they'd finally be able to make their art. Until they acquire the perfect implement, well then, of course their art would always be not quite what they wanted, and of course it wouldn't be really good yet. I know a lot of people in that tribe; it's vast. I'm calling it the Gearhead tribe, because photography seems inundated with that mentality. But it's by no means exclusive to that medium; there are Gearhead painters and Gearhead writers, and I'm sure there are probably Gearhead musicians, though I run into fewer of those.
You can recognize a Gearhead by the amount of art-making crap they own but never actually quite seem to get around to using more than once or twice. It's Gearheads who keep camera stores and art supply stores in business. Their natural territory is any art-related online forum, in which they can rate, review, evaluate, denigrate, and compare their gear. This will go on until either they finally feel as if they have a sufficient amount of gear, or the eventual heat death of our universe, whichever comes first.
That tribe drives me crazy: the teeth-gnashing, eyelid-twitching, death-glaring, temper-losing kind of crazy. There are a few things that make me crazier than encountering a Gearhead, but not many.
Why do they get to me so much? Because in their fascination and preoccupation with the implements of art, the Gearheads completely not only miss the entire point of making art — but they very rarely produce any art with their implements. They're the dilettantes, the Sunday painters, the Guys With Cameras. They're the people who produce nothing but excuses for why they haven't made anything, who show up empty-handed to their classes, and who constantly talk about which new tool they're going to buy.
The Gearheads are the natural enemies of my own creative tribe, the Mystics.
A Mystic teacher (and nearly all great teachers in the arts are Mystics) will drive a Gearhead nuts. All the Gearhead wants is a cookbook with recipes in it: if I just do X, then Y, I will get Z. But art doesn't work like that, so that's not how a Mystic teaches. A Mystic will say things like, 'It will just look right,' when the Gearhead is hoping to hear, 'Stand at 37° and 28 feet away from your subject, use a 70-200 at 3.5, with a shutter speed of 1/150 and an ISO of 400, with your white balance set to tungsten."
In one of my color theory classes, we were painting color wheels, a fairly basic exercise. After about an hour, I had about half of mine done, but the guy sitting next to me hadn't put any paint on the panel yet, and was still mixing paint on his palette. At the next break, he asked me, 'How do you know when you have the right color?"
I wondered if this was some trick question, and said slowly, "When it matches the example wheel up there?"
He said, "No; I mean, how do you know how much of each color to mix together to get those colors?"
My eye began to twitch. It had never occurred to me that someone might not know how to mix colors, much less need a recipe for it.
It might seem as if it's simply a difference in thinking styles: abstract vs. concrete and literal. And while that's definitely a contributing factor, the tribes' difference runs much deeper than that.
In a former life, I was in a writing program. One day in one of the writing workshops, the professor asked the class to describe their writing rituals. Some people talked about the music they listened to; others about favorite chairs, or times of day, or favorite places. But one student's ritual went like this:
Well first I have to get out my favorite pen, the one I got from Rome, or maybe it was Venice; yes, it was Venice because it's a handblown glass pen, made especially in the colors I liked; in blues and greens. And then I get out my favorite ink which I ordered from a little shop in Laguna where they know me because I'm such a good customer. But then I have to get out my special journal; it has leather binding and nice heavy paper and I can refill it with inserts that you get at Brentano's, but you could use other inserts from Aaron Brothers if you don't have time. Then I have to put on my special CD of music just for writing. Oh! I almost forgot my favorite tea! In my favorite mug…
After a few minutes of this, the professor cut her off, and said, "Alright. I'm going to break you guys of all this nonsense. Pack up your things." He led us all to the quad outside the student union and cafeteria — the busiest, noisiest place on campus — and he told us to sit down and write about the stupidity of relying on objects to make art, until the class was over. At the next class meeting, the professor ranted at length about how reliance on things was an cover for being afraid. He said, "Don't tell me you couldn't get your homework done because you didn't have the right pen or the right paper or couldn't focus. That's a lie. Tell me the truth: you were afraid to write."
As you might have guessed, that professor was a Mystic.