It Takes A Village to Paint a Masterpiece

It takes a village to raise a child. And in fact, also a barn. We put a man on the moon and we eradicated smallpox and we act as peacemakers and invaders. We win sports matches and we elect leaders and we build better worlds. But one man and one man alone painted the Sistine Chapel. One man painted the Mona Lisa.

Art, in other words, is almost singular in our assumption of it as an entirely solo pursuit. Oh yes we venerate individual sportsman at times, but we do so with an overt and explicit knowledge that they are not alone. Rocky has Burgess Meredith cheering him on in the ring, but we speak of Stallone writing the script as him locking himself in his room with a typewriter. The theory of the auteur runs deep; we reference art by one name, even if it is a film worked on by thousands. It is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings even though the second and third company worked half a world away with their own producer, director and writers.

Obviously, some works are works of just one person in total isolation, and there’s nothing wrong with that and we should acknowledge it. But we talk as if every work of art is the same, and even in the same medium, that’s just not true. And we KNOW it isn’t true. War and Peace would never have been published if Tolstoy’s wife had not corrected, edited and transcribed his unreadable handwriting into eight pristine copies by hand. Andy Warhol’s work was literally done by a factory of people, and the classical artists had studios where their students would do some or even all of the work but it was still called a Rembrandt. Wifes, brothers, sisters, children, colleagues and conversants have completed works, expanded works, expounded works. There is no line between Spielberg and Lucas any more than there is one between Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Whenever we do acknowledge this, it is to play detective. We must know which parts belong to the true genius and which parts did not. We demand the Director’s Cut, the pure vision of the auteur, the original manuscript, which bits of Lennon/McCartney belong to whom. We’re fascinated too much by process because we think it reveals the genius of the end, and a singular genius. If we learn that Luke Skywalker was a girl but then wasn’t, we think we’ll figure out how to be George Lucas. Instead maybe we should figure out who lent over and said “try this character like that”. But capitalism loves purity culture, and it has many forms, and none stronger than the hallowed name of the singular artist – and all his helpers are worth nothing.

And that’s the point: our obsession with art as a solo pursuit is harmful. Not to mention cruel. Go and lock yourself in the cellar, we say, and come out when you’ve finished your manuscript. No, we don’t want to see “rough drafts”. Ew. That would imply artists aren’t Zeus-like Gods who draw genius out direct and full formed. That would imply that art is WORK, and then we might have to pay them or respect them or understand that it grinds the body and soul the same way working in a mine does. But art is work and it is messy and it is a hard, gruelling process, and – most importantly – it is a team effort.

That’s why we have editors, and critics and playtesters, and beta-readers and sounding boards. It’s why art flourishes in a scene of studios and cafes and cultures and communities and movements. That’s why artists who work in solitary tend to go mad: because nobody is there to help with the terrible rigours. We would never send one man down a mine or one cop to a crime scene. Don’t try to do art alone either; you may end up dead. It is dangerous to go alone, as the saying goes.

More importantly, once we understand this we understand that there are different ways to be creative and they are no less valuable. David Eddings ended up putting his wife down as a co-author because she was reading everything he wrote and commenting on it long before his editor saw it, and he finally realized that that was part of the work. And there are people whose creativity is not always best used at the head of a project, but in support. And there’s so many ways to support someone. Emotional and spiritual support, social support, and societal support – building those communities and making them work. Appollinaire was a mediocre poet but he was a FANTASTIC supporter of artists and without him building his studio there would never have been an Rousseau, a Duchamp, a Picasso or a Gertrude Stein.

All of this hit home to me this week for a few reasons. One, I realized it was the real point of the Game Chef competition. Oh yes, the deadline and the constraint of provided ideas forces you past the roadblock of doubt into publication, yes. But the real point is to build community and get reviews and feedback. It is extraordinarily hard to find readers and playtesters in this world, so much so I’ve been bugging Board Game Geek for years to have a Playtester Finder Forum, but apparently American and Europeans find them everywhere – although saying that, Klaus Teuber had only his own family to help him build Settlers of Catan. Those with money and prototypes do take drafts to Spiel, of course, but there’s much less of that for roleplaying, and we forget too that that is part of the process, and everyone who plays the game at Spiel theoretically deserves their name on the front of the box. That’s why RPGs always list playtesters, too, btw. It’s not courtesy. It’s credit for work done.

But artists can’t always find feedback, connections and support and they need it the same way a painter needs paint and a writer needs a pencil. The rush of blood when someone reads your work and responds to it as a vital as the ink in the pen and the film in the camera. You literally cannot make art without it. And that means someone needs to be around to build the tools to get feedback and connections and support and criticism and collaboration. And that is a kind of creativity, a kind of art creation. I am not the best game designer. I am not even a good one. But my friends games leap into being because I tell them how to find their way. I link them to publishers and competitions and help them find protospiels and unpubs. I respond to their ideas with my knowledge and expertise.

And we need to know that as artists it is okay to ask for help from people good at developing and supporting. I was spitballing an idea the other day and thought James Wallis might know something about turning parlour games into print and I foolishly hesitated to ask – but of course he responded brilliantly, and brought in all his expertise as a support artist. And he turned around and asked me for the same support with his art, where he is the lead artist. Because he too, knows it is a team effort, and that I have support skills.

And I beat myself up on this, and I know lots of people do. We play the impostor game. I’m not an artist; they are an artist. They have their name on the book and the box, and took lead on the project so nothing I did counts, not really. But art does not work that way and we should feel entitled and confident to declare ourselves artists. As a part of the thing. Small, perhaps, but ESSENTIAL. Crucial. As important as ink in the pen and film in the camera. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon but every single person at Mission Control and NASA in general put him there. They are part of that achievement. Art is exactly the same.

And we can and should take this as widely as possible. Professional artists have the highest rate of homelessness of any profession. When Van Gogh couldn’t get help from his brother to afford new canvases he painted over his own work. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is unfinished because he lived in a hovel and got typhoid and died at 31. If you feed an artist, if you clothe an artist, if you bring in an income to fund an artist, if you pick up the kids while they finish a chapter, if you bring them cups of tea and rub their sore shoulders, you are – and I say this with not a drop of facetiousness – an artist. You are creating art. It cannot happen any other way.

So, if you are a supporter, take pride in it. Advertise it. Sell it. Like Sean Smith and James Wallis are clever enough to do. Talk about it. Develop it. Share skills and teach skills in it. Build things to bring support together and direct it outwards. And if you’re a leader (and you can move back and forth all the time), don’t think you are supposed to do this alone. Reach out for support, it’s how the process WORKS. Art will literally kill you if you try to do it alone, and, what’s more, your art will not be as good as it should be.

It takes a village. Embrace that. Seek it. Build it. Share it. Art is life, and both are inherently, unavoidably, collaborative.

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