TITLE: Is it Really in the Details?
DATE: 3/25/2006 11:21:00 PM
Tonight I find myself sitting in yet another airport, having given up my seat for a standby passenger - a grandmother who was going to Baltimore to visit her grandchildren. I am returning (or attempting to return) from another successful arts business workshop, this time in Abingdon, Virginia.
I sit in this section of the terminal as one of only two people. It’s just me and a middle-aged maintenance man, who wobbles to-and-fro as he walks. Slowly and methodically, he starts on one side of the room. As he edges toward me, he flips over rows of chairs to expose their underbellies.
I ask, “What are you doing?”
He says in an everyday, matter-of-fact way, “I have to flip the seats over to clean the bottoms.”
“What would be on the bottom? And who would touch it, even if there were gunk under there?”
He shrugs his shoulders as doubtful as I and says, “Health inspector says we’ve gotta do it, so we do it.” I think about that a moment as he continues flipping chairs – now the entire half of the room.
“How often do you do this?,” I ask. To which he replies, “I dunno. Sometimes just once a week. Most times, twice a week, though.”
“Twice a week! Why would they want you to spend hours every week cleaning the bottoms of chairs, where only little children might even have contact with the dirt? And, even then, licking a little dirt won’t hurt anyone. Just touching the bathroom door handle… now that’s a health hazard!”
He finishes his job. And as I watch him wobble down the hallway, it occurs to me how ludicrous this man’s job is. He spends a huge portion of his week flipping chairs, sweeping them, and setting them upright. Over and over again. Cleaning a part of the airport no one even THINKS or DREAMS about.
At the workshop I just wrapped up, I took a break after my second presentation. As I walked away an attendee stopped me. “What is that word you said back there… minutiae? What is that?”
I pulled up a seat and explained the definition of the word. “You know… when you have been working on a piece so long that you've lost objectivity. You’ve started addressing the minutiae – the tiny little details that no one but you will ever notice. It’s not going to help the piece, but still you go at it. You can't see that you should have stopped an hour and a half ago.”
Why is it that when I looked tonight at the hard working maintenance man, flipping an entire room full of chairs over… the absurdity of his work jumped out? Because it’s minutiae! It’s the smallest common denominator. It’s the thing that’s not going to make or break anything, and certainly is not of consequence to the thousands of people who interact with the result of his labor…unaware how clean and sanitized the bottom of their seats are.
He saw it. He knew it was ridiculous.
But, artists… we don’t always see it. We wrap our heart into things. We tell ourselves the minutiae IS important and that even if people don’t notice it – it’s the intent that matters. For a maintenance man, going through unrecognized motions is draining and absurd. For an artist, going through the motions with inconsequential details is still draining and absurd… we just tell ourselves it’s not because it helps justify our wasted energy or it demonstrates how dedicated we truly are.
“Why yes, he is such a great painter that he spends weeks preparing his canvases, sanding 12 times between thin gesso layers!”
Look... At the end of the day, we are only as good as our body of work, whether a clean airport or a series of art/craft pieces.
But, if any of the “work” in our body of work is not evident to the person buying our pieces… maybe it’s time to step back a bit and stop making so much out of the invisible. Maybe our work would sell just as well if we streamlined, stopped taking the ‘scenic route’ through every artistic journey, and started getting to the heart of the matter a bit quicker.
What are people praising or buying in your work? Now, go out and do just that! Stop worrying about minutae – the dust underneath the seats.