A no purpose, no goals approach to making art

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Could you let go of your expectations to get better, make progress, find a ‘distinct style’ or produce anything ‘interesting’ when making art?

In Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindhe explains a Zen Buddhist approach “We can say either that we make progress little by little, or that we do not even expect to make progress. Just to be sincere and make our full effort in each moment is enough. There is no Nirvana outside our practice.” And In our practice we have no particular purpose or goal.”

When making art, there is a strong desire to get better and gain more confidence so we feel we’re progressing through some (imaginary) process of evolution. This is what we’ve been taught from a young age – to focus on getting a higher grade so we can get our pat on the back and seal of approval from others. But what if we took a page out of Zen Buddhism and let go of the goal to get a metaphorical better grade?

“You may think that if there is no purpose or no goal in our practice, we will not know what to do. But there is a way. The way to practice without having any goal is to limit your activity, or to be concentrated on what you are doing in this moment… When your mind is wandering about elsewhere you have no chance to express yourself. But if you limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can express fully your true nature, which is the universal Buddha nature.” – Shunryu Suzuki

A goal-less approach may not please your ego, but your mind will benefit from the release of expectation you’ve put upon yourself.

“… we just concentrate on the activity which we do in each moment. When you bow, you should just bow, when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat. If you do this, the universal nature is there. In Japanese we call it ichigyo-zammai, or “one-act samadhi.” Sammai is “concentration.” Ichigyo is “one practice.” – Shunryu Suzuki

By adopting a ‘concentrated-one-practice’ approach, you become fully present in the moment. Focusing on the action of practicing with no expectations about the outcome allows you to “express your true nature.” This ultimately leads to connecting to yourself on a deeper level.

How freeing to tap into an unpressured, unperfect, slow and small art-making practice where your only focus is just to make art.

Chameleons, untrained artists and beginner’s mind

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connction

Becoming an expert can lead to playing it safe by repeating the same patterns of what’s previously worked. What if you fail once you’ve had a taste of success? Better stick to what you know because that’s what worked in the past…

But in Bowie: The Man Who Changed the World, David Bowie’s chameleon approached to making music was highlighted. “As far as style is concerned, I don’t really think that I want to have a style. Sort of ‘Oh yeah, that’s a David Bowie sound’ y’know? I’d much prefer to be sort of a free agent as my enthusiasms take me.” Bowie followed his curiosities, even if they were different to what what he’d been inspired by before. His enthusiasms were his pathway to the next project.

Cai Guo-Qiang in Skyladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang is asked is there is something he particularly likes about collaborating with untrained artists? He replied “Yes, a lot of artists do things that are too commercial. It lacks some compulsion and sincere emotions that should exist in all art.” Becoming commercial may mean following the same formula of creation which becomes more important than pursuing new avenues of creation.

‘Shoshin,’ a word from Zen Buddhism meaning ‘beginner’s mind,’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. In Shunryu Suzuki’ book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind “In beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Beginners mind allows you to experiment with more freedom and discover unexpected and divergent results. Ultimately this creates richer, more diverse work because you’ve cast your research net wider. We can become rigid when making art by sticking to ‘rules’ adopted in the past. We initially created those rules from the unknown through experiments, but they become fixed quickly. We can tightly cling to them as we try to create order out of chaos because perhaps then we feel (perceived) control in an uncontrollable world? Take inspiration from Bowie and Guo-Qiang and follow your curiosities, be open to new possibilities and don’t be so concerned with everything being in the same style. Adopting a beginner’s mindset allows us to be open to new, divergent and unexpected ideas, where magic could be revealed and explored further.