This is a bad time to be a pack rat. The propaganda against clutter and the mania for tidying has been whipped up by TV shows like Hoarders
and Storage Wars
and countless blogs that fetishize orderly studios and perfect workspaces with “things organized neatly,” culminating in Marie Kondo
’s gigantic bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
. While Kondo’s tips can work wonders on your sock drawer or your kitchen pantry, I have serious doubts about their usefulness to artists.
My studio, like my mind, is always a bit of a mess. Books and newspapers are piled everywhere, pictures are torn out and stuck on the wall, cut-up scraps litter the floor. But it’s not an accident that my studio is a mess. I love my mess. I intentionally cultivate my mess.
Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.
You may think that if your studio is tidy, it will free you up to be more efficient, and therefore, you will produce more. Maybe that will help you in the execution stage of your work if you’re, say, a printmaker pulling prints, but it won’t help you come up with an interesting design for the next print. It’s always a mistake to equate productivity and creativity. They are not the same. In fact, they’re frequently at odds with each other: You’re often most creative when you’re the least productive.
There is, of course, such a thing as too much clutter. It’s hard to work if you can’t find the things you need when you need them. French chefs practice something called mise en place, which means “set in place.” It’s about planning and preparation: making sure all the ingredients and tools you need are ready before you set to work. “Mise en place is the religion of all good line cooks,” Anthony Bourdain wrote in Kitchen Confidential. “Your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system.”
That’s the key word we can steal from chefs: readiness. Most of us don’t have hungry diners or health inspectors to worry about. We don’t have to keep our spaces perfectly clean and tidy. We just have to keep them ready for when we want to work. Cartoonist Kevin Huizenga makes the point that having your studio organized does not mean it needs to look organized. “If papers everywhere on the floor makes working easier right now, because you need to constantly refer to them, then they should stay there.”
There’s a balance in a workspace between chaos and order. My friend John T. Unger has the perfect rule: Keep your tools organized and your materials messy. “Keep your tools very organized so you can find them,” he says. “Let the materials cross-pollinate in a mess. Some pieces of art I made were utter happenstance, where a couple items came together in a pile and the piece was mostly done. But if you can’t lay your hands right on the tool you need, you can blow a day (or your enthusiasm and inspiration) seeking it.”