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Quality vs. Quantity in the Creative Process

MusicPosted by Makram Aboul Hosn Sat, January 14, 2017 09:15:35

When I ask myself whether I favor Quantity over Quality, or vice versa, I find it very difficult to give a definitive answer. Perhaps many people would find it difficult, because the answer depends on the situation. In questions of creativity, I believe there shouldn’t be a clear-cut answer that rules out all other possibilities once and for all. But rather an answer that works best for the given moment and situation, and so like all moments and situations, answers should be allowed to change and evolve.

So let us first define quality and quantity in terms of making-music. If we take world of music composition, then we can say that a composer who favors quality over quantity will prefer to have a smaller creative output but one that is as error-free as possible, while a composer who favors quantity over quality will prefer to compose as much as possible, without dwelling much on imperfections. So which of the two is better? Well, I think in this case, we tend to intuitively prefer quality. But, it’s worth reconsidering this approach as it risks leading the artist into a notorious creativity-killer, Perfectionism:


“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here”- Anne Lamott


In the book “Art & Fear” by Ted Orland and David Bayles (a highly recommended read for all artists) there is an interesting anecdote about a ceramics class that was divided into two groups, one that was to be assessed based on quantity and the other group based on quality. The grading of the quantity group would be based on how many pots they produced, the more the pots, the higher the grade. The quality group was to be make only one pot, but a perfect one, and they would receive the highest grade if they did it.

When it was time to grade, the results were intriguing. The quantity group had produced the highest quality work, because they were busy making pots and learning with each pot, while the quality group was too caught up trying to theorize and conceive a perfect pot that they failed. “If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human. Error is human; Ergo, art is error.”

There is an emphasis in the book that imperfection is the common factor between all great works of art (as can be found through X-ray scans of famous paintings, or clear editing cuts in famous recordings) instead of the common misconception that great art is flawless art.

Another very interesting notion in the book is that each work of art your produce will teach you about your next work. That is why continuous and constant production of art is very important, even if you occasionally produce poor works. In fact, there is a theory called The Constant Probability of Success Theory formed by psychologist, Dean Keith Simonton. The theory states that an artist’s creative output conforms to a bell-like curve where the majority of the works are of medium quality while the minority is of very high or very low quality. We can induce from this that increasing the amount of work produced, we have a better chance of creating works of high quality. And since our standards of quality improve with each work, then what we call low-quality work will not be as bad as we think.

History backs this up in subtle ways. For example, in 75 years, Pablo Picasso is believed to have produced 13,500 paintings, 100,000 graphic prints or engravings, 34,000 book illustrations, 300 sculptures and ceramics. Not to mention the ones he disliked and discarded. That's a very large artistic output!

Johannes Brahms, who is believed to have been an obsessive self-critical perfectionist spent 21 years composing his 1st Symphony because he felt he had to surpass or at least match Beethoven’s legacy and he ended up publishing a total of 160 compositions compared to staggering numbers by Teleman (3,000+) works), Bach (1,128 works), Beethoven (722 works) and Handel (612 works). Legend has it that Brahms once said that the fireplace has seen more of his music than any audience has. Perhaps he simply refused to publish anything short of perfect, but I find it hard to even consider that he only wrote 160 works.

What I’ve discussed in this article are the benefits from favoring quantity over quality. Creating art is a laborious and intimidating process as feedback is immediate and overwhelming. That does not mean that we shouldn’t care at all for quality, just that it should not be an obsession because I hold the belief that more quantity brings higher quality in the form of art-making experience. So write, draw, sculpt, make messes… do as much as you can with as much care and attention as you can possibly give.

Edited by: Sima Itayim



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