I am still ruminating about the idea of how we know if a work is any good but looking at it through the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He gives us another wonderful way to judge the process of making art. He suggests you ask yourself, was I in the flow?
In other words, was I so absorbed in the process, that hours flew by?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brilliantly explains his Flow Factor here:
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) Jul 1, 2008
If you are happily engaged in your creativity, you will most probably be genuinely making art from somewhere deep down. If you feel that you are deep in an activity that flows out of you, it’s likely that what you are making in some fundamental way has your unique voice and vision. It seems fair to assume that the results you achieve will correspond to what you set out to express. More likely that the work might bring you, if not fame or fortune, a sense of tremendous fulfillment. Csikszentmihalyi talks about being so involved in creating something new, that you achieve a kind of ecstasy as you work.
Ecstasy may be a bit extreme, but flow can mean that as you shape and revise and rework and reshape you are lost in the act of fashioning an artwork that is developing and growing. Flow must have an arc. You know what you are setting out to make and you have a clear idea of the parameters. What you don’t know is how the pieces emerge and join. Like a jazz tune. Or a runner in a race who is in the zone. You also often don’t care about breaking for meals or sleeping. Flow for me has happened pulling all nighters. I think to achieve flow, I need a good chunk of time. Also for me, it never happens at the beginning of a project, which is often when I get up too many times for food breaks. It’s the middle when I can see the piece that I had envisioned is achievable and the end is in sight and it’ll seamlessly move to the end. And it can happen during the revision process. When it does happen, you know it. You feel rewarded. You feel immersed. You’d have to be pulled away from the work protesting and yelling.
Csikszentmihalyi is a positive psychologist. What’s interesting is that flow for him, isn’t just about letting it all hang out. He sees it as coming from discipline. You need focus and attention. You need to have challenge built in to the task. If it’s too easy you won’t become immersed. You’ll be on some kind of auto pilot which is not the same thing. If it’s too challenging, you’ll be very stressed.
The more flow happens, the better you are at mastering skills and the more you at tackling work that is just right for you. It stretches you, you experiment and you attain an end product that is more than you expected. It didn’t involve your ego. It took you over.