Apprentice: I can’t finish anything I start; I don’t understand my problem.

Master: Can you describe the problem?

Apprentice: I have a clear view of the portfolio I want to create; I begin; then the work unfolds in the wrong direction; I become frustrated; I stop to rethink the overall statement of the portfolio; I return to the beginning; I start again; but, again, the work unfolds in the wrong direction; I pause, again, to consider; I start again. Again, and again, and again.

Master: Why does the work unfold in the wrong direction?

Apprentice: How should I know? The portfolio, the oeuvre, requires I go that way (he points), but the work takes me that way (he points).

Master: There is only one wrong way to climb a mountain.

Apprentice: That is exactly the kind of cryptic statement I anticipated; I should have held my breath.

Master: What is the wrong way to climb a mountain? Do you know?

Apprentice: To not start?

Master: No, to not start is to not climb. I asked you about climbing: What is the wrong way to climb?

Apprentice: I don’t know. To stop?

Master: The wrong way is to start, pause on the path, and consider: Is this the path? Is this the ideal path? Yes, to stop is the wrong way to climb. Of course the path you are on is not ideal. There is no ideal path. There are many paths up the mountain and each path is real but not ideal. Some have rain, some rivers, some mud, others sharp stones.

Apprentice: I see.

Master: Do you?

Apprentice: Uh, I guess…?

Master: You pause, consider, ask the critical question, turn back down to the valley, find a new path, perhaps ideal–who can tell from the valley?–and begin climbing. Oops, again, this new path is not ideal, so you return to the valley and start again. Again and again you search for the ideal path, but you fail each time and each time you return to the valley.

Apprentice: But I want a coherent portfolio.

Master: Your own body will bring coherence to the work. When you mold, sew, weave, plaster, carve, burn, or construct, the created object naturally takes on the dimensions of… you. If you build without regard for an ideal measure, your work will naturally take on dimensions similar to your body. Your stitches will be separated by the width of your finger, your basket will take the width of your hands, your wall will take your height. This kind of thing. The portfolio, the oeuvre, will take on a coherence that, in retrospect, appears planned. There will be a clear path up the mountain appropriate to your progress up the mountain.

Apprentice: It will look planned afterward, but it cannot be planned in advance?

Master: The human body is rational. If you take action, your action will communicate that rationality.

Apprentice: But I want the whole body of work to make a statement. A good statement. An important statement. A dramatic concept. Like, the speed I walked up the mountain, or the interesting creatures I found on the way, or the identical path that an old master took up the mountain–that kind of thing. A clear concept.

Master: A philosopher and an artist travel through life from opposite directions. The philosopher travels head first: the philosopher imagines the category beforehand–imagines the completed, coherent oeuvre–and knows what the oeuvre should say, and so he removes discordant elements to force the work to obey his ideal philosophy. The finished work doesn’t measure up to himself or his journey; the work measures up to his ideal, and so the work is ugly, empty, hollow, inhuman. In a word, the philosopher creates allegory; allegory demands the work take on specific meaning regardless of the viewer.

Apprentice: I’m an artist, not a philosopher. How does an artist travel through life?

Master: Ass backwards. Forget about your clear concepts.

Apprentice. I’ll try. Do you have a pen? I want to write this down.

Master: No, I don’t have a pen, and you should not write down my clear concepts.

Apprentice: Why not?

Master: Because an artist makes stuff. Thing after thing. Without considering what the things mean in the end. Writing down my clear concepts won’t help you. Making will help you. Make every day. Allow the days to build one upon another. Allow the work to build. Eventually, you’ll look back and see the coherence. You’ll have moved ass backwards, but the journey will be rational.

Apprentice: But…

Master: The artist cannot create allegory, but he can create history, which a viewer might find applicable. Applicability allows the viewer some degree of freedom whereas allegory does not.

Apprentice: But I hate it when artists ask their audience, What does my work mean to you?

Master: Isn’t that the only question? Does the work apply? Does the work sound like familiar history to the viewer? Who knows? The only test is to show the work to the viewer and ask.

Apprentice: What if I… I don’t know.

Master: Your work will apply. Your work will cohere… unless you stop, ask critical questions, return to the valley, and start again. If you stop and start again, the first and second paths will create much different works. If you start and remain on the same path and walk a little each day, you will create a line of works that fit together. Your portfolio will cohere. Your blue, green, and yellow periods will cohere one with another. This coherence will communicate your history and your history will be applicable. Forget about making statements; make history and that history will apply.

Apprentice: And then what?

Master: The mountain is a chain of mountains.

The end.