Guan Yu, Summer Palace, Beijing
The Art of War, an ancient military treatise by Sun Tzu, has been widely applied to business and sports, but art? Although not every principle from the Art of War is applicable to art, there’s still plenty in this treatise that can help artists strengthen their practice. The treatise is composed of 13 chapters, each dealing with a certain aspect of military strategy, but the essence of the treatise can be summed up in three key principles.
1) A warrior must know when to fight and when not to fight. If you’re stronger than the enemy, then fight. If you’re not stronger than the enemy, then don’t fight. This seems obvious, but emotions cloud judgement, and this principle is often disregarded with disastrous consequences. In the arts, this principle applies to craft and it can be rephrased several ways. Know when to play a note and when to be silent. Know when to dance and when to be still. Know when to click the shutter and when to wait. Know when to paint and when to leave negative space. Someone who is a novice in their craft will make many attempts and mistakes, and hopefully learn in the process. A master at their craft will conserve their energy and wait because they know there’s art in the silence, the stillness and the negative space.
2) Deceive your enemy to make them do what you want. This is one of the core principles of the Art of War, but DO NOT do this! Deceiving the enemy is good advice in war because war is a zero sum interaction, i.e. the sum of gains is zero when there is a winner and loser. Art is a nonzero sum interaction. It’s possible for all parties involved in an art transaction to gain from it. In the art world, people who cheat and deceive may get ahead, but they add to the perception that the art world is a disreputable place with little integrity. All’s fair in love and war, but the public knows this should not be so in art. In order for the art world to thrive, we must not deceive anyone, including ourselves.
3) Knowledge is king: do not go into battle without knowing what you are up against. This is true no matter what field you’re in. If you’re an outsider artist with a gallerist who loves your work and takes care of everything for you, you only need to create your art. For everyone else, it takes a lot more work to succeed in art, and much of that work is gathering knowledge. Besides knowing your craft, you must know which other artists to align yourself with, which gallerists and curators matter for your work, and which art events to attend.
The best way to get this knowledge and put it to use at the same time is to go out, go to shows, talk to people, and find the ones you connect with. As an artist, this is probably as important as creating your work.