Lean Art

Making a Minimum Viable Expression

I’ve spent the last couple years struggling with whether or not I should be building startups. I was pretty deep in that community, and even though I think I won’t try to start one again, a few really helpful principles from that world still rattle around in my head, and affect the things I build as an artist. Probably the most important is the idea of the minimum viable product. Faced with the challenge of creating something someone wants to pay for with the limited resources and funding of a startup, you gotta get pragmatic: you probably won’t get it right on the first try, but how do you get closer?

It’s simple. You aim to create something small that explicitly tests your idea of why your product would be worth paying for. And if doesn’t work, then shit. You do it again. That’s why you try to make it minimal, because you want to put the fewest amount of resources you can into something while still testing if it could succeed. Having not wasted all your time and money on a single attempt, you can try again when it (likely) fails. But even this protean form of your product still has to be viable: it has to legitimately meet people’s needs, provide enough revenue or growth to justify continued investment, and give you evidence that you’re on the right path. Viability is what you’re in search of.

Products are for needs, art is for expression

But what if you are an artist? What does viability even mean if you’re focused not on creating a product to meet the needs of a market that will pay you, but instead on the mission of expressing something that might never make a dollar?

Well, in search of your best work, you should pursue minimum viable expression.

I think viable art is simply good art: art that is so good at expressing what it must that it resonates with and can transform the people who encounter it. It’s not hard to want to continue to make good art, even if it doesn’t pay much. The rewards are written on the faces of everyone who encounters it. The problem is getting there, to the place where you know that you’ve made something that matters.

Again, like with startups, you can fail in a bunch of ways. But if you’re focused on finding a minimum viable expression, you’ve got a handy guide to the mistakes you should avoid, and a methodology to find what you ought to keep making.

Finding your path with MVE

When exploring your work and seeking out a minimally viable expression, the biggest mistake you can make is to fail to make something small. No one jumps out of the womb fully formed with their first shot at making art. And while you’re headed there, it’s easy to think that you can just think harder or smarter to get there more quickly, with it all paying off in one momentous accomplishment.

There’s a great parable from Art and Fear that illustrates my point a lot better than bastardized startup lingo can:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot”albeit a perfect one”to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work and learning from their mistakes, the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Making something small and expressive gives you your time back, so that you can say more in practice. Since it’s highly unlikely you’ll find how to say things right out the gate, that translates into more chances to find what on earth you want to talk about with the tools you’ve got, in a way that actually resonates with and affects people.

Art that matters is art that affects people

It might be worth asking if art really does need to affect others — to have some social purpose, even if that’s just to change one person. As much as it would be nice to never ever need someone to see your art, I think it’s true that to never have your art acknowledged as affecting, and to live without acclaim and without acknowledgement, would ignore the point of making art, and the present reality of creating it.

Art, to me, seems to be expressive. This is kind of a tautological point: art needs to express something, even if it does it in somewhat unexpected or roundabout ways; failing to do so would make it not-art. If what you’re making has nothing to express, that’s okay too! And we have a word for it: craft. It’s something made in an exercise of skill, which may even be beautiful and even have a use, but which isn’t judged based on what it says and how it says it. The potters mentioned above could make 50lbs of beautiful, aesthetically pleasing mugs — or 50lbs of beautiful, aesthetically pleasing mugs in an attempt to say something important that they needed to say using pottery. The latter would be judged differently from the former.

Then there’s the reality of making things today. Maybe it didn’t used to be so expensive to live. Maybe it was easier to make art and rent in another century. Now, rent’s expensive. And good art is still rare, so it’s worth wondering how to make it, because you may both get to make great art and survive by doing it.

The truth is, you will get so few chances to actually make art — so few moments of lucid, non-work time — that you can’t really fuck around with the time you have. And so, be pragmatic. Don’t treat creation as an outlet for your status anxiety, or a longshot fantasy of validating your perfectionism. Treat it as a chance to get closer to saying what you must, slowly, and then more clearly.