When to Stop Editing

June 17, 2016

I saw Star Wars: A New Hope last week at the Lancaster Grand Theatre in Lancaster, KY.  The Grand is having a summer movie series where they show some oldies but goodies, and I thought that revisiting the original 1977 Star Wars would be a great time.  It had been a while since I had seen the newly remastered edition with all of the added digital special effects and I was anxious to see if I could remember what was new and what was original material.

As you may know, George Lucas – Star Wars creator and director has made some controversial decisions by going back and editing his original films.  Over the years, he’s been sprinkling digital special effects, adding CGI characters, changing sound effects, even editing scenes that alter our perception of the characters (Han shot first). Some of Lucas’ edits were necessary to keep the film looking its best as it made the transition from film to digital media.  I can understand why these types of quality-control alterations were made.  I can also understand why Lucas would want to dabble with the then-new 1990’s digital effects to create the scenes he always wanted, but they look pretty bad.  Why couldn’t George Lucas just leave his original films alone?

Watching the film and dissecting the old vs new effects made me consider how we, as artists think about our work.

I often look back at my older work- work that I considered my absolute “best” at the time – with some degree of disgust.  Sometimes your old work just doesn’t hold up to your modern expectations for a number of reasons.  Looking back on some of my older work, I regret my lack of craftsmanship (handmade firring strip frames anyone?), my lack of originality (did I really think I could pull off neo-Cubism in 1998?), and my lack of drawing skills (I swear this drawing looked REAL fifteen years ago).  I usually find that the more effort I exerted on the work and the more pride I had in the finished product is in direct relation to how much I now dislike it.

What does this disdain for past work mean?  Was I truly a terrible artist and just didn’t realize it?  I think that most artists look back on their old work with a more critical eye because they have grown.  As artists, we are continually raising the bar on what we expect from ourselves.  We continue to see the world in new ways and develop our vision. We always know that we could do just a little bit better.  Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the life-span (and work-span) of an artist is that we continue to grow and develop our aesthetics, our concepts, and creative skills over the course of a lifetime.

So, should we go back and “fix” old work to bring it up to par with our latest?  As the artist, you get to make the rules.  If you think that is a good idea, then I certainly can’t stop you.  I, however, would caution against this practice as it has a tendency to taint the continuity of your work.  Of course, we all want all of our work to look its best regardless of when it was made, but by editing your older work, you change the progression of your development.  If your work is edited too long after its original conception, viewers (and hopefully art historians) miss the chance to see how you, as an artist, has developed over time.  For example, film fans would love to be able to showcase Star Wars: A New Hope as a standout example of pre-digital, “practical” special effects (hand puppets, models, hand-built sets, stop-motion animation).  Since George Lucas has added all of the modern digital CGI, the example of “ground-breaking special effects for its time” has been lost and viewers and film historians now have to scrounge for older copies or bootlegs online.

If artists are to edit their “finished” work, I believe that they must set parameters for themselves.  I believe (and this is only my opinion) that artists should only edit their current body of work.  For example, I currently create art using repurposed roofing tin to make assemblages.  Before that, I created pop-art style paintings based on images found in dictionaries.  If I were to prepare an exhibition of my roofing tin assemblages, I would not have a problem with going back and editing a piece to make it “fit in” with the others in the show.  However, I feel that returning to my pop-art era to alter pieces that I wasn’t currently showing or creating would be overstepping a boundary.  I also believe that once a work of art finds its way into the hands of a collector (or consumer – in Lucas’ case) that the artist should relinquish the right to edit their work.

Please bear in mind that I am not referring to repairing a damaged work of art.  I’ve got a mural or two that could probably use a touch-up from being in public use.  Minor repairs or touching up old work to its intended state is a normal part of the process and an important part of keeping your clients happy.

The works that artists create are ultimately tied to the time in which they were created.  If you find yourself itching to go back and fix old mistakes, take a moment to consider if the changes you are making are disturbing the natural growth and progressive development (or timeline) that your body of work reflects.  Will these changes alter your work in ways that redirect your original intent or meaning?

Sometimes artists have difficulty taking their hands off the work.  As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”  It is ultimately up to us to determine when to walk away.