Conversations With Muggles
So. Following my exhortation last week asking people to consider buying original art instead of cheap screen prints, I got into a discussion in which someone asked me (in what I felt was a rather disingenuous way) if abstract art is still in style. They had read an article in the Home section of their local newspaper about how abstract art was very trendy at the moment, but that it wouldn’t be for much longer.
I was caught off-guard by the question, and I was surprised to find myself reacting angrily to it, mostly because of the clear subtext inferring that art is not valid pursuit unless it manufactures a marketable product. The question felt kind of demeaning, to artists in general, and to me personally (I know that this person doesn’t like or understand my work, and tends to be very vocal in dissing any art that doesn’t reflect their taste, match their decor or affirm their perception of themselves).
I didn’t have a good good off-the-cuff response to that attitude, which IMHO completely misses the mark of what art is for, and what art is about. After letting it go for awhile, I started thinking about how what I wish I’d said instead of just getting pissed off. Art is more than a thing you buy, and this goes for music, film, theatre or any other artistic discipline. Unless you’re a shallow git, it should reach more deeply into you. And this has nothing to do with taste – with what you like or hate or whatever resonates with you or makes you cringe – it’s about being willing to look at things, to see things, to think rationally about them and hopefully to be able to discuss them in an intelligent way.
No fine artist is just “manufacturing product”. We pour all of who we are into our work – an artist’s drive to make their work comes from a visceral need within them to express themselves. Art that comes from an authentic place and really hits the mark is usually the product of years of experimentation, self-reflection and practice. It’s not simply intended as an item to be purchased, but as a catalyst for a conversation, for a moment of reflection, for a portal to dreaming, or even for entertainment. When you look at an artist’s work, you’re looking right into who they are, you’re hearing their most intimate, authentic voice. To reduce that to a commodity is a brutal dismissal of everything that that person is.
To me, it’s as important to connect to people through what I create as it is to sell a painting – I know that not everyone is going to want to bring my work home, and not everyone is going to “like” what I do, but I hope that people will spend a moment with my work and bring something of themselves to meet what I’ve put on the canvas in some way. I would hope that it interests them intellectually, or that it brings them joy by awakening a mood or a memory within them. Maybe it will challenge or repulse them because it brings negative emotions to mind. Whatever someone thinks or feels when they look at my paintings, I would hope that they’ll think about what elicits their response.
I work with abstraction and paint on canvas because that’s the best way that I’ve found so far to explore the ideas that interest me, and to express what it is that I discover. My approach to art is process-oriented, which means that what excites me about painting is to come to it with a spirit of adventure, as though I’m embarking on a journey of discovery without a rigid schedule or itinerary, and only the vaguest sense of where the journey might take me.
I wouldn’t be able to that if I were painting a picture that faithfully depicts the mountain behind my house. And someone who is interested in documenting and describing what they observe in a landscape, figure or still-life would likely not choose pure abstraction as a mode in which to convey what they want to say about their subject. Both methods of creating work are valid – it really depends on what the artist feels attracted to and who the artist is.
I’m very comfortable with uncertainty in my work – when I start a piece, I usually don’t know what the thing is going to look like at the end – I build my painting in multiple layers, responding intuitively to what I see, improvising and experimenting, looking and seeing. It’s done when the mood I see on the canvas feels coherent, and I feel that visually, there’s a combination of tension and balance that feels interesting.
Another artist might feel that it’s important to be very specific and detailed in what they paint. They might begin their painting with a very clear idea of how it will look at the end, and they will be very methodic in laying down the strokes that will bring their composition to completion. Again, both approaches are valid, and the choice of methods will depend on who the artist is. The success of the painting will depend as much on how well the artist knows what kind of approach, medium and content will work for them as it does on their technical skills.
Instead of just throwing out a snap judgement and moving on next time you look at a piece of art, how about spending a moment thinking about what it is that causes you to react the way you do, whether you like it or not? Think about what the artist put of him/herself into that work, and how that affects you – what would you say to them about it? What kind of amazing conversation might occur if you open up to making the effort to understand or interpret something outside of yourself? More than any commercial application, this is the true purpose and value of art.
A little aside… those slides up above are from a website called haikudeck.com – the deck these are from are a great summary of all the things art is, or should be. The site has tons of great presentations on all kinds of subjects – well worth a little time if you feel like falling down the rabbit hole!