Skype Chat 3.3: Four Assumptions

Over a week ago I was travelling back from Cluj Napoca, sitting at the Chiorean’s dinner table with laptop next to me trying to follow the conversation as it transpassed me online. The framework around which the chat revolved were four sets of assumptions taken from Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

The following assumption can generate highly personal and interested arguments that can contradict, overlap and synthesise. I have put them below to reflect on. Much of what is said is self evident in the light of experience but to those new to artistic practice they may help to clarify the confusion that can come from  lack of knowledge and experience, ambition, received notions and the weight of art history. These writings largely confirm what I have come to know over years of hard work, triumphs and disappointments. The essence of these notions, after they are made one’s own, make the act of making, of creating, of art so much more authentic. That is why I say, each to their own, art cannot be canonised but for one’s own eventual authority in what one does.

Assumptions

1   ARTMAKING INVOLVES SKILLS THAT CAN BE LEARNED.
The conventional wisdom here is that while “craft” can be taught, “art” remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. Clearly, these qualities can be nurtured by others. Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work. It’s true that every few years the authors encounter some beginning photography student whose first-semester prints appear as finely crafted as any Ansel Adams might have made. And it’s true that a natural gift like that (especially coming at the fragile early learning stage) returns priceless encouragement to its maker. But all that has nothing to do with artistic content. Rather, it simply points up the fact that most of us (including Adams himself!) had to work years to perfect our art.

2   ART IS MADE BY ORDINARY PEOPLE.
Creatures having only virtues can hardly be imagined making art. It’s difficult to picture the Virgin Mary painting landscapes. Or Batman throwing pots. The flawless creature wouldn’t need to make art. And so, ironically, the ideal artist is scarcely a theoretical figure at all. If art is made by ordinary people, then you’d have to allow that the ideal artist would be an ordinary person too, with the whole usual mixed bag of traits that real human beings possess. This is a giant hint about art, because it suggests that our flaws and weaknesses, while often obstacles to our getting work done, are a source of strength as well. Something about making art has to do with overcoming things, giving us a clear opportunity for doing things in ways we have always known we should do them.

3   MAKING ART AND VIEWING ART ARE DIFFERENT AT THEIR CORE.
The sane human being is satisfied that the best he / she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers’ concerns are not your concerns (although it’s dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.
For the artist, that truth highlights a familiar and predictable corollary: artmaking can be a rather lonely, thankless affair. Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend virtually all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about. It just seems to come with the territory. But for some reason — self-defense, perhaps — artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.
Romantic, but wrong. The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision. In fact there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work. The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-course corrections (or deleted really dumb mistakes) by overpainting the still-wet canvas. The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about — and lots of it!
The rest is largely a matter of perseverance. Of course once you’re famous, collectors and academics will circle back in droves to claim credit for spotting evidence of genius in every early piece. But until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally. Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your well being. They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours — and this is something to be genuinely thankful for. Yet however much they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world: learning to make your work is not their problem.

4   ARTMAKING HAS BEEN AROUND LONGER THAN THE ART ESTABLISHMENT.
Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed. The painters of caves, quite apart from not thinking of themselves as artists, probably never thought of themselves at all. What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium. Even the separation of art from craft is largely a post- Renaissance concept, and more recent still is the notion that art transcends what you do, and represents what you are. In the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of orthodox religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies. “Artist” has gradually become a form of identity which (as every artist knows) often carries with it as many drawbacks as benefits. Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all! It seems far healthier to sidestep that vicious spiral by accepting many paths to successful artmaking — from reclusive to flamboyant, intuitive to intellectual, folk art to fine art. One of those paths is yours.