Wednesday, October 15, 2008

But Is It Art? Part Two: Ego, Identity, And The Big Question

Here's a thought for the future -- the next time I'm looking around for a project, why not do linoleum cuts, scan them in and enlarge them to show the paper texture and the way the ink goes down in high-contrast detail? Treat the image to bring out the physical qualities of linoleum cuts. Get into some good paper. And work small, blow up large to enhance the contrast. Possibly mount the linoleum cut in some relationship to the print -- perhaps on an expanded border.

(As an aside, I decided to see what happens with this approach so I'm scanning this in at high resolution to try experimenting. Right now the scanner's running and the motor grinds away and every so often I hear a series of taps. They are great -- the rhythm has a jazzy quality, a lot of weird syncopation but it all hits the rhythm. It sounds so organic -- there must be some component of randomness to whatever's making the noise. I should record it, put it on a loop.)

(This post was inspired by my initial on-line encounter with Glendon Mellow and by a conversation in my Digital Drawing class.)

Is it art?
This is a question that gets asked a lot. I've asked it myself. It leads inevitably to the big question -- what is art? Here's my opinion.

Art is what you can get away with.

Or to put it another way, art is a word whose strictest definition is totally negotiable.

But if you want to know whether something is fine art or commercial art or illustration there is a clear definition -- and that is determined by the nature of your participation in the marketplace. If your art is a commodity used to enhance printed works you're an illustrator. If your art is used in advertising you're a commercial artist. If your work is displayed in galleries and museums and if your clientele consists of museums and private collectors you're a fine artist.

Like it or not artists seek validation and they have to eat.

Because of this art is almost always associated with the marketplace. Art that isn't -- truly private art created for its own sake -- is almost never technically proficient. This runs against the romantic image of the self-propelled artist whose inborn genius dominates his life.

Tough shit. If art never enters the marketplace then we, the audience, never see it. The idea of art for art's sake is true in that many of us are compelled to create and many choose not to market their work -- but there are very few Henry Dargers around whose creations enter the public mind through discovery following death.

If a living artist wants to make his work known -- especially if he wants to be able to devote himself to his work rather than give it the dregs of his time and energy -- he has to be willing to go to the market. And like it or not, all markets for art are two-cylinder engines, one cylinder being trends, the other novelty.

But the market shapes the artist. As I take my first steps toward being a working artist I'm already finding that out. My creative process is already being shaped to a degree by the needs of the marketplace.

One thing that I find fascinating about the relationship between fine arts (which are frequently not particularly fine -- the word's intent no longer suits its meaning) and commercial art is that the world of fine arts perceives itself to be degraded by proximity to commercial art while commercial art looks to fine art for inspiration. As a result the world of fine arts has to look for areas of novelty and outrage to try and keep ahead of their imitators in the commercial art world. Since commercial artists are frequently art students and fine artists are frequently teachers this little Red Queen's race gives any fine arts trend no more than a few years before its influence hits the commercial arts. Sometimes less.

Okay, I'm an outsider to the fine arts, someone who tries to understand the fine arts while being in many ways ignorant of and alienated from them. But to me this seems to be one of the two reasons why the fine arts keep running off the rails.

The other reason stems from a stance that is one of the root appeals of fine art -- the feeling that someone is in on something good that a lot of people don't know about and don't appreciate. I'm not going to denigrate the pleasure but it isn't healthy for the actual work.

(A related aside. There is also a close link between fine arts and the academic world. The academic world seems actively hostile to one who would be a practitioner of the arts. This is because in the classroom there is a strong bias for work that needs to be explained and against work that is self-contained and self-explanatory unless it can be placed in a cultural context -- which needs to be explained. There is also a strong desire to make the critic or observer of the arts a more important figure than the artist. As a result the aspects of art which call to the creator and demand devotion are frequently regarded as essentially meaningless if not actually degraded. These attitudes are to a lesser degree a component of the fine arts world as well.)

As an outsider I see many of the excesses of fine art to be examples of outrage tolerated by an establishment whose authority is partially based on a perceived ability to see significance where lesser minds are unimpressed. Let me give you two examples.

When I was going to school at Santa Rosa Community College there was a show of drawings at the campus gallery. It was gorgeous, with works ranging from exquisitely observed pen-and-ink works to a huge abstract in color. Figures, landscapes, shapes and patterns -- it really gave you a feeling for the sheer possibilities of working with marks on paper.

But one of my teachers was very, very much a maven of the fine arts. He took me to see two drawings. They were by the same artist and each consisted of a few scratchy, shaky lines drawn perpendicular to one another so as to form a very loose grid.

"Just look at the composition," he said. "These are the best works in the show. By far."

Now to my mind they failed the 'chimp could do it' test. I've got a decent eye for composition (admittedly, much of it came from this teacher) and I could not see anything attractive or interesting about these pieces at all. Period.

What if he was right? This really really bugged me -- if these actually were the best works in the show and they were totally lost on me what did that say about me as an artist? As a person? I asked Maurice Lapp, a really good painter and teacher who was a bit of a mentor to me in those days, what he thought.

"The man is an ass," Maury explained.

Still, there is that lingering doubt.

Years go by and I find myself reading a magazine on the arts. There was a fascinating article about a company whose business was restoring art. Not paintings, drawings, or conventional sculpture, though.

The Sweet & Low example I gave above was not a sarcastic mocking of fine art. It was one of the pieces this company had to reconstruct after someone gave the pile of Sweet & Low a good kick. (This I could understand.) Working from photos they were able to reconstruct the appearance of the pile -- but as I recall there was some doubt about the integrity of the reconstruction due to the inability to duplicate the hidden layers of the work.

Another example involved a sculpture from the Netherlands who took an eighty-pound wad of butter and jammed it in an upper corner of his studio. A Spanish collector visited him and saw the butter wad.

"I must have it," he said.

But when it was transported to his place in Spain guess what. The butter melted and he called in the art restorers. After much effort they found that due to the way cattle were fed in the Netherlands their butter melted at a higher temperature than that of Spanish cattle. In the end, the collector was forced to refrigerate the room with the reconstructed butter sculpture.

Maybe if I saw that butter sculpture I'd understand. I doubt that I would if I saw the Sweet & Low. Sometimes that there Emperor really is naked.

Trying to introduce myself to a world that sees significance in such things is terrifying. What could they possibly see in my work?

Won't know til I try.

One thing that's been really damaging a previously-invulnerable sense of disdain for the fine arts is the reaction in both myself and others to my prints. I went in assuming that when you printed something larger it was bigger and that was it.

It's not true. When you present something in the context of fine art it does change it -- and this is where I have to admit that fine art isn't just a marketplace. My prints have a power to them that my illustrations never had -- even when they are the same image. If they were displayed in a gallery setting that power would be further enhanced.

So I'm forced to consider the possibility that I know a lot less about this than I thought I did. That many artists whose work I've judged on the basis of reproductions may carry a weight I won't be able to recognize without seeing the actual pieces. Maybe Jackson Pollack paintings are stunning when seen live. Maybe Gauguin's colors just don't print well.

Look, I am a straight-up gutterboy. I am far more comfortable having a fight bounce off me in a ghetto liquor store than standing in front of a canvas in a gallery. But the human need to feel a sense of understanding has allowed me to be judgmental about things I really don't know about and I'm becoming very aware of this.

As a result I'm having to let go of a lot of firmly held judgments. This is one of the reasons I'm so intimidated by my Digital Drawing class. The teacher is strongly affiliated with the fine arts and right now my opinions on the subject are in flux...

All I can do is roll with it and try and grow a little.

If you look at the image above you'll notice smudges, stray lines, all kinds of minor but correctable flaws. I thought about fixing them in Photoshop but then it struck me that I hadn't fixed them in the original print. This isn't a rough print out of a run; this is the only print I did from this cut. I put the baren down, slowly peeled the thick soft fibrous paper free and turned it over and looked at it. I decided it was a complete failure and I put it away and never looked at it again.

The biggest obstacle I face as an artist is the difficulty I have in showing respect for myself or my work. Physically my pieces are creased, smudged, in some cases stepped on. This is part of a larger pattern. I try and work hard on my art and writing but I flat-out fail to do the kind of hardcore driven labor for myself that I have always given to employers and managers. Why should I have so much trouble thinking of myself as an artist when it's what I do?

Am I an artist? Is this art?

The only way I can answer this question is to take the work to the marketplace...


Glendon Mellow said...

I'm glad you expanded on the brief comments that came from our exchange on LaeLaps. I agree with most of what you say here.

The market is an influence, but only in certain places. I think for countries like here in Canada that have a grant system, there is a certain stage for fine art up-and-comers that the market is less important than skill at writing proposals. The market takes over again after they hit it big.

I like what you said about novelty and trends. It does create a tension. I immediately thought of most music genres fall into this too. You need to follow the latest in your genre(alt-rock, R&B, singer-songwriter, oddcore-folk)and still retain your own flava.

Sean Craven said...

Huh. I responded to this a while ago and I was witty, insightful, steely, fine, and fair. But what I said is not here. I just don't get it...

Anyway. Here's a rough approximation lacking all the magic of the original post.

You're dead right about the differences in the funding of the arts in countries that value the arts/are founded on socialistic principles.

I remember reading an interview with (the highly under-rated) Aline Kominsky-Crumb. She was saying that in Europe the arts are funded -- and that they're flaccid and boring. In the US artists are for the most part treated like vermin and they produce work that's tense, driven, and interesting.

I don't know enough about the art world to say whether or not that's true. As a guy with very little in the way of job prospects I find the idea of some kind of stipend deeee-lightful. On the other hand I can see how the arts could suffer if things were arranged so that you just have to fill out the forms to get enough money to live on.

Kinda makes me think of foie gras for some reason.

Sean Craven said...

Here's something Glendon sent me in an email --

"There's been a bit of a controversy here in Canada and Ontario about arts funding.

The government wants to create new rules to be careful where the money is going, such as going toward indie films with lots of adult scenes of questionable artistic value. The arts community and robust film industry here in Toronto are accusing them of censorship.

We do have something of a culture of filling out forms to get grants here. I've seen it work well, as in my friend Lucas's band The Cliks. But it's in the eye of the beholder. So who's the beholder? Taxpayers? The government holding the purse strings elected by the tax payers? The educated elite? It's a mess."

Very interesting. I'm fairly ignorant of the situation but I've been given the impression that in some European countries (I believe the Netherlands but as I said I'm ignorant here) what happens is that you get registered as an artist, and every so often an official checks up on you to make sure you're working. And your art is taken away and stored in a government warehouse. It sounds like a modified form of welfare.

Since I'm living in a country where the arts are underfunded and the economy is supposedly balanced by keeping a certain percentage of the population unemployed it certainly sounds like a practical notion -- those of us who are cheap pets and driven creators would be happy to live modestly and produce.