(Written as a final thesis paper for the head of the painting department – yes, I did get my degree even after he reviewed this)
(I thrash my way into oblivion catching my hangnails on jagged doorknobs being taught about great painting and gray painting and how to unlearn and relearn philosophy theory giving a sh…(no.) dropping all of these like cards in a losing hand the objecthood d’art feeling like a stuffed lioness a taxidermy-cured (though beyond a cure) body with a pelt too stiff to rub the wrong way I am at a stage where I’ve stopped blinking and started drinking too much coffee and stopped being cohesive at the exact wrong moment and as a matter of fact the only thing seen is that it’s all cool and trendy even to write it down especially to write it down because hey it must be valid somehow if you write anything
Get a piece of paper get one major and fiddle toy play experiment with the other branches other drum sticks guitar picks but don’t let it make you less specific less of a painter less of a sculptor less of a musician writer anything everything just keep that in the back of your head for a few years until people don’t care that halfway through x amount of time you changed your mind but had to keep going
And did just because.
I take this seriously I will figure this out while making no promises that leave a box a fill-in-the-blank slot for a deadline or a simple answer.)
Art As Freedom
ART 361 Fall 2008
“I discovered that what’s really important for a creator isn’t what we vaguely define as inspiration or eve what it is we want to say, recall, regret or rebel against. No, what’s important is the way we say it. Art is all about craftsmanship. Others can interpret craftsmanship as style if they wish. Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It’s not what was say but how we say it that matters.”
Is obsession with objecthood and theory overtaking the very nature of art? Are all of the opinions and arguments contributing to the art we look at, or are they causing it to deteriorate, making it nearly impossible to view a piece with a clear mind? The manner in which students approach an education in visual art now is vastly different from that of several decades ago. The sharper focus on one specific appendage, while providing an ideal environment for specialization, also establishes limits to the directions in which young artists are allowed to venture. The artist is being replaced by the painter, the sculptor, the potter, the blacksmith, the performer – clear titles that leave little room for exploration. However, there is much to gain from studying art across the disciplines.
There is much that is lost in the cracks between fingers.
The branches of visual art are recognized partially for what they are not; painting’s lack of dimension is one of its defining characteristics, just as an artwork is no longer sculpture once it lacks shape. This idea of definitions being founded on what something isn’t easily extends to art theory, as well; postmodernism is not modernism; cubism is not realism. Klimt is not Rembrandt. As the focus shifts to what a piece of art or an idea isn’t, rather than what it is, its essence is lost. Consideration for intention, feeling and the craftsmanship behind the work takes a seat behind forming a clear outline of an artist’s subject matter. This outline, while perhaps aiding a viewer to gain clearer understanding of the piece, also inhibits one of the primary functions of art:
To speak to the regions of the human mind that cannot be reached with words.
The desire to create art can be a force so powerful that it refuses to be ignored, and the few who allow themselves to give in to its voice often go to art school; I am among that population at this very moment.
We try to filter out what will be needed and what will need to be unlearned before leaving, some of us tossing and turning in our sleep over which type of paper to buy while others just throw industrial paint and old sheets for painting on into a few garbage bags. No one knows what to expect, and sooner than later we all come to learn that with every semester a new mindset is required. For four years, identity is based on what classes are chosen and what major they are supposed to enhance.
The most durable lessons of art school, however, are rarely learned in the studio. Obviously, there are new techniques to be learned and new materials to be mastered. I had never used oil paint before my sophomore year in college, unless you count the failed attempt I made in high school (my art teacher didn’t have any turpentine, so instead of ruining brushes I finished three large canvases using only my fingers to paint with). The world of encaustic feels so new that the physical process of learning how to use it feels academic; the same goes for learning how to solder or weld in metalsmithing, how to use a loom in fibers, and how to perfectly fire a new piece of ceramic work. Art school is full of these fireworks – bursts of learning followed by the smoky afterglow in which baby artists are given time and opportunity to learn through experience. Throughout the whole endeavor, we are surrounded by other creative minds – perhaps for the first time – and each day begins to feel like it’s taking place inside a melting pot.
The idea is all so glittering, so glamorous and inspiring.
So why is that students at a university level are required to declare themselves specifically “painters” or “sculptors” or “fiber artists.” Stereotypes are formed around each concentration long before the deeper consequence gains any attention. Fine artists are too busy shrugging off designers as sellouts and flakes, and in return are called insane, doomed-to-starve, in dire need of medication. It’s an amusing way to fill in empty spaces in conversation or to explain atypical work in a critique.
What goes unnoticed until perhaps many years after graduation is that while we were gaining all of this outside experience in other mediums, crossing over from one art form to another, those labels chosen early on in our undergrad years eventually hemmed in our options. Experimentation was allowed only up until a certain point, and from that point on it became imperative to focus on one medium in order to graduate on time –
Not as an “artist,” no.
As a sculptor, as a designer, as a metalworker.
The purity and innate freedom of calling oneself simply an artist are lost to the education system.
Anything with specific outlines is perfectly legitimate, but the openness of the word “artist” is ultimately shied away from after years of what should be experience and self-discovery. “Experience is what you get while looking for something else,” Fellini said. John Lennon rephrased it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
The effect that concentrations have had on the work coming out of my generation is painfully visible in the shows we assemble upon entering our final semesters. There is nothing shameful about making work that is cohesive – in fact, this can be the most difficult aspect of any show and the few individuals who succeed in establishing an identity at any point in his or her life are to be commended. Being recognizable is something to which all artist aspire; what I take offense at is the fact that a fibers major couldn’t put together a senior show of paintings and be taken seriously; a printmaker would receive poor feedback if he or she was known for being a printmaker but suddenly decided to do shows of sculptural work.
It is not that the work itself wouldn’t be satisfactory; it would not denote that the individual put forth any more or less effort than would have been required for a show within his or her actual concentration.
The offense isn’t even that experimentation is discouraged after a certain point – rather that the awareness of work needing to be shown in a certain format will undeniably prevent an artist from being genuine and from paying respect to the instincts that are attracted to different forms of art.
What is so taboo about hanging paintings on sculptures? Why is it superfluous to mingle fiber art with metals? Even among work all of the same medium, why must there be such a great deal of space between pieces?
Someone show me a gallery covered from floor to ceiling with paintings that don’t necessarily follow a single rhythm, just don’t cross the bridge between calling it a painting show and an installation piece. Society leaves room for humans of every occupational persuasion to be multi-faceted, so why is it frowned upon to make art with the same varied qualities?
If the way in which artists express themselves takes precedence over what is being expressed, they limit themselves to what they know – even, in a more academic setting, limit themselves to what is advised in degree programs.
When I was quite young, my parents would take my brother and I on frequent daytrips to Vermont, where the local artwork generally depicts the same scenes: covered bridges, seasonal views, and pastoral settings. Everything has a distinctly Thomas Kinkade flavor, with the leader of the pack being a former high school teacher named Fred Swan. My parents were avid fans of his work, so when they heard of an art show on the Woodstock Town Green at which several of his painting students were scheduled to be present, they took my brother and I along for the ride.
At this show, I met a figure painter, Mary Jane Cross, who was in her late sixties at the time and had developed a vicious case of Hutchinson’s disease that had eaten away at her ability to hold a paintbrush. Before she had begun painting, she had been an actress at a small Vermont theater for many years, as well as a notable journalist and musician. Never having met or spoken to any painters before, and being convinced that I was mature for my ten years, I chatted her up about being an artist. I wish I could say that I remember more of what was said, but some of her words have stuck with me to this day.
She told me that real artists can’t help being creators, and that they will use whatever means available to them to let out their expressions before they bottle up for too long; because of this, the truest artist is born, not taught, and beyond this, they will most likely have a knack for all areas of the arts – visual, dramatic, dance, musical or literary. When the drive is there, the method will follow.
I reflect on this idea often, especially since entering art school and almost immediately deciding I was meant for painting, not communications design. At the time I made the switch it was a liberating experience, and I was under the impression that I was following a more noble cause than that of the capitalist designers’ field. However, after years of having studios with these designers, I am beginning to see that we both share the same fate – being propped up in front of a plethora of open doors, windows of opportunity to study and absorb, but in the end having them all closed.
Because we’re all paying for pieces of paper that say we each know how to do something very specific. We’re all the same type of specialist, and that is one who knows little about many things and cut off the loose ends that didn’t fit the set parameters.
The grace of art, the freedom of movement between and within mediums, while still very much legal, is overlooked in favor of more decisive work. Experimentation is not a permanent state of being; society stops rejoicing in questions once there are too many piled up to be answered, so the fate of the artists who are devoted to such exploration is a bleak one indeed.
This is where it would be easy to call creativity a farce.
Unfortunately, that would change nothing.
So I must pose yet another question: when a mind has a vision of something to be made, are these visions always irrefutable in regards to the way in which they come to life? When a painter is struck by something he or she observes, dreams, remembers or wishes to be reality, are these ideas best translated into painting simply because that’s the individual’s usual style?
Why on earth does it matter so much that artists declare themselves as something more easily digested and less vague, something like “sculptor,” or “printmaker.” If reputations are at stake and business matters become of slightly greater importance than the physical product (because in this scenario, surely that’s all artwork becomes) then it would make much more sense for all of these specialists to turn in their fine arts name tags and trade for ones that read “designer.”
Ones that say, “Stereotype me, please.”
It is an injustice to one’s thoughts and to oneself to refrain from exploring every single idea to its fullest potential; as artists, we are obligated to completely exhaust every concept, push every spark of inspiration via whatever means possible and/or necessary until we are finished. To refrain from doing so is to create nothing more than an exquisite lie.
So many times I have looked at shows in galleries and failed to leave feeling as though I had fully absorbed the work; only once or twice have I ever left a gallery or museum with a lasting impression of what I had just seen, coming hungry and leaving still empty. The art I have seen has been incredible; unlike anyone from my hometown, I’ve seen the museums of Paris and galleries of New York City. I’ve seen pieces that don’t even register on my high school art teacher’s radar, and feel like a strange and fortunate outsider every time I cross the state line back to where I grew up; yet even now I wonder if the work I’ve seen would have adhered better to my mind if there had been more than just paintings or just sculpture.
I wonder what effect might have been if there had been some audio tracks playing overhead, made with the same hands that made so many visuals. I wonder how the audience’s impression of each and every show may have been different if there was no wall showing between paintings and the coveted “flow” of a show was meant in a much more literal, physical sense. Above all of this, I wonder why my peers aren’t asking the same questions of themselves and others.
Why are the details that go along with being in the presence of art referred to as “distractions” ? When the thing being made is of greatest value, more so than the idea, then why do artists stop at the wall or floor or projector screen or medium?
Finished work does not signify a finished idea.
Wrapped up in my own dance with art, jumping from style to style with each change in season, I have found only one common thread in what I have made: it has all been made in search of something honest, something genuine. I have no interest in tangible work – neither mine nor others’ – if it lacks that presence that tells me it’s something which has been made to the fullest extent. What I make in the studio changes more frequently than perhaps it should, but has ultimately resulted in a single realization:
I only want truth, and truth cannot stop at painting. Therefore I cannot stop at painting.
I am not a painter; I am not a sculptor, nor a photographer nor a metalworker nor a poet; I am not a pianist or a guitarist or a dancer or a boxer. I am not a performer or a singer. I am not an observer.
I can commit to nothing – not until I can do so without ultimately giving up on all of the other branches. I will not specialize. I am nothing if not all of these things; if forced under a single title, they would fall under, “creator.” Right-brained. Each endeavor together functions like a single rhythm.
The truth is that if even one of those areas were missing from my life, I would lose balance within the others.
Fellini said that we “only exist in what we do.” Only when there are no edges will the artists of this generation exist to the fullest extent; only when we cease to define ourselves with negative space will real art be made. Art will roam freely through every part of the artist’s life.