Myth #1: If you don’t have a degree in art, or you aren’t fluent in the lingo, you don’t know anything about art
When I was in graduate school I had a seminar class where I participated in a debate that wrestled essentially with the question of ‘what is art?’ I can’t remember the details of the discussion, but what I do remember is that a class full of artists in a school full of artists debated the topic passionately. The one thing that we could all agree on was that we were all artists. What we couldn’t come to any conclusion about was what it is that we actually do that makes us all artists.
If a room full of artists can’t definitively define what art is and what it should do, then why should we expect that anyone who is not already entrenched in the art world would be able to confidently articulate their thoughts and feelings about art without feeling like they don’t know anything about art? Art can be very disorienting.
Some art is easy for just about anyone to talk about. A portrait, a photorealistic painting, or a landscape is usually easier. Does the portrait render a good likeness? Does it look like something or somewhere familiar? If it does, then it’s easier for the viewer to participate in a narrative suggested by the art. It’s a good starting point for a story to be told.
Many artists start making by rendering the world around them realistically because it provides a familiar starting point to make art as well. As an undergraduate I drew and painted the figure most of the time. My final show was a series of 6-foot high drawings of people I knew. Drawing and painting from life gave me a familiar place to begin. I knew I was successful if what I made resembled what I was looking at. It was the beginning of my learning how to have a visual dialog with the world around me.
But what if the image isn’t familiar? Or what if the art doesn’t even look like something that has traditionally been called art. A painting is easily recognizable as art even if what is painted is not. But what if you walk into a room with unrecognizable forms crawling off the wall onto the floor? Or videos depicting anything but a clear subject and story? Or what if that painting doesn’t suggest any narrative at all?
Even though I have formally studied art for years and have been making it almost my entire life, I certainly don’t understand everything that I encounter, nor can I always easily find the words to speak about it. That’s one of the things that makes art endlessly interesting to me.
For me, interesting art begins with a question. Then it probes the question. If I see art that invokes a question in me that inspires further investigation I stay with the art. First, the art needs to intrigue me visually. If it succeeds there, I will generally look to see if I can find more information. I prefer art that reveals itself slowly, like peeling layers of an onion. But often, even if I peel away layer after layer, an answer may never be revealed. I may never come closer to achieving any understanding. But that’s ok.
I see art as a conversation that has been taking place throughout civilization. The conversation begins with the artist interacting with the world. But the conversation expands to take on a new life once it includes the viewer. That’s what makes it really fascinating. Once I make a painting, I put it out in the world with layers of meaning to be peeled away, giving you, the viewer, a door and an invitation to walk through it to join the conversation.
Conversations are not interesting to participate in if one person is providing the subject, all of the information and the answers too. That’s not a dialog, it’s a didactic monologue. I prefer ambiguity that leads to an investigation that may not ever lead to a definitive answer.
When I make a painting I am not thinking about art theory. I am aware of it, but it is not in the forefront of my mind when I create. When you, the viewer comes to participate in the dialog, I am not expecting theory from you either. If you want to go there, great, but it’s not necessary. Instead I hope that my art intrigues you enough to ask a question. Or that it triggers a memory inside you that leads you to tell a story. Maybe when you leave it will stick with you and when you go out into the world perhaps you will look at something familiar to you in a different way, in a way that makes it look new to you.
Now that I have been making art for a long time, I no longer feel it’s necessary for me to have a goal to represent the world as I see it in a recognizable manner. I have become more interested in concepts that can’t be depicted easily. I no longer have the benchmark that I did as a younger artist of knowing I’ve been successful if I render something recognizably. Letting go of rendering a likeness has invited more ambiguity into my art making process as well as for your experience of viewing it. I now ask more of you, the viewer.
When I take my art out if the studio and put it into the world for you to see, I am aware that I am asking you to participate in a visual conversation that I have been having for decades, but you have not. You’re not in my head after all. It is disorienting to walk into the middle of any conversation and be expected to join in articulately. For that reason I feel that it is my responsibility to give you the information that you need to join the dialog. Art, contrary to the beliefs of many, does not speak for itself. It is unrealistic of me to expect you to understand my art without giving you more than just the painting itself.
You have been relating to the world visually since you opened your eyes. You have all the experience you need to know about art. Often it helps to be given some of the keys to the door by the artist. But more than that, it takes time to become comfortable enough to learn how to see in the way that is similar to learning how to really listen before you can truly have a satisfying conversation. And in order to be able to do that, you cannot feel inhibited by the fear that you don’t know or don’t understand enough about art. You do know enough. Inhibition and fear closes the door. Art asks you to turn the key, walk through the door and start exploring even if everything you find inside looks utterly unfamiliar.
Relax. That’s where the fun begins.
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment and let me know!