art or not art
This is the first post of a couple (or few, time will tell) dealing with the big questions.
Basically, mom duties aside, lockdown means we all have more time to think. And thinking can lead to all sorts of things, including big questions.
I’m having a crisis.
Its one I’ve had on and off throughout my life… Its about being an artist. Or not being an artist.
I think the first time I had this crisis was at art school when a tutor criticized my work, telling me that if I didn’t have a ‘theory’ behind my work I’d never amount to anything – I’d be one of those (sad and sorry) people selling paintings on the esplanade (or any outdoor market*).
At the time I was angry (upset and p*&@ed off actually). Why did I need a theory behind my work? Why couldn’t my work stand on its own? So that anyone seeing it could interpret it any way they wanted to, letting my work speak to them whichever way it wanted. I just didn’t get the need to provide explanation (definition, instruction, excuse?) for my work.
(Did Rembrandt have a theory behind his work? Or did he just PAINT? After all, weren’t most painters back in his day paid to paint?)
After all, I got into art school on the strength of a series of small etchings I’d done of eggs. Yep. Eggs. Oval shapes in black and white.
Isn’t theory basically what conceptual art is all about? Since I’m baring my soul I’ll admit I don’t like conceptual art. I get it, I just don’t like it. To me art has always been about the work itself, not the theory behind it even if I can appreciate a good concept.
However, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps that art tutor was right. These days it seems you need ‘theory’ behind your work to be taken seriously as an artist. You can’t just paint something without some meaning behind it… Not if you want to be taken seriously. Can you?
You can’t just ‘paint’, you need to paint metaphors or interpretations.
At art school I was working on black and white images (etchings, lithographs, charcoal drawings) of small details/items blown up to large proportions (having moved on from eggs). I’d take a tiny bowl of curly pasta and focus in, drawing the curls and swirls on an A2 sheet of paper. I’d toss my leather jacket on the desk and draw its rolls and folds. Ditto with licorice pieces or anything else that grabbed my attention. I interpreted these images on paper, litho plates, stone, zinc and copper.
I could have yammered on about crap if I’d wanted to**, but I refused to cause I didn’t think I needed to in order to have my work taken seriously. I got through high school and an A Level in English Literature by bullshitting my way through poetry (something I was never enthralled with). I could bullshit about my work with the best of them if I’d wanted to.
I’m rebellious by nature and I just didn’t feel I should have to.
When asked to describe my work I simply said “Those are noodles, that’s licorice allsorts, that’s a leather jacket and that’s a fish”.
When the tutor said “But what does it mean?”
I said, ” Well… Those are noodles, that’s licorice allsorts, that’s a leather jacket and that’s a fish”.
At which point he predicted I would never be a real artist.
Now I wonder… was he right?
For most of my life I blamed him (the tutor who shall remain nameless – mainly cause I’ve forgotten his name) for me not BEING an artist. Because I refused to fit in with what he dictated I had to be to be an artist. I refused to be like some students around me who produced work I didn’t respect but would blather on about its meaning till I wanted to vomit. Students who sometimes didn’t know which way was up on one of their works? Is that what makes a person an artist? Blarney?
So, what makes someone an artist?
Is it talent? I’m sure some of the people I went to art school with are now selling their work in galleries and have made a name for themselves. They’d be considered artists. Like the tutor who’s work I disliked? ***
Is it about being prolific? Just keep working at it, pumping out work regardless of success cause one day you will make it. A matter of numbers, luck and persistence. About believing in yourself regardless…
Is it about working at your art full time or with at least some kind of dedication which I seem to lack (due to my ADHD when it comes to creative expression)? Like finding a medium and sticking with it – not jumping from stitches to clay to paint on marble and paper and canvas in a week?
I’ve noticed that people who work steadily and consistently on something, regardless of talent, achieve success in what they dedicate themselves to. Maybe I just don’t stick it out with one thing long enough to achieve anything.
I read “My Name is Asher Lev” before art school which may have reinforced the idea that I’m not a real artist… in the book Asher can’t NOT draw. He can’t live without painting. I can. After art school I went years without lifting a stick of charcoal. Mainly due to two things: having to earn money to live and not believing in myself. Since then I work in spits and spurts, when I have a commission or inspiration. Often getting my creative fix through alternative sources.
For years I split my time between work, my poodle addiction (which included showing and breeding standard poodles for years), renovating 3 houses and working with power tools to upcycle things. Not to mention the insatiable desire to try all kinds of different things – creatively speaking.
So… am I an artist? What do I have to do/be/change to BE an ARTIST?
Of course I need to work more regularly on my art, but what IS my art? I do so many things. I like painting, mixed media, art from trash, sculpture, textiles… Can’t I be an artist and do a whole lotta different things?
I give up.
*I have (often) sold my work at outdoor markets, mainly my upcycled, recycled and remade stuff. Is that fulfulling his prophecy?
**When you looked at my work, you didn’t know what it might be. The leather jacket was a landscape of rolling hills, the noodles and licorce was waves, rolling hills or rocks, a play of light and shadow, where things weren’t what they appeared to be at first glance. Heck, I could have rambled on about life and meaning till the cows came home if I’d wanted to.
***Why would I let a man who’s work I disliked influence me so negatively?