Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860–1939)
I love artwork.
As a product of individual creativity, it is everywhere.
But I am more enamoured with, more tantalized by, more in awe of art because, despite all illusions to the contrary, its presence is more elusive, more rare than the rarest of gems.
Art is not just creativity. It is what celebrates the best that humans can be, the genius to which we all aspire, the grandeur that is the highest that we as a species can reach today - with the proviso that tomorrow opens yet another door to further mysteries.
North of Darkness book cover (mine) - 2016
North of Darkness is a tribute to the author Elaine Poulin's resilience and determination.
Translated from the French version "Perdre sa boussole", North of Darkness highlights the trauma of PTSD - whether in the soul of soldiers, police officers, first responders or those who travel to unknown lands to help those in need.
PTSD, when it strikes, is an onerous burden to bear. The journey told in North of Darkness takes us beyond the pain of it and into the ever possible light. Congratulations and hugs to my wondrous daughter Elaine.
North of Darkness is available from at : http://www.lulu.com/shop/http://www.lulu.com/shop/elaine-poulin/north-of-darkness/paperback/product-22976208.html
detail image from: Return Of The Vietnam Vets - 1978 painting by B.A. Poulin
Responses to comments made on my postings at times tend to be long-winded, I therefore sometimes reply as a post rather than a simple yay, nay or hmmmm. This is one of those times and I would like to both acknowledge and thank William Beckwith for his comment on my last presentation : D'ja Hear Van Gogh's Crazy. . . Again!
William always makes me think further. And so. . .
It is not the caring observation that William describes so wonderfully in his response to me which bother. Willam Beckwith's presentation of an experience before a van Gogh piece simply and profoundly highlighted the human in the man van Gogh rather than the "sickness". There was empathy rather than sympathy or ogling in the discovery of this artwork's power. And I only wish I could have been there to experience it also.
No, my reflections are rather linked to the morbid interest in the mad van Gogh by those who seek out "the sick guy who painted and shot himself" rather than the artist who created despite his illness. It is also the connections we at times collectively make between mental health issues and creativity - i.e. : that the former is the cause and/or stimulant of the latter, which are upsetting.
Our own little mental health nest?
Being as the “art world” is a small segment of society (presumed to be 2% of the total population - though research is sparse ) is it not odd that we collectively associate (if not emphasize) mental health issues as being part and parcel of the creativity realm? Are we saying : “well, you have “issues” but then, you have a compensation - you’re creative?” or. . . “well, you may have “issues” but then, what do you expect - you’re creative?” So. . . mental health "acceptability" is only a viable topic when associated with the arts? It often seems so as it both differentiates "them" from those who are not artistic while pointing a finger at somewhat questionable (yet tolerated) differences in being within a purported "normal" environment.
But how is it that we shove aside, if not ignore this same issue, (no pun intended) when referring to the rest of the world - those who are not seen as “artistic”? Is it that we consider other spheres of human existence as having no mental health issues or is it that those issues beyond the arts don't really titillate us? Or is it, rather, that these issues frighten us - being that they hit too close to home. . . ?
When an excellent truck driver, a scientist with lauded research discoveries or a loving parent kills themselves, we don’t associate their achievements or lack thereof with the suicide but rather speak of their accomplishments as after-thoughts - asides about which we know little and which therefore are not seen as relevant to the consequences of the illness which afflicted them.
In the arts we immediately create a link. Is it because most of us who are not artistic perceive creative action as an impossible magical exercise - if not a devil worshiping one? Is it because the door of “artwork creation” is always slightly ajar - teasing us. . . at best dangerously welcoming. . . at worst “allowing us” a peeping tom look into an “eccentric” world most of us fail to understand? Or is it that we who are in the arts consider our little world to be oh so special that we can be and do whatever we say because we can get away with saying we can?
In Dr Judith Schlesinger’s book : The Insanity Hoax, she clearly references this dichotomy of perception in that we speak of the artistic crazies (whilst giggling even) but fail to recognize that the issue of mental health is a universal phenomenon which does not hold artists more dearly within the folds of its cape than it does others. And despite an increased public awareness re : mental health, we still cringe at associating “those things” with “us” and rather continue to speak of mental health only insomuch as it relates to others. Are we keeping a “healthy” distance from this still unknown yet ”say we know more about it” state? Or is it, possibly, that we who need to be perceived as “normal” are not as up-to-date on these matters of import as we say we are.
The perfect normal
Normal is what most of us purport to be. Yet, normal is nothing more than what there is the most of. So then why is this the state in which most of us want to be? Well, it's the “good to-be-in" state. . . Right?
But then why is normal so boring to most of us that it constantly needs to be enhanced or compensated for? Why does the state of normalcy require its adherents to consistently search out the rationally impossible “perfection” as its zenith? Is it not evident that the quest for perfection has two great failings : (1) : It’s an impossible to achieve goal. And (2) : If perfection was a plausible accomplishment, there would actually be nothing beyond it worth pursuing other than death.
Perfection implies having accomplished everything, in the only and therefore best way possible and therefore nothing more can be accomplished since we are now "perfect". Ergo, the next step? Death. But in our societies, death and its "normal" precursor "growing old" are verboten. They are "things" we most heartily and “crazily” try to avoid as they imply demise - and that is a sorely feared thing. Now, if that is not abnormal as a baseline for normality, then what is?
But then, with death being fearsome we do try to compensate by looking at more "insanely realistic" (?!) goals. . . : i.e. : “to be seen to be as perfect as possible”. . . Sigh!. . . Long live the elimination of wrinkles, flab and motivational speakers. . .
But, as the goals of perfection and being seen to be - along with their concomitant “being seen to be normal” - remain the ultimate (though impossible and restrictive) achievements, I guess normal is as normal does. None of these goals allow for discrepancies, self-bettering or any other accomplishments. In essence, normal is as falsely elitist as it gets, perfection as domineering as sanity purportedly allows and nothing actually is worth pursuing or even exists beyond either perfection or the quest to be seen to be.(So there! Harrumph!)
Our insane view of sanity variances
So restrictive are these 2 existence elements (perfection and normal) that it is rather odd that this pair would allow for the perception of insanity (a generically defined negative) as having a somewhat tangential link with creativity (a perceived "somewhat" positive).
How ironic that normalcy would hold such a seemingly unstable view - in light of its consideration of perfection being the ultimate quest. Does a recognition of "acceptable abnormalities" not open the gates to insanity now being perceived as nothing more than an all-encompassing title for an indescribably long list of degrees of variance? (Horrors!) And in this sanity/insanity variance display are not all of our own “states of being” listed along its continuum. . . “somewhere”? (even greater gasps of horror?!).
And if that is so. . . would fitting somewhere along such a sanity scale of variances therefore not be a positive? Would it not be a more healthy state of perception and being than the euphemistically called “normal” - whose sole battle appears to be that of maintaining stasis at all costs? Are we not all, in one form or another, sanity challenged - and this on a daily, if not hourly basis? If so. then why the ghoulish obsessions with the so-called disturbances "in others" - especially those who are "higher ups" than we? Are we afraid of the ever sneaky "pointing finger of fate"?
The paradox of OK and not OK
Normality has always been a collective (read : “acceptable”) arena of functionality. It is the bar by which we (morally?) define the (with it) solidity of our governmental, corporate and social structures. By normal we mean that anything else (then what there is the most of) is oddball if not crazy and at our most "paranoic" : dangerous. In other words, we tend to classify and codify in order that the great majority (us?) is always (despite acceptable variances) perceived to be “OK” (on top) and therefore can control that which threatens us : i.e. : what isn’t OK. As for those "left-overs" in our societies who fail to pass the OK test. . . Well. . . Their “states” will always be debatable by those who have a strangle-hold on what is “normal” or OK and who have the power to establish how these not-OK people are to be handled. And that is good. . . Right?
The abnormality of that which is normal
Out of generosity (!) on the part of those in authority - (we are civilized societies aren't we?) - creatives have grudgingly been deemed to be “acceptably abnormal” as members of our societies - despite the fact their individual creative quests remain at odds with the seeking or the being seen to be of perfection - the single-minded goal of normality.
Creatives believe in "achievability", not impossibility. Theirs is never a goal of perfection, of being the best, but rather of being the best that it is possible to be today. While tomorrow is simply a future timeline during which a new door opens - one which allows "all creative people" the freedom and challenge to better their yesterday’s best - despite the hordes surrounding them who seek perfection - often through ads and the taking in of marketing ploys rather than the wisdoms of the likes of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, of Maureen Jennings, et al.
Consequently, despite perceived eccentricities, maybe creatives "amongst us" aren't all that crazy. Rather than defeat themselves through discouragement and an existence who's only goal is foiling death, they reach beyond to that which consistently opens the door to more rather than less - to a better life through a never ending search for excellence. And so, would this not mean that perfection seekers, the normals of this world, are at a much higher risk level of insanity then creatives?
In this light, van Gogh would have to be a very highly rated sane individual, despite his mental health issues. His goal was never to copy (render perfect) that which he could not create but to create every new day the best reflection of the perfect wonders of visible compositions he encountered daily. In essence, his need was never to be perfect but to "perfect" himself, his "seeing".
As painters we may be on a more intense acreage of the bell curve that all of us straddle. But this does not make us more crazy and therefore more creative; or creative therefore more insane. It simply explains the varied levels of passion eccentricity requires in order to strive to be the best we can be despite all odds.
That being said, it cannot be denied that our sane-insanity may have “asides”. . . i.e. : overtones which, like cancerous cells, may cause havoc with the healthy elements feeding our need to better ourselves each and every day. But then, does this not imply the wondrousness of the unknown, of the challenges, of the possibilities which allow us to stand firm against the odds threatening our well being and our ability to “function despite”? And does this not confirm, rather than deny the healthy aspect existence of our wondrous yet "imperfect" immune systems in both our bodies and our minds?
Basically, being human means being that imperfect, that much incredibly and beautifully flawed - that much of an unknown. And that in turn possibly means that our definitions of normal are also seriously and eerily flawed.
In essence, we are all astride this curvature of the unexplainable. Some of us on the edge of numbing boredom, others on the razor’s edge of a passionate need to discover, explore and express. And so, degrees of normality are nothing if not simply degrees of sanity at one end of a “being” spectrum with extremes of insanity at the other. And with time and experience and fate and happenstance, all of us never-endingly slide up and down that bell curve we inhabit; being positive, being negative, being creative, being not, being sane and insane.
And through the acceptance of what is, and the ebb and flow of it, it suddenly becomes possible to find within our worlds the greatest of all attributes of the greatest of all states of being that can be : the mystery of our own personal “uniqueness” - that seemingly frightening thing which makes us "us" and, which at times upsets others, whilst keeping us on our toes.
In essence, we are all in and of the same box of “chocolits”. What type of chocolit are each of us individually? Well. . . The world all on its own will decide one day. . . Probably when we are no longer around to have a say.
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait
"On the Verge of Insanity. Van Gogh and his Illness" - Exhibition - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam - From15 July 2016 Up until 25 September 2016
"On The Verge of Insanity” What an insulting title for a “research exhibition” purporting to be about the life of a visual art genius. What is it that is so enticing about promoting a supposed link between creativity and insanity? Is it that we are trying to prove we are “better than” - i.e. : not “insane” like van Gogh? Is it, conversely that we are, but god forbid someone else finds out? Are we really as enlightened as we pretend to be? Are we really interested in being concretely embedded in a learning process which would render us more knowledgeable, more understanding and more appreciative of the varying degrees of capacity, of functioning and dysfunctionalities we all must deal with in our daily lives? Or are we simply side-show freak aficionados?
What is it in this dead man’s manifesto of “being nuts” that makes peeping goons of us all? Is it that he is dead and therefore “safe to play with”; so dead he isn’t able to take that ear cutting razor to our rather ghoulish psyches; so dead he can’t deny us the pleasure of believing whatever it is we choose to believe, and this, without requiring facts to bolster our oh so contemporary contentions?
We were once passionate about the incredible creativity of this man. Today, the tide has turned. I guess we all have to kill off our heroes lest they remind us we possibly, maybe, might be just as “crazy” as they purportedly are. In essence, we simply need van Gogh to be “mad”. . . Quite an enlightened mental health footing to be standing on. That “need”. . . What an enlightened research project that would be!
But why am I so irritated? Everyone knows that Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear! Really? Not true!. Everyone has been “told” he did. And everyone believes what they are told by those who just as intensely "cross their heart and hope to die" tell us they speak the truth. And anyway. . . It’s easier to go along and get along than have to “think” and even argue about what is factual and what is not.
With van Gogh passed away so very long ago, his work remains but, it seems, his “story” remains even more so. And with him long gone, we're free to romanticize, manipulate and conjure - all without corroborating evidence or proof that anything we “sing about” is true. And why would we bother to study any available facts further anyway? He was obviously crazy, wasn’t he?
Details do tend to get in the way. . . And so, it’s a lot easier to deal with “who’s its and what’s its” like : Did he chop off a chunk? A whole ear? A tiny bit? A big bit? Anything at all? Did someone else chop it off? Better go with self-mutilation. That’s “in” right now and sells a lot more t-shirts.
In the end, it is the "expert" cohorts who have led us astray - the least honest by promoting lies, the most honest by not delving into a situation which merited clarity - if only for the respect van Gogh was and is due. But such is not what has been nor is it yet to be. When contemporary scientific research acceptably incorporates more the concepts of “maybe”, “possibly”, “might have been”, “could have been”, “it is said” and the ubiquitous “hmmm, I think. . . ” what we get, in the end, is propaganda, manipulation, emoting - generally for product promotion purposes, drama and entertainment - along with all the benefits of enticing a paying audience. . .
Now, what is not in contention is that an ear was sliced. What is in contention is that the letter of Docteur Rey, being presented in this new exhibition “for the first time ever!!!! Come one, come all!!! provides evidence in that regard. Docteur Félix Rey’s report does no such thing. Dated the 18th of August 1930, it is a rather ironic note in the present circumstances. The most poignant and relevant comments made by the doctor are not obsessively related to the “ear event” as one would expect. Rather, the missive is a very human and not medically based plea. Loosely translated, it reads : “I would hope that “you” (the reader) would not miss the importance in these matters - and that is the celebration (as it deserves to be) of the genius of this remarkable painter.” To whom Docteur Rey addressed these words is not clear through the display of this artifact in the exhibition. No related references are made - either pre or post statement. In essence, this letter provides nothing but titillation.
The fact remains that interest in (obsession with?) the minutiae of van Gogh’s life is rather disturbing. It reminds us of our times. . . that, as individuals and collectives we too often remain at the low ebb of humanity : side-show freak (reality TV) aficionados. Our interest in others is far too often associated with their incapacities, weaknesses, frailties, foibles and failures rather than their extra-ordinariness or even ordinariness. We are attracted, or so it seems, to what makes others “weaker or lesser” (than we?) - lest the cravings for attention we so desperately try to hide impale us with the self-esteem issues we so ardently are fixated with today.
When did we lose our capacity to appreciate greatness and especially that which exists DESPITE a superlative creator’s mental health issues? Have we ever been able to recognize another’s striving and thriving without being envious or jealous? Maybe that would make a more substantive research project than one which, once again, highlights our ongoing madness fixations re : van Gogh. But then, we’re not dead. . . And we might not like being probed by our "oh so imperfect peers”.
Sadly creativity, celebrated as a concomitant adjunct (now that is repetitive!!!) of madness or disability, is a growing “trend”. It has become so prevalent in the visual arts today, that some even promote themselves (first) as having a disability - either physical or mental - before promoting the work they do “despite” that disability. It seems some of us would rather receive pity than understanding, support and encouragement. Or is it that we seek our artwork to be considered of a higher caliber through associating it with our inherent or "adopted for the purpose" eccentricities.
Where mental health issues should be considered seriously and recognized through a looking glass of compassion and empathy, there seems to be a growing preference for manipulation over truth, profit over self-respect. By constantly harping on the mental health issues of van Gogh we inevitably belittle creativity, talent and lives fully given over to a passionate search for excellence. Even worse, we belittle those who suffer from mental health issues which are seriously real. In light of these wonderings, and within these parameters, is it that we are “putting in their place”; humbling those whom we see as so much more? Or are we egoistically elevating ourselves to a level that we do not deserve? That’s another research project which would well be worth the undertaking.
Coming back to the “On The Verge Of Insanity” hoax. . . (Ooops!) show. . . a book is being launched for the occasion. It is written by Ms Bernadette Murphy, an amateur historian and first time author. In an interview she states :
“There’s something semi religious to the way he offers a part of his body to repair a part of her body,” Ms. Murphy said at a preview of the exhibition. “She had a nasty scar on her body, and it’s as if he’s giving her fresh flesh.”
Would Ms Murphy please stand and deliver : What are her qualifications to utter such religiosity nonsense, Such utterances are more in keeping with sensation and ignorance than fact? What is it with us that we prefer peeping through a hole in the wall that we ourselves have inserted rather than stand in the open learning about what is or is not fact in the mental health arena. How is it that research and science have become no more than an assuming and a following up with anything and everything that serves to bolster the “veracity” of our emoting “spiritual” proclamations"? For such an enlightened era we are definitely showing ourselves to be seriously wanting. . .
Ms Nienke Bakker, curator of this exhibition, also adds to the insensitivity of this “ghoulish show and tell” by pointing out that apart from 25 artworks, it will present “other objects” like a corroded revolver that van Gogh MAY have used to kill himself when he APPARENTLY (not factually) committed suicide in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Is this the fodder upon which respected historians, scientists and researchers base their conclusions? Or are we dealing, once again, with lowest common denominator titillation “à la Barnum and Bailey”? Ms. Bakker further adds (based on what “she thinks”) such insight as : this was the “delirious, unconscious behavior that became characteristic of van Gogh’s series of mental breakdowns”. Has Ms Bakker a degree in either psychology or psychiatry? If not. . . Should one, not recognized as professional in the psychological arena, refrain from making such nonsensical statements that only an amateur could spew forth without recrimination?
Ms. Bakker further adds :“The three most frequently asked questions are: What happened with his ear? What kind of illness did he have? and, Why did he commit suicide?”
One would think that a legitimate curator would have directed questioners, ringing their hands with glee, to the fine works of the artist who’s only goal was to celebrate the wonders of life and light, not the ghoulish implications of a side-show freak enhanced death.
Steven Naifeh, an American historian and author, puts the final nail in this coffin of idiocy when he states that after giving this show the benefit of the doubt he could only conclude that the “proof” offered up by this reality TV display (surely in search of increased numbers of museum visitors) is neither new nor is it credible.”
If the goal of this exhibition is “not” to link the artwork to van Gogh’s mental state but rather to make clear that he was struggling to work despite a debilitating illness, its intentions and concept fail miserably. To realize such an intent would have been more honestly and less creepily accomplished by creating yet another exhibition focused on van Gogh’s incredible work - work which has never ceased to base itself on one wish and one wish only : and that was to highlight the wondrous extra ordinariness of the world before him. . . and us.
And, crazy as he was, van Gogh simply persisted in this quest to celebrate life and light “despite” his greatest obstacle : the fact that most of his “sane people” audience failed and continues to fail to grasp the obvious, the real and the wondrous.
Winter Sunset / Couché de soleil hivernal - Oil/huile - 8" x 10" - 2009 - Private collection privée
This post is dedicated to a loyal reader who recently admonished me for laughing at a recent other post.
You’re a generous interlocutor, George. So, in response to your righteous comments, I am taking the time to defend the intent of my comment if not the boorish behaviour :
Yes. . . George, I laughed. Sometimes, I laugh in order not to cry. . .
To answer your first question : Yes, during these past 50 years, as others, I have felt the sting of many “criticizers”. But as a youngster I also received encouragement. In the end, I chose to follow the latter and ignore the ignorance, deception, meanness and jealousies of the former. (Though at times as a child I was a victim, as an adult I refuse to be.)
In regards to the Masters mentioned : Matisse, Picasso, Warhol, none broke the rules or created new ones. Neither did the Impressionists (even though many of us adhere to this myth since it pictures "them" being like "us”, i.e. : rebels). Actually, what the Impressionists and subsequent "different" artists did was to express themselves in the unique styles they had adhered themselves to. But, break the rules? No. Seth M. Baker in the Happenchance blog states : that some of us define difference in representation as "breaking all the rules" or "changing the rules of the game". But he asks us to look closer - in order to see that "the basic, structural rules of the game never really change". The conventions change. . . but the rules remain the same. (My apologies to Mr Baker for re-configuring his sentences to meet the needs of this post. I've nonetheless retained the intent of his presentation.)
Masters have always adapted the flexible powers of established rules to their “different way” of saying what they wished to visually say. But whether abstract, figurative or non-representational, masterpieces have never been built on broken, abandoned or sporadically invented “me” rules. Though possibly politically correct in our era of me, myself and I, all these do is confirm that :
having a style of one's own must not be confused with being consistent in the repetition of drawing and painting errors.
Creating one's own rules remains a self-centered exercise. Artwork created to meet the needs of one individual is not “art”. It is rather an uninformed type of art therapy. What the author probably means (& here, I speculate) is that we should feel free to draw, paint, sculpt & overall create based on our own inner workings. I have no trouble with that. BUT, to promote breaking rules which, from the onset, many know little about - to promote such a cavalier manner (as if being a professional has nothing to do with structure) is rather unprofessional & hence : laughable.
What we myth, rather than miss, is that Picasso (& others) knew & followed the rules to a T. Picasso, for example, could break them, if he so wished, because he knew them better than anyone. At 15 he could draw figuratively better than most of us can after 20 years of drawing classes. His subsequent work was worshiped because, despite what we "see" or how we describe "it", there is balance, form, structure, design & composition at a level most of us can only drool over.
Rules are the structure upon which freedom is based. Anarchy doesn’t cut it. When we acquire rules of our “trade” we should even go further - i.e. : assimilate them - take them in to a degree at which they become part of who we are. In so doing, we set ourselves up to be uber-skilled & thus no longer in need to think about their application. And when we no longer have to think about the rules we apply, creativity takes over - seeing with the mind's eye the breadth of application possibilities. We can then bend, adapt & flex them to meet the needs of our personal expressions. How? An integrated structured discipline opens the door to freedom of expression rather than limiting it. This, in turn, reveals (as Dali so aptly inferred) our personal style. He augured that to search for a style for ourselves is futile since only through structured effort & process does “a personal style” emerge - and this, when it damned well pleases. :)
I therefore (in order to not cry at the silliness of our era) laugh at the notion that everything is about “moi” - that I can break rules I know nothing about; that I can say to the world "I am an artist, therefore I am" - and worse : "you should, too!!!” Hogwash!
What we fail to grasp is that there are millions of people out there who draw, paint & sculpt as well, if not hugely better than we do. And all we can hope for is that someone, maybe. . . just maybe will discover the genius in our work (tisk) and we will reach unprecedented stardom. But as with all reality vs reality-TV considerations, this is only a possibility; never an assurance.
And so, buying notions as cure-all potions in our quest to be recognized is futile. And listening to our heart alone is never enough unless all we want to be is a hermit. And so, when discouraged, we should reach out, not in. Emptiness can never fill our needs glass. Someone can always be found who will recognize our worth and motivate us accordingly - but never on illusions. Being sold on such irrelevance as “having to be me” by motivators, whether in the arts or in any other realm, is redundant. Despite all negative feelings motivational speakers focus on to get our attention, we are already “us” - warts & all. We just have to stop looking into our negative mirrors and crying "oh woe is me!".
Being a painter or sculptor, let alone an “artist” has NEVER been easy. Though something worthy to aspire to, there are no guarantees, no matter what anyone intimates. Better to strive to be the best we can be today (all the while hoping for better) then to pretend that just because we say we are artists, it makes us grander already. But then again, that does not mean we are dead or less than. It simply means we have to accept reality as our stepping stone; besting ourselves every next day and working hard - because that is what visual art students, apprentices & artists do forever : They work - & they work hard!
Naturally, not all of us have the middle name “van Gogh, Koons or Michelangelo. But, that being said, we should nevertheless recognize that ALL OF US are creative. We were born so. Survival would not have been possible without this trait. But, then again, to say that this makes us all artists in this era of “I am, therefore I am” is rather illusory. As talented as we are, our fate may simply be that we are Joe (or Josephine) More-Than-Ordinary. BUT. . . even then, the best that we are today is what we can repeatedly count on since today's best is nothing less than the foundation for besting itself tomorrow. And so. . . . We never know. "C'est la vie" and that is what is wondrous about not knowing what the outcome of it ever is.
As for being the “deciders” of when we choose to be “professional”. . . creating artworks in a studio is just step one on a ladder of many rungs. It is only when we step outside and beyond our navels that we come to realize that viewers of our work are actually the ones who determine what our position as a painter, sculptor, etc. will be. Note : This doesn’t determine who we are but what our work is. In essence, being an artist has much less to do with choosing to call ourselves "artist" & much more to do with how and whether our work speaks to others.
As for artists being "different". . . It's a grand notion. . . But we are not (if ever we are even artists). This idea stems from 19th century romanticism which continues to taint 21st century thinking and which has encouraged the recent publication of “The Insanity Hoax” - an excellent book by Dr. Judith Schlesinger. It describes the fallacy of artists being seen to be “different”. At our best, creatives are “reflectors of what see and feel”. We speak to the world about the nuances we notice and express, in the hope that these reflections will speak to others; inform, touch & move them. That’s all we can do in this quest. It isn’t about “us”, about being recognized. It’s about getting our work out there so that “it” becomes recognized. Becoming an artist is determined by the voice of our work, not ours. The status or title of artist, therefore, has more to do with doing than being. It is a consequence of our work speaking out.
Rather than submitting to gurus who urge us to "be" something and to break rules about which we often know so little, we should get inspired by reading more about the lives of the masters and on their focus which, for all intents and purposes, has always been about "doing", making, creating and not being.
As for authenticity, it is what we do “normally” unless we are outright hypocrites. It has nothing to do with our level of self-confidence. Many people who fear life are more authentic and real and worthy of our admiration then those who sit atop thrones of self-confidence. Van Gogh was afraid, yet he functioned, and this, despite his "problems". Can we say he was not authentic? Munch "screamed for help", having lived under the weight of his father’s excessive religious piety and subsequent psychoneurosis. And yet, what could have ended up being a personal therapeutic journey became a universally recognized “scream”, one to which the world could identify and sympathize, if not empathize. With such powerful statements, Munch's work reached out, his need responded to the needs of others thus allowing art to emerge from his artwork. Self-confidence may at times be a positive, but it can also be the progeny of arrogance more than the mother of creativity & “art”.
Granted, to be encouraged is always better than to be discouraged. I certainly wrote about that in my own book : Beyond Discouragement, Creativity. But using words & phrases such as : “The art world is a scary place - it can collapse even the strongest person”, “. . . the fears of those who feel lost without any valuable guidance or direction”, “. . . every artist. . . with a lack of self-confidence, worry and confusion”. . . . . . (phew!). That puts a lot of emphasis on "suggested" problems more than on concrete solutions.
Discouragement is not a foundation upon which we can build strengths as this would be tantamount to promoting self-esteem as a legitimate replacement for self-respect.
What is self esteem? It's how we see ourselves based on what others determine we should be. As such, it is detrimental to mental health. Self-respect, on the other hand, is what we need more of : i.e. : a healthy perception of ourselves as someone who has the potential to be excellent - that is : the best we can be today in order that tomorrow we can best even that.
And so, motivating people to look to self-aggrandizement above and beyond a healthy self-respect perception is too reminiscent of the many “encouragement” or motivational speakers of our time. Selling positivity by promoting wishes, dreams and illusions is detrimental to creativity. The only way to encourage anyone is to reassure them that there is always a tomorrow - that one day when we can always have a shot at besting our yesterdays best.
Its all the same!
Artwork created today, whether figurative, abstract or non-representational, often tends to cause the same reaction. “It all looks the same”. And where it is figurative, it is referred to as flat; resembling more “a photo copied” than a unique artwork created from life or photo reference. Why is this? Is it possible that we have stunted our career paths by being too enthralled with tools and the technical aspects of self expression? Is there a stage beyond which we can be recognized for more than the proficiency we espouse? And if so, how do we get recognized for creating something which goes beyond the medium itself - as more than an awesome technical exercise? How do we get to the point of mesmerizing people with the stories behind our subject matter? How do we get viewers to stop looking for perfection in rendering and get them to actually see what we are visually trying to say? Finally, how do we stop viewers from repeating the same old, same old : “Wow, that’s so real!” “It looks like a photograph!” or the sneering : "My kid can do that!"
And when people say these things, what are they actually saying? Is it our fault that viewers can’t connect with anything more than the “thing” they see before them? The answer to that is : Maybe yes. . . And maybe no. . .
Today, it is not so much what viewers see in our work but rather how they look at artwork. Often, what they are looking at is how much “visible effort” has gone into a piece - not necessarily how much skill is required, but how much skill is implied. They react the way they do because that’s how the world now values everything. If it looks like a “brand” and has a “recognized” logo, it’s better. If it’s unrecognizable, they are leery rather than curious or excited. If it looks complicated and something they can’t do, it automatically elicits an exaggerated “awesome”; whether the work is good or bad.
Also, we live in an era of spontaneous gawking with a concomitant 10 second attention deficit time frame which, more often than not, leads to reactions of “whatever”. As a contemporary collective we focus more on tech-toys than on the poetry they can produce. And therein lies the crux of the matter in both the creation and viewing of artwork.
Most people today cannot “read” visual statements. We’ve all gone to school to read words, to define life in a quick reference-symbolic mode rather than in an appreciative and meditative mood. By the time we reach grade one, the idea of pictures and images have been relegated to the kindergarten gouache on newsprint garbage heap. And with that, our inability to see beyond looking is sealed. Actually, if there is art in our artwork, most viewers don't recognize it or avoid it because of an odd discomfort in the “feelings” area of their brains. To contemporary viewers, it is less threatening to be taken in by the technicalities of the “how to” in artwork then to be awed by the “sensations” of the “what is” which tries so desperately to speak to them.
In past centuries general populations of the world were illiterate, (no one could read except scribes and monks). Nonetheless, even the considered least within a society were visually and oral history astute. They understood messages emanating from the paintings and drawings they looked upon. They got their news from neighbours and town criers. The content offered was then “sub-contracted” through repetition networks which eventually took on colours of their own. At times the “news” was even retold expansively through grandiose paintings recalling (and often mythologizing) the feats of leaders; kings, queens and warlords.
In essence, the news back then was no less propaganda then it is today, where we continue to espouse more the entertainment value of information than appreciate actual “knowledge”. All this to say, that the press of bygone eras was nonetheless more visual and oral; using pictures and imagination to stoke discussion and allow viewers and listeners to “read” into the information provided. The advantage of those times was that all the proffered “news” was taken in and processed by less connected individuals who, on their own, decided whether the contents were worth being analyzed, trusted and/or laughed at.
Today, with our quasi total dependence on ipads, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, selfies and digital pics created by the billions. . . there is little time for taking in, wondering about or analyzing - only time for spontaneous reaction and regurgitation. In our times, information is codified to “chicken feed” us all the same data through millisecond captures. All information is tabulated, chewed and digested for us. We no longer have to think or feel on our own. And anyway, it’s deemed "safer" that all of us should receive and respond to the same things as “one voice”.
And so, in regards to images, we simply don’t need to, nor do we have time to, "see" anymore. All we have time for is a “split second look” while, almost at the same moment, yet another image pops up for the instant gratification demands of our "millisecond appreciation" capacities. But how does this make us visually illiterate? With seeing so many “pics”, are we now not ahead of the curve in this area of expertise?
A devolutionary process
Ironically, through this 21st century glut of visual stimuli, we are possibly the most visually illiterate generation since the beginning of time. With 24 hour a day news and instantaneous search processes on the internet, tons of information (and next to no knowledge or fact related to it) blinds us to actual connection and "seeing". Where once cave dwellers, smelled the winds, sensed the rains coming days before their arrival and recognized danger from miles away, we have become a race desensitized from that which once assured us security as well as truth and mostly a life which encouraged evolution and progress. Where long ago we discovered new continents, not so long ago we set out to discover new worlds. But today. . . we plug ourselves into hearing voids which allow us to jettison our "selves" into cocoons of oblivion. We avoid reality through cell phone disseminated visual entertainment entrancing us as life lived fails to. And so, blind and deaf to what actually is, we walk into traffic and crash into telephone poles in a quest to discover the virtual nirvana sold to us as "the" salve for our stunted egos and a “boring” world. Whatever!
The death of feeling
Where once the mysteries of complexity stoked our curiosities, “modern” times dictate obsession over passion and easy and fun over what once guaranteed not only individual but collective survival and thriving. And that is partly why we are functionally visually illiterate. Seeing is just too complicated and definitely not fast enough for the contemporary absolute necessity of our existence : fun. Another ignored facet of seeing literacy is the sensual aspect of it. To see beyond looking we must still be able to “feel”, to sense, to know the smell and sound and taste and touch of each other. And because we have so abandoned ourselves to the nether worlds of technology, to the tools which pleasure our numbed brains and hearts, we are fast losing our ancient natural capacities to survive and achieve the delicious orgasms provided by actual rather than virtual communication and touching. In essence, we are quickly becoming immune to the heart rhythms of others and of ourselves. And, as a consequence, the sharing inherent in creative acts, and in the “art” which seeks to reach out, to connect, to speak with us we are fast approaching our best before dates in the area of human dignity. One day, no one will be touched or moved by another’s human reaching out. And when that day comes, we should all hope that our batteries and electricity don’t die out.
Complexity over simplicity
Today, as in the past, much of artwork is rather simple if not simplistic to read. All of us are creative. But not all are poetic or visionary. Artwork therefore demands much in the area of superficiality - of decor and “pleasure” and ever less in the areas of appreciation and respect. But in much artwork there is a possibility of art hiding within. Are we ready for it? We must recognize that its message is not always, or rarely is, “easy” to read. When art transcends artwork it is more often than not a complex and awe-inspiring vision which has the capacity to move, to engage the extraordinariness hidden (if not stifled) within us all.
And so to read art; to see the essence of imagery, sophisticated observational, spiritual and emotional skills are required. We have them. But today, we often abandon them to the cluttered storage sheds of our minds. And so, images in the 21st century easily become cursory add-ons to the entitled silliness that is "moi"; toys, colourful curtains to brighten up and frame our life’s frosted windows. Pictures, today are often nothing more than colourful nonsense, entertainment, advertising based propaganda. And with life satisfaction ebbing, compensation through self-generated narcissistic selfies reassure us that we actually still exist and that the world (at least for an instant) does revolve around our navel-gazing importance. The concept of the late television show Seinfeld was correct. We’re slowly falling into ourselves, in a world modeled on nothingness, submission and superficiality. Where we go from there is anybody’s guess.
And then. . . there is even more of "moi"
In essence, images no longer say anything to us unless they are about us. . . and even then, they increasingly fail to convey the sought after feelings of security since the non-integrated and assimilated imagery we speedily embrace no longer “says” anything to us which is reassuring, intriguing, curious or exciting. With no imagination left and no more a capacity to “see” what someone else has said, we, over time, become lonelier and lonelier as communication means less and less. Taking in and analyzing and actually “thinking” on our own becomes more and more impossible as a desperate need to "be" loses the intensity of its desire while virtual life redefines the parameters of our ever narrowing confines. Fun and easy, we forget, is for Disneyland. Without a depth of thought and ability to take in, there is no capacity to then "share sharing". And without that, no community. And without that, no capacity to be is possible.
A high priest calling !!!
Visual artists, musicians, creators, makers. . . These are the real high priests of life. When it is good they can pat themselves on the back as their role is to reflect what is and what can possibly be. When things are bad, as they so often are today, their role is the same - to reflect what is and what possibly can still be. Are we then all artists? No more then all of us are geniuses. But as creators, intending to communicate “something” through artwork, we have our work cut out for us, lest we become one with the hordes who no longer see or wish to. We are lucky. We can still create, disseminate and distribute any way we can, including via the world wide web. But this is not the total answer. Being launched into space does not mean we are reaching Mars. The questions at hand are : Are we really talking the talk? And lastly, does talking at all matter?
To simplistically prove a point, not long ago, I created an unscientific yet telling experiment. At an exhibition, I stood near a painting of an old woman smiling beautifully. The artwork was not Michelangelo-ish but it had a lot going for it in the area of communicating warmth and reaching out to others. Approximately 100 people passed by this artwork; noticed it and commented. Of those who did, 95% instantaneously referred to the yellow teeth in the woman’s mouth, then moved on. . . Few if any stayed long enough to “see” beyond that perceived to be negative nor did they take the time to try to “get” what was actually being conveyed by the work.
Was that the fault of the painter or the viewer? Possibly a bit of both.
To be or not to be
As stated before, today’s viewing public is more in tune with what is physical or tangible - obvious, therefore non-threatening. Today, artwork is nothing but a product to be looked at. “Seeing”, to see more than the physicality of a thing, takes effort beyond a simple stare or glance. Today’s viewer often has no idea that, possibly, there is more being offered them - an actual “artistic statement ” which may be worth considering, wondering about or discovering. Maybe, hidden within the artwork being “criticized” rather than critiqued there's something worthy of our time and a blessing to our being. But taking the time to realize this is impossible since more often than not we have already moved on. If truth be told, in a split second we are probably already texting “nothing nothings” to some invisible data receiver.
Therein lies our new position, our new problem as visual artists. We are having to work ever harder to reach a visually illiterate public engrossed in so many nothing activities about nothing that noticing something about something is just too complex to fathom.
And so, transmitting something spiritual, sensual, tangibly mesmerizing, enigmatic or wondrous is not as easy as simply wanting to - no matter how skilled we are.
Nonetheless, we are crazy creatives. Despite still being in the acquisition and assimilation of skills phase of our lives (where we learn the elements which make up the visual language we wish to speak) we still wish (crave?) people would be touched by the stories we tell and not simply look at the pencil, brush or chisel strokes we lay down. Visual artists at their best are dreamers, thinkers, and players in the field of connection. We crave saying and sharing with like discoverers and appreciators. But sadly, as long as viewers (and we) are more mesmerized by our pencils or brushes and how we use them, they (and we) will be forced to remain in the staring (or not) phase to which they (and we) have become accustomed.
The freedom to create
The simplest answer is that we must give our work the freedom to say something beyond even our own comfort level. It must convey intensity, softness, aggressiveness, power, gentleness. It must be emotional and impactful to the senses, not simply emotive. The artwork has to say more about itself than we do about it. It has to say more about itself than about us. Art, beyond artwork, happens when we not only acquire knowledge and skills but assimilate them. And therein lies the creation of the freedom to create.
When we not only acquire but assimilate skills, they become a total part of who and what we are. They become a language and we become it. And because this phenomenon occurs, skill usage becomes automatic. We apply those skills without even thinking. And through that functional ease a freedom to express emerges. And through that freedom “art” is given an open door to show itself - if it is there t all within the artwork being created. And if and when it chooses to, art will transcend the physicality of the artwork - becoming the mystical entity that it is - becoming the shared source of life in which it encourages us all to “do” more rather than simply “be”.
All of this happens when our work goes beyond academic effort and in so doing becomes poetic, whimsy and magic; raising questions rather than submitting pat pc answers. Transcending occurs when what we say is so well said that it becomes thunderous and ethereal. For all intents and purposes, physical artwork is created with the tools of a trade. Art emerges from this created physical product - proving beyond a reasonable doubt that life is ever more than we pretend it to be. And that is only “seen” to be through the most primordial talents we possess : our senses. Logic allows the world to be understood. Sensuality allows the world to be wondrous and worthy of being lived.
Oftentimes we interpret the world as annoying because it is complex when in fact what we mean is complicated. Yet, life is quite simple to embrace (to act upon) though complex in its make-up. To be van Gogh-ish, Rembrandt-ish, John Singer Sargent-ish, Rothko-ish, even Warholish we must unquestionably assimilate skill sets - i.e. : have them become such a part of who we are, we no longer have to think about them when we wish to say something above and beyond the ordinary. But all in all, this process is a simple matter of “doing it”, mastering what needs to be mastered in order to speak eloquently. Though all of us can paint, we all wish to be heard and seen as more than simply brush handlers or chisel pounders. Assimilated skills free us to move beyond object creation and to whisk us into the realm of mysteries that “art” affords us all.
And art IS willing to “happen”. It happens when our hearts and souls embrace the ideas of touching and being touched, of moving and being moved. Art is about connection and communication. When it is only about us it never rises above being a physical ego thing, a therapeutic product, artwork at its least creative.
But skeptics in the painting of “reality themes” (that element of the contemporary art world made up of the most numerous practitioners) still cries out that their realm, their ideas are being shoved aside - are not seen to be "real art". So does that eliminate them from potentially being seen to be artists or their work art?
I don’t buy the whole premise of some things not having the potential to be artistic or tangibly powerful. Some of the simplest premises are the most complex and the most alluring.
Think Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Gary Greene, Eakins, Serov and the Glasgow Boys, amongst others.
And, let’s take the work of one of the most famous examples of American ultra-realism, other than Andrew Wyeth. This man took the most ordinary of ordinary people and made them icons. He even used the most cliché of interactions, events, situations and environments as his primary subjects. And when he painted anything, it was “photographically, illustratively real” to us.
So how did viewers go from saying that his work was nothing more than a photo to falling into a total reverent silence when standing before one of his emotionally charged paintings? Norman Rockwell took the most ordinary, the most realistic subject matter and raised it to a level of sensual pleasure, sensual malaise, sensual laughter, sensual propaganda (?) - so much so that his artwork continues to move even the hardest of hearts today. Like us, like several of the Impressionists, Rockwell used photos extensively as reference tools - but never as images to copy. His secret? He was more interested in telling a compelling story than creating a perfect picture.
Perfection vs excellence
To be a visual artist we must recognize that the idea of achieving perfection is born from without. As such it is an imposed expectation (based on the rules of another). Excellence on the other hand, comes from within. It feeds a self-nurturing concept which promotes the idea of being the best we can be today, while encouraging us to best even that tomorrow. Where perfection in creativity is rigid and final, excellence is fluid - a never-ending becoming. It offers up a tingling feeling of eventually, possibly, maybe, hopefully, one day achieving our goal of realizing a masterpiece.
But in the end, whether we are eventually seen to be artists or not, whether our efforts are called artwork or art is irrelevant. What counts is the journey and just maybe turning a viewer into total jelly upon seeing one of our grand artworks. :)
Finally, there are 4 things to remember as drawers, sketchers, painters, sculptors - visual artists who wish to achieve better than yesterday:
1) Art is always artwork. But artwork is not always art.
2) Artwork always answers its own questions. Art, on the other hand, is always impishly asking yet another.
3) To create “art” from our efforts we need to be disciplined enough to free ourselves to be free.
4) For art to eventually emerge from our artwork, we must free it to say (without interference) what it is that it wishes to say. And if, in the end, it says nothing. . . Maybe there is no message. Or maybe our agitated and overloaded minds are not yet calm, quiet enough for the hidden message to be received, to be taken in, to be “seen”.
There are 2 ways of looking at style : style as defined by the parameters of our expression - in regards to what is “out there” - for example : Impressionism, Realism, Abstract Expressionism, etc. These are collective styles, representational idioms which are sometimes (erroneously) called “genres”. Then there is having a “personal style” which for all intents and purposes identifies us as having our own recognizable graphic way of saying something visually; as we so often do in a written form through a personal handwriting. Ironically, personal hand-writing styles are disappearing. Many in younger generations have no idea how to hold a pencil or pen let alone how to use them. Because of keyboards that men would never have admitted to using not so long ago (that was for "secretaries!". . . ) whole generations are no longer identifiable through a hand-writing style.And as we crave perfection rather than excellence in our drawing and painting styles, we will soon, logically speaking, no longer have a drawing or painting style. . .
Collective styles we can choose to embrace. The latter, the personal style, emerges from within. And, this emergence occurs once we have not only acquired but assimilated the skill sets required to speak a specific language. And once these skills are assimilated, we begin to apply them without even thinking. This, in turn, allows us a freedom of expression unknown to us prior to these tools having become a part of us. And when this happens, we suddenly, again without realizing it, begin drawing, painting or sculpting in such a personal way that viewers come to recognize the "who" of a visual statement above and beyond the "what" of the visual statement itself. This is how we differentiate the works of Michelangelo from those of Picasso, Caravaggio, Rockwell, Parrish, et al.
In his own inimitable style (no pun intended), Dali said it best : He explained that it was a waste of time to chase after or crave a personal style since that style will happen despite all efforts to hunt it down. In essence, personal style happens when we stop trying to be unique and simply let the naturalness of our strokes and expressions be themselves.
But once we have this "our" style (or as some esoterics refer to it : a “voice”) does this guarantee we become an overnight sensation? Sadly (and realistically). . . no. Sales do not suddenly multiply when our style makes itself known. As in all selling games, the marketplace determines whether it will accept or reject how we say things - not us. We can present our style and the styles we use it in, but we can’t impose it, anymore than we can impose a style upon ourselves. If we try, we will be denying who we are. If we obsess with a goal of creating our own style, we will end up being as J F Martel indicates in his seminal book : “Reclaiming Art In The Age of Artifice” : creators of pastiche - superficial artworks that never become “art”.
Are we stuck with a personal style? No. We can deny it, throw it away, try to become something we are not. But that isn’t going to get us a legitimate place in the world of the arts. Can we change the styles in which we work? Absolutely. We can paint in whatever style (or “ism”) we want without denigrating or rejecting our personal style. Picasso, for example, always remained Picasso no matter what he did or how. He played in stone, ceramics, paint, drawing and more - and yet we always recognize his work. His personal style; his hand-writing, never wavered. What did change was the representational styles in which he worked. Much like when he spoke French or Spanish, the language spoken changed but the man speaking was always recognizably Picasso. He never pretended to be anyone else or to say anything in any other way than his own. That's what made him Picasso and style is what makes us "us" - in whatever language we speak.
La bergère a des oreilles - Oil/huile - 10" x 12" - Collection privée, Ottawa
The roots of twenty-first century portraiture stem from European traditions which, themselves, were influenced by Egyptian & Roman perspectives.
Early on, over and above religious and story-telling genre paintings, commissioned portraits had one thing in common : they were all of one "type" : that which depicted societal status - the position of an individual painted. The name "Henry", in King Henry the VIII, was of little consequence. What mattered was the title "King", not the person. The portrait had but one goal : depict “His Majesty” at his most "Royal" - i.e. at his most powerfully rich, benevolent (or despotic) best - (whichever was the politically correct quality to have at that time).
Whether the subject was a Queen or Consort, a King, Pope or Countess, it was the position held which was painted. Human failings or attributes were of lesser consequence and likeness could but did not necessarily happen. What had to be depicted was the "value" of the subject’s position as it pertained to the “commissioner” of the portrait and/or the society of that day. Over and above power, portraiture also served to "publicize" the general wealth of a client (as in : having more money than).
Since the 14th century with its emphasis on religious iconography, European portraiture has continuously evolved - going from representations of “position”, to representations of “profession”, to today’s renderings of “person”. For all intents and purposes, portraiture has gone from being based on perceptions of What I Am to those of What I Do to those of Who I am.
Today, we commission a portrait of ourselves, of a loved one, a friend or colleague to celebrate their/our uniqueness. And with this freer perception of the“who I am”, a more open consideration of personhood has come to pass. With a less rigid ideation regarding “what or who we are”, we are more open to recognizing (if necessary to the purpose of a portrait) an individual’s contribution to their community, institution, corporation or society at large - over and above their "beingness". Thus the concept of official portraiture has survived all of these centuries because we now look upon a portrait subject as more than simply the reason why they were painted.
What Of The Contemporary Need For Likeness
Cameras have forever altered contemporary perceptions. Through the 20th and now 21st century, we have come to increasingly recognize "likeness" as a primary benchmark by which we communicate and share (or not) with others. In essence, "what we look like to others" (or think we do) has become a crucial twenty-first century connection characteristic. A portrait painter must keep this in mind if he or she wishes to survive in the increasingly rarefied air and prized practice that is portrait painting.
Nonetheless, "recognizability" should not be the single greatest focus in the creation of a portrait. To be successful, a likeness must be more than its physical self. It must have depth. It must speak eloquently to a subject’s personality and to a sitter as a stand-alone individual. In contemporary terms, and regardless of painterly stylistics, the “face” must offer more than someone's unique nose or ears.
Ironically, though, we do so prize being recognized. We selfie ourselves to death in the hope someone will know we exist. . . But then, what will it matter? In the distant future our "portraits" will for the most part be anonymous; where no one will care much for the 15 minutes of fame concepts we espoused. Centuries from now we will, through our portraits, become nothing more than the latest in a bland rendition of an enigma genre. . .
Or, wondrously, we might become that fascinating smile, that questioning look, that sad reminder of something, someone mysterious - those eyes in that unknown face that viewers gaze into rather than stare at - and all because of the same question which has been asked since the beginning of time; since the discovery of the first incredible portrait ever created : Who was she? Who was he?
Whether by motivation or arousal (!), so-called starving artists (I must beg to differ) do not create "art". Whether starving or otherwise, with or without training, with or without talent, individuals are universally creative. But at best, most of us create "artworks" whose legitimate lofty goal is to say something, to share something with others. Some, from the very beginning simply want to speak to themselves - thus the concept of art therapy is born. Others have a deep compulsion to go beyond themselves, to give their creations the tools to speak on their own. In some rare occurrences, that happens. Some artworks do become more special than others. They exude far more than the generalized norm when, on their own, they "say" something mesmerizing or enigmatic, unexplainable, but nonetheless incredibly enticing. And that is when "art" happens. . . Artwork may attract or repel but on its own - without further assistance from its creator - it may, when it is excellent, touch and move the world. When artwork is at this level, we know it to be "art" and we know it emerges over and above the physical created elements of it. In essence, art is what artwork becomes when it exudes an aura of wondrousness. For the goal of artwork is always to be, to become "art". But because that essence so rarely emerges, few artworks - despite the billions created daily - achieve that goal.
As for Ramit Sethi. I am not a fan. His views are much too generalized in that he perceives the ultimate goal in life as making money and everyone trying to do so as being the same. We’re all a homogenized package of “wanna-be richers” rather than individuals to motivational speakers . In a consumer-based environment, that may be a legitimate perception. But to be quoted as saying that “artists. . . are constantly adopting worthless beliefs. . . .” is a rather belittling attitude toward a segment of readers who just happen to help him make his money. Under what category does this motivational comment fall in the quest to make his clients richer? Discouragement or encouragement? From this citation, I presume he sees this segment of the population as rather faulty elements in the process of distribution and consumerism. Basically, it is implied that “artists” are lacking in what it takes to disperse their product lines.
Yes. In the marketplace (whether we like it or not) our names are nothing more than a brand. In the studio we may be Joe ordinary wishing to create the ultimate in “the art of” painting or Mary extraordinary wishing to sculpt the finest essence of curves and angles. But, when we step away from this idyllic setting and enter the marketplace we, as Ford and Chrysler, are just another brand. But before that brand can have value, the product itself must not only be worthy of being branded but also prove itself to be over and above that sense of “self-aggrandizement" that branding sometimes conjures. Despite all contemporary considerations, or Mr Sethi’s speeches, the selling of artworks has more to do with the product than its inventor - at least until that creator is anointed with a special recognition of "greaterness". But then, as with artists, and art. . . greaterness is a rather rare thing and therefore hardly fits standard branding and or marketing principles.
That being said. In order to market a product, it must first and foremost be marketable, have an interested audience and have a price tag that fits the needs, wants (or illusions) of those who would wish the purchased artwork to be “valuable" art. In essence, we have to get over the marketing of ourselves as being more important than, or at the core of, the sellable product itself. That we, as painters or sculptors, are eccentric, outlandish, dreamy or boringly ordinary matters not - we are not the product. The quality of our work is not us. It is the drawing, painting or sculpture - the artwork presented which is of value. . . or not..
In marketing, no matter the number, the power or the repetition of ads, the flamboyance of websites or the presentation and/or promotions by galleries and art mags, nothing sells unless, at first presentation, the artwork is “attractive”; it lures and has the wherewithal to hold onto “them” (potential purchasers) even after they have left the displaying premises.
As for neuro-science affirmations and dissertations, any definition of reality in the arts is rarely "academic" though it is often a question of logic. Actually, the basics are : I want to be an artist. But, whether I become one or not doesn't depend on my wishes and dreams but rather on my abilities to create something which says more than its physical presence. In this, those who wish, need to or actually do see themselves as artists often delude themselves. Wanting to be something more than we are not is wishful thinking and rarely fulfills itself beyond our dreaming. In essence, what we do with what we have is not often art - whether worthy of the attentions of others or not. But here's the rub. This very fact does not mean that our creations have no value. But, like glass, that perceived value must be tempered in order that it (we) not shatter at the realization that chances are rare that our work will ever be perceived as great "art" or that we will ever be identified with the likes of Warhol, Michelangelo, Pollock, Tiepolo, Cassatt, Monet or any other "brand name" of historic renown.
Nevertheless, most artwork created is not hogwash. Some of it is recognizably horrid but much of it is rather acceptable. Some even reaches level that even the creator never expected. But art, as in “‘art” and not artwork, remains hard to find. Overall, reality dictates that our creativity is what we should concretely celebrate - not “being” an artist. In contemporary terms, “I am an artist” has become a rather speculative, if not vapid statement. Actually, what most of us do serves the purpose of soothing the savage beast within - and that is a most noble purpose - if not a grandiose one.
Despite all that has been said above and in the previous posting entitled : The Burning Question of Starving Artists, today is no more nor less a bad time for those who would be artists - except for the illusion that we all are, simply because we say we are. And because we say we are "starving" (often-times with a glint of pride in our eyes) the very thing becomes a quality of life manipulation rather than a decision made to not be “ordinary” - i.e. : getting a job like everybody else. Starving has nothing to do with or without “art”. It has to do with our compunction to believe that a so-called “artist” needs to not work at anything “else” lest he or she be seen to be less than what they want to “be”. Because so many of us continue to espouse the illusion that the 19th century bohemian artist ideal is still (if ever it was) a reality, we maintain the accompanying false premise that this makes us “passionate” (special?) rather than obstinate - and for some even obsessive.
Today’s artist would best study more the efforts and determinations of those who came before the 19th century- those who were of the working class and who sought to receive recognition not for themselves but for their work - for what they did rather than for who they were. In the beginning, these creative laborers” were students, apprentices and workers in ateliers. They were eventually hired out as assistants and then possibly, maybe, hopefully, with time and honed skill, owners of their own studios where clients would commission works they wished to have identified with their names. For these individuals who earned the title of artist, life had little room for illusion. Theirs was a world of long hours of work which eventually qualified them to be seen to be the uniquely creative independent painters and sculptors that they were. Today, we want it all when we want it all and often redefine the world's parameters to meet our needs whether they fit in with reality or not. And that is often our downfall.
My father’s first reaction to me announcing at 9 years old that I would be a portrait painter was a deep sigh. . . accompanied by a discouraged : “My eldest son wants to starve for a living.” Like many others of that time, he saw the arts as an increasingly vapid environment filled with non-working individuals crying out to be looked at and appreciated for who they were rather than what they accomplished. He was partly right. Nonetheless, the impression of that concocted reality, right or wrong, is still with us. And so, if creativity stands for anything today, it is left to us in this 21st century to get beyond the ill-founded perceptions - i.e. : It's time to get back to work.
Checkmate - Graphite - 15" x 25" - 1984 - Private Collection
The beautiful word amateur once meant : “lover of”. Over time, it has evolved from its original French, Italian and Latin origins to becoming a generic belittling reference. Once, it highlighted a recognition of and respect for "appreciators" of one thing or another (whether professional or not). Now, it is often used with sneering emphasis to describe those who do not earn their living whilst doing this or that - or for that matter appreciating this or that. Today, amateur defines someone who is more or less (usually considered “lesser”) an “ugh!” hobbyist; nothing more. It is often how the least talented or skilled in an area of self expression are defined. But this nomenclature has its greatest negative inference and impact when used by those who have a desperate need to NOT be associated with these “lesser” amateurs.
Real artists could care less about someone painting on velvet or using “magic white”. Amateurs, as an “other defined” contemporary phenomenon are not a threatening lot. They draw and paint and smile. No arrogance there. It is those who take it upon themselves to point out their “amateurism” who most “clearly” assert that these lessers do not fit into “our” self anointed realm of visual arts superiority.
Why is this? Why, as purported artists, are we so upset about being associated with all the amateurs out there? Possibly because they remind us of worker bees - of those who toil, labour, “work” for a living. I would assume that we in the visual arts see them as production without angst or vision bees - those who do for pay what they are told. They work hard 5 days a week in jobs they dislike or maybe even hate - and all this for that one day in the future when they will retire to a life of leisure and maybe, just maybe, paint their way into the sunset, whilst being satisfied to sell their artistic wares at church fairs. . . . So where’s the threat?
It doesn’t seem to lie in their dreams but rather in their everyday identified lives - their work lives - that which they do in order to achieve what they wish to achieve - whatever the cost. In essence, what bothers us (it seems) is that they (amateurs) are associated with us and us with them. And “we” (the royal we) do not like this one bit. They are amateurs. Nothing else. We, on the other hand, are artists (which is more)! They “willingly” work at jobs they hate. And even some of us (gasp) must do so also. . . but we downplay that aspect of our lives by emphasizing to everyone within earshot that we are more. . . That we are actually bona fide artists. Though to eat, pay rent, survive, we work at stuff we hate to do we nonetheless need to be seen as “better than” the otherness of lowly labourers. We are artists. And our need to be seen as such is often crucial to our well being.
This should not be perceived as unexpected in an era which thrives (especially commercially) on self-esteem issues. Add to this the most prolific phrase of the past century in western democracies : “Thank God it’s Friday!” and if it wasn’t for “happy hours”, we’d all be on the streets protesting “woe is me”.
Despising having to work and having to be seen to be a “worker” has been normalized. We’ve been raised to be more than that! (Harrumph!) Democracies have become so comfortable in being democratic, we’ve become oddly demeaned by the very idea of labour, by the very concept of its existence, its demands and (most especially) by the time "wasted" doing it. We’ve even lost interest in the idea of making our workload better, more productive, more efficient, more pride inducing. We fail to see such effort as creative enough. Work is work is work and nothing can make it other than what it is, or so it seems.
In the mid to late 20th century we killed industrial colleges, considering them lesser places of learning, whilst elevating and growing universities like prized rose gardens. This was not so much because more and more students needed to go to university to meet the needs of the contemporary job market as it was to differentiate between a “higher learning” graduate and a lesser college or “trade school” graduate. Trade schools reminded too many of us that we were not what the advertisers were promoting - smart, sassy and technologically academic. Attending university became a priority for those who were so inclined and for those who saw themselves as lesser if they did not.
No one ever says, these days, they are saving money for their grandchildren to become whatever it is “they want” to become. No. They say (in saving for education insurance ads ) : “I’m putting money away for my grandson’s university. . .” We've been sold and we now sell our kids on the idea that if they don't have a university diploma they are lesser, more ordinary; i.e. : nothing special. . . God forbid that today someone would proudly admit to being a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter or the “best PC repairman in the county”! Never mind that many of these professions are usually chosen because the student loves the trade in which they wish to become proficient. . .
In essence, we’ve lost sight of the fact that a university education, in the true sense of the word, is not about jobs and work but rather about learning and expanding one’s mind. It is not about acquiring skill sets but rather “mind” sets. And so. . . Why are they not therefore for everyone at any time in their lives, from young to old age? Isn’t learning from birth to death not the most precious gift to a living being?
That being said. In these purportedly more enlightened times, few of us end up choosing work we would "oh so love to do". Why?
Possibly for 3 reasons :
1) - The"jobs" we may like might not pay enough to keep us in the lifestyle to which (since childhood) we have become accustomed.
2) - The jobs we go to fail to stimulate us or make us feel proud.
3) - And last but not least, we are a consumer society, consuming ourselves to the nth degree of consumption. We need to fill the jobs out there, as dictated by our society, doing whatever in order to successfully navigate within the parameters of this pre-determined and rather static environment. Never mind the anti status quo considerations of creativity.
Work, therefore, has become a negative - a forced upon us ill. . . necessary to feed and house us and fulfill our needs and most especially our manufactured wants. And this we do to the final day we are “pensioned off”. As such, daily work is generically perceived to be an annoyance. It wastes all the time we wish we could spend doing those things we love to do as. . . well. . . “amateurs”. We love sports (watching more than doing), games (playing), drinking and eating (lots) and playing with our ipads, ipods and our ever evolving game boys - aggressing virtual worlds found in our online war games. Not much creativity compensation there. But frustrations do have to be let out, Eh?
Nonetheless, some of us actually do other things such as - oh my God!!! - sculpt and paint!!! And therein lie "those people", those we sneeringly point to as the dreaded “amateurs” - Sunday painters and carvers; free time “artists”; those who are so commonly and irritatingly associated with us - the “real artists”.
But then, what is being an artist?
Being one today, is not as it was in the 14th to the late 18th century - i,e, : more a commissioned labourer than a self-perceived visionary. But with time, much like the word “amateur”, the title “artist” has been re-moulded and “re”formed by us and our contemporary democratic expectations. Once the definition of a master painter to now what is more commonly known as : anyone who says they are.
Today, the title does not so much define professionalism as it does connote rebelliousness, a “pooh-poohing” reaction to the status quo, a freedom of expression bathed in an environment of art for art’s sake. As such, the calling of oneself an artist (often despite giggles to the contrary) has garnered for itself an elevated status of devil may care - of an “Oh my gawd, look what he just did, thought, uttered, created”!
Since the 19th century, painters and sculptors (who forget that Impressionist mentors were learned men and women, well on their way to becoming painter labourers of their time) have introduced the concept of eschewing regulations and authority; defying traditions, rules, laws and anything else a citizenry associates with its own perceptions of "labour" (i.e. : drudgery). At its best, art for art's sake has given us many great painters and sculptors and at its worst an appropriation of and an entitlement to the status of "artist" - as if it had ever been up for grabs.
Being an artist is “now” seen as what one is when one either has the gall to do nothing or the wherewithal to be seen to be an expert in a field of contemporary collective indefinability - for example : "I am an artist because I say I am. My world is separate from, and even more important than, the world of those who know nothing of this specialized environment of mine." And this is possible because, in our times, the status of "artist" is one which can either be deserved or not, formally acquired or not, proven valid or not - or bestowed or absconded with. No matter. As everyone has the freedom (licence?) to call themselves an artist and their creations art, in the end what we often get is neither art nor an artist. In essence, we have simply arrived at another moment in time when, once again, the emperor has no clothes.
Ironically, as a title - a status - the credibility of the word "artist" has been as damaged as the word amateur. Both have, over time, been seriously diminished and/or denigrated. With no recognizable skill sets required or regulation body to monitor such a nondescript profession as artist, the validity of it becomes questionable within the environments from which it stems and professes itself “different”. Concomitantly, with a title no longer associated with the need for excellence in the creation process, the reality and value of it as a status no longer exists - at least as it once did.
But then, as craving the title "artist" seems to be about “being” rather than doing; being something different, being something "more special" - something which says that we do not (like everyone else) hate what we do (and therefore hate what we are). . . maybe that is the enigma solved. The only question left would be : Is it an equal need or is it a "greater-than" need to NOT be seen as an amateur, as an “ordinary” lesser person? Tomorrow's social history and psychology books will tell. :)
Bernard Poulin. . .