Psych! There is no such secret knowledge. I’m almost inclined to make this about your day job, but I won’t. That’s maybe a little too “wink-wink,” and you don’t need that.
Most of us who make art really have no idea what it means, or what we’re doing. I mean, we have skills, a practice, routines, starting points, and something to say. But if asked, we usually only have some vague things to say that could as easily go on the description on the wall placard.
To risk yet another contradictory headline, it doesn’t matter as much that you understand what you make. Other people will derive their own meaning no matter what you do, but being really specific would only partly prevent that. It’s great if it’s widely, wildly interpretable by many people, but that still misses the larger point.
You make the art for your own reasons, and you don’t always know what they are. And that’s cool.
The only thing you can count on about the internet is the weird superimposition of the robustness and fragility of data. Sometimes your database gets corrupted and you lose posts. Sometimes there are backups to restore. It’s both. That’s weird.
We need time to think. Time to ponder and choose directions. It’s easy to put on earbuds and get lost in sound, or binge a few series in our off time from work.
But you’ll benefit for knowing where you want to go next, both in life and your work. And you can’t hear your own thoughts about that if you don’t just sit with them, alone. I used to do this on drives, my commute was 30–45 minutes. Now that it’s 15 minutes at most, often shorter on the bus, I do it while walking. Doesn’t have to be a big thing, but it’s good to have a direction and finalized decision-making.
If you’re lucky, some of them like to write, and they’ll put that out into the public sphere, too. It’s helpful to have a broader picture of the artists you admire.
Sometimes, they’ll disappoint you. That’s okay, it happens to our family and friends now and then. Once in a while it’ll be so far from your personal beliefs, you lose respect for them and won’t want to support them. That’s also useful to know.
Mainly, though, following along with a few artists you enjoy gives you an inside perspective on art that art history rarely will. We study works in isolation, much of the time. We hop around in time at a dizzying pace. But it’s like waiting for the next album from your favorite band when a painter you love announces a new show or upcoming project.
It’s the view from here, in real time, and it puts our own work on the same scale. We can be motivated and inspired by artists working right now in a way that is immediate and visceral. Uncle Paul (Klee, for any new readers) and Georgia O’Keefe are great and inspiring. But we see all their best work at once, and the scale and temporal connection is gone, just as they’re gone.
We learn a lot from the masters of the past. But the future masters who might arise from the ones we admire today can teach us just as much.
I read this ranging interview with artist Ai Weiwei and smiled a lot. He’s really just concerned with doing his next thing, not how standing in the art world, or celebrity, or much beyond tweaking some foibles and defying expectations. Worth a read, fellow would-be dissidents.
I think art, as culture, is essential to our basic humanity. And I mean basic. I think the gap is pretty close to the survival levels of air, food, & water, and if it’s important to you, if it evokes teh feels, it’s no less valid than Tolstoy or Shelley.
Sometimes we’re surprised by those feelings, the stuff that touches us at a deeper “soul” level. And if we’ve thought about it as silly or trifling, I don’t actually mean to say we shouldn’t label them so, in context of unexpected connections, but that we shouldn’t be quick to separate the stuff we find personally meaningful from the stuff we’ve deified as Western canon.
Because art is vital to not just who we are, but WHAT we are. We aren’t fully human without it. The most downtrodden and desperate segment of people still tells itself stories and makes music and pictures. Because they—and we—need to. Art is life, we can’t be humans without it. There is plenty of clumsy, half-assed, disconnected art out there. But let’s not be quick to dismiss what touches us as lesser because it’s silly or simple.
Just a reminder here—because most of us need reminding, now and again—to keep looking at everything around you. Noticing things others don’t notice is part of being an artist. You have to be able to convey a vision to the world, either an internal or a translated external one (come to think of it, inner visions have to be translated themselves).
In order to fully convey your vision to us, you need to have seen and absorbed what you’re putting down for others. You can’t do that unless you’re really good at seeing stuff.
It’ll seem too simple at first. Then, as you keep noticing and looking deeper and longer, you start to see that it’s almost infinitely complex, and you could get lost in the most mundane slice of your day. But don’t stop. The idea for your next thing comes from what you see and how much and how far you see into it.
Here in the U.S., we’ve been entertaining ourselves by letting lots of outrages from factions we oppose stand in for our various personal grudges and grievances. I would like to say I’m hopeful we can find common ground somewhere, but I’m not sure that will happen soon.
I have my own personal beliefs and desires for helping the greatest number of people the most, but some of my beliefs are concerned with ways to live and those aren’t always objective, superior ways. We need some compromising largesse toward each other.
But we can keep sending more art into the world. More expression, more passion, more remixing and recombining old ideas into new ones. When times are troubled, creative work can act as both refuge and inspiration. It’s the place to channel your energy and focus after they’ve been hijacked by TV ads and yelling heads.
Ai Weiwei posted this video on his Instagram account this past week. It seems to show a man on his cell phone obliviously walking into Weiwei’s installation of porcelain sunflower seeds on a museum floor.
As with most of his posts, there is no comment from Ai about it. Reaction from fans and followers are almost universally horror struck. A few are cynical about it being staged. Is it faked? Maybe. I’m not sure it matters that much.
We spend a lot of time making things. We spend much less time thinking about their ephemerality. That should be part of how we consider the things of the world. Nothing is forever. If we embrace the impermanence of it all, I think we might be able to laugh at the absurdity of things like our bestowing some kind of sacred status on finished work.
This incident with the Weiwei piece, or even actively destructive things elsewhere, are some kind of connection with that existential absurdity. I feel like that’s a bigger statement than we can make on our own. Maybe we’d have more fun and make better things afterward by emphasizing the intangible meaning of this, rather than the perfection of craft or the object.