Saturday, February 05, 2011

Art: Without The Jazz Hands

These are some remarks of mine from a discussion on Facebook that I've cobbled together and edited with some further thoughts on the subject:

I know that people realize it's hard work to make pictures, but I don't think they see it as analogous to other forms of work. If you ever see people painting in movies they're often dancing around with sweat pouring off their faces, grimacing and making triumphant gestures, because the process, they imagine, is romantic and special, but they're just not sure what exactly it is that makes it that way. But there's a part of it that's not too different than mowing the lawn. It's just work like any other work. Sometimes watching someone paint a picture is a lot like watching them paint a fence. But if you imagine the process as mysterious and fabulous, it's harder to identify it as an effort akin to any other effort. It's either minimized or mystified. It's assumed that it either comes easy, or it comes through some great imaginary struggle with the self that probably involves jazz hands.

I'm talking about the booze swilling, furiously paint slinging romanticism of it all. Or Picasso charging a thousand dollars for something he's scribbled on a napkin, thus imbuing the napkin with his magic powers.

One of the least understood forms of art is abstract expressionism, or abstraction in general (post-modernism is a whole different animal, so for right now, I'm sticking with modernism). Abstract expressionism isn't some totally free, formless exercise--unless it's crappy abstract expressionism. You're dealing with a lot of the same problems of design, composition, color, etc. as you are with more representational work. It's still problem solving. This, I think, is another common misconception, one that, whether intentionally or not, belittles the real process involved in abstract and non-representational work, and makes it seem all the more mysterious and mystical.

Picasso's drawing on a napkin magically transformed that napkin into a fist full of money, but who knows why? Only the "experts", the people who understand what makes the magic work. But this both inflates and confuses art's function. It's easy to go either way: if you believe some magical and mystical process imbues the art with specialness, this incredible overinflated value makes perfect sense. If it looks to you more like some meaningless scribble, it would make sense that it's an obvious scam. But if everyone had a better sense of the function of art, the everyday importance and prosaicness of aesthetics, art would be valued by everyone, but reasonably valued. You wouldn't have thousand dollar napkins, but people also wouldn't dismiss art that requires true skill and effort, that is the product of a genuine discipline. The more art is assumed to be imbued with special magic powers, the less accessible the ideas presented by art academia, become. People assume that it's either beyond their understanding, or a big lie invented by academia.

There's nothing mystical about art making. It's work, plain and simple, but it tends to involve a different process than other forms of work. Though intuitive, aesthetics is a product of the intellect, of both logical and non-rational thinking. Recognizing the beauty of something is, in itself, an act of invention. The viewer is always a participant. Invention is a holistic process, the purposeful recombination of interconnecting and interdependent elements. Creation stems from creation myth—the spontaneous generation of something from nothing. Invention is not the same as creation. The two are not interchangeable.

The concept of artifice is a product of the myth of creation. It suggests the isolation of an event, that a thing is spontaneously generated in a bubble that has no practical connection to anything outside of that bubble, but in truth, no such bubble can exist. Everything is interconnected. There is invention, but there is no creation. There is aesthetics, but there is no artifice. Creativity, artifice: these concepts are our attempt to rationalize the non-rational, to try to explain the ineffable in a way that makes sense to the ego. Even in science, we talk about artifice instead of invention, even when the process of discovery is self-evident, because our ego won't allow us to accept that we do not create, that we don't exist in a bubble, but are part of a dynamic. Each one of us is a conduit of this dynamic. The process of discovery can appear to us to occur spontaneously, and this is why we hold so tenaciously to this myth of creativity. This is why invention appears as some mystical act of creation. But invention is simply an organic product of work. We are compelled to make things because this is what we do. It's not our purpose, but it's our function.

So nothing is being pulled out of thin air. There's no rabbit in the hat. You're just recombining preexisting elements--not to minimize the effort, it's not easy to do, and you can make wonderful, compelling and magnificent things, but you didn't create them. Creativity is a myth. I'm all for wonder and mystery. Just without the jazz hands.

Comercial Art vs. "Fine Art"

The common conception in academia of fine art vs. commercial art is that commercial art fulfills a preconceived desire, and fine art elicits a new desire. I've heard this repeated again and again with the finality of a self-evident truth, as if this says it all. But it simply isn't so.

As soon as you sell a piece of art it becomes a commercial product. "Fine art" is basically a marketing concept. If you're Henry Darger, and no one sees your art till after your death, maybe, then, you have some claim to this idea that you're not doing what you do with an audience in mind (although even he, seemed to be writing for some invisible audience). Otherwise, everything you make is for some kind of audience, and it's made under that pretense. You anticipate, to some degree, a preexisting desire. It's not entirely the reason you made it, but it's part of the reason.

And not all art done in the commercial realm is strictly meant to fulfill a preexisting desire. You're making something that people don't know they want yet. Genre fiction, comic books, movies, video games, puffy kitty stickers, most forms of commercial art have the potential to elicit rather than simply fulfill a desire. There is a lot of bad art, but there is also so much art to discover if you're willing to ignore your preconceptions about what Art with a capital "A" is supposed to be. There's a whole realm of art that has the potential to be every bit as compelling and meaningful as anything you could ever hang in a gallery if you're willing to pay attention to it and seek it out. For this reason, everyone has a unique appreciation of the art around them. There is art that the most knowledgeable fine art academic can't appreciate or see. There is art that people who don't have a Western/European academic art education are unable to see. Which form of art do you think is more ubiquitous?

I'm not saying that art with a rigorous Western/European foundation is less or more valuable than other forms of art, it just happens to be one form of art that is appreciated by a small minority of people. But the number of people who appreciate something does not determine its value. A piece of art that only one person can appreciate has value to that person. But all art can't all be of equal relative value. At some point you have to decide that some art has more quality than other art. Even though this is subjective, Western/European academia has made the analysis of quality its specialty. Art academia represents a lot of people who have spent a lot of time thinking about what that quality is and recording their ideas about it. There are people who have dedicated their whole lives to the analysis of the quality of art. It's a pretty powerful and convincing argument. It just doesn't happen to be the only argument. But it's certainly not an argument I would dismiss. Academia has given us this wealth of ideas about the quality of art, but its argument has become so convincing that a lot of smart people have decided that it is the only argument that is worth being considered. This, I think, is a mistake.

The "Art World", "Outsider Art" and Other Wrong-Headed Ideas That Belong In Quotes.

The concept of "outsider art" is academia's way of compromising, their way of acknowledging art that has value, but does not fit within their parameters of art that is academically rigorous. Not only is it an inherently condescending concept, but it is a bigoted one. Aboriginal art, among other forms of art, is considered by Western/European academia to be "outsider art". The assumption is that aboriginal art has been conceived in a naive vacuum, as if by a community of savants. It does not acknowledge that community's unique understanding of aesthetics, and that that understanding is a sophisticated one that is just as rigorous in its own way as Western art. It's an understanding of aesthetics that can only be fully appreciated on its own terms by members of that community. Aboriginal communities in many ways have an understanding of art that most reflects what I was talking about earlier, a thorough understanding of the everyday importance and prosaicness of aesthetics. So in reality, it's the Western/European academic that is naive to the unique quality of this art as understood by that community, and can only see it on their terms. Out of context, aboriginal art becomes something else, and its quality may be recognized, but it's a quality that is differently defined.

Picasso and Braque, inspired by both African and Western art, came up with cubism. They recontextualized what they were able to learn from African art, while never fully understanding African art on its own terms. Because of both their knowledge of Western/European traditions, and their naivete, they were able to invent something new. But in the eyes of Western/European academia, Picasso and Braque were far from naive. It is this discrepancy that permits Western/European academia to either dismiss, or condescend to identify art of quality that does not fit within their prescribed parameters, within a tradition followed by Picasso and Braque, but not by aboriginal cultures or much of our popular culture. This is why, in its naivete, art academia and the fine art community revealingly refer to themselves as "The Art World." They simply don't know any better.

More Pictures, Soon.

More pictures, soon. I'm working on the large piece I mentioned earlier, but it's just not practical to scan while I'm working on it.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I agree with you in every way. I hope you don't mind if I pass this article along to some fellow illustrators and former students?!

  2. Absolutely! Please do. And thanks!

  3. Oops. That's Henry Darger, not Charles Dodson. Charles Dodgson is Lewis Caroll! I fixed it.

  4. Haha... This perspective seems to be very much from the POV of an art instructor, Re: jazz hands.

    We are the ones that are creating that “false” sense of magic/creativity. The end result is something that’s meant to mislead, redirect emotion in a different direction. If people can sense the workman nature in the piece we will have failed. I think it is hard to fault people for not seeing though that.

  5. Thanks Mónico, but believe it or not, I haven't done that much teaching! I have a 15 year old student I tutor one on one, and in the summers I teach a handful of kids 10 to 14 illustration and comics. I'm actually just building my career. But I will take that as a compliment.

    And Mónico, the people most guilty of romanticizing art making are artists themselves.

  6. Just reminds me of all my great instructors. In class looking at awesome illustrations and painting that seem unattainable... breaking them down, figuring out what makes them work, figuring out process, and humbling yourself with respect to the technical skills needed to achieve something great.

  7. What a very kind thing to say! I agree, it's easy to be intimidated by really amazing artists, but craft is something you can learn, maybe not on level of the people you truly admire, but with hard work, most everyone can attain a certain level of practical skill. And when you combine that skill with your unique voice, you can do some amazing work of your own.