Friday, June 3, 2011

What is (your) art?

Sometimes we engage in big philosophical debates about, "what is art?"  For the artist, though, the only practical question is, "what is your art?" Should be an easy question to answer, right?

I recently visited the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was amazing.  I particularly responded to the collection of 19th century American paintings.  Stuff like this, today, would be more likely to show up on than in a gallery:

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by John White Alexander

Today when we see stuff like this, we can't help but think, "illustration."  You'd expect to see this in a Golden Age children's book:

The Drummer Boy by William Morris Hunt

The 19th century academic establishment figured out... or decided... what made great art, and everyone got better and better at doing that - and produced some great stuff. Really great stuff. They were trying to achieve perfection more than expression, and some came pretty darn close:

Nymphs and Satyr by William Bouguereau

Then the late 19th and early 20th century saw the dawn of "modern art", where things became largely about bucking the establishment. Artists were supposed to be undisciplined, outcasts, and poor. Some people think that's where fine art stopped being fine. There are entire movements (and accompanying websites) dedicated to the fervent belief that pictures like this are of no artistic value:

No. 3 by Mark Rothko

At the same time, advancements in color printing technology saw a huge rise in illustration, and the so-called "Golden Age":

One of Howard Pyle's many classic pirate pictures

The division between "fine art" and "graphic art" at my art school was distinct. I was on the fine art side, making small sculptures. The fine artists looked down on the "graphic artists" for being so mundane, for being more concerned about getting good at doing something that had already been done than about finding something completely new to do. Real art was not about, for example, telling stories. That kind of stuff was... quaint... it had a place in the world, but was not art.  A Batman figure made out of Sculpey was not "sculpture" - real sculptors work in bronze.  My (wearable) sculptures were sometimes referred to as "science-fiction".
Time - an early sculpture of mine

On the other side, the graphic artists didn't understand what was so "fine" about not being able to draw, or what was so admirable about not developing any hard skills. But many of the graphic artists focused exclusively on skills, and never really found their voice.  And the graphic artist community was visciously (and unkindly) critical of one another - in the fine art community everything was all good. Whatever you wanted to do, that was cool.

It took me a while to find my place with my art, to realize that my art was largely about narrative. That is, I was "meant to" make art with a strong narrative quality, but I wasn't actually doing it, so I was doing nothing. I painted and painted and painted, learning a lot about light, color, form, space, but wasn't saying much. I had some pretty good tools, but wasn't using them to make anything.
A still life by me

Even my "illustration" attempts weren't saying much. I was making pictures that looked like they were telling stories, but weren't telling stories.

Explorers - an early attempt at illustration

Then one day I got an email from artist Daniel Horne - a guy who has created dozens and dozens of classic fantasy images. He said, "your work is really magical, never lose that, but, what are you trying to say with it?" I realized I wasn't trying to say anything. A light dawned. Something that had been right in front of me all along but I was ignoring it.

Now people tell me, "you have such a natural feel for narrative work" (they say that about my figure work as well) - I say, on both counts, tell that to the reams of drawings and paintings I had to do to get here (and I've still got a long way to go, at least I hope so). None of this came naturally - all that came naturally was the desire to do it.

Conspiracy - a recent magazine illustration by yours truly
Some artists are so concerned with doing something that's new or experimenting with different things that they may never achieve a degree of mastery over anything, and so may never produce their best work. In Zen I think this is referred to as "walking around the mountain but never climbing it", or something like that. That's ok by me. The world needs people like that. But I hate to see artists limit themselves because their peers have dismissed certain pursuits as unworthy, or because they think they could never paint like that, or whatever.

Others work really hard to get really good at doing exactly what they do really, really well, and are not afraid to follow other successful artists very closely. That's ok too. It's a good way to stay employed. :)  But sometimes a little more exploration and a little less polish can reap bigger rewards. What's the worst that can happen - you do something stupid? Tell yourself you've earned the right to do something stupid.

So I encourage artists of all kinds to be wide open when considering what might be their (your) art.  Don't be shackled by the irrelevant distinctions of history or your peers.

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