Thinking. Or Not Thinking.
Drank too much of the Kool-Aid and my art school hangover came back.
Is it just me, or are we living in an era of over-analyzing magic? I thought it was currently the information age, but apparently that is over and now it’s the infrastructure age. If that’s true, then the death of magic is at risk as gadgets that control our environments are becoming more and more available, and we go beyond knowing information about everything to controlling that data. There are certain fields where analyzing the “magic”, like biology, ecology, or meteorology, is deeply beneficial for survival and holistic integration. Art is not one of these. Art exists as a unique facet of cultural geography that pulls together elements from disparate places. Art objects (ephemeral and static) are the detritus of thought. The ideas are in the details: each mark, cut, word, shape, material choice, sound, line, is a decision that is backed with a multitude of histories, both conscious and subconscious. These histories are derived from the individual artist’s personality and life, culture, academia, dreams, mechanics of the body, hell, the ether. The fact is that why and how artists make choices is not always a cut and dry, rationalized topic, and trying to establish it as such is dangerous territory.
Artists exert their desires for what a something should be and also let go of what a something should become. This is perhaps the basis of art — to be simultaneously directing and reacting, controlling and releasing. The best art happens out of courage and strong connections to the inner voice. We all have to scrape away the bullshit to listen to the inner voice, but artists’ careers are built around documenting this form of weeding. While there are thousands, maybe millions, of art processes, I think the best art is derived from a place of discovery. But often what is discovered can also be anti-concrete and highly allusive.
How then do artists share this discovery and what, if any, responsibilities do they have to the viewer? It’s an age-old ongoing question in the field of art, one that we as artists answer through our aesthetic and public formats. But it feels as if there is more pressure than ever for artists to package themselves and their bodies of work, have a clear and powerful artist statement, an organized website, even a tag line — to an effect, dull down the moment of discovery.
This formulaic approach to marketing yourself as an artist is a valued commodity and a useful one as well. Like the Internet, there are benefits, especially to artists outside of major art hubs. A good public domain allows curators and collectors access to studios in remote or unforeseen areas. As an artist, the risk of having a tight marketing package is that it can slip into the realm of an artist’s identity or be too definitive. Yes, putting together a package every year or so (including a presentation or lecture) is smart and inevitably makes the artist more efficient, presentation ready at any moment. But what would it be like to just let go and not ever worry about this externalization — to just make, to let the mystery of discovery wash over you again and again, to not think about what this something is, and what you’re trying to communicate? To practice this is I think one of the most courageous and necessary elements to being successful as an artist. It’s a funny and silly dynamic that artists have to learn to be highly visible and still mysterious.
As an emerging artist in my thirties, this is a strategy I highly value, and yet have been mildly afraid of in spite of pushing myself to embody the unknown again and again. I often feel the pressure to have it all pulled together, to be presentation ready at any moment… you never know who will call. Below this paradoxical relationship is a deeper fear I’m up against. A fear that maybe I desire this type of control because it makes me, personally, feel safer. And spiraling down, that perhaps it doesn’t make me a better artist or at most a happier one to be this “safe”. I suppose I’ve devised a process, a constant that provides a platform for discovery within a stable environment. When you make large-scale work that is laborious it’s harder to embrace spontaneity and mystery… so I find other places within the work to cultivate this. And to be clear, I love what I do and get immense joy from making. But even still, I can’t help but wonder if I’m not allowing myself enough freedom because of my need to be professionally presentable.
Like many other contemporary artists, I studied art in Academia for a long time — eight years. Potentially too long, although I am forever grateful for all that I learned and experienced. But for years (even while I was productive and exhibiting) I felt like I missed the boat to Academic Utopia, and I was madly swimming behind everyone, trying to keep up the pace. I longed to be aboard where others were having contained, insightful conversations about their practice and the importance of their research. In this mythical SS Trojan Santa Warhol, the cultural contexts overflowed and everyone seemed to have a stable, rational connection to their work. They were “in the know” and I was out to sea alone. I’d dream about their succinct language, the worlds they were presenting — little carved niches that could easily host parties for brave “civilians” to spelunk into.
In these idiosyncratic mines, tourists would be guided into the mysteries of the creative mind where little treasures presented themselves inside the crook of a tone, perspectives widened, new synapses spider-webbing through the brain of the viewer. And thus — MAGIC! A new world spawned through the experience of the other. But this is not inspiration; this is the production of inspiration. This is what a great lecture or artist talk can do. But even the best guide cannot make foreigners native; they have to do that for themselves, i.e., viewers need to have their own personal relationships and discovery to a piece of art outside of the artist. And it should not be the artist’s goal to want every viewer to become a native.
While my perspective that being an expert cultural concierge makes one a better artist has faded, I still think about my fantasy to feel in control of my creativity. And still fear that the expert concierge gets more opportunities. It wasn’t until I got over my dirty desire to be a part of this fictitious group that I could stop and get lost. I kept swimming and I did make it somewhere. Oh wait, I’m still swimming. Oh wait… I like swimming! And further, no artist, no matter how successful or PR ready is ever this “in control”. Why create this illusion… does having it all pulled together make the work better, more palpable? Or does it just make us as artists easier to weave into a system?
A baby’s head smells unlike anything else. It’s one of the most delightful scents. This is because of the oxytocin that the baby is emitting. A survival mechanism that draws everyone close to the infant and endears him or her to us, this chemical is intoxicating. I find this fact fascinating, and yet is doesn’t dilute the experience of smelling a darling baby’s head. I don’t care what it is, I feel safe, loved, am lying on a down feather comforter field and a thousand happy gnomes are massaging me. I know why this feeling is being created, and yet it’s so powerful and uniquely my own that I instantly forget anything WebMD said.
Image provided by the author.