In a recent post, I explained that artists have no particular insight into what their work means — and in fact are often profoundly mistaken — and so we should stop asking them so often to explain the meaning of their work. Though seemingly directed at artists, that post wasn’t about artists at all — it was about the rest of us and our unwillingness to take interpretive risks, our profoundly undemocratic desire to rest secure in the shadow of authority.
Talking about the meaning of your work as an artist is demeaning – it reduces the artist by forcing him or her to reduce the possibility of meaning in their work. But that doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t speak out, and speak loudly. There are lots of things artists should and even must speak about — the meaning of their work just isn’t one of them.
What the world needs from artists isn’t uninformed musings about the meaning of their work, but clear and engaging musings on the making of it. Artists often avoid talking about the process of creation, from ideation to execution to completion. I have a couple of theories about this, although mostly it just baffles me. One is that too many artists see themselves as operating in the rarified realm of the Pure Idea, and want to protect that image by pretending away the dirty, everyday world of the studio. For other artists, it might be just the opposite — a lot of artists feel unconfident about their work (a feeling shared in many other fields of endeavor, to be sure; most people feel, at one time or another, like they’re only pretending to be the competent adults that other people see them as) and revealing what goes on “behind the curtain” feels a little bit like getting undressed in front of a stranger.
Whatever the reason, it’s too bad, because we stand to learn a lot more about what and how an artist’s work means from understanding the act of its creation than from an artist telling us what s/he was trying to say. I know that I learned more about the meaning and significance of Jackson Pollock’s work from watching the famous Hans Namuth clip of Pollack working and talking about how he painted those huge canvasses than I ever did from reading art criticism or biographies.
Especially important to this discussion is the process of ideation. In it’s vulgar form, this is the answer to that laziest of all questions posed to artists, “Where do you get your ideas?” There is no interesting answer to that question, because ideas are easy. Any conscious person has dozens, if not hundreds, of ideas every day. What is interesting is how a particular artist decides which of those ideas he or she is going to act on, and how.
This requires a level of self-knowledge on the part of the artist that is, I admit, shockingly difficult to attain in most cases. Especially because our society has loaded “Art” down with so much nonsense about where are comes from. Art is not the unfiltered perception of the world that children and chimpanzees are in our popular imagination “blessed” with, it is not a “pure” expression of some inborn, “natural” sensitivity, and it is not the raw feed from some imagined “spiritual” antenna. Artists are in and of their societies — they come to the canvas, clay, or computer with a whole host of influences, preconceptions, filters, technical knowledges, understandings, beliefs, and desires that are the condition of all human action. Some of these influences are explicit and apparent — anyone who looks at my photography, for instance, can see that I have a thing for Ansel Adams’ skies — but most of them take a lot of digging — it’s not apparent in my photography or, indeed, in my own mind, why I avoid the human form but am enraptured with the traces (artistic, archaeological, architectural, technological, etc.) of human activity.
Understanding the artist’s position as someone who acts on and realizes (real-izes) ideas adds a depth to our understanding of the artist’s work that we rarely achieve. Again, it’s a little like undressing in front of strangers, and I can see why so many artists avoid it. But it’s such an important part of the process, and it’s that process that distinguishes the art-maker’s role in the society as a whole. To not explore it is, quite honestly, a disservice not only to the artist but to art in general and ultimately to our entire society. Ignoring the process is to leave us all defenseless in the face of that stupidest yet most irrefutable of dismissive comments, “Pffft, my 6-year old could do that.” Frankly, “But he didn’t” is getting a little stale.
Ultimately, what I’m calling for here is for artists to assert themselves, to re-take the field of social legitimacy and relevance that they have abandoned in favor of artist statements and weak replies to even weaker interview questions. Art matters, but we’ve let it become a luxury good, or worse yet, an investment opportunity, by our unwillingness to speak. Which brings me to another — and the most controversial, I’m sure — thing that artists should speak up about, and that’s politics.
I don’t mean boring old party politics, or flashy pundit politics, I mean the politics of everyday living, the politics of being human. “Art is protest,” read a recent tweet by artist and critic John Perrault, and I don’t think he meant standing-in-the-streets-shouting-slogans-protest. Art is protest because it asserts the self and the self’s desires, demands, judgment, worldview, and notion of the personal and social Good against a society that demands the abnegation of the self for the sake of efficient domination. (Sociopolitical Reality 101: The cheapest way to run a society is for everyone to already do what you want them to do because everyone already wants to.)
Yet the fallacy persists that art is not political and that therefore artists should avoid politics. And while that fallacy persists, it is easier and easier to defund and debase the arts, whether through cutting the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts or the Nevada Arts Council or through eliminating high school arts programs or through censoring exhibitions such as the recent removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery or simply the massive culture-wide dismissal of the arts as relevant. Here’s what our society and its leaders know: artists won’t fight back. And they won’t fight back because they think that art is not political, that it exists in a free-floating realm divorced from the messy reality of day-to-day power.
Asserting yourself as an artist means more than complaining loudly when it’s your own work under attack, it means acting when anyone’s work is under attack. Actually, it means acting even when nobody’s work is under attack. It means speaking out against the forces that would limit the artist’s autonomy whenever possible, and making use of that autonomy in the artist’s practice.
Art is not just a pastime, not just a bourgeois exercise in frivolity, not just a (bad) way to make money, it’s social justice — the most tangible expression of our shared humanity. But you’d never know how crucial a role art plays from the self-effacing, unconfident way that so many artists act and speak (or fail to speak) on their own behalf.
So, I say, speak up. Let the world know what you do and how you do it. Demystify yourselves, come down to earth where you can act. (Even the gods have to take on the limits of corporeal reality to influence the world!) You’ve chosen for yourselves the task of enlightening human existence, it’s not a thing to keep quiet about!