Tuesday, April 26, 2011

When do we go from "me" to "it"?

Driving the highways on rainy days is a great time to contemplate esoteric art related concepts. I was on my way to the Cleveland Institute of Art to view the current round of student shows as they near the end of the term. Having just read our local papers and taken a general online tour of what is out and about around here, the issue on my mind was at what point to “we” as artists shift from “me” to “it” where our work is concerned? 

The work of younger artists and those who are in the earlier stages of their careers tend to do work that is focused upon their feelings, emotions, personal reactions and so forth, essentially about “me”.  Two recent show of college student work, the halls of three institutions of higher learning in three counties and the statements by/of younger artists all had one thing in common…”this is how I feel ” and quite a few references to self.  And that is to be expected. The best source of material for inspiration comes from our own hearts and minds and experiences. It is part of the growth process as one progresses through the stages of their creative career. Eventually work tends to transition from begin less about the emotional attachment and content to one of process and inquiry. Work becomes neutral so to speak, there is less personal attachment. Does work then become more appealing to the masses, to a wider general audience perhaps?

Work that is intensely personal will appeal best to those who know the creator and share a connection (either on a personal or cultural level) because the viewer can”relate”. Work of less inner emotional content is more marketable by business standards. Interesting enough, if one goes through the annals of art history, the most “famous” and recognizable art works are those that are neutral or separated from the creator. The style and imagery may be very personal, but the emotional issues are not there. Think Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Warhol, Magritte and more. Their imagery is for the most part forward and outward just like the landscapes of the Romantics and the intently religious laden works of the Renaissance which though very emotional, were not necessarily personal points of view as they were relatable to the general human emotion of the overall population.

Artists will always be driven by the need to explain, express and exorcise their inner demons and turmoil, asking questions and becoming immersed in quandary. So at what point does one shift from the inner to the outer? Why would they? Many do, so as to take their work from limited audience appeal to a wider pool of potential buyers expanding their exposure and subsequent opportunities that come with such a shift. Venues of established magnitude and reputation are less likely to feature “me” than they are “it”.  A fine and difficult chalk line defines the difference and there is nothing wrong with never choosing to cross it. I think all visual artists pass through the “me” phase however. For some it lasts a very short time. Perhaps such artists do not have enough angst to share or little desire to let others into their own heads or hearts. Sometimes I wonder if it is a generational thing, much like the intense need to share everything, all the time, no matter how trivial, with others (whom we deem to care) via the various forms of social media. Our ability to instantaneously connect with others does tend to take away much of the joy and connection that used to come from gatherings where friends and families caught up on each others’ lives. The weekly phone call home from college (collect of course) or the long awaited arrival of a handwritten letter perhaps containing a photograph is a thing of the past…but I digress.

My scribbled notes (yes, I write “text” and drive….) are a bit unreadable from this point on and the topic of a future blog as I continue to ponder this idea of “me” and “it”. I believe all artists go through different phases of personal growth and exploration. Whether we choose to leave one aspect behind and move on to another is purely a personal decision. Perhaps the choice is based on what we want to achieve as an artist 10 years from now, 20 years, maybe even 30 if we have that much time left of earth (God willing I can still paint at 80 years old). Does one wish to keep making art for purely personal release or does one wish to make money? Can one do both? Does one wish to establish a professional reputation in the field, ever expanding their exhibition record or is the proverbial big fish in a small pond enough room to swim and still be satisfied? If the shift in focus never does come for an artist, that is okay too. There are plenty of viewers willing to rubber neck a good train wreck.

Yes, I did finally make my way through the halls of the Cleveland Institute (after realizing the city of Cleveland is not filling potholes under 6” deep) and was extremely impressed with the quality of work and the concepts explored.  The difference between a school with an art department and a school devoted entirely to art cannot be overlooked when viewing their respective exhibitions. Interestingly enough, there was no “me” work in this show or even on view in the many hallway display cases. The work was about craftsmanship and concept. My notebook contains names and pieces worth sharing but the shows rotate in and out so quickly up there that the expiration date has come and gone.

A little rhyme rolled through my head as I was walking back to my car….
I can shop an aisle of Harbor Freight,
But from that haul is it “art” I make?
Something to contemplate on the next highway ride.


  1. Can I tell you, I love this entry?
    I did an undergrad in Art History at a school that (at the time) believed you could could only critique a piece of work based on formal elements you could observe (lots of drapery fold discussions) or historical, documentable (is that a word?) facts on the artist, OR the artist's direct statements on the piece. No speculating allowed. But then, I entered a grad Art History program that was 90% speculating and only 10% anything directly "provable." The whole jump totally scrambled my brain and made me think (with my own art) "Why bother with all this deep inner meaning - particularly if the viewer is going to impose his or her thoughts/experiences on the piece ANYWAY?"
    Thanks for posting your ponderings!

  2. I should add that cutting much of the angst out of my life helped as well.
    I do sometimes have great ideas for art with hidden (or not so hidden) meanings, but displaying them in this county would likely lead to being fired. Maybe later...