Mindless Art

“Art has never been made while thinking of art.”

– Niko Stumpo

I’ve been thinking and writing lately about what you might call the artist’s intention in making art. What factors influence them, consciously and unconsciously, during their creativity. When you read about art history, it all sounds so organized and causally clear. This was happening in the world or in one’s life, so that made them think this or believe that, and that lead to them making this kind of art. Sounds logical. You can even read the artist’s words directly sometimes and it can sound as if they had a clear intention or thought when making their art. For some reason, this all fascinates me.

Perhaps because my own experience of making art feels different to me. As the above quote says, when I am actually making art, I’m not thinking about it. In fact my favorite work occurs when I get into that state where the mind actually ceases it’s chatter and you enter the “zone”. You can awaken from this hours later and realize you can’t remember a single thought – time has been suspended. It’s as close an experience as I know to deep meditation, where the same thing can occur. When reading the art history books we may get the impression that Picasso was actively engaged in mentally deconstructing reality and reformulating it while he was painting. Probably more likely he was in this suspended mental state while actually painting, like the rest of us.

Maybe all the thinking about art has to occur at other times, rather than while actually doing it. I’m sure some of that mental activity affects our art. at least unconsciously. It’s like an athlete doing drills, or a pianist doing scales – it’s useful to spend time doing these things, but once you’re actually performing the mind has to step aside. Or at least the logical, left brain mind needs to get out of the way. Many of the times I struggle in my work is when that side of the mind is still engaged.

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4 responses to “Mindless Art

  1. You always come with such interesting art themes, or perhaps I should call them “metathemes” as they discuss art from beyond art…
    Do you know what I believe? that the human brain and the way we all do things (art or whatever) has not changed much, and that the way Picasso and the others painted is not different from ours. I think they did not think so much about it while doing it, at least not concciously and all the clever words they wrote or spoke about their painting process are just a kind of rationalisation afterwards. Perhaps at that time it was necessary to give a rational, logical explanation of such kind of art as it was so unusual, and could have perhaps seemed trivial or even not art at all to some (many?) people. They needed to explain this art to be sure that it gets the attention and the respect they needed.
    Nowadays we don’t really need that any more, anything is accepted as art.
    I think for example that Picasso once got the idea to make his cubistic stuff (more probably per accident, not involving much thinking process) and then went on with this style until he got bored. And then came up with all the discourses…
    You know as well as me that one can say a lot of intellectual stuff about almost ANY piece of art, when one has enough imagination and a certain ability with words…

    I am aware that my words might sound a little bit cold or even “cynical”, but well, here it is again my x-ray mathematical brain which sees through the flesh of the world into his skeleton, and even deeper… of course all I say is also a rationalisation of some intuition, which anyway has to succeed as soon as one tries to put that intuition into words, at least if it is not poetry 🙂

  2. Miki

    Another thought provoking response… I’m glad you continue to find all this interesting, as I do – anyone else out there wish to chime in??? You’re always welcome!

    You’re right, the human brain and how we do things and think about them hasn’t changed, certainly not in the past few hundred years. Much as we’d like to think we (or they!) are different, we’re not really. There are historians out there who do make the claim that there have been substantive changes in our brains in the past few thousand years, but that is a different discussion.

    You bring up a really good point about the difference nowadays as to what is accepted as art – anything! Not true 100 years ago. I notice now that concepts and techniques that were so radical then are taught routinely now as “mainstream” – things like flattening the painting into 2 dimensional planes, that’s just a design strategy on a list of many. In some ways it makes it hard to stand out as an artist and do something different and interesting – it seems like it’s all been done!

    I do think there is a little more interplay between conscious thinking about art and it’s making than you imply, at least for some artists and particularly for those experimenting with new approaches. My suspicion is that while they are not physically painting they may contemplate what they want to achieve, what concepts underly their art, etc. This can be a rational activity or it may be more intuitive, spiritual, whatever. When they actually paint, this activity shuts down mostly and their non-rational, right brain takes over. But it is influenced to some extent by that other mental activity that has occurred.

    This can lead to struggles for the artist as their old patterns and ways of painting compete with their new intentions. To take a simple example, I know that I have consciously in the past decided to paint more loosely, outside the lines, more abstractly. Then when I actually paint, sometimes I’ll find myself doing just the opposite! It’s like I almost don’t have control over my own hands. But the more I go back and forth between my conscious intention to paint differently and my struggle to do so, it becomes more natural. I suspect that many of these artists, Picasso, Kandinsky, etc had the same experience where they would look at a painting they were working on and wonder how and why they had painted it that way when they had intentions to do something else entirely. Maybe we never saw those paintings, or they were deemed “transitional”.

    I’m sure you are right, though, that a lot of what is said about painting is tacked on afterward, by the artist or others. I think that is OK, too. I think if it can make us think or perceive something differently or in a more interesting way, even if that intention wasn’t there to begin with, there can be some value in that as well.

    It’s probably even worse in the world of literature – literary critics can interpret a great novel in so many different, competing ways. The author couldn’t have had in mind all of them at once, perhaps even none of them! But the combination of the literature and someone’s interpretation of it can become a new source of ideas beyond either by itself. I think that has some value.

  3. Very insightful writing here. You accomplished something easily with this post that I struggle to do at my blog; bring the creative process to a down-to-earth level. Theory gets overstated in art-history absolutely. Great quote, and very true. You have to let go, or use the action of painting to let go, and like you say get in the zone. If you can forget or filter out the rest of your life for a little while, or just think about whatever it is you do or don’t want to think about or nothing at all, and just paint, those are the best moments, as Joseph Campbell says, “follow your bliss”. -Ed

  4. Ed

    Thanks for the nice feedback! It’s challenging to find a balance between over-intellectualizing and real world practice. One thing I’ve been enjoying about doing a blog is that it motivates me to think about these things and try to articulate something useful and/or interesting.

    So many practices in life are about letting go – painting or making art in general is a great way to attempt this. It can be so engrossing and most of our best results occur when we do let go. It’s a great feedback loop!

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