What’s the Difference?

gesture, photograph

“The work was important because it was good, not because it was different.”

– Ted Orland

I just finished reading Ted Orland’s excellent book, The View from the Studio Door, and particularly enjoyed his discussion of artist communities and how challenging it is to create such a thing in today’s world. The quote above is in the context of how the value of artwork long ago was that it represented and supported the community it came from and was, therefore, good. Today art making is much more disconnected from the community we live in and figuring out how good it is requires a whole different set of criteria.

One of the more popular criteria seems to be if it is different. We are inundated with so many images today, exponentially more than people were a hundred years ago, that it had become harder to do something new and different. So I suppose there is some value in being different, if only because it is so much harder to do so now and the artist had to at least put some effort into achieving that. But there is a tendency to rely too heavily on this single quality as the primary criteria for whether work is good.

I see a lot of work that seems to me to come from a place of just wanting to be different, to shock the viewer with its newness. There is an immediate impact upon seeing such work and grabbing one’s attention is not a bad thing in itself. But there needs to be more, there needs to be a reason to return to the work time and again.

While I haven’t really figured out for myself what qualities in my work will make it compelling to myself and others, I know that difference isn’t what I should focus on. I do try to do things that I haven’t done before (so I don’t get bored) but, if someone else has done similar work, so be it. Mine won’t be exactly the same and there’s just too much work out there to avoid some overlap anyway.

So my search for good hasn’t settled on different

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10 responses to “What’s the Difference?

  1. Wow, I’m very impressed with this image. The hand and the flow of the material really knock me out. It’s one of those that makes me think… “okay, how did he do this??” The hat also helps make this image, to me anyway.

    For criticism, I would like to see just a bit more background on the right side, it’s bordering on a convergence.

    It’s unique as far as I’m concerned!

    • Thanks, Bob – glad you like the image. It’s especially nice to hear that you’re not sure how I did it! Let me just say that it was all done in camera…

      I’ve been intentionally playing with placing many of my figures closer to the edge than usual, for a couple of reasons. With a lot of these pieces, the concept of “emergence” is important – I want you to feel they are emerging from the background and possibly also from outside the frame. I also like the extra dynamic that is created – you get more of a feeling that she has just entered the picture from the right. In this particular piece I also didn’t want the hand, which really becomes the focal point, to be dead center.

  2. I look at a lot of art, off- and online and every day. And when I look, I’m not interested in the artist’s name or thoughts of what the piece might fetch if I need money. I do like to know about the materials used and maybe something about the art-making itself. I’m struck when an artist uses common materials in innovative ways.

    I look for skill, for knowledge, for point of view and perspective and, most of all, for an impulse to creativity that produces something honest. So much work is derivative (look at what’s happened since Hirst’s skull came out) and a lot of what is “different” is just ugly. I don’t make beauty a necessary criterion but often see great beauty in how a piece evolves from idea to realization. I don’t hang anything on my wall I can’t live with and discover something new in every day.

    You wrote a post the other day about the pieces you create and consider failures. Failures can be good for what they can teach.

    Good art, to me, isn’t only technically beautifully done (art can be that and still be uninteresting, even banal). Good art is art that impels you to consider something in a new way, that offers a way into looking and seeing and thinking in a new way, that makes discovery possible. The best art is the art you keep going back to, wanting to look at it again and again. I can look at the same piece a hundred times if it moves me.

    • Maureen

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I like your statement that a piece has to continue to “make discovery possible”. That is a good measure of a piece – it can’t just be beautiful, or different, or skilled. It has to combine multiple qualities together in a way that engages the viewer in a continuous process of discovery.

  3. First of all I found this image quite enchanting – from its ethereal qualities to the figure placement at the edge. Nicely done.

    I can completely relate to your statements. If one worries too much about standing out, I think it is hard to find our own path, even if part of it has been walked before. One of your earlier posts was related to walking through a wilderness. I think there are parallels to be drawn between that walk through and not trying to forge a path where one was not meant to be. I liken it to trying to cross that wilderness by jumping from treetop to treetop just because you are afraid too many people have walked the ground below you.

    • Mark

      Thanks – ethereal is what I’m after!

      Such a balancing act – we don’t want to be the same but we also shouldn’t be too different. I like you analogy of tree jumping – sounds dangerous!

  4. you always have such interesting discussions– you often bring up issues I try to address in my workshops– I often push painters to be different, more unique– to break out of the pack as so many paint the same sort of scenes that look like so many other paintings– but what I mean more than ‘be different’ is look for personal meaning– looker deeper into self– and the work will become more unique – and consequently ‘good’– if only in the artist’s eyes.

    • Donna

      It’s so easy to toss around words like “different” that have facile meanings. An experience teacher like yourself will force students to go a little deeper to understand what is really meant. And that is probably a little different for each person, making it even tougher to get at.

      I try to pay more attention to what is different for me, rather than what is different from others. Both come into play at some point, but what keeps me motivated is to explore new territory from what I’ve personally experienced before.

  5. I adore this image. It is powerful, evocative, mysterious and even sensuous. I am not bothered at all by the “edgy” feel with regard to the position of the subject. Love the b&w choice as well. All great.

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